Rear Window

Rear Window ★★★★★

My Forty for 40: # 3

REAR WINDOW (1954)
Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Rear Window is almost certainly the most enjoyable Hitchcock thriller in terms of pure entertainment, but it’s also the best illustration of how effective film can meet the viewer at their own level: what a viewer gets out of the movie is directly proportional to how many “onion-layers” of meaning they’re willing to pull back. If you just want to sit back, turn off your brain, and enjoy the story, it’s remarkably effective in that domain; far more so than, say, Vertigo. If, however, you want to consider what the film is “saying”, you could look at it as a commentary on a number of concepts: marriage, masculinity, societal apathy, ethical behavior, and (like many Hitchcock films of the era) the act of watching movies itself.

L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is an adventure-seeking action photographer who’s laid-up, essentially quarantined, with a massively broken leg that confines him to a wheelchair and, therefore, his apartment. His life, at the moment, consists of bickering with his visiting nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), entertaining his socialite girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), and observing the goings-on in the courtyard – and surrounding apartment windows – directly outside his current confinement. When Jeff thinks he might have witnessed a possible murder, he, with the help of Lisa and Stella, attempt to put the pieces together and solve the mystery. This provides a framework for a series of discussions: between Jeff and Lisa about the state of their relationship and the unlikelihood of their eventual marriage; and between Jeff and Stella about the ethics of surreptitiously watching one’s neighbors and drawing conclusions about their behavior through the scant evidence of what’s observed.

To most audiences, Jeff’s hesitancy regarding marriage to Lisa is insane: she’s a young Grace Kelly, for crying out loud, and he’s a considerably-older Jimmy Stewart. But Jeff’s hesitancy stems from the idea that it all might be too good to be true: Lisa is too perfect – too beautiful, too smart, too perfectly-positioned in terms of status. His life, however, is far from perfect: he might get a magazine assignment and the next day need to be in the African Sahara, living out of one bag and sleeping wherever his tent can stand. He thinks it would be unfair to subject Lisa to this kind of peripatetic life… or at least that’s his claim. If one is to psychoanalyze Jeff and his situation, we see that what’s really at the bottom of his fear of marriage is actually a fear of castration – metaphorically-speaking, of course – the cast that covers the lower half of his body essentially renders him (temporarily) impotent… and he’s literally impotent to intervene in the drama he sees outside his window, as he’s trapped in his own apartment. Unlike what he’s used to in his daily work, he cannot act; he can barely move. This situation is a parallel to his fears regarding how things might change if he was to marry Lisa: his life of adventure might be over, as he might then be tied to New York and her career (she would be, based on all indications, the primary bread-winner in such a marriage).

This metaphorical parallel is deftly set up by how the sub-plots involving the neighbors coincide with and comment on Jeff’s own insecurities. It’s as if each window across the courtyard presents a different possibility for Jeff’s and Lisa’s (or “Jeff and Lisa’s”) future: there’s the childless couple, who dote on their little Scottie dog; there are the newlyweds, who seem (at least initially) to be enamored with each other; there’s the composer, who obsesses over his work and seems to have no time for a personal life; there’s “Miss Torso”, a ballet dancer who is seen entertaining a cavalcade of possible suitors; there’s “Miss Lonelihearts”, still dating and often forlornly dining alone into middle-age; and then there Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), who very well might have grown so tired of his invalid wife’s nagging that he killed her. The various mini-narratives involving each of these characters shifts and changes with Jeff’s own capricious moods, which brings up an interesting question: is it a wild coincidence that these exact scenarios are playing out in time with Jeff’s own issues, or is this saying something about perspective? Iother words, since the movie is seen through Jeff’s eyes -- often literally, aided by a (it should be said) phallic telephoto lens – are we only seeing the parts of the other characters’ stories that Jeff notices because they parallel what’s happening in his own life? This use of parallel reaches its apotheosis when the two worlds collide and Lisa breaks into Thorwald’s apartment: she finds the missing wife’s wedding ring, and to hide it from Thorwald, she slips it onto her own finger. Thorwald sees this deception and realizes she is signaling to someone across the courtyard. In, perhaps, the film’s most chilling moment, Thorvald looks dead-center down the barrel of Jeff’s telephoto lens, thereby staring right at the camera. The film then cuts to Jeff, and his look of horror. But what does that horror denote? Is it horror at the fact that he and Lisa have been found out? Is it horror at the fact that he’s powerless to stop what’s occurring across the yard? Is it horror at the idea of Lisa wearing a wedding ring, suggesting an end to his freedom and the metaphorical castration he’s been fearing? Or is it horror over the fact that Thorwald has essentially broken the fourth wall, staring accusingly at the viewer?

This gets to the meta-narrative quality of Rear Window: as Jeff and Stella argue about the ethics of snooping and peeping on one’s neighbors, one can almost hear Hitchcock himself giggling behind the camera. This argument is, of course, directed at us: we’re the voyeurs here, getting our kicks out of watching Jeff watching his neighbors. This motif of “watching” appears over and over in Hitchcock’s work, from Dial ‘M’ for Murder to Vertigo to North by Northwest to Psycho, and it’s difficult to ignore the implication behind it all: as we judge, say, Norman Bates for watching Marion change in her bathroom, or Scotty in Vertigo for basically stalking Maddie, we ourselves are just as complicit: after all, aren’t we getting a thrill by watching them? Rear Window, much like Hitchcock’s other major works, turns a mirror on us. David Fincher, a successor to Hitchcock in many ways, was once asked what motivates his filmmaking, and his response was that he believes that deep down, we’re all perverts. Rear Window seems to concur. Sure, we can judge those who lurk and peep, but how are we any different?

CJ liked this review