I just engaged in a donnybrook of a discussion with a few friends over this film, the primary contention being what it was actually about. It was the kind of exchange only the participants could enjoy, but the spirited debate about the film and Hitchock in general led me to re-watch Rear Window this weekend.
Jimmy Stewart is an adventurous photographer who has a broken leg (but he got the shot of the crashing motor car before it hit him). Cooped up in his New York City apartment, he spends the time peeping on his neighbors across the way (he has a splendid view of their windows and courtyards), and in the process, he begins to suspect one (Raymond Burr) of murdering his wife. He enlists his socialite girlfriend (Grace Kelly), whose marriage entreaties he is fending off, in his investigation, leading to a thrilling conclusion.
The film succeeds on three levels. First, it is a witty comedy, with sharp exchanges between Stewart (the confirmed bachelor and super snooper) and Kelly, as well as Stewart’s health care attendant, the brusque Thelma Ritter. The women are pro-marriage and anti-peeping. As these discussions develop, Stewart enlists them in his monitoring of Burr, and thereby, Kelly “proves” herself to Stewart as something more than a rich, pampered girl. At its best, it plays like a David Ogden Stewart or Ruth Gordon battle of the sexes script.
It is also a love story, initially very light, but when Kelly is in harm’s way, Stewart evinces true passion. Stewart has been lampooned so often (“Zu Zu’s petals!”) that one forgets his ability to communicate depth of emotion, but before those petals, there was his haunting breakdown in Martini’s bar. Also, given the 21 year age disparity, it is surprising Stewart and Kelly manage chemistry, but it’s there. Indeed, the insane idea of rejecting Grace Kelly is made more comprehensible by Stewart’s cranky maturity.
Finally, this is a meticulous thriller with a few dark overtones. Stewart peeps as a lark, but soon, he is obsessed and a little ashamed. He sheepishly admits to Kelly that they’re viewing “pretty private stuff going on out there.” She retorts, “We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known.” And what they see is generally pretty depressing: a suicidal Ms. Lonelyhearts, a composer in despair, newlyweds from shine to routine. And, of course, a killer, nagged by his wife and driven to extremes. It’s not a happy place, as is shown by one neighbor whose dog, sniffing in the wrong garden, meets an untimely end.
I’ll end with the thoughts of someone more distinguished, David Thomson, from his book The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder:
Hitchcock knew that a system locked into watching and seeing can misread its surroundings and can even lose its identity and ordinary human sympathies because of the pressure of voyeurism. The voyeurism is so heavy, so forceful, it can smother real human nature. Psycho is the conclusion to a set of films beginning with Rear Window, and for me that is Hitchcock’s best film in that the smile of satisfaction at the end covers without hiding the loneliness that affects real people. Rear Window is a romance, a comedy and a thriller, but a portrait of alienation too. The apartments and windows are screens, of course, but they are traps, or cells – in that entire courtyard no one seems to “know” anyone else; neighborliness has not been invented.