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Connection: actress (Thelma Ritter)
Rear Window (1954)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock
Written by John Michael Hayes
Starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Wendell Corey, and Raymond Burr
112 minutes, Rated PG
Do I really need to tell you what this movie is about?
When I made my Facebook list of Top 20 Favorite Films several years ago, I struggled for a long time on whether or not to include Rear Window on the list. Ultimately, I left it off, even though it is, without argument, a better film than just about any movie I actually included. The movies that I ended up including on the list were movies that had, over the years, inspired me as a writer, movies that helped define my tastes for the next several decades, movies from my youth that– for lack of better words– would set the tone for the person I would eventually become. I’ve mentioned it before . . . the distinct difference between “my favorite movies” and the movies that I think are “the best movies ever made.”
In my opinion, Rear Window is one of the best movies ever made. It’s one of very few films that I would actually give a perfect score of 10 to because I can find no flaw in it whatsoever. The script, the performances, the cinematography, the set design, the score. All of it, perfect. If I were to make that Facebook list– the list of Top 20 Best Films Ever Made– I would not be the least bit surprised to find Rear Window sitting staunchly somewhere in the Top 5.
In fact, if I were in a list-making mood, I could manage to fit Rear Window into the top 5 of many different lists, even as goofy and unnecessary as some of those lists might be. For example:
— the top 5 favorite films directed by Alfred Hitchcock
–the top 5 favorite films released in 1954
— the top 5 favorite James Stewart performances
— the top 5 favorite films that were not nominated for Best Picture, even though the director received a Best Director nod
— the top 5 favorite films in which a dog dies
–the top 5 favorite films that I couldn’t watch for years because of who they reminded me of
Yeah. That last one’s a doozy.
Rear Window is one of those films for me. A movie that I associate with someone from my past. I have a lot of those. Movies that I think of automatically whenever someone’s name is mentioned. Or the reverse, people that I think of whenever I run across a certain film. I have anecdotes, a personal history, connected to seeing certain beloved films for the very first time. The problem with Rear Window . . . is that not all nostalgia, not every trip down memory lane, is good for you.
I had already seen Rear Window a good handful of times by the time I met Sara, twice already alone just in film classes in college. At the time I was a featured performer in a weekly improvisational comedy show on the University of Illinois campus. We’re talking late 1998. September, October, or so. She had a friend who was in the cast. Sara was a regular at the show and was often invited to after-parties, which is really where I got to know her. Great conversation over beer and cigarettes at Murphy’s Pub or Brothers. I liked her. A lot.
After many weeks of sort of, I suppose, random encounters after shows, I ran into her on campus around lunchtime. It was a chance encounter that time, our first without the safety found in numbers. But we had lunch together that day. After lunch, I walked with her as she headed home . . . and discovered that my apartment building was right directly across the street from her dormitory. She came over. We watched some television. We smoked many, many cigarettes on my third-floor balcony as we had more conversation.
We talked about movies a lot, and it was during this conversation that she asked me, kind of randomly: “What is the saddest thing that you have ever seen in a movie?” My answer was immediate: “When Macaulay Culkin dies because of the bees.” She knew what movie I was talking about without prompting, which only made me like her more. I asked her the same question. Her answer was not as immediate. Largely, because she could not remember what movie it was that she had seen her example in. But she could describe the scene vividly. I’m paraphrasing, but she said, “There’s a woman. And we see her through the window as she prepares a candlelit dinner for a man who isn’t there. We see her talking to him, pantomiming the hanging of his hat, but he isn’t there. She sits down and eats and has conversation. With a man who isn’t there.”
I recognized her description right away. It was Rear Window. Sara was describing a woman that James Stewart and Grace Kelly continually refer to throughout the film as Miss Lonelyhearts. As the movie progresses, and they continue spying on her, they see her bring a man home. They see her narrowly avoid sexual assault. Eventually, they see her attempt suicide by overdosing on pills. Sara was right. It’s very, very sad.
Eventually, Sara had to leave. We said “good” and “bye” and tried to hug in direct correlation to the total of our affection to date. After she had left, I sat on the balcony for another hour or so, smoking cigarette after cigarette and trying to contemplate what I was going to do about this Sara situation.
I should mention . . . that I was married. Sort of. The apartment that I was living in was an apartment that I had moved to after my ex-wife and I had separated. Divorce papers had been filed, but the State of Illinois would not allow us the no-contest divorce we had asked for because they did not feel that we had been separated long enough or had made enough of an attempt to reconcile. As for my ex-wife and I, we had no intentions of getting back together. We were complying with the demands of the state in order to expedite the process. We were barely in contact. But I knew . . . deep down . . . that if I pursued this relationship with Sara that my ex was going to find a way to use it against me.
