Mark Waters is a wonderfully talented (if occasionally inconsistent) comedic director, but something I would never accuse his best-known works like Mean Girls & House of Yes of being is subtle or delicate. Waters works in broad strokes. His jokes can be pointedly satirical & smartly written, but they’re delivered in the loud, brash cadence of a mainstream comedy, not the hushed tones of dry wit. That’s why it seemed jarring that Waters would build a flighty modern romcom starring Monica Potter & Freddie Prinze Jr. around something as tightly controlled and quietly sophisticated as a Hitchcock thriller. Waters didn’t seek to upend just any old Hitchcock thriller, either. He built his delirious romcom around the basic concept of Rear Window, which is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. It might be tempting to think of that romcom, Head Over Heels, as an act of cinematic blasphemy, a disrespectful transgression that drags down one of the Hollywood greats to the level of a Zoolander-style fashion world satire that indulges in such less-refined pleasures as shit jokes and oggling Freddie Prinze Jr.’s rock hard abs. The truth is, though, that Waters was not at all perverting a refined work of stone-faced seriousness, but rather exposing the Hitchcock classic for what it truly is: a stealth comedy in a thriller’s disguise.
Alfred Hitchcock’s reputation as a filmmaker is difficult for me to contextualize. It took a long while for the director to be recognized as the master that he is, since he often chose to work in the trashy trenches of genre cinema, mainly with thrillers. I grew up in a world where Hitchcock was already a respected name, so it’s difficult to conceive that high art thriller works Psycho & The Birds were initially considered by some critics to be tawdry, gimmick-heavy works of populism. Rear Window is a great, distilled example of the meticulous visual mastery that eventually earned Hitchcock his deserved respect. It finds him working with big Hollywood budgets & stars (you don’t get much more Hollywood than James Stewart & Grace Kelly), delivering a beautiful, Technicolor-rich mystery thriller where every image feels tightly controlled & meticulously planned. The sets of Rear Window have a proto-Wes Anderson dollhouse quality to them. The lavishness of the costume design tops even Douglas Sirk productions like All That Heaven Allows. Not a single hair feels out of place and each mechanical piece of the plot moves along like clockwork, even though the film’s star, Stewart, is supposed to convey a pathetic, disheveled state with his broken leg & unwashed body. With all of the film’s intricate visual design, complex plotting, and trick photography innovation at the inevitable climax, it’s easy to see Rear Window only as a gorgeous middle ground between a populist thriller & a high brow art film. The truth is, though, that the movie also slyly functions as a morose comedy. It never approaches the broadness if its 00s romcom counterpart, but it can still be openly silly all the same.
Rear Window is an intense thriller about a disabled man who can only watch in horror as he pieces together the murder of a neighbor by her traveling salesman husband. It’s immediately jarring, then, that the movie opens with the most upbeat jazz music imaginable, almost as if its credits were leading into a 1950s sitcom. It’s not a direct, 1:1 comparison, but the upbeat club music that deliriously pulsates throughout Head Over Heels seems to echo that exact tonal clash. The Mark Waters romcom also echoes the way Rear Window builds comedy around friction between the sexes. Monica Potter’s openly spying on her hunky (and possibly murderous) neighbor and her various musings on how she can only find the worst men in NYC are basically just a gender-flipped version of James Stewart’s idle banter about how women are weak-willed nags & his casual gawking of a young ballerina who practices her routines in her skivvies across the courtyard. Hitchcock pokes subtle fun at his debilitated protagonist for being something of a pervert & a misogynist by making him physically impotent while two strong women (a nurse & a girlfriend) run circles around him, acting on suspicions he can only voice. The stakes of the central murder mystery are severe, much more severe than they are in the convoluted diamond heist plot of Head Over Heels, but Rear Window‘s tension is constantly eroded with dry, verbal wit and the occasional visual gag to the point where the whole movie almost feels like a subtle comedy that just happens to revolve around a murder mystery. It even concludes on a comedic gag, a whomp-whomp reveal of James Stewart’s second broken leg (and just when the first one was almost healed!).
Head Over Heels is certainly much broader in its humor than Rear Window and doesn’t even attempt to match its inspiration’s attention to visual craft, but I don’t think its reduction of the Hitchcock classic to the level of trope-laden romcom is at all blasphemous. Head Over Heels borrows the basic voyeuristically-witnessed murdered aspect of Rear Window‘s thriller plot as a launching point, but deviates from Hitchcock’s tightly-controlled tension-builder, contained entirely in a single apartment, by branching out all over NYC into various genres & tones. Although it’s a much more restrained, subtly humorous work, Hitchcock’s classic is a sort of tonal mashup in its own right, refusing to take its morbid subject matter entirely seriously, even when life & love are dangling on the line. I can’t speculate that the director would’ve enjoyed watching what Mark Waters did to one of his most revered works, but as he was no stranger to populist cinema & tonally inappropriate humor himself, Head Over Heels feels oddly at home with his prankster spirit, especially for a by the books romcom.
For more on April’s Movie of the Month, the Mark Waters fashion world romcom Head Over Heels, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s comparison of its dark humor to that of fellow 2001 fashion world parody Zoolander.