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“Look but don’t touch” is among the classic parental edicts for preventing disaster, but can you get in trouble simply by looking? Decades before academic theorists began discussing the power of the gaze, Alfred Hitchcock determined that you could. Although the plot of his Rear Window ultimately involves some action, most of it is predicating purely on watching. Newly restored by Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, whose last salvage project was Vertigo, Hitchcock’s 1954 film offers an up-to-date view of the business of seeing.
Made roughly halfway between 1948’s Rope and 1958’s Vertigo, Rear Window shares significant aspects (and James Stewart) with both. Like the room-bound, seemingly one-take Rope, Rear Window is in part a stunt: It’s shot mostly (though not entirely) from the point of view of protagonist L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (Stewart), a daredevil photographer confined to his Greenwich Village apartment after breaking his leg on assignment. And the story, like Vertigo’s, turns on the ambiguous demise of a mystery woman.
Because he’s a photographer, Jeff’s life is observation. But the virtuoso opening shot demonstrates that the film’s hero isn’t the only one who’s checking things out. The camera tracks the entire courtyard—actually a Paramount Studios set—as if Jeff were surveying the little world he can see from his rear window. But then the camera pulls into the photographer’s apartment to show that he’s faced away from the window. He’s not peeking—you are.
Of course, Jeff does spend lots of time looking out the window, observing the scantily clad dancer he calls Miss Torso, the seemingly suicidal Miss Lonely Hearts, and the neighborhood composer (played by Ross Bagdasarian, soon to strike novelty-hit gold as the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks). Jeff’s most urgent fancy concerns Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and his wife. When the latter vanishes, Jeff becomes convinced that Thorwald has murdered his spouse, perhaps carrying the pieces of her dismembered body from the apartment in a suitcase.
Jeff gradually convinces his young and glamorous girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), and his blunt-talking visiting nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), of the truth of his theory. He’s less successful, however, with Doyle (Wendell Corey), a war buddy who has become a skeptical police detective. Jeff is incapacitated, so Lisa and Stella do some legwork on the case. Ultimately, Lisa climbs a fire escape into Thorwald’s apartment, her unsuitability for the task emphasized by the fact that she’s wearing a skirt that’s roughly the square footage of a contemporary Manhattan studio apartment.
The resolution of this scenario—adapted by John Michael Hayes from a Cornell Woolrich story—is much more conventional than the setup. Despite its stock thriller-movie ending, however, Rear Window has rich conceptual undertones. Hitchcock emphasizes the film’s artifice, suggesting a dangerous link between voyeurism and cinema. (“In the old days, they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker,” Stella warns Jeff of his peeping.) The director also treats the score as ambient noise, produced mostly by the composer across the courtyard, in a trick soon appropriated by such French New Wave directors as Godard and Chabrol.
Peeping may be risky, but it’s safer than a human relationship. Hitchcock draws a dyspeptic parallel between the Thorwalds and Jeff and Lisa. In the latter case, the woman is the predator, attempting to draw Jeff into intimacy he seems to dread, as when she models a nightgown she announces as “a preview of coming attractions.” Initially, the 46-year-old Stewart and 25-year-old Kelly seem ill-matched, but the awkwardness ultimately works to Hitchcock’s advantage. Like teenagers on a first date at a slasher flick, Jeff and Lisa only forget the chasm between them when they are both distracted by the supposed drama playing in the Thorwalds’ apartment.
Crash-landed on an uncharted desert planet, the surviving crew and passengers of an intergalactic transport initially assume that the greatest danger facing them is dehydration: The planet has three suns and thus perpetual daylight. But then they realize that they’ve landed just in time for a total eclipse, which is far more dangerous than sunlight, because there is something…out there…in the dark…that wants to kill them. It is, of course, the audience.
OK, that’s the obvious joke, but no more obvious than the scenario of Pitch Black, director David Twohy’s tiresome retread of Alien. Twohy and co-scripters Jim and Ken Wheat do throw in a character from another genre—psychokiller Riddick (Vin Diesel, almost as deranged as in Boiler Room)—as well as a Muslim, Imam (Keith David), and his New Mecca-bound entourage. Still, pilot Fry (Radha Mitchell, who just two years ago was making High Art instead of low trash) is a neo-Ripley battling yet another race of exotic predators who combine the most disconcerting aspects of invertebrates, reptiles, and raptors. As for the flick’s rhythm, it’s entirely familiar from slasher movies: (1) apprehension, (2) shriek, and (3) splat, over and over until only a few of these eminently butcherable characters are left. Says bounty hunter Johns (Cole Hauser) helpfully, “Ain’t all of us gonna make it.”
The question is, Why did Pitch Black make it? Twohy, a director who started as a screenwriter, has credits that include The Arrival, Waterworld, G.I. Jane, and Terminal Velocity. (For those not paying close attention, please note that this means Twohy knowingly worked on two Charlie Sheen movies.) Visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang, cinematographer David Eggby, and creature makers Patrick Tatopoulos and John Cox will surely add Pitch Black clips to their show reels, but watch for this turkey to vanish quickly from resumes of almost everyone else associated with it. CP