So I didn’t. For a time. We remained friends. Though we saw each other frequently. And by “frequently”, I mean . . . daily. Meeting for breakfast. Walking to class. Having lunch. Homework on the quad. Walking home. Cigarettes on the balcony. Beers at Murphy’s Pub. Constant comments from our group of combined friends about just what in the name of God was going on between Sara and I. Eventually, I was taping television shows she liked on my VCR so that she could come over and watch them. And here’s the thing: I didn’t even care what shows they were. Some of them were even shows I hated. It wasn’t about the shows. It was about spending as much time with her as I possibly could in the only way that I was allowed.
On Halloween night, 1998. Sara and I went to the Coed Cinema and watched a very strange dark comedy called Clay Pigeons. We went to a party with some friends, but it was late in the evening and everyone was far more intoxicated than we were, so we didn’t stay long. Instead we went back to my apartment and watched . . . you guessed it . . . Rear Window. When she left, she kissed me. I let her, and kissed her back. And now . . . I guess I had a girlfriend.
Sara and I were together almost two years. Our eventual break-up was devastating, terrible, and, in retrospect, probably inevitable. I mean, we didn’t start out in the greatest of circumstances, you know? But a lot happened in that two years . . . a lot of which broke us . . . and none of which am I at liberty to share. I can tell you that we were destitute, both probably drug addicts, both definitely alcoholics, and I was a demanding control freak that lied to her. A lot. But the rest of it is her story and not mine to share. Suffice it to say that I wasn’t sure, when we finally broke it off, if I had ever really known her at all.
Three days before we called it quits for good, we had gone with some friends downtown Champaign to the Art Theatre to see a revival of . . . Rear Window. It was a remastered print. It looked great, and sounded even better. And it was the first time that I had ever seen one of my favorite movies on the big screen. Afterwards, we went and played pool with those same friends at a bar downtown. We were happy. We were a couple for 36 more hours. Rear Window is the last movie we ever saw together.
Initially, I had planned to just write this essay without watching the film again. I felt that my own love for the movie, my own repeated views, would serve me long enough to get through 2,000 words about the film’s highs and importance. In this manner, I could get through the discussion without becoming crippled with dark nostalgia. But the movie is so tautly-plotted that I was struggling to remember in what order certain events happened. I couldn’t even recall the name of either the villain (Lars Thorwald) or James Stewart’s private detective friend (Lt. Doyle) without resorting to cheating on IMDB. I felt that I was doing this film a tremendous disservice by winging it. So . . . I gave in and borrowed Rear Window from my local library to rewatch in the comfort of my own home. This was the first time I had watched this film in almost two decades.
My bad history with the movie did not in any way taint my love for it. It’s still just as perfect to me as it was when I saw it for the first time as a teenager. Its plot, which concerns a photojournalist (played by James Stewart) who, while confined to a wheelchair in his apartment after breaking his leg, begins to suspect that one of his neighbors (played by Raymond Burr) may have murdered his wife, is still utterly-riveting and expertly-paced. The acting is sublime, including Grace Kelly (as his high-society girlfriend) and Thelma Ritter (as his wise-acre nurse). But even if the acting and writing were sub-par, the film is worth revisiting for its set design alone.
The entire film takes place in Jimmy Stewart’s apartment. Almost every shot in the film (until the ending) that doesn’t take place in the apartment appears to be a point-of-view shot from inside the apartment, an apartment that overlooks a giant courtyard surrounded on all four sides by apartment buildings. This set is gigantic and it required four different sets of lighting equipment to adequately depict four different times of day. Cinematographer Robert Burks (who is well-known for his affiliation with Alfred Hitchcock) outdoes himself with long tracking shots that glide from apartment window to apartment window to apartment window, circling back on themselves to return to the apartment of origin.
The sound design is something else as well, and I noticed something about it this time that I have never noticed before: all of the sounds in the movie (ie., music, sound effects, etc.) come from within the world of the movie. We hear music, but it’s always coming from another apartment. We hear traffic, children laughing, dogs barking, all of which come into the open window from around the neighborhood. The lone exception to this is the opening bars of orchestral music as the credits begin to roll, but all sound otherwise is diegetic and has a source on-screen.
I really love this film– it is Hitchcock’s best, in my opinion– and I learned in this viewing something else that I never realized before: I have been unfairly holding it responsible for one of the darkest times in my life. I’ve been holding my love for a classic completely hostage by an unwillingness on my part to move on. And here I am, hours after watching the film, relatively unscathed. Yes, I relived some bad memories to get through it, but I am able to talk about those memories now matter of fact, as something that happened to me rather than something that defines me. I am forced to recognize that, instead of being the catalyst for crippling angst, maybe two different viewings of Rear Window could have been, and should have been, for all these years, the light in a darkened tunnel. See the good times, right? Find joy in them.
I have to wonder now what other films I greatly admire have been so unjustly ignored.