Way back when, while I was still in college (so this is really back when), I attended a showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window at the campus theater. I’d seen it before, but I was interested in observing how other people reacted to it, given its age and lack of profanity, graphic violence or anything else that might draw a contemporary audience.
I settled into my uncomfortable, non-stadium seating chair. So did everyone else. The movie started. We watched.
And then we got to the part where Grace Kelly’s Lisa is wiggling her finger to show Jimmy Stewart’s Jeff—who is watching from his window across the courtyard—that she has the ring once owned by the wife of Raymond Burr’s murderous Lars Thorwald. Thorwald notices what she’s doing. Gradually, he looks up at the camera. At us.
“Aaaaaaaahhhhh!” screamed the audience.
Yep. Quintessential movie moment. Proof that great films, no matter how old they are, can still affect people. And Rear Window is a great one.
This seemingly trivial incident made me happy. It was like the train in silents of old coming at you onscreen and scaring the daylights of everyone in the theater. The flick is so good that the audience believed it was there with Jimmy in his apartment, looking into places he wasn’t supposed to. This despite the old-time New York of the 1950s depicted in the movie. This despite the film’s age. This despite the lack of swearing or blood-squibby gunfights or … well, it did actually have a steamy interlude: that great, slow-motion kiss that Kelly and Stewart have at the beginning. And there was quite a lot of innuendo, in the manner typical of Hitch.
But this wasn’t beat-you-over-the-head filmmaking. This was director-in-control stuff. And it had the right effect: making everyone watching it shriek. In joy, of course, like the shriek you expel while riding a roller-coaster. A true movie shriek.
One of these days, I’ll have to go see Rear Window again in the theater to observe how people react now. I suspect it will be similar. Great films don’t date; they remain pertinent forever. So viewers will scream afresh … as long as Thorwald looks at them in recognition.
That’s the kind of scream we need more of at the movies.