Mark Waters, Rear Window (1954), and the Delicate Slyness of Hitchcock Humor

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.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 18: Call Northside 777 (1948)

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Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Call Northside 777 (1948) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 140 of the first edition hardback, Roger recalls meeting Chicago newspaperman Jack McPhaul, whose reporting inspired the events of the film. He recounts McPhaul’s anecdote of a photographer at a 1940s demonstration of an atom being split pitching the following preposterous photo spread: “I’ve got a great idea for a series of three photos for the top of page one. You puttin’ in the atom, splittin’it, and standin’ around looking at the pieces.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: Ebert never officially reviewed the film, but he does mention it in his essay “The Best Damn Job in the Whole Damn World,” a collection of thoughts on what it means to be a newspaperman. Again, he mentions meeting McPhaul, an opportunity he clearly considered to be an honor.

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There’s a long history of celebrated newspapermen in celebrated films, from the William Randolph Hearst archetype of Citizen Kane to the Watergate investigation team of All the President’s Men to the recent Oscar-winning profile of Bostonian sex abuse scandal breakers in Spotlight. Roger Ebert was lucky to be born in a time, perhaps the end of a time, when print journalism was still a viable career and he knew it, proudly calling his occupation at The Chicago Sun-Times “the best damn job in the whole damn world.” Long before The Chicago Sun & The Chicago Times merged into a single paper, it had its own movie-worthy story of a newspaperman doing good. Besides boasting a general pride for his career path, Ebert was proud to have met/worked with Jack McPhaul, who he credited with penning the articles that inspired the “based on true events” drama Call Northside 777. The opening credits of Call Northside 777, however, state that the film is “based on an article by James P McGuire.” The truth is that both Chicagoan newspapermen were responsible for penning the articles that freed the wrongly convicted “Stop Me Before I Kill Again Killer” Joseph Majczek after 11 years of imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit. Instead of playing the story like a group effort of an investigative team, however, Call Northside 777 sells its narrative as the efforts of one dedicated reporter’s “refusal to accept defeat,” presumably because it made for a better story.

Said amalgamation of McPhaul & McGuire is brought to life by none other than Old Hollywood mainstay Jimmy Stewart. Structurally speaking, Call Northside 777 isn’t too much to speak of in terms of innovation. It borrows a page from Citizen Kane in mixing newspaper reel stock footage & narration in with its narrative to establish a documentarian tone and attempts to construct the shadowy crime world aesthetic of a noir (except with a missing sense of urgency or moral ambiguity to its danger), but doesn’t do anything particularly inventive or memorable with either element. It’s the specificity of James Stewart’s lead performance as a skeptical-but-noble reporter, from his unmistakable vocal patters to his little-guy-vs-the-big-system demeanor, that makes the film a joy to watch. Although a 2010s audience wouldn’t likely be as familiar with the real-life events the film was based on as a 1940s audience would be, it’s still all too easy to guess how the story will turn out in the end (there wouldn’t be much of a plot if Macjzek were guilty). As so, the entertainment appeal of this non-mystery depends largely on Stewart’s performance, a burden he handles well. At first Stewart’s eternally exhausted newspaperman believes Majczek (or his fictionalized surrogate Wiecek) is guilty and only takes on the story because of a pushy newspaper editor & the prisoner’s sympathetic mother, who scrubs floors to earn money to investigate his long dead case. At first he’s reluctant to follow up on the supposed innocence of a man who I believes to be a cop killer, asking “Don’t I get time off for good behavior?” but he eventually unravels a story about drunk lawyers, faulty investigations, spineless judges, and Prohibition-era police department corruption that reveals Majczek/Wiecek to be a victim of the system. Stewart plays the part with a befuddled nobility only he could sell with such immense credibility and his efforts to free his articles’ star subject are likened to his wife’s hobby of slowly piecing together complicated jigsaw puzzles. It’s a methodical, frustrating process, but it’s rewarding when the picture finally comes together for the newspaperman & the wrongly convicted “cop killer.”

Besides Jimmy Stewart’s show-stealing performance Call Northisde 777 is mostly interesting for its historical curiosities. The first Hollywood production shot on location in Chicago, the film tried, when possible, to include actual locations from the real-life Mazcjek story to help establish its documentary tone. The inventor of the polygraph test, Leonard Keeler, plays himself & puts on a very extensive, detailed demonstration of his invention/methods. There’s also great attention paid to old fashion newspaper press machinery & the magic process of sending a photograph over a wire. For the most part, though, this 1940s non-noir is of interest for the way it captures an ancient Chicago, struggling to portray its immense, dangerous spirit, with its great fires, great violence, great corruption, and great newspapermen. Although Stewart’s noble sweetheart protagonist is an unmistakably decent guy, he still navigates an ancient journalism world built on lies, hard liquor, hard work, and cigar smoke. The true crime mystery thriller Call Northside 777 tries to sell isn’t particularly interesting or unique, but Stewart’s portrayal of noble newspaperman in an ignoble world is an easy emotional rallying point and it’s no wonder that meeting the man who helped inspire the character was a proud moment for Ebert, as McPhaul represented “the best damn job in the whole damn world” in what I’m sure the legendary critic considered the best damn city in the whole damn world.

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Roger’s Rating (N/A)

Brandon’s Rating: (3.5/5, 70%)

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Next Lesson: Tootsie (1982)

-Brandon Ledet