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Review: Rear Window (1954)

Obsession is a disease, the gnawing void of a heart that can never be filled but is ever expanding. As is warned by Virginia Woolf- “All extremes of feeling are allied with madness”- any obsessive has the making of a madman. The causes are more often than not inconsequential: one simply pricks ears too incessantly at the subtle goings-on next door, gaping too indiscreetly at a habitué of the local diner, or harbouring too absorbedly amorous illusions of someone one knows never truly exists. In the long run an obsession invariably extends to something pathological: the overriding, engrossing focus on an object exterior to oneself comes to assume the importance of life and death, as though it were the indispensible excrescence of one’s growingly implausible existence.

Obsession hovers around the diverse nominal subjects of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, most of which are at their core studies of human desire when bordering on destructive fixedness. Hitchcock has an unavowed proclivity of driving primal sentiments towards emotional desperation: love is preceded by an unquenchable thirst for possession; murders are chiefly committed on grounds of continual unfulfilled gratification; acts of heroism rarely achieved without yielding to the command of a greater evil.

In Rear Window (1954) the obsession has a name: voyeurism. The protagonist, Jeff, is a photographer temporarily confined to a wheelchair on account of a racetrack accident. Bored in his cramped studio apartment, Jeff whiles away the day observing from the rear window the inhabitants of a building across the street, and fancies in the midst of inspecting their sundry activities that a particularly suspicious-looking man may have just murdered his bedridden wife. The ethical question of how far can one be involved in a stranger’s affairs and not crossing the line of propriety is bandied about throughout the film, but clearly not alarming enough to mitigate the protagonist’s curiosity, as he proceeds spying on his neighbour day and night, determined to investigate the crime guided by barely any evidence but his nagging suspicion.

One of the disquieting aspects of Rear Window is its enforced affinity with the world outside its fictional context, its implicit involvement of the audience in situations that call into question the stringency of ethical integrity. Nearly half of the film is seen through the lens of Jeff’s long-focus camera, a convenient means of prying into every nook and corner the private lives of others. The vision that yields is at once sharp and limiting- images and motions can furnish only a fraction of the truth and reality, mostly in manners misleading and inconclusive. Obsession thrives also in narrow confines, and an obsessive’s vision is exactly that of a camera’s, naked and rarely swerved.

The occasional wisecracking aside, Rear Window should be ranked as one of Hitchcock’s bleakest achievements, as it deftly tackles the compounded moral issues in ways that still seem startlingly progressive decades after its release. It is also endlessly relevant: how often does our incorrigible nosiness land us in a pickle we are unable to get out of? Today I see the film more as a social indictment of the media’s relentless chase after an unimportant item and the general public’s culpability in abetting the cruel and perennial entertainment. The hunter always captures what he desires, but not without paying the stiff price of a slightly frazzled sanity, an exceedingly dubious conscience, and, as in the film, two broken legs.


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