(1954) rated: R
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter
Synopsis (warning, many spoilers ahead)
Rear Window is the story of L.B. Jefferies (played by James Stewart), a photographer who has been immobilized while photographing a race car crash. His girlfriend, Lisa (played by Grace Kelly), wants to marry him and tries to get him to settle down, but he is unwilling to give up his adventurous lifestyle for her own high class lifestyle. Trapped in his apartment, he begins to pry into his neighbors' lives by watching through his window. Things become more complicated when Jefferies observes that the man opposite his apartment seems to be unhappy with his nagging, invalid wife. When this man's wife disappears, Jefferies begins to consider foul play and calls his friend Tom Doyle, a police detective, to check it out. When Doyle comes up with nothing, Jefferies and Lisa decide to get personally involved. They eventually confront Thorwald and he admits that he did kill his wife. He then attempts to kill Jefferies, but is unsuccessful. During the ordeal, Jefferies has gained a new respect for Lisa and her adventurous spirit, thus saving their relationship.
Rear Window is considered by many to be a masterpiece that is perfectly constructed to manipulate the narrative and the viewer's experience of it. The 1954 film stars James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter and is based on a 1942 story by Cornell Woolrich originally entitled "It Had to Be Murder." Hitchcock often refers to Rear Window as his "most cinematic" work because it is told in purely visual terms.
It is impressive that Hitchcock was able to form such a suspenseful and compelling story given the restrictive nature of the setting. The film takes place in the cramped apartment of L.B. Jefferies, an immobilized photographer who has nothing better to do than look out at the surrounding buildings and their tenants. The film is essentially seen from the perspective of a person bound to single spot and all of the action takes place around that spot (Pallasmaa). The viewer is shown what that person sