Storytelling Through a 'Rear Window' Featuring Susan Minot

Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in ‘Rear Window’/Photo © Universal Studios

Some film faces don't seem tied to time at all, nor do they speak only to an audience of a specific era. In "Rear Window," the fresh beauty of Grace Kelly and the boyish charm of Jimmy Stewart call to mind a contemporary feisty, yet adoring, couple. They still make the screen glow in Alfred Hitchcock's classic, which Susan Minot chose to screen on March 26 as part of Michael Maren's Writers on Film series at the Crosby Street Hotel.

In introducing the film, Minot recalled the moment she began to think about film seriously in a high school course based on Francois Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock (still available in paperback). That was where she first saw "Rear Window." For her, the idea of voyeurism, the not-so-simple act of watching, underscores everything in the movie and, by extension perhaps, everything in her writing. The author of, among other books, Monkeys, Lust and Other Stories, Evening, and, most recently, Thirty Girls, Minot has achieved a strong critical reputation for her keen eye. She has also put this to use in writing two screenplays, Stealing Beauty for Bernardo Bertolucci and an adaptation of her own novel Evening.

In "Rear Window," Jeff (Jimmy Stewart) also has a keen eye, notes Minot - and this leads him to work out the different scenarios outside his window, from the newlyweds to the nagging wife to the bachelor composer to the single woman dubbed Miss Lonelyhearts to the cavorting ballet dancer, Miss Torso. Of course, all of these relationships are interpreted against the backdrop of his struggle to figure out his own relationship with Lisa (Grace Kelly), the Park Avenue girl he fears is trying to tie him down.

The repartee and clear attraction between these two actors is at the heart of the movie, but I have to applaud Thelma Ritter, who, as she frequently did, steals many of the scenes she's in. As the wise, no-nonsense, clear-thinking nurse to cast-laden Jeff, she is gentle enough with her patient - but still jabs him both verbally and physically when necessary.

"Rear Window," which is considered one of Hitchcock's greatest films, bears repeated viewing. So many moments are even more effective the second or third time around, from Ritter's line, "We've become a race of peeping Toms," to how much is said purely visually, and to the many references to the ways in which frames provided by binoculars, cameras (even broken ones), or windows help our eyes to see more accurately and still call into question the veracity and accuracy of what we think we see. After all, the entire film questions how reliably Jeff makes sense of what he observes through his window.

Minot made several observations about her own visual orientation as a painter as well as a writer. In fact, she says, "Movies are the way I think of stories." But she makes a clear distinction between writing screenplays and writing novels because "writing a screenplay is not about the word but about creating a blueprint for another form. What novels and film share is character development, the arc of a story and the unfolding of a story in scenes. But while a novel is totally made of words, this is not so with movies, which employ sound, actors, and visuals."

A connection between Minot's books and the influence of the movies can be seen in the way in which "Rear Window" employs a moment of darkness at the end of a scene, in essence providing a breather, some space between actions and scenes. Minot's books also often leave this kind of space - she is a writer who does not need to make the narrative action continuous. As she says, "When I first started studying movies, I was very excited about the transition, the butting up of one scene against another."

This is very true of Thirty Girls, which she will soon adapt for the screen. "I took the structure of the novel from film," she admits, "and over the seven years it took me to write it, I was very influenced by the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu such as 'Babel,' 'Amores Perros,' and 'Butiful.' In all of those movies there may be three different stories and often there is an event that unites them, but we follow three stories and as you're following them you are thinking how they're different and the same and then there is an event where they come together and are connected." Cinematically, Thirty Girls should prove an intriguing blueprint for a film. Set in Uganda, it interweaves the stories of school girls abducted by Joseph Kony with the story of the reporter who arrives to cover their experiences.

Of course, as Minot points out, in a movie, which you watch in real time, reiterating scenic moments and surprises as they happen is important. For that reason, she feels that movies with surprises in them often do not bear re-watching. This is not true, however, of "Rear Window," because it is so rich with visual images and, I would add, spectacular chemistry between the leading actors. In the best of all possible worlds, the director, casting director, and screenwriter of Thirty Girls will work together to make a movie that we will all want to watch again and again.