Skip to main content

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.


Popular posts from this blog

Review: Hobson's Choice (1954)

In comedy a happy ending does not always resolve all. The case in point is Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice, whose hilarity so overtly predicates on the wretchedness of the victim that, when one laughs there follows inevitably a conscience tug that one is gloating over someone’s misfortune.
My disquietude may seem misplaced here, for the importance of the play is really on its revolutionary illustration of an upending of the age-old hierarchy in traditional domesticity. Henry Hobson is the imperious, blustering, perennially sottish shoeseller bestriding his three unmarried daughters, who skivvy away at the shop and the household without pay. The story is set in late 19th century Salford, just a few miles from where the first suffrage movement germinated. The play presents a hallmark in heralding the birth of female empowerment: Maggie, the eldest daughter who is deemed too old to be marriageable at 30, is impelled to prove her father wrong by marrying William Mossop, the most skilled…

Review: A Taste of Honey (1961)

Life is a mixture of comedy and tragedy- tragicomic if both aspects are given equal measure of awareness; melodramatic when the two extremes are ratcheted up to a boiling point. For most people, it is only natural that they take the good with the bad. An ingrained fatalism dictates their attitudes towards the vagaries of human fate; therefore in joy they wait agonisingly for the day their good fortune is suddenly wrested from them, and in sadness for the glimpse of light that signals a gradual upturn of the dire condition. “Nothing lasts forever”- this well-worn adage becomes almost the guideline of their survival, and a perpetual reminder that life is ever mobile and unpredictable.

Every current of life, regardless of the varying destination it tends to, returns and oscillates invariably between two points: suffering and the struggle to survive. They are as much the fundamentals of human condition as the impetus for the cultivating of human resourcefulness: it is the battle of will be…

Review: Gaslight (1944)

Despite its varied forms or narratives, all Gothic fictions revolve on a fundamental contrast: that between the tenuous comfort of an isolated self and the dangerous fascination of an intrusive otherness. The Victorian is an age characterised by its obsession with the supernatural – poised on the verge of modernity, with scientific advancements like Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species inspired missions to unlock the myths of the natural world, people began to take notice of what lay outside their limited knowledge of things, of anything that is external to the closed domain of humanity. This curiosity for the unknown provoked an appraisal for the known – the immutable social system was revealed as hostile to the cultivation of individual minds, and time-honoured ethics such as that dictating a woman’s role in a traditional domesticity a menace to the preservation of personal integrity.
The negotiation between the old and the new, the internal and the external, is the dominant theme of V…