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Rear Window

(Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1954)


 


1. (Review, theatrical re-release of 2000)

Sometimes, the genius of a popular movie can be gauged by how well it can be boiled down – to a tag line, high concept or key image – without losing its resonance and allure.

Think of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Rear Window (1954) and you immediately see Jeff (James Stewart) in his wheelchair, spying out of his humble New York apartment with the aid of a camera outfitted with an impressive zoom lens.

Since at least 1960, Rear Window has been taken by critics as a statement about cinematic voyeurism – Jeff, immobile at his window, all eyes, serving as a symbol of a typical moviegoer. This analogy works only so far, missing the peculiar, thrilling dynamism of Hitchcock's drama.

Jeff is more than a pair of eyes; he is also a brain, and a personality prodded in equal parts by curiosity and frustration. Jeff gradually transforms himself into an amateur sleuth on the long, restless night during which he spots what seem to be clues of nefarious business stealthily carried out by a neighbour, Thorwald (Raymond Burr), in an apartment across the way.

Where the filmgoer can never be literally touched by what he or she beholds on screen, Jeff's sense of Olympian detachment is an illusion. He sends his lover, Lisa (Grace Kelly), over to scrounge around in Thorwald's apartment – thereby placing her at peril, the way Cary Grant did to Ingrid Bergman in Notorious (1946) – and is eventually confronted with the terrifying consequences of the prey returning his gaze.

Talk of voyeurism – or scopophilia, as film theorists like to call it – conjures a rapt, obsessive, glacial state. The fascinated watching of Jeff, Lisa and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) is a much more active and dynamic form of fascination. As the belief in Jeff's hypothesis about Thorwald grows, so does a certain morbid, amoral curiosity. In Jonathan Rosenbaum's formulation, Rear Window explores "what we do and what that implies whenever we follow a murder plot as armchair analysts".

In this light, Hitchcock's famous techniques of cinematic suspense encompass far more than those agonising moments when we wait for a door to open, a bomb to blow or a bird to attack. Hitchcockian suspense is fundamentally keyed to moral dilemmas of belief and doubt. Straight-talking Stella is the film's first, highly enjoyable embodiment of common-sense scepticism; once she has been sucked in by Jeff's fervent belief, however, detective Tom (Wendell Corey) provides a persuasive, rationalist deflation of the prevailing tendency to believe the worst of people.

Rear Window, ultimately, is much more than a murder story – and here one must take stock of the often-overlooked contribution of one of Hitchcock's regular writers. John Michael Hayes' script is one of the best in Hollywood's history, as crafty in its way as anything Hitchcock achieves with the impeccably designed images and superbly mixed sounds of the film.

Hayes helped create the rigorous four-day narrative structure, the splendid mosaic of moods (including some of Hitchcock's best comedy) and a finely controlled ordering of plot information that is equal to the cagiest crime novelists.

Hayes' gift to Hitchcock is best measured in a comparison of Rear Window to the many films that have subsequently paid it homage, including John Carpenter's Someone's Watching Me! (1978), Brian De Palma's Body Double (1984), Krzysztof Kieslowski's A Short Film About Love (1988) and Philip Noyce's Sliver (1993).

What Hitchcock's classic has which all these films lack is an almost screwball sense of modern love and its workings. Indeed, over four and a half decades before Better Than Sex (2000), Rear Window was already wisely turning over the difference between old-fashioned courtship and the hip awareness of sex and self that marked a new era.

Commentators have often observed that Jeff, with his leg in a cast, and photos of his brave exploits as a photographer adorning the walls, represents a typical action hero cut down to size, domesticated. In a sense, this is precisely uptown Lisa's goal, to "fence him in" via marriage (thus the film's hilarious, wordless epilogue). But Hitchcock and Hayes do not remain content with these static, binary gender stereotypes.

What gives Rear Window so much spice and colour is the way that everything happening across the courtyard is not only the setting for a thriller-mystery plot but a displaced, speculative reflection of who Jeff and Lisa are or might be, alone or together. This concept allows the film to quickly consider many phases and faces of love – from the cruellest and unhappiest (in the case of the Thorwalds) to the most hopeful.

Of course, none of this would flow or work so well if that guy in the wheelchair was just a static, staring zombie. Stewart exhibits the art of Hollywood acting at its summit: every subtle reaction, double take or change in his composure, indeed the merest shift of his eyes, signals both a shift in the investigative plot mechanics and an alteration of mood.

Although the Stewart-Hitchcock collaboration produced one marginally greater film, the incomparable Vertigo (1958), there is no doubting the fact that Rear Window is a supreme achievement in art, storytelling and entertainment.


