Peeping has always been part of the guilty pleasure of moviegoing. We look; they can't look back. Voyeur is the fancy term for what Webster's defines as "a person who is sexually gratified by viewing, especially furtively and habitually, persons who are disrobing, engaged in sexual activity, etc." Perverse? Nah. It sounds like the usual crowd at the multiplex. But the best filmmakers know there's more to peeping than sex. Real intimacy comes in watching a person let down his defenses.
In Eye of the Beholder, adapted by director Stephan Elliott from Marc Behm's 1980 novel, Ewan McGregor plays the Eye, a British intelligence agent who's paid to peep. Availed of the latest in surveillance toys, the Eye is assigned to track Joanna Eris (Ashley Judd), a suspected blackmailer. He records Joanna in the act of taking off her clothes, bathing, having sex and – oh, yeah – killing about a half-dozen guys. While the Eye stays the impassive observer, Joanna stabs one lover repeatedly, wraps his bloody body in a sheet, drops him in a river and coolly tidies up the mess. Then it's on the road from New York to Alaska as Joanna changes wigs and identities in her busy secret life as a serial killer.
Judd is a firecracker of an actress, able to find layers in a woman who's more of a concept than a character. Good thing, too, because Elliott – the Australian director of the 1994 drag comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – lets his artier ideas get the better of him. It's one thing to draw us into the surreal world of the Eye's emotional impassivity; it's another to degenerate into psychobabble. Joanna's case history is spelled out: She's an orphan who grew up to be victimized by men (wait till you see Jason Priestley as a bleached-out, sadistic junkie drifter) and even doctors (Genevieve Bujold scores as a manipulative shrink). No wonder Joanna lashes out. Elliott sees this sociopath as an abandoned innocent in need of a cuddle. Judd, often trapped in pop trash (Double Jeopardy, Kiss the Girls) while her fine work in indie films (Ruby in Paradise, Normal Life) goes unseen, works hard to reconcile the contradictions in Joanna, but it's an uphill battle.
McGregor, the Scottish actor (Trainspotting) who plays the young Obi-Wan in the new Star Wars series, has it worse. In the book, the Eye is a much older man whose wife ran off with their daughter. Unable to find his now-adult child, the Eye sees Joanna as a substitute and becomes her guardian angel. The French director Claude Miller filmed Behm's novel in 1983 as Deadly Run, with the fiftyish Michel Serrault as the Eye and Isabelle Adjani as Joanna. McGregor, 29, is miscast in a role that makes little sense even on a Freudian level. He fares better with the quick-witted k.d. lang, playing an intelligence coordinator and the last link to reality for a voyeur who's nuttier than the psycho he's watching. In trying to both inflame and indict our morbid curiosity, Elliott fails to make the needed connection between the audience and a peeper who has lost his moral balance.
Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1954, does the job brilliantly – just catch the film's current national re-release. Newly restored to unfaded glory by the ace team of Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, who revitalized Hitchcock's Vertigo two years ago, the film leaps off the screen with a thrilling immediacy. Hitchcock's suspense classic is spiffier, sexier and more relevant than ever to a new century of peeping Toms.
In Rear Window, Hitchcock tackles the topic of voyeurism head-on. Daredevil news photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jefferies, played to perfection by James Stewart, is temporarily laid up with a broken leg in his New York apartment. For distraction, Jeff uses binoculars and a long-lens camera to spy on his neighbors across the courtyard – the sexy Miss Torso, the desperate Miss Lonely Hearts, horny newlyweds and especially the sweaty salesman (Raymond Burr) who keeps arguing with his bedridden wife. Jeff's sassy nurse, Stella (the late, great Thelma Ritter), scolds him: "In the old days, they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker. Any of those bikini bombshells you're always watching worth a red-hot poker?"
Jeff knows the answer, and so does every movie fan. For Hitchcock, looking out the window at things you shouldn't see and living vicariously is part of the appeal of film. The unrepentant Jeff even drags his girl, Lisa (Grace Kelly has never been more gorgeous; Gwyneth, eat your heart out), a model eager to marry this commitment-phobe, into his dangerous game of "rear-window ethics."
The setup is diabolically clever. Through the amiable Stewart, the Tom Hanks of his day, Hitchcock persuades us to identify with the peeper, to see what he sees. When Jeff believes that the salesman might have hacked up his wife, we believe it, too. Disappointment follows when the police give the salesman an alibi. Says Lisa, "You and me, plunged into despair because we find out a man didn't kill his wife. We're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known."
Hitchcock twists the knife, not just by revealing a real crime but by having the killer stare threateningly at Jeff across the courtyard in a chilling scene that's aimed straight at the audience. Rear Window can still make you jump out of your seat. Hitchcock condemned the invasive immorality of voyeurism without for a second denying its allure. In terms of art and entertainment, he knew better than any movie director that there's no percentage in minding your own business.