"You Must Remember This..."
There she was, swooping down on him in that dress — you remember it, the black-and-white knockout, stitched with sex and chilly New York glamour — asking the inevitable question: “Anything else bothering you?”
When you’re a wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart and you’ve just received the cinema’s most swooning kiss, the answer is inevitable, too: “Uh-huh. Who are you?”
It was Grace Kelly, of course. In that moment she went from actress to star — all alabaster skin and perfectly coiffed hair, cutting remarks delivered with such Main Line gentility you couldn’t tell she’d drawn blood. And in the perfect thriller, no less: everything held back, deferred, repressed until it blew up in the bright light of a flashbulb.
The film was Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, about to embark on the most fruitful period of his, or any, career — within a decade he would make The Man Who Knew Too Much (again), Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho and The Birds. Kelly and Stewart found a delicate blend of tough humor and soft sex that felt like the Lubitsch touch; Thelma Ritter, never funnier, lent her working-class Cassandra’s two cents of wisdom; the courtyard of the apartment complex in which L.B. Jefferies (Stewart) so voyeuristically wallowed formed a world in miniature, its details straight from Zola’s pen.
There’s not a throwaway moment in it: Wendell Corey’s police lieutenant glancing significantly at Kelly’s overnight clothes; Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) kicking out an overeager suitor before sitting down to cry; the chilling strains of a love ballad drowning out the sounds of murder. So compact, boxed into that studio apartment at the height of a Manhattan summer, Rear Window is in fact a thousand diffuse yarns being rolled into one. The dog, the garden, the lonely woman below, the creepy man above, the photographer and his socialite girlfriend across the way — when the threads come together it’s like the reinvention of the medium, the action so distant, the protagonist, like us, so impotent, that Hitchcock needs to craft a whole new form of suspense.
What he comes up with has so many layers an entire book could be (and has been) written about it. Needless to say, it’s all about watching and being watched, seeing what’s in front of us and missing what lurks behind the neighbor’s apartment door; about the simultaneous impotence and virility of looking; about the personal and sexual transgression of the voyeur. In other words, we’re watching perhaps the best movie ever made about the cinema — that art form where we, like Jefferies, look out into the bright world from a dim room and wait for the dramatic to happen, where we watch Kelly’s ingenuity as she escapes discovery by a hair’s breadth. You remember the moment — the one with the ring and the telephone and the villain’s eyes taking you in from across the courtyard? Of course you remember it, and you always will.