Perfection sealed with a kiss

A newly restored print of 'Rear Window' reveals anew how Alfred Hitchcock could make even a flawed scene resonate.

March 12, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,Sun Film Critic

I don't remember when I first saw "Rear Window." But clearly I was at a formative age. To this day, Alfred Hitchcock's film, which was released in 1954, remains for me an indelible, transfixing, endlessly fascinating exercise in the power of the cinema to seduce, coerce and just plain entertain.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen "Rear Window," either. A dozen? Two dozen? It doesn't matter, because each time I see it, it's for the first time. Hitchcock packed so much expression and information into every single shot of the movie that it provides endlessly rewarding reading. It's even more rewarding today, with the release of a new restored print of the movie, which has been polished and mended by master restorers James Katz and Robert Harris -- the same team that meticulously restored "Lawrence of Arabia," "Spartacus" and "Vertigo."

At a recent screening of "Rear Window" at the Senator Theatre, where it will enjoy a limited run starting Friday, I was struck again by its sheer technical brilliance: Hitchcock's masterful opening crane shot, through which the audience is introduced to the neighbors that Jimmy Stewart will be spying on for the rest of the movie, the silence and ease with which the director tells us what has happened to Stewart's character (he's broken his leg), how it happened (during a car race he was photographing) and just how hot it is outside (pushing 90). With one luxurious, eloquent shot, Hitchcock visually conveys more background and detail than most present-day directors can with reams of clunky, expository dialogue.

Freud and that face

From there, "Rear Window" unfolds as one of Hitchcock's finest psychological thrillers, one in which Stewart's anxieties around marrying his high-class girlfriend (played by Grace Kelly) intermingle with his suspicions about a neighbor who may or may not have killed his wife. Freud is never mentioned by name, but he's as vivid a character in Stewart's Greenwich Village world as the much-watched neighbor, Miss Torso.

Seeing the film again, I was captivated as always by Stewart's graying allure (Hitchcock always coaxed the dark side out of the quintessential American hero), the slightly larcenous heart beating under Kelly's patrician reserve, the balletic silent performances of the supporting players across the alley, the snippets of mordant humor Hitchcock hid like so many Easter eggs. (A new favorite comes by way of Wendell Corey as Stewart's detective-friend, who engages in some subtle mugging at a particularly odious piece of l'art moderne over Stewart's fireplace.)

But within this seamless tapestry of star quality, suspense and pure cinema, a flaw has always made itself felt, a sequence in which Hitchcock creates a moment so discrete that it's almost a little movie in itself. The passage begins while Stewart is sleeping in his wheelchair, the night's sweat just beginning to form on his brow. A shadow crosses his face. He wakes. From his point of view we see the impossibly beautiful face of Grace Kelly, lowering itself to his in slow motion. They kiss, then begin to engage in some whispered banter.

The sequence is little more than half a minute long, but it could be a lifetime. Drenched in the covert eroticism that gives "Rear Window" its extra buzz of heady energy, the Kiss is vintage Hitchcock, an ecstatic tribute to the blonde, sexy sangfroid he spent a career celebrating, using Kelly, Kim Novak and Tippi Hedren as his foils. It's pure libido and glamour up there on the screen, in all its Technicolor glory.

But as many times as I've swooned to the Kiss, it has always nagged me. It's never seemed to be of a piece with the rest of the movie. The blurry, slow-motion shot of Kelly's ethereal face might have represented Stewart's waking-dream state, but the shot always seemed a little awkward, never matching up compatibly with the scenes that come before and after it. It's a flaw, albeit a beautiful one, the kind that stamps a film with a human signature, that marks the work as a thing made by human hands. Call it jerky or awkward or even corny, but the Kiss endures as the most affecting moment in "Rear Window," precisely because it's not quite "right."

Pause for effect

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