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Submitted by Nicky Smith

Voyeur cinema
We're all peeping toms, and Hollywood knows it

Restorers bring old flicks back to life
By: Geoff Pevere
Toronto Star 11th Feb 2000

Rear Window part of a long history of films that prey on the guilty pleasure of spying on others.

"We've become a race of Peeping Toms," laments the wisecracking housekeeper played by Thelma Ritter in Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 masterwork of movie voyeurism, Rear Window (which opens today in gloriously restored condition).

And she didn't know the half of it. Since that movie's release nearly a half-century ago, not only have the technical means facilitating Peeping Tomism exploded exponentially - palmcorders, webcams, digital audio, etc. - so have the movies Rear Window has influenced and been imitated by.

Thus, while we may be a race of inveterate peepers, the upside is that at least it's possible to peep at the legacy of movies - from Michael Powell's suppressed master work Peeping Tom to the recently released clunker Eye Of The Beholder - which owe their very existence to Rear Window. Thanks to Hitchcock's mordant genius, at least it' s possible to be self-consciously voyeuristic.

Based partly on Cornell Woolrich's short story "It Had to be Murder' ' and partly on a couple of gruesome real-life murders Hitchcock found particularly amusing, Rear Window represented a retreat from the formal restrictions the director had experienced in the making of the relatively standard 3D potboiler Dial M For Murder: Intrigued by the challenge of making a complex and multicharactered movie on a single set, the 54 year-old filmmaker became fascinated by the cinematic possibilities presented by Woolrich's plot involving a voyeuristic invalid. Eventually, the self-imposed technical challenge which would become Rear Window - a huge apartment set, the windows of which offered glimpses of separate, almost self-contained narratives, viewed through the lenses of the injured photojournalist played by James Stewart - would facilitate one of the master's most complex, evocative and enduring works.

Ostensibly a thriller about a wheelchair-bound photographer (James Stewart at his most deceptively unassuming) who thinks he has witnessed a murder in one of the apartments opposite his own, the movie turns on one of the most potent visual concepts in the history of the movies: that Stewart, one of the most seductively easy-to-identify-with stars, would become our on-screen surrogate. That, through his increasingly complex obsession with the act of looking (an obsession Hitchcock renders subtly pathological through the Stewart character's implied impotence and conspicuously unreasonable fear of marriage), our own voyeuristic complicity would be the movie's true subtextual subject.

Therefore, as that marvellously prismatic title implies, what's really scrutinized through the rear window is us, out there watching, in the dark. And the fear the movie exploits is therefore the ultimate fear of the voyeur: of being caught, of being observed observing, and of having the safe distance between us and the screen violated. That's what happens when killer Raymond Burr turns up, angry and large, in Stewart's apartment, and that's why Rear Window has spawned a virtual mini-genre in movies about voyeurs.

It's about looks that kill. And, as the following testify, kill and kill again.

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960): Made six years after Hitchcock' s movie, Michael Powell's luridly creepy story about a psychotic photographer (whose perversely customized killer-camera allows him to photograph women watching themselves die) not only took Rear Window a logical Freudian leap forward and anticipated the snuff furor by more than a decade, it just about ended this eminent British director's career. So intense was the national uproar in England upon its release, the film was dumped by its distributor and Powell's career almost instantly short-circuited.

All of which suggests the movie's primary transgression was to flash its bulbs a little too close to home: Peeping Tom remains one of the most disquietingly perceptive movies about the relationships between viewing, male sexual dysfunction, perversion and death, which might account for the fact it was eventually recovered by feminist film theorists like Laura Mulvey and connoisseurs of cinematic pathology like Martin Scorsese.

Indeed, Scorsese has often cited Peeping Tom as one of the main influences on Taxi Driver, which be only way we can mark some kind of cause-and- effect relationship between Jimmy Stewart and Robert De Niro.

Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966): For his first English-language movie, Michaelangelo Antonioni, the Italian master of formally exquisite modernist ennui, made this modishly enigmatic Rear Window riff in Swinging London. Playing a fashion photographer with a smashing loft but no apparent emotional affinities, David Hemmings (whose vigorously sexual approach to his studio work was a clear influence on Austin Powers) one day takes some snaps of a clinched couple in a windy park. Later, upon examining blowups of the print, he sees evidence of what may, or may not, have been a murder.

Antonioni made a movie which at once criticized the tragically hip nature of countercultural fashion while simultaneously becoming part of it In transposing Rear Window's implications of emotional detachment to fashionable '60s London, Antonioni made a movie which at once criticized the tragically hip nature of countercultural fashion while simultaneously becoming part of it: Blowup was nothing if not must-see viewing for thoughtful hipsters of the day. Viewed today, it holds up primarily as an uncanny harbinger of the image-crazy, emotionally zombified fashion culture to come.

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974): As "the best bugger on the West Coast," Gene Hackman in The Conversation is the audio version (which is to say the post-Watergate version) of Stewart's L.B. Jeffries. He is also, as befits a surveillance expert a generation later, a far more apparent emotional cripple: terrified of intimacy and commitment, unable to communicate meaningfully without the distancing comforts of technology, riddled with paranoia and suspicion. When, like Stewart and Hemmings before him, his work brings him in dangerously close proximity to what looks like murder (or, in this case, possible conspiracy to commit it), it also makes Harry perilously aware of the echoes ringing in his own being. It's the sound of spiritual hollowness he hears, and, for the first and perhaps last time in Harry's sad life, no microphone is required.

Blow Out and Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1981 and 1984): No filmmaker has copped so blatantly, and at such cost of critical reputation, from Hitchcock as Brian De Palma, and no two of his movies have copped Rear Window as blatantly as these. As the title would suggest,Blow Out, which features John Travolta as a movie sound technician who accidentally records (all together now!) what may or may not have been the murder of liberal presidential candidate, owes as much to Antonioni's mod masterpiece as Hitchcock's movie, but the core premise is essentially the same: recording technology brings someone dangerously close to murder, only to result in the spotlight swinging rudely right back on the recorder. And so Travolta eventually finds himself on the receiving end of a killer conspiracy, his life in nearly as much doubt as his paranoidly strained credibility.

Body Double, De Palma's flat-out nutty attempt to amalgamate Rear Window with Vertigo, is best appreciated (as some people insist on appreciating Rear Window) as a purely formal exercise. And, provided you don't take it too seriously, it does exert a certain abstract and undeniable (if entirely unwholesome) fascination. The story of an actor who witnesses one of the '80s' most outrageous movie murders (Deborah Shelton's death by giant powerdrill) while spying on her through a telescope, Body Double manages to somehow to expand on Hitchcock' s most resonant themes while simultaneously trivializing them.

Thus, while the movie can make you dizzy with its manipulation of perspectives and optical points-of-view, it does so in the service of a story which is among the most stupid De Palma ever committed to film. Still, it does manage to generate a certain genuine frisson of discomfort, which is not generated simply the movie's frequent outrageous lapses of restraint and good taste. It comes from a fundamental understanding of something Stewart says in Rear Window of the man he's convinced is a killer, but could also be saying of the man in the mirror: "That's no ordinary look. That's the look a man gives when he's afraid somebody might be watching him." The look that kills.

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