Rear Window and the Ritual — Why Jimmy Stewart ≠ Grace Kelly

April 1, 2010

Ah, Rear Window. Hitchcock’s 1954 masterpiece is considered a nearly flawless film from the powerhouse of Hollywood in the 1950s, and for damn good reason. It’s just a good film. Funny, interesting on many levels, enticing, full of Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart — there’s certainly something for everyone in this film.

Many a shot-by-shot comparison has been done on this film, as many a connection to the implications it makes about the nature of voyeurism (and whether or not it’s A OK) has been made — so I will spare you, the happy reader, of simply regurgitating what everyone has already said to and heard from everyone they know.

However, since that’s kind of the overarching point of the film, I can’t promise it will have no bearing on what I would like to say. But I will try not to make the same old same old the centerpiece of this veritable lazy susan that I call my blog.

Many a connection has been made to the fact that Jimmy Stewart considers his camera to be showing him "what's happening," when he can never be too sure, which seems to be a metaphor for people who make as well as people who watch movies in a search for meaning.

So. As you may have guessed, I chose to complete the Jimmy Stewart series I inadvertently started with Rope and continued with The Man Who Knew Too Much and Vertigo. Though I did not initially know that I would make any real connections besides “I think Stewart and Hitchcock worked well together and made awesome movies,” I think I actually did. In a way that I think is much more overt than when Hitchcock works with, say, Cary Grant, I think that the films the iconic director made with Stewart revolve very much around rituals, and the power they have to reveal certain truths or bring people together.

Whether the quasi-communion ritual of the eating and drinking around an alter in Rope, the power of music and the way it brings people together in The Man Who Knew Too Much, or the rabid search for deeper personal identity through skin-deep looks in Vertigo, rituals seem to drive the meaning of Stewart-Hitchcock films.

An oft-cited frame from "North By Northwest," in which Cary Grant runs from an airplane in a field. The "Wrong Man" scenario that Hitchcock employed sporadically throughout his career never really made it into any of his collaborations with Jimmy Stewart. The closest one can come is in "The Man Who Knew Too Much," and even then, Jimmy Stewart isn't actually a suspect in the murder of anyone.

And Rear Window is no different — in fact, it quite possibly may take the cake, becoming purely about the ritual of watching a man (and an entire neighborhood) through a window and endlessly theorizing about what his actions could possibly mean, in a delightfully tongue-in-cheek revelation of how some people take theorizing about things they see too far.

(i.e., movie critics, cinephiles — people like your fearless leader — me.)

But what’s the point of figuring out what these rituals mean? I can’t possibly begin to explain why Hitchcock seemed to use Jimmy Stewart so much for these roles; indeed, the director wanted Cary Grant for Rope, but the brightly-burning star was afraid of what could happen to his career if he played a man that was very lightly implied to be gay, and possibly a pedophile.

But you see, that’s neither here nor there, anyway. What this blog needs now is focus. Sweet focus.

I must admit, I too thought Jeff to be a damn fool for being so ornery to Grace Kelly in the beginning of the film. You rarely see a woman this radiant.

So, what I would like to discuss are the wider social implications of the ritual, particularly those in Rear Window. The hinging point of the narrative prior to Jeff’s discovery that something fishy is going on in Thorwald’s apartment is his somewhat rocky relationship with Lisa (played by the incomparable Grace Kelly), which has been at least somewhat exacerbated by his broken leg.

At this point in time, Jeff’s leg has been broken for weeks, and his life has been distilled down to a series of rituals, performed mostly by others. His feisty nurse, Stella, takes care of him every day, and his extremely charming girlfriend comes in at some point to bring him dinner and hang out with him.

You know, it's hard to imagine anyone getting bored with Grace Kelly, but it can indeed happen. Beauty is indeed only skin deep, and the fact of the matter is that Jeff and Lisa have little in common but each other at the beginning of the film.

However, Jeff is incredibly bored with these rituals, and is getting cabin fever. The fact of the matter is that he likes to do something that seems worthwhile to him, that involves the outside world in some sort of real way — for example: he broke his leg by standing in the middle of a pileup at a stock car race. The strange thing about his and Lisa’s relationship is that they don’t really share any rituals that they both find meaningful. Sure, she likes taking care of him, but he’s a man that can and wants to take care of himself, or at least to reciprocate in some variety when people do something for him.

The fact of the matter is that the Lisa at the beginning of the film has nothing really to ask of Jeff, and so their relationship is really quite one-sided. Which is not inherently horrible, but just doesn’t make for a real, functional relationship — it sort of depends almost entirely on Lisa’s ability to continually take care of poor Jeff, and to withstand his snide remarks about her clothes, her personality, her friends, and even the things she does for him.

"Tell me everything," Lisa says to Jeff, and it's truly the first moment that they seem to want the same thing.

But! Then Thorwald starts acting all funny, and Jeff finds new meaning in his previously mundane life of looking out the window at (mostly) boring neighbors, his biggest thrills coming from Miss Torso, the chesty dancer. At first, the friction between Jeff and Lisa continues, as the lovely Grace Kelly thinks it unbecoming to spy on people from a window. But then (as I read it) she realizes that this is the way to Jeff’s heart. She has to find something that they have in common, so she jumps on the “Thorwald killed his wife” bandwagon. All of a sudden, Jeff, Lisa, and Stella are working well together, a veritable Lois, Clark and Sacagawea, Shaggy, Scooby and Velma — Barry, Robin, and Maurice Gibb.

Thus, they continue the film, working together to figure out the mystery of the murder of Mrs. Thorwald, against all odds, even after being told by a bonafide detective that there was no murder at all. Which is all well and good, and Grace Kelly is seen reading about the kind of adventures that she’s going to go on with Jeff once the two get married, but slyly reading a copy of Bazaar while he sleeps in his wheelchair, just as content as can be.

In the final scene, Lisa apparently learns to juggle her own desires and interests with those of Jeff, in the name of, I suppose, winning him. But my question is, ultimately, what for?

Now, I don’t want to be judgmental about the film, because I love it so. It’s just so fun — just the right amount of scary, with lots of comedy and good-feelings in your heart. But I just want to point out that, though the story is well-written, I’m not sure I agree with its message. Grace Kelly certainly doesn’t abandon her own personal, feminine interests to win over Jimmy Stewart, but it seems that he doesn’t ultimately cede anything in the bargain. It just seems a little one-sided to me, only slightly different than their relationship was at the beginning of the film.

Sure, relationships are about compromise, and doing the thing the other person likes sometimes in order to let them know that you care about their feelings. But is there much evidence that Jimmy Stewart’s character, Jeff, ever does any semblance of that for Lisa, when she essentially threw herself at his wild fantasies because she (probably) realized it was the only way to keep him loving her?

It just seems to me that if there were a Rear Window 2 — Murder in Morocco, we would find that Jeff is running the show, and Lisa is just falling right in line. Which I suppose was the norm in the 1950s, but still. It makes me wonder what we as moviegoers even now like to see in movies, because a great deal of people (yours truly included) consider movies a form of validation about their own lives and the choices they make within them.


And now, I will leave you with Grace Kelly’s inimitable entrance to the film:


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