2. “Can’t You Just See Me ...” (a 1981 lecture)

 

When I speak of Alfred Hitchcock, it is not merely because I have been asked to, or because I am being employed to – in a very real way, I feel compelled to speak of him, in order both to prolong the fascination his films exercise, and also to disentangle myself from it, to understand it from a certain distance.

 

Hitchcock himself always presented his work as being entertainment, first and foremost. But even there, in the very words of the filmmaker, there is something particularly intense, obsessive, perverse about it all, a man so fond of quoting Oscar Wilde: “Each man kills the thing he loves”. Hitchcock’s films give pleasure, and they are about pleasure, but there is nothing superficial or frivolous about this. Indeed, the question that haunts his films involves the pleasure of the cinematic experience: why do we crave cinema, what draws us back to stories we have seen, one way or another, a hundred times before, what do we get from a film that we can’t get from anything else?

 

At first glance, Rear Window is a simple enough movie, with a quite straightforward sequence of events that link together two stories: a love story and a death story, with the amateur-detective work that binds the two together. But already, we need to ask a few questions: why does Hitchcock set up the narrative this way? It would have been quite simple to make a film about a man who murders his wife, and who gets found out by chance by one of his neighbours at the end. But it’s as if Hitchcock said: why don’t we show as little of this murder story as possible, and instead focus attention on the subplot of the person who uncovers the murder, on his situation, on the process of his detecting?

 

The situation of L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) in Rear Window is a very particular and quite unusual one for a Hollywood hero: a (temporary) cripple who has the use of only his eyes and brains, not his body. Hitchcock claims this was the challenge that attracted him to the project – how to make a suspenseful film out of events that are always internal to individual, separate rooms, linked only by the eyes of Jefferies and by editing and soundtrack manipulations. But I wonder if there isn’t more to it than that, a deeper level of interpretation that secretly, unconsciously generates our fascination for Rear Window.

 

It starts, during the credits, with a Venetian blind being invisibly, miraculously drawn up; and ends, logically, with it being drawn down, plus the words “A Paramount Release” printed on it. It’s a very theatrical, somewhat cheeky way of bracketing the film but, on a serious level, it announces the principal theme. Hitchcock draws a direct line between Jefferies at his window and us in the audience. Both Jefferies and ourselves have come to look, to see; and like Jefferies, we cannot physically intervene in the action we observe, but only notice, speculate, infer. In fact, you could say that what Jefferies looks at is a series of rectangular movie screens – or maybe it’s more like television, since he can switch from one screen to another at whim. But still, the analogy holds.

 

Then, for further evidence, think of all the jokes in the dialogue that make a connection between what Jefferies does and the act of watching films: Lisa (Grace Kelly) closes the blind at one point and says, as if it were an interval in a theatre, “Show’s over for tonight. Preview of coming attractions”. So my point is that Rear Window doesn’t just tell a story; the interest of that story is that it actually works at second remove, on a symbolic level. Rear Window appeals to me essentially as a film that reflects upon the act of looking at films.

 

This is quite a complex area, and Hitchcock gives us many kinds of angles on it. Let’s pursue a few of these. Rear Window is, first of all, about the kind of pleasure, the kind of thrill we crave from movies. Hitchcock, it seems to me, puts cinema quite firmly on the side of the perverse, the naughty, the secret indulgence of something you can’t normally enjoy, something closed off to you by the morals of middle-class society and high culture – not to mention the police and the Vice Squad.

 

If you consider the women in the film, Jefferies’ nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) and his lover Lisa, you can see that both start off as very moral, conservative and law-enforcing: Stella talks of striking out Jefferies’ eyes with a red poker like they did in the good old days, and Lisa calls him “diseased” for being an anxious Peeping tom.

 

Lisa, in particular, finds Jefferies’ language and manner somewhat distasteful and vulgar. While she represents the upper-middle class of high society (literally, Kelly would go on to star in High Society [1956]!), Stella speaks the lower-middle-class wisdom of Reader’s Digest. However, both are inevitably totally drawn in, totally fascinated by what is happening over yonder, on that imaginary film-screen: it is with considerable relish that they speculate about how to cut up a human body, or wash blood off a bathroom wall. What they say (and eventually do) is in the name of law and order, but there is an edge to their investment that implies more than being simply concerned citizens.

 

Both of them, like Jefferies, want “trouble” to occur; both of them, like Jefferies in his plaster cast, are itching, frustrated – they want to scratch and get relief, except that what weighs them down is not a broken leg but the shackles of conventional morality. And Hitchcock includes us in that anxiety, as well as that enjoyment: we have come to see death, dismemberment, violation; we shall be appeased. That, at least, is the implied viewpoint.

