Movie buffs can disagree about almost anything, and even the great Alfred Hitchcock has critics who consider his style too precise, his characters too passive, his images too artificial.
Hitchcockians far outnumber Hitchknockians, though, and his reputation seems to grow more lofty with every passing year. This trend isn't likely to change as we head into 2000, especially since the new century is beginning with a burst of renewed interest in one of the director's greatest works: "Rear Window," first released in 1954 and now returning to theaters in a freshly restored edition so resplendent that you'd think the movie rolled out of the studio just yesterday.
If anyone's memory needs jogging, "Rear Window" stars James Stewart as an injured photographer who spends his days dozing in his wheelchair, fending off a gorgeous girlfriend (Grace Kelly) whose refined habits don't suit his adventurous tastes, and snooping on neighbors across the courtyard from his Greenwich Village apartment. When a salesman's nagging wife disappears from her customary place, our hero decides foul play must be afoot - but he has trouble convincing a skeptical detective, who thinks the trouble is all in the overstimulated imagination of his voyeuristic friend.
This is an ingenious plot, adapted by John Michael Hayes from a Cornell Woolrich story. But what makes "Rear Window" a masterful movie is the way Hitchcock uses its suspenseful narrative to examine areas of human experience that preoccupied him throughout his life. Chief among these is the power of vision - it provides us with our most vivid knowledge of the world, yet is capable of leading us astray by throwing illusion, confusion, and misperception into our paths.
"Rear Window" also played to Hitchcock's fondness for exploring bold stylistic and technical ideas. He relished the challenge of turning traditional cinema on its head - limiting an entire movie to a single room and the view from its window, and filming nearly all the suspense scenes in long-distance shots with a minimum of comprehensible sound.
In the hands of a lesser talent, this might have become a self-conscious stunt, but in Hitchcock's it has the tightly wound perfection of a flawless sonnet or sonata.
"Rear Window" is one of several movies - the outrageous "Rope" and the profound "Vertigo" are also among them - that Hitchcock eventually withdrew from theaters in the hope that rarity would increase their market value. They were reissued in the middle 1980s to great acclaim, but the copies had lost some of their nuances due to careless storage.
Since then, Universal Studios has commissioned the team of Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz to restore a number of classic films, including Orson Welles's brilliant "Touch of Evil," that have suffered the ravages of time. The refurbished "Rear Window" is their latest project. Some of their decisions have been controversial in the past; there has been criticism of the restored sound in "Vertigo," for instance, which some experts find too aggressive for the dreamlike atmosphere Hitchcock had in mind. But their overall contribution has been extremely valuable.
"Rear Window" benefits enormously from their skilled work, filling the screen with rich colors and unimpeded rhythms that lend a whole new life to one of Hitchcock's supreme achievements.
*Rated PG; contains tastefully handled adult material.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society