Rear Window: clever Hitchcock suspense film turns the tables on viewers as passive spectators

Alfred Hitchcock, “Rear Window” (1954)
 
From the days when Hollywood occasionally made films that featured rich sub-text and challenged audiences to question their role as viewers comes this enjoyably suspenseful Hitchcock thriller featuring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. Stewart plays Jeff, a photojournalist laid up for several weeks at home with his leg in plaster due to an accident while on duty; Kelly plays his wealthy socialite girlfriend Lisa. Home is an apartment with large windows overlooking a central courtyard in a block of apartments, all of which feature large windows through which Jeff watches his neighbours at work and play to pass the long boring hours of recuperation.
 
The viewers come to know the neighbours well too: there is the long-married couple (Sara Berner and Frank Cady) in the top-most unit who sleep out on the balcony when the weather gets too hot and who have a little pulley system to lower their terrier in a basket down to the courtyard so he can run about; in one of the middle units is a young dancer (Georgine Darcy) who does exercises in her underwear during the day and in the evenings is courted by numerous suitors; on the ground floor is a middle-aged woman (Judith Evelyn) who lives alone and wishes for a boyfriend. Elsewhere in the apartments is a newly married couple, a woman sculptor working on a project and a songwriter (Rob Bagdassarian) who belts out new tunes on his piano but can’t get a career break. Then there’s Mr Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a travelling salesman who cares for his fussy invalid wife. Jeff spies on all of them with his binoculars and telescope camera, enjoying secret voyeuristic thrills while watching the dancer, sympathising with the single woman (he dubs her “Miss Lonelyhearts”) and the songwriter, and comparing himself and Lisa with some of the married couples. Lately Lisa’s been thumping him to commit to their relationship: she wants to go steady and eventually marry Jeff; he all but breaks out into a cold sweat thinking about how marriage will restrict his freedom and put a brake on his careening about the world as a photographer, and how it presumably will turn Lisa into a nagging old hag as well.
 
Over time, observing the residents, Jeff has a fantasy that Mr Thorwald has murdered his wife and disposed of her during one hot sleepless night. From then on, strange things occur in the Thorwalds’ home: porters take away an unusually large suitcase bound with ropes; Mr Thorwald is viewed through his kitchen window cleaning a saw and a large knife; Mrs Thorwald’s handbag frequently appears in the company of her husband but she is never seen at all; the little terrier starts sniffing around the flowers in the communal courtyard garden and Mr Thorwald urges it on. Jeff develops his hunch with Lisa and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) that something’s amiss with the Thorwalds; less convinced is police detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) so Jeff, Lisa and Stella must collect evidence to prove that Mr Thorwald has been up to no good and their combined endeavour puts both Lisa and Jeff in grave danger.
 
The film is made almost completely from Jeff’s point of view and is based entirely in his apartment: this clever and effortless approach puts viewers completely in sympathy with Jeff to the point where, like Jeff, they become unaware of how far entangled Jeff becomes in the affairs of the Thorwalds and the danger he puts himself, Lisa and Stella into until Lisa breaks into the Thorwalds’ home to find his wife’s jewellery and is attacked by Thorwald himself. (The approach also slyly lets Lisa off the hook for persuading Jeff that his version of events is correct and worth pursuing.) Even when Doyle reasonably questions Jeff’s very subjective and limited version of events and ultimately rejects everything Jeff says, viewers may still side with Jeff’s opinion as the only one that best explains what’s happened to Mrs Thorwald. The limited first-person point-of-view approach puts viewers in guilty collusion with Jeff: when Thorwald decides to pay a visit to Jeff, we can’t help but stay with Jeff, trying as best he can to defend himself and thwart Thorwald, to the bitter end so that we “share” some of the punishment Thorwald dishes out to him.
 
Just as masterly is the constant but subtle sub-plot that anchors Jeff’s beliefs about the Thorwalds: all the neighbours, both married, attached or single, mirror and comment on Jeff and Lisa’s relationship in some way. The Thorwalds’ marriage is a reversal of the main character’s relationship: Thorwald cares for his invalid wife who nags at him; Lisa looks after Jeff while he frets about not being able to travel and work, and they argue about their relationship. The couple with the terrier have the kind of snug, self-absorbed relationship Jeff fears he might have if he were married. The songwriter and Miss Lonelyhearts are frustrated with their lives; Lisa and Jeff are dissatisfied with aspects of their relationship. Throughout the film, the neighbours’ relationships change: the newly wed couple at the beginning of the film start to argue and nag each other; the long-married couple lose their terrier and perhaps go through a period of grief and evaluation of their relationship before acquiring a new puppy; the dancer all along has been waiting for her soldier boyfriend to return home; and the songwriter, who at last has a hit song, and Miss Lonelyhearts strike up a friendship.
 
In tandem, Jeff and Lisa’s relationship changes during the course of the film and this change is mirrored in Lisa’s clothes: first we see her in extravagant evening dress which resembles a bridal gown, initially confirming Jeff’s opinion of her as too upper-class for him; over time her clothes change to business wear, a sun-frock and finally casual blouse and jeans, representing her accommodation of Jeff’s preferences and desires. Then by climbing over a balcony and into Thorwald’s home, confronting and resisting the man, and getting hold of the evidence of Thorwald’s wrong-doing, she proves she is willing to get her hands dirty and is capable of changing and becoming the wife Jeff desires. Jeff is forced by circumstances into helplessness and unconsciously mimics the actions of traditionally helpless women in Hollywood movies (for example, putting his hands to his mouth) while watching Thorwald accost Lisa roughly. As a result of Lisa’s actions, Jeff and Lisa finally commit to each other in the wordless coda where they are settled together in his apartment, Jeff able to sleep and no longer interested in watching his neighbours, and Lisa keeping watch over him. By changing her reading material from an adventure novel to a fashion magazine, Lisa signals to viewers that role change is easy for her and is something she can use to get what she needs and wants from Jeff and remain true to herself.
 
Superficially a caper about a photojournalist used to being the observer and chronicler of events, reinforced by the use of limited first-person point-of-view, “Rear Window” is a clever inversion of the audience as voyeur and an interrogation of the film-viewing habit: we identify early on with Jeff as passive spectators (but able to switch on and off our viewing of the neighbours’ antics at will) and with him are dragged into the crime scenario by Lisa and Stella. Thorwald completes Jeff’s integration into that scenario (and by implication, into the life of the apartment block community): he attacks him and then drags him onto the balcony, attracting the attention of the neighbours; Jeff ironically becomes the main spectacle when he falls and from then on, can never be just a passive observer who can withdraw from the scene whenever he wants. He has to appeal to the neighbours for help and by doing so, he alerts them of his existence; now that they know him, he’s now part of their community and his antics are theirs. The film perhaps is asking us: can viewers just be passive observers and, by observing something happening, aren’t we also influencing the course of events and bringing them to us? After all, Thorwald only attacks Jeff when he discovers Jeff observing him. This is something well worth remembering in our current age where news becomes “news” thanks mainly to media like Youtube, Twitter and Wikileaks: “news” doesn’t exist, or something hasn’t “happened”, if there are no observers to spread it and start off a chain of actions and reactions that involve both observers and the observed.
 
One observation I might make at this point is that a couple of years after “Rear Window” was released, Grace Kelly had married Prince Rainier of Monaco and was forced to give up her film career; at the same time, she remained an object of tabloid gossip and rumour about her love life, which began at the start of her acting career, right up to and beyond her death in a car crash in 1982. After the sheen of Kelly’s tragic death faded away, the tabloids’ voyeuristic, prurient gaze turned to her children’s various romantic foibles and has followed them to the present day. Kelly attempted to resume her acting career at least once; Hitchcock offered her the lead role in his film “Marnie” but Rainier forced her to turn it down. The contrast between what possibilities marriage implies for Lisa, as demonstrated by Jeff’s neighbours and the film’s closing scene, and what actually worked out for Kelly in her marriage couldn’t have been much greater.
 

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