Saturday, May 02, 2020

Rear Window

Lockdown post

Rear Window 
The first of four great Hitchcock films released again, Rear Window (1954) is open to a frenzy of interpretations, to all the fantasies and to the pleasure of the spectator. 
“We have become a race of peeping Toms” says the prophetic Stella (the admirable Thelma Ritter) at the start of Rear Window; she is the nurse who comes every day to massage the raw-boned back of L.B. Jeffries, “Jeff” (James Stewart), the photographer immobilised in his New York apartment (because of a broken leg in a plaster cast), a tall lanky misanthrope worn down by inactivity (isn’t he lecherously spying on his neighbours with his telephoto lens?), affected by the heatwave (New York summers are notoriously muggy: you go through them in pyjamas), and tormented by the snobbish Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly, beautiful), a dream-like creature who is taking advantage of his temporary infirmity to try and foist on him her dreams of bourgeois marriage. 
What’s an “immobilised” voyeur? A spectator of course. A man rivetted to his seat, condemned to a “blocked vision” (as Pascal Bonitzer puts it nicely), a cinephile, us. But what does this spectator want? A spectacle of course. And not just any spectacle. Ideally, he would catch by accident, “by chance”, an event that would go along with his most unspoken (therefore murky) desires. To make films out of his evil thoughts. If he fulfils his desire (for example to get rid of the woman who is badgering him), even via an intervening third person (what we call a “character”), he won’t have wasted his time. If along the way he realises that this desire is not a nice one, he will be ashamed of it, he will be punished, and, masochistically, it will do him even more good. At the little game of guilt, every pay-off matters. 
Let’s take Jeff, with his big telephoto lens and his long, plastered leg. As he scans the human comedy playing out in the windows across from him, as if on so many screens, he notices one or two suspicious details. One day, the (invalid) wife of one of his opposite neighbours disappears from his field of vision. What if her (exasperated) husband had ended up killing her? Convinced that this is what has happened, Jeff enlists a cop friend (in vain) and Lisa and Stella (with some success). The latter, who made the remark about the “race of peeping Toms”, becomes immediately a super voyeur. As for the zealous Lisa, better than a right arm, she transforms herself (already) in Jeff’s true “other half”. The three of them, together, all excited, charge headlong towards the solution to the mystery. 
And we, who in the darkness of the film theatre watch Hitchcock’s Rear Window, are like them, meaning that we embrace the Jeffian desire, that we want him to have “seen right”. And we are ready, if needed, to be (a little) afraid. After all, didn’t we pay in advance at the box office for our right to a blocked vision and to unblocking desires? Meaning our place as spectators? As voyeurs? Yes. 
There are two kinds of voyeurism in the cinema: Rossellini’s and Hitchcock’s. One that tips over into obscenity and one that tends towards pornography. If I spy on someone who, by definition, can never return that look, I am confronted with obscenity (that’s tough!). If I look at someone as an object and suddenly that person turns his object’s eyes on me, and looks at me, I am in a pornographic situation, I am with Hitchcock (that’s perverse!). Anyone who has felt safe thinking his human objects were kept at a distance by his binoculars, yet still believed the he somewhat caught their eyes, will know what I’m talking about, and what fear I am referring to. 
For the spectacle to have its moral, the game between the two cats (Jeff and Hitchcock in this case) and the two mice (the criminal and the spectator) needs to gradually balance itself, the game of hot cockles needs to accelerate, and “hell is other people” needs to change during the film into “each in turn playing the devil’s part”. To the point of vertigo. It is at this price that Hollywood was telling stories already dreamed by its audience. This is how one man, just one, told better than others what he had analysed better than others: Sir Alfred Hitchcock. 
In the end, Jeff hadn’t (just) dreamt his neighbour’s guilt. The fat Thorwald (Raymond Burr) did chop up his wife. And since he has figured out that Jeff knows, here he is (it’s the end of the film), crossing the courtyard, climbing the stairs, entering Jeff’s apartment through the front door and asking, in a strangely loud and distraught voice: “What do you want from me?”. I won’t describe the ending: there are still some people who between 1954 and 1984 haven’t seen this cult film. 
Why is it a cult film? Firstly because it has become one. For reasons of (mere) invisibility. A shrewd businessman, Sir Alfred had decided to give it (along with three other films: Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Rope, all of them with James Stewart) another release, with new prints and a brand new audience. Secondly because it has always been a cult film. In the summary I’ve just given, I’ve only replayed familiar tunes. For thirty years, it has been hard to tell the story of Rear Window without instantly being transformed from a cinephile frog into a theoretician ox. Thanks to this film, the best minds have always had the feeling of fully understanding Hollywood and the art of suspense with its twisted morality and its most intimate secrets. Better than a film "that thinks", it’s a film that gives food for thought, generously, to the point of vertigo. 
And yet, today, what’s admirable is not that Rear Window is (quite obviously) a film about the cinema, a perfect summary of the poetic art according to Hitchcock, the most beautiful mise en abime of what it’s like to consume images in the dark (like sins), it’s that with all this and despite all this, this film has retained its colour, its flesh and its mugginess. It is that this stylised and deconstructed slice of life has not lost anything of its rawness and its fundamental nastiness. 
A last surprising point. Although Rear Window has always been a film that we talked about in terms of gaze, voyeurism and scopic drive, it is also (and perhaps above all) a fantastic soundtrack, and that without it, it might not have “aged” so well. 
Oddly, it is what strikes us the most today. Because he is “visual”, Hitchcock fundamentally remains a director of silent films, meaning that he considers all sounds to be equally artificial. He didn’t baulk at telling Truffaut: “Dialogue is a noise among other noises, a noise coming out of the mouths of characters whose actions and gazes tell a visual story.” This is what allowed him, in the context of the Hollywood cinema of the 1950s, to be – in his own way – a contemporary to the likes of Tati or Bresson who, in Europe, were asking – in their own way – the same questions. 
The courtyard that the window overlooks is above all a sound bath, saturated, urban, full of rumours and promiscuities, of warm air and shameful resonances. And through this magma of sound there is a little song pushing its way through – and on which in the end everything depends. Listen to Rear Window
First published in Libération on 8 February 1984 as “Cours des miracles” [the French title of the film is “Fenêtre sur cour”]. Republished in Ciné Journal 1981-86, Cahiers du cinema, 1986.

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