For a great popular artist, Alfred Hitchcock had an unusually experimental turn of mind. His love of the suspense genre seemed as genuine as his disdain for its clichés and he was forever tinkering with the mechanics of the old familiar story of danger and escape. Throughout the ‘30s and ‘40s he perfected his ingenious set pieces – the unorthodox camera moves which would lead to a crucial piece of information, the darkly dreamlike mise-en-scène which showed that nothing could be so menacing as a glass of milk.
Though Hitchcock obviously liked to keep his audience on its toes, there are times when he seemed to be staving off a more personal boredom, setting himself "insurmountable" challenges. The first of these, in Lifeboat (1944), confined his cast to a raft, while the second, in Rope (1948), keeps the players apartment-bound with the added stricture of unedited 20-minute takes. Though both of these films are fine entertainments, the impact of each is seriously mitigated by the sense of a large imagination roaming over a diminished field of play.
In 1954, Hitchcock released a last pair of "boxed-in" films, Dial "M" for Murder and Rear Window. The former was a filmed play, only slightly opened up and filled with brittle chat and, despite a famously cinematic murder, offering little more than the small tricks of an idling magician. Window, however, can be ranked with Hitchcock’s finest achievements – finally the experiment succeeded, which may be why he never tried it again.
Rear Window’s ingenious premise, adapted from a Cornell Woolrich story, has a photographer (James Stewart) with a broken leg and confined to his apartment. His rear window opens onto his building’s courtyard and he whiles away his time watching – harmlessly spying – on his unsuspecting neighbors. One of these neighbors is a bulky sad sack (Raymond Burr) with a nagging wife and, when the wretched woman disappears, the photographer thinks he might have stumbled across a murder.
Why this one works so well (while the other above-mentioned movies feel somewhat stifled) has to do with Hitchcock’s awareness and manipulation of our complicity with the voyeur-photographer. We, too, like to sit in the dark and watch, and when the possibility arises that something gruesome is afoot we, too, feel a rush of increased interest.
And when Stewart begins to realize that he has put his glamorous girlfriend (Grace Kelly) in harm’s way and is now being forced to watch something he doesn’t want to see, we’re filled with delighted unease – delighted because we know that we’re in the hands of a master who, after torturing us soundly, will set us down safely, somewhere on the far side of abject terror.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.