OVERINTERPRETATION SINKS some films, while others bear the weight of critical exegesis without strain. Hitchcock’s 1954 masterwork Rear Window seems strengthened by the amount of cinema scholarship it has inspired, yet it’s the painstaking two-year restoration job by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz that really reawakens your eyes—and ears—to the movie’s underlying story. Yes, it must first be acknowledged that Jimmy Stewart’s character is a voyeur, cooped up in his New York City apartment with a broken leg, staring through his neighbors’ windows as we do at the movie screen. Books have been written about his implicitly spectatorial position, the probing power of his gaze, and the violent moment of rupture when that gaze is finally met by that of the neighbor he suspects of murder—and let’s not even start with Lacan!
directed by Alfred Hitchcock
with Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart
runs February 18-March 2 at Egyptian
Instead, let’s consider Rear Window, the love story. L.B. Jeffries (Stewart) is being doted on by his society girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who he rebuffs with casual disdain. “If she was only ordinary,” he complains, less of a Park Avenue princess and more of a rough-and-ready companion for his globetrotting photojournalism work. Confronted with one perfect male fantasy figure, he constructs another as her rival. What’s poor Kelly to do? Their tension naturally anticipates Vertigo (1958), where Stewart’s much darker character would literally remake Kim Novak into his dream girl. Here, however, the heroine is more than up to the challenge of her recalcitrant beau.
Rear Window is in many ways Kelly’s movie. She’s the one pursuing her man. She’s the one who ends up doing the legwork for his amateur sleuthing. She’s the one who climbs a fire escape into the murderer’s apartment. Meanwhile, Stewart just watches.
His passivity and powerlessness have obvious symbolic import, and a lesser movie might finally grant him some final moment of masculine redemption. Instead, what Hitchcock has in mind—apart from the expertly constructed crime story—is how Kelly’s character remakes herself into a woman of action, thereby increasing her allure. Stewart’s famous reaction shot at her return from a triumphant mission says it all.
The Harris-Katz restoration helps clarify this and many other narrative details. Now, you’re more aware of Stewart’s neighbors’ background singing of “Mona Lisa”—the perfect melody for his discontent with Kelly’s perfection. Indeed, all the neighbors’ courtyard stories-within-a-story have been enhanced (and all comment directly on the romance). Renovated frame by frame, Rear Window is virtually a new movie. A few shots couldn’t be recovered from their original negative, but in one—where Kelly breathtakingly looms in profile to deliver a kiss to the slumbering Stewart—you can now truly hear the impact of her lips, and feel its reverberations to this day.