 

But Hitchcock is very sly here, as everywhere. He knows that a film cannot simply flaunt or subvert traditions of good taste; it must also have a safety valve, a reassurance factor, a gesture toward normal codes of decency and order. This is why most of his films end more-or-less “happily”, with the murderer arrested by the police and official thanks given to the citizens who have brought this about. Stella, in a beautiful pun or slip (parapraxis) at the film’s end, says “I don’t want any part of it” – no part of the murder story, and no part of the dead body, either. She washes her hands of her involvement and returns to normal life, as do Jefferies and Lisa: him asleep, her reading, both turned away from the window.

 

To quote a line from the 1952 Bing Crosby song “To See You is to Love You” that Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) plays for herself, Hitchcock’s films are about “how happy endings start” – the disturbances and jolts you have to go through in order to settle down more securely than before.

 

And no ending is happier than this one. Miss Lonelyhearts, saved from suicide by the music of the songwriter (Ross Bagdasarian), introduces herself to him; he has not only completed the song he’s been struggling to compose throughout, but has cut a record of it with full orchestral arrangement! Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) has stopped “juggling wolves” and got herself a nice, tiny, dependable sailor. The childless couple have a new dog. The newly-weds have stopped making love and settled into domestic life. And Jefferies has two broken legs.

 

You might be wondering how that last item constitutes an element of a Hollywoodian happy ending; Hitchcock is playing with convention here. Another rich theme of Rear Window involves the place of men and the meaning of masculinity in our culture – and in cultural products like commercial narrative films. The character of Jefferies thus also works, I feel, on a symbolic level. At the start of the film, he is defined as being between two things: in the past, he was a rugged, adventuring news photographer, with no home, no dependents, no responsibilities except unto himself. This is the familiar image of the ideal man in the myths of our society – like, on TV, BJ (Greg Evigan) hurtling down the open road in an enormous truck with his “best friend Bear” (a chimpanzee), singing that “Best of all, I don’t pay property tax” (BJ and the Bear, 1979-1981)! In other words, man as wild, free and unsocialised, perpetually sowing his oats, as the saying goes. In BJ’s case, this is the mythology of the cowboy-trucker, updated for the age of CB radio, Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Clint Eastwood comedies (chimp included).

 

Needless to say, the male adventurer image, however it’s shaped or inflected over time, carries a heavy sexual connotation. In his present, Jefferies is faced with the deadly prospect of marriage and domestication, which symbolically is a castration of his sexuality and power, his freedom to move. Therefore it is a grim but also perceptive joke when Hitchcock concludes the film in the way he does. Jefferies doesn’t throw off his plaster cast and emerge a new man, ready to love, honour and obey Lisa in marriage; he is both parts, both legs, crippled, castrated, forced into his next ideological male role of husband and then, probably, father (although children rarely figure in Hitchcock’s films – best to keep them off-screen, out of the story-time!).

 

Most Hollywood films, many musicals for instance, obscure the tyranny of this ideal masculine/feminine destiny by ending with a compromise, a comfortable half-way where both the man and the woman, mythically, can meet and be happy: that is the message – albeit arrived at tortuously! – of Notorious (1946). But in Rear Window, Hitchcock shows you the man at the end broken, and the woman with no intention of compromising: she discards her mountaineering book for the latest issue of the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. In other words, Hitchcock arrives at the traditional happy ending, but there is, at the very least, an irony, a negativity, a doubt surrounding it.

 

Now I want to join up these two symbolic levels I have designated – the symbolism of the film being about looking at film and the symbolism of masculinity and domesticity – because the two, in fact, mesh and work together closely. Apparently, Rear Window sets up two spaces, two stories: the love story that unfolds in one room, the murder story that unfolds in another. To state a narrative convention rather baldly, goodies love and baddies kill; the hero and the heroine get married, the villain gets carted off to jail. A complete and absolute separation between the two stories and their respective meanings and values. But Rear Window really complicates this.

 

Consider it this way: for Jefferies at the window, like for us in a theatre, what is at stake is more than simply taking in events, images and sounds that we see and hear. We are not just lookers, we are voyeurs, and we are involved, we participate mentally in what we see. There is a tendency (we all know it) to project ourselves hypothetically into the screen, into the scenario – to recognise ourselves there, to see if we can find a position within the story from which we can relate and cohere all the other positions it holds. We can project what we think we are, or what we feel we want to be. This is not a purely personal matter; it relates to social roles like those I have mentioned – a man in the audience, for instance, identifying with the ideal, adventuring male hero on screen. This dimension of the cinema experience has a lot to do with wishes and desires, the realm of the unconscious. Hitchcock is very drawn to working in and on this realm.

