What's wrong with James Stewart? As photographer L.B. Jefferies, the wheelchair-bound hero of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, Stewart would rather spy on his neighbors than make out with Grace Kelly. In what must be cruel Hitchcockian irony, Stewart, laid up with a broken leg, is bored by Kelly's romantic overtures but turned on by watching strangers across the courtyard. At first, what he sees from his vantage point is rather mundane: newlyweds, a ballet dancer practicing full-figured moves, a sculptor, a songwriter, Miss Lonely Hearts. Then it gets more interesting. Maybe the salesman over yonder chopped up his invalid wife. Pretty quickly we're turned on, too.
If you've never seen this film, do yourself a favor and get over to the Mayan Theater, the only screen in town showing it. The 1954 gem, with a nicely restored 35mm print and cleaned-up sound, will be showing at the Mayan at least through the end of this month.
Watching Rear Window is sheer pleasure -- the way bowling a strike is sheer pleasure, the way eating a slice of cheesecake is sheer pleasure. It's that rare film that makes neither "art" nor "entertainment" mutually exclusive -- the thrilling story, the luscious dialogue, the wonderful performances. Like Raymond Burr's suspect salesman, at once brutal, inert and just plain perplexed that anyone would want to watch him. Or Thelma Ritter, as Stewart's nurse, whose trenchant one-liners about a society too self-analyzing only sound better with age.
Or the shimmering Grace Kelly, whose paradigmatic high-society girl -- too perfect for Stewart's rumpled photojournalist -- becomes more gutsy and beguiling as the film goes on. And, of course, Stewart himself, the prototypical American nice guy who nonetheless was most fun to watch when he was torn with despair (It's a Wonderful Life), cruelly obsessed (Vertigo) or, here, simply an ambiguous, caustic lech.
Because Rear Window so powerfully demonstrates the pleasure of watching other people, it becomes a rich meditation on cinema itself. Stewart watches Burr; Kelly and Ritter watch Stewart watching Burr, then watch Burr themselves; we watch all of this take place (while watching Burr ourselves), and since we are all still postmodernists, we also watch ourselves watch the movie. But then finally Burr turns his gaze back on all of that, on all of us, and in one of filmdom's great moments, we are caught! This theme of voyeurism plays out like a hall of mirrors, infinitely moving in all directions, and Hitchcock reveals this as both a secret pleasure and a moral trap. When Burr's guilt is called into question by Stewart's detective friend, we're crestfallen, as if thinking, "You mean the guy isn't a cold-blooded killer? Awww, man..."
The movie is as dark and deep as the viewer wants it to be. But mostly it's a funny, thrilling, take-your-date popcorn flick. Rear Window feels simple, and few simple thrillers get made anymore. Today they're mostly exercises in tricking an audience with overloaded twists, turns, doublecrosses and red herrings -- logic and common sense be damned. The experience is the same fleeting mental epiphany as cracking a riddle.
Here, the Master plays fair. There's a scene where Grace Kelly goes over to Burr's apartment to snoop for clues, and in the same shot we see Burr coming back down the hall, returning home. Forty-six years later, it'll still make your heart race.