“Rear Window,” Reviewed: Room With A View.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window screens for one night only at the Little Theatre, 240 East Ave., at 6:30pm Wednesday, October 16 at the Little Theatre, 240 East Ave. I’ll be presenting the film and leading a post-screening discussion. Here’s a review I wrote about the film — Hitchcock’s greatest work, in my opinion — on the occasion of a restored version that was released in 2002.

Usually I have anywhere from a day or two to a few weeks between seeing a movie and posting a review. This week’s column, however, has been 16 years in the making – dating back to the first time I saw “Rear Window,” during an Alfred Hitchcock retrospective at the Little Theatre in January 1984. It returned last week to the Little as the latest classic film to be scientifically restored to its original glory (a few local Kodakers even helped out), but I expect most folks won’t flock to see its newfound lack of faded colors or graininess. A good restoration is like an unsung hero: only the most diehard cinephiles will notice the seams that are no longer showing. No, a sprucing up is mostly a good excuse to re-examine this “Window” – Hitchcock’s best film, and one that’s both a sharp commentary on the human condition and a taut little thriller. Who could ask for anything more?

Since its original release in 1954, probably about a gazillion film critics – and certainly Hitchcock himself – have observed that the voyeuristic tendencies of the film’s L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) are a near-perfect metaphor for the very act of watching a movie. Jeff, a daredevil photo-journalist laid up with a broken leg in his Greenwich Village apartment, has been so bored over the past six weeks that he’s taken to spying on his neighbors across the courtyard; he’s looking for a thrill, and he finds one – though not as he might have expected. Amid the various sad, quaint, and amusing human dramas seen through his camera’s viewfinder is a henpecked husband who appears to be trying to care for his sick (or maybe just lazy) wife – until the wife disappears, and Jeff begins to suspect foul play.

Besides Hitchcock’s single-set direction and an arresting trio of lead performances (more on them later), it’s “Rear Window”’s story – or rather, the gemlike details that adorn this treasure – that gives it such satisfying and complex richness. From the start we figure Jeff is probably right in thinking the sweaty Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) capable of killing his spouse, but we’re a bit biased, aren’t we? I mean, this is a Hitchcock movie, after all. But it’s just banal reality to Jeff’s acerbic nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), who shushes his wonderings with disdain: “We’ve become a race of peeping toms.” His girlfriend, the fashion model Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), is similarly disabusive of Jeff’s homicidal theories – and that he’s eventually proven correct doesn’t mitigate his “rear-window ethics” (as Lisa calls them) in the first place.

Jeff’s relationship with Lisa is more than a subplot to the did-he-or-didn’t-he? mystery across the yard. Their banter – he avoiding further commitment, she offering jocular compromises while hiding her disappointment – exposes Jeff as a bit of a heel, something this all-American actor was never afraid to play when Mr. Hitchcock came calling. His watching the neighbors magnifies this flaw, and as Stella and Lisa join him in his fears his moral elasticity increases – keeping a depraved distance between he and his fellow amateur detectives.

That depravity (especially in Jeff’s brusque treatment of Lisa) often skirts the edge of meanness, and it’s another mark of the quality of John Michael Hayes’ script (from a short story by Cornell Woolrich) that we occasionally feel more sorry for murderer Thorwald than supportive of Jeff the cad. Before Mrs. Thorwald disappears, there’s an underplayed but tender scene in which the husband offers a flower to his bedridden wife – only to have it swatted away with a scornful laugh. Compare that to Jeff ogling his balletic neighbor Miss Torso while telling Lisa they have no future together and tell me: apart from a little detail of murder, who would you rather have for a partner?

Stewart’s legendary likability offsets these flaws, making Jeff an agreeable, if imperfect, hero, while Ritter’s no-nonsense wit and Kelly’s luminous vulnerability complete their emotional triangle of practicality, adolescent impetuousness, and elegant optimism. They don’t write characters like these any more – much less three in one movie. At 46 years years old, “Rear Window” is both a legitimate classic and a still-vital, postmodern spin on our capacity for rationalizing away our own behavior. Everyone involved in its making may be dead and buried, but the film’s own heart – and its pitch-black soul – are alive and well.

“Rear Window,” starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, and Raymond Burr; written by John Michael Hayes; directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Not Rated (consider it PG, for suggested violence and sexual situations). From USA Films/Universal Pictures; now playing at area theaters. 10