 

What happens in the love-story half of Rear Window is a drama of shifting, often contradictory identifications and projections in relation to the events that are seen in the courtyard. Recall the scene in which Jefferies compares his relationship with Lisa to the composer struggling to write his song – “It’s almost as if it were being written especially for us” / “No wonder he’s having so much trouble with it” – and Lisa identifies first with the tormented Miss Lonelyhearts and then with the only superficially happy society lady, Miss Torso.

 

However, the references become much more sinister than this. Quite early in the film, Jefferies says to Doyle on the phone, “Can’t you just see me [married]?”, and what we actually see at that moment through Jefferies’ eyes is Thorwald (Raymond Burr), the eventual murderer, arguing with his bedridden wife. Jefferies bases his opinion of domesticity upon what he sees, upon what he projects himself into. And, symbolically, Thorwald then acts out the wish that Jefferies, in reality, never can: he rebels, he gets rid of the woman who ties him down, he takes up again the power and sexuality that marriage robbed from him. This is both the most disturbing and yet the most fascinating subterranean theme working in Rear Window: the fantasy or possibility of release from domestic restriction. It’s a powerful dream-element across the entire board of popular culture, in fact. This is essentially – beyond all “plot mechanics” – what makes the murder story of Rear Window so appealing.

 

If you tap the film at this level, you can sense that it enacts a double-edged sexual fantasy from the viewpoint of a male such as Jefferies. On the one hand, the window is the key to a voyeur’s paradise, a paradise of naked (or rather, in 1954 when the film was made, near-naked) women, the perfect showcase for women as sex objects, and the perfect opportunity for a lust that exceeds the possibilities afforded by marriage. When Doyle (Wendell Corey) stares at Miss Torso, Jefferies interrupts with “How’s your wife?”, which has the effect of an instant cold shower.

 

But, on the other hand, the window opens upon a fantasy in which the sex drive gets twisted into a murderous, aggressive drive, in which a name like “Miss Torso” suggests meat to be carved up and disposed of like Mrs Thorwald, and in which, very significantly, lovemaking by newly-weds behind a closed blind is unwittingly referred to as a “more sinister” crime than murder. In other words, the film always ties together sex and death, desire and aggression, into a knot, like Dressed to Kill (1980) does today. This conjunction exerts a very powerful fascination.

 

I’ll make a few further points about Rear Window in order to relate the film to the ideas suggested to you by Peter Wollen. [Note: Wollen’s 1981 Melbourne lecture on Hitchcock drew on material subsequently collected in his 1982 book Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies.] Rear Window is almost a textbook insofar as it enacts what Wollen calls the three times of the hermeneutic (or knowledge) code: first noticing, then interpreting, finally knowing the truth. This goes equally for sound and hearing, too: the only direct signs of the murder scene are the sounds of glass breaking and a woman’s scream. The film unfolds its story through a large network of references to visibility and audibility, the agony of only being able to see and hear so much, and having only traces of a possible event – hence no direct proof of anything.

 

This is all part of Hitchcock’s undoubted genius at spinning a story in a cinematic form. Looks, glances, and the thoughts that crystallise behind them carry an enormous narrative impact in Rear Window. To take just two examples, think of the scene in which Doyle repeatedly looks at Lisa’s clothes in Jefferies’ apartment, and listens to her singing in the next room. Nothing is said directly, but we understand precisely what is going on between the two men – while Lisa grasps none of it. Or take the chilling moment when the camera moves from the ring in Lisa’s hand, to Thorwald staring at it, and then Thorwald suddenly looking up and confronting the gaze of Jefferies.

 

There are so many different levels of seeing, hearing and knowing with these characters! I will conclude by insisting on the primacy of that eye and ear which are superior to and controlling of all the rest: Hitchcock’s own. Although Jefferies is immobile, or falls asleep, or is unable filter out the precise aural and visual information important to his investigation (as in Francis Ford Coppola’s bleaker The Conversation, 1974), Hitchcock is prey to none of these failings. As director, as the proverbial Master of Suspense, he moves, unbounded, he manipulates, he is the dealer who is anonymous but controls all the cards.

 

If Rear Window is about the surreptitious fulfilment of wishes and fantasies, can we not expect Hitchcock to be getting off more, perhaps, than anybody else? In moments like the one where Lisa and Jefferies kiss, the image is slowed down, savoured. I wonder what is really going on here, and for whom? But if Hitchcock is in control, and flamboyantly so, he is also a mysterious, ambiguous figure, a game-player who both abides by the rules and also cheats those rules.

 

My personal fascination with Hitchcock always comes back to this: what is he saying, and what on earth possessed him to say it?

MORE Hitchcock: The Birds, Family Plot, Lifeboat, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Strangers on a Train, Shadow of a Doubt

© Adrian Martin 16 June 1981 / November 2000


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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