The Movie That Made Me Love Movies: Rear Window
The moment I stopped being someone who watched movies and became someone who loved movies occurred on a chilly winter night in the company of my older brother, who had recently returned to our hometown post-college.
My brother is a movie fan himself, and on that particular evening he decided it was time for me to be introduced to the works of one Mr. Alfred Hitchcock. I was around fourteen at the time, and my interest in movies was mostly limited to the dopey teen comedies of the ’90s, movies that were as fun as they were disposable. For my brother, this reality was unacceptable, and so he made it his personal mission to begin my education in the classics.
It was an enterprise that I entered into with apprehension, I had seen and enjoyed a few classics–Planet of the Apes and It’s A Wonderful Life were already favorites of mine–but I was more interested in watching Never Been Kissed on an endless loop. Spending my precious spare time being forced to watch old movies felt like an unusual brand of punishment, but in the name of family bonding, I was prepared to suffer through it. Then we watched Rear Window and my entire attitude changed.
Rear Window drew me in without preamble. I only needed to see the opening credits set over the backdrop of the bustling apartment buildings that serve as the story’s setting to be hooked. It was the remarkable sense of place that captured my imagination. The film evokes the spirit of summer with a confident ease that should be at odds with the fact that it is obviously filmed on a stage.The night I watched the film, it was cold outside and in (a hazard of living in an old house), but the moment the credits began, I could almost feel the nip in the air give way to the oppressive heat that plagues Jeff (James Stewart) and his neighbors as surely as if I were trapped in the dog days of summer too.
Having grown up in a small town, the New York City of Rear Window was foreign and captivating to my young eyes. The idea that people could live on top of each other, their lives touching, but never entirely intersecting, fascinated me. In the movie, each apartment holds a story, and the beauty of Rear Window is that every story can not be fully seen with one viewing. As suspenseful as the central mystery is, it’s the smaller beats that keep me coming back to the film: the lonely woman who cries alone in her apartment, the genial socialite whose home is always full, the couple who attempt to escape the heatwave by sleeping outside on their tiny balcony–like nesting dolls, the layers of story appear endless.
At the center of it all is Jeff, the photographer who hates standing still, but is forced to anyway thanks to an injury that leaves him stuck in his wheelchair with nothing to do but stare out his window until he recovers. Jeff’s role is one of a watcher. The way in which he is left to helplessly observe the questionable goings on in the Thorwalds’ apartment renders him an audience surrogate for much of the running time. Like us, he’s a voyeur, watching the mini-films of his neighbors’ lives play out around him. Much of the film’s depth was lost on me during my first viewing, but Rear Window‘s ruminations on voyeurism and and the experience of watching movies still managed to prompt my first deep discussion about a movie’s intent.
The complexity of the story is only half of the appeal though. Rear Window‘s greatest strength is its Hitchcockian flair for suspense and humor. Stewart and leading lady Grace Kelly banter their way through even the most intense scenes, ensuring that the human story of Jeff learning that a relationship with Lisa (Kelly) won’t hold him back isn’t lost in all of the missing wife intrigue going on across the courtyard.With Jim stuck being both passive and helpless thanks to his wheelchair, its the women of the film, Lisa and Jim’s nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), who get to do the investigating and the risk taking. The gender role reversal came as a pleasant surprise. To me, old movies equaled movies where women were stuck on the sidelines, but Rear Window quickly became the first classic (but not the last) to upset that particular worldview. Lisa is one of my favorite Hitchcock creations. Her fearlessness is admirable, and watching her embrace the adventurous nature of Jim’s lifestyle is, to put it simply, fun.
“Fun” is the perfect way to describe Rear Window in its entirety though. From those opening moments that reveal a world teaming with life to the nerve-racking climatic scene where nothing but a few flashbulbs stand between Jim and the murderous Mr. Thorwald, the movie is pure cinematic bliss. It has enough complexity of plot to lend itself to deeper analysis, but even if we just examine the surface we have a love story, a mystery and more than enough suspense to keep even the most jaded movie fan entertained.
For me, Rear Window marked the beginning of a long love affair with film because it entertained me and forced me to dig deeper after the screen went black. After that I was no longer reluctant to watch classic films with my brother. We went on to watch Vertigo and Psycho before moving to non-Hitchcock classics like Citizen Kane and A Streetcar Named Desire. A love of classic movies became an interest we could share, and one that would ultimately lead me to minor in film when I went college. Looking back, I have no doubt that my love for movies can be traced back to watching James Stewart solve a murder mystery during one scorching New York City summer.
I like to think all movie fans have a movie that made them move from casual viewing to becoming devotees, and I’d love to hear your story in the comments.
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