In which we reconsider and reevaluate a piece of pop culture. This week, Emily is inspired by the popularity of Gone Girl to re-watch a classic piece of cinematic suspense.
This weekend, always looking for a good excuse to have more Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in my life, I re-watched Rear Window. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film starts out as a rather laconic mystery but gradually turns into a suspense thriller. As the mystery builds, Hitchcock interrogates the medium of cinema and the voyeurism of the movie-watching experience.
L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (a slightly disheveled Jimmy Stewart) is a professional photographer who’s cooped up at home using a wheelchair while he recovers from a broken leg. Intensely bored by being stuck at home – and, apparently, without a library card, a pair of knitting needles, or anything else conducive to a more productive hobby – Jeff has decided to while away his seven-week-long sabbatical off work by staring out his window and watching his neighbors. As he follows the lives of his neighbors, he becomes convinced that one of them has murdered a woman, and he enlists his girlfriend Lisa (an utterly gorgeous Grace Kelly), nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), and war-buddy-turned-cop Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) to solve the crime. It was absolutely a fun rewatch: I had only seen the film once before (and that was years ago) and I didn’t remember it very well, so it was really fun to just sit back and enjoy the story again!
So, I’m not going to say that this movie is perfect. Hitchcock is somewhat infamous for his problematic treatment of women – both in how his camera objectifies female characters and in how he personally persecuted some of his female actresses. And this movie absolutely has moments in which the camera very much gazes at the female body in a particularly patriarchal and possessive sort of way. I think it’s important to be aware that this is a film in which there’s a character who we only know as “Miss Torso” and in which Grace Kelly gets panned up at one point as the camera actually checks her out. But honestly, I think that Rear Window has far more merits than it has faults, and it’s an interesting enough movie that it absolutely deserves a re-watch.
Rear Window is, fundamentally, a movie about going to the movies. A man with a camera watches snippets of other people’s lives and is able to comment upon them without being able to directly intervene in them (at least until the climax of the film). Jeff watches out the window, where he can see into the apartments of a half dozen or so of his neighbors. We never see into their apartments without also seeing the window frame and the surrounding wall, as the camera emphasizes Jeff’s separation from the action we’re watching. In fact, the framing ends up looking like the borders of movie or television screens. So we end up with this movie in which Jeff becomes fascinated by and drawn into the lives of strangers as he watches them off-and-on at a distance.
The camera work is also really fascinating from this meta level about movie-watching. Because, of course, if Jeff is watching his neighbors’ lives as if they were movies, we the audience are actually watching a movie and thus are ourselves implicated in these cycles of spectatorship and voyeurism. If Jeff’s a voyeur, then we’re no better. The film opens with a very slow pan across the walls and windows of the apartment buildings that Jeff spends the movie focused on. The pan, however, isn’t steady. Rather, the camera will pause and focus when movement or sound from the neighbors catches it’s attention. As the camera revolves, we find that it’s point of origin is right next to Jeff’s wheelchair but, since Jeff is asleep, the camera takes the opportunity to wander around his apartment and pause and zoom in on items of interest. In this almost-wordless silent opening series of camera pans, the camera stages the audience’s nosiness and interest in the private lives of others. We’re the spectators that the camera is indulging. It’s a super interesting opening that hints, I think, about the film’s greater preoccupation with the movies.
Throughout the film, then, Hitchcock keeps implicating his audience in the voyeuristic aspects of watching movies – and especially of watching his mystery-suspense movies. At a moment about halfway through the movie, when Jeff and Lisa have convinced themselves that perhaps there wasn’t a murder after all, they’re noticeably disappointed. Lisa comments, “You and me with long faces, 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.” If Lisa and Jeff are disappointed because they got swept up in an adventure that now seems unfounded, the audience is no less ghoulish. Hitchcock makes his money off audiences rushing to see movies in which horrible people do horrible things to each other, but he isn’t letting us off the hook for treating crime spectatorship as entertainment.
But beyond the self-referential, meta-textual nature of the film, Rear Window absolutely holds up as a suspense film. Jeff and Lisa aren’t sure whether there’s a murderer under their noses – or across their backyard, as it were. As they try to piece the puzzle together – and as the very amazingly wonderful Grace-Kelly-as-Lisa puts herself in danger in order to get evidence – the movie is genuinely tense and scary. Rear Window is a claustrophobic sort of film – almost every shot comes from within the apartment that Jeff is stuck in – and that claustrophobia adds exponentially to the tension and suspense of the plot.
Of course, it’s impossible to talk about why this film’s good without mentioning the acting. Jimmy Stewart spends almost the entire movie acting from a wheelchair, and he’s wonderful at using small gestures and movements to great effect. He’s got enough charisma and class to play this deeply bored spectator without ever losing the audience’s sympathy. And then there’s Grace Kelly, who’s a socialite just itching for the chance to do her best Nancy Drew impression. She’s a kick-ass, charming, and witty lady, and she’s got moxie out the wazoo. Also, you know, she’s got gorgeous gowns (designed by Edith Head), and there’s something to be said for the way she inspires aspirational fantasies about owning that wardrobe.
At any rate, I very much do recommend re-watching Rear Window. It’s a classic of Hitchcock suspense, with fabulous performances, really fascinating camera work, and a clever subtext about the cinematic medium.
Watched it recently and want other recs?
For a great pastiche of Hitchcock tropes, check out Psych season 4, episode 16, “Mr. Yin Presents…,” in which a serial killer taunts Shawn Spencer and the gang with Hitchcock cliches. Psychic detective Shawn Spencer ends up taking the role of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, seeing everything but powerless to stop events.
Or if you want more Hitchcock –
Notorious (1946). Cary Grant stars in this spy thriller as an American government agent who recruits Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) to seduce Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). It’s a love triangle with Nazis, poisonings, and femmes fatale.
North by Northwest (1959). Microfilm, the United Nations, a crop duster, and Mount Rushmore all play key parts in this mistaken identity Cold War spy thriller starring Hitchcock favorites Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.
Or if you want more Jimmy Stewart –
Harvey (1950). Jimmy Stewart plays loveable Elwood P. Dowd, a man who (much to the chagrin of his sister and niece) sees and befriends a 6 foot, 3 ½ inch invisible rabbit pooka named Harvey. Dowd’s incessant optimism is at constant odds with those around him, leading to a heartwarming and thought-provoking film about the nature of reality.
The Philadelphia Story (1940). Divorced socialites C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) have always had a tempestuous relationship, but when Tracy decides to get remarried, Dexter not only invites himself to the wedding, but also two reporters from Spy Magazine (Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey). A Much Ado About Nothing-type rom-com.
Or if you want more Grace Kelly –
High Society (1956). A musical remake of The Philadelphia Story starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Celeste Holm (plus a bit part for Louis Armstrong)!
To Catch a Thief (1955). To the Lamp Post (and Hitchcock) favorites Cary Grant and Grace Kelly star in Hitchcock’s thriller about mistaken identity. John Robie (Grant) is a retired cat burglar attempting to clear his name by tracking down the new cat burglar in town, all while simultaneously seducing and being seduced by Grace Kelly’s Frances. The film ends with a costume ball, with costumes designed by Edith Head.
Can you tell that we really really like Cary Grant?