Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Rear Window (1954)

Right from out of the gate, Rear Window effectively taps in to the audience's voyeuristic impulse. The basic outline of the plot - a journalistic photographer (James Stewart) housebound with a broken leg, bored from six weeks of nothing to do but sit in front of the window - unfolds via a telephone conversation almost in the background, as the camera pans over a fascinating tableau of apartment windows.

The viewer can't help but become absorbed in the curious details of these anonymous people's lives, each one suggesting a different personality, a different lifestyle. The protagonist's simultaneous boredom - and ambivalent fascination - with each of these windows into other people's lives immediately becomes the viewer's. And this is in just the first ten minutes of the movie.

For a time, the protagonist's obsession with voyeurism raises some alarm with his on-call nurse (Thelma Ritter), and glamorous girlfriend (Grace Kelly). But when a few suspicious details linked to a traveling salesman (Raymond Burr) living across the courtyard begin adding up to a picture that looks an awful lot like murder, the desire to look, to pry, to figure out what's going on is downright infectious - the ethics of privacy be damned (much to the chagrin of a skeptical detective played by Wendell Corey).

The movie builds to a fairly tense climax (for its time), even if it takes its merry time getting there. At just barely under two hours, it's pretty long for a movie from the 1950s. However, the characters are likable, even in their imperfections, and their interactions (at times even humorous) are a joy to watch. The ultimate conclusion suits the movie's "murder mystery" atmosphere, although I was hoping for one final plot twist (a la The Simpsons' parody "Bart of Darkness").

But instead of a warning about the ethical concerns of intrusive voyeurism, and how easy it is to jump to conclusions - which could easily become preachy - what we have here is a harrowing glimpse of the horror that occasionally lies just under the surface of everyday life. And that is, perhaps, more suitably frightening. Rear Window is a fantastic movie for its time, and though it has aged a bit in the half century plus since its release, it nevertheless remains compelling, and director Alfred Hitchcock's dedication to the theme of voyeurism is carried through by the filming style in a uniquely effective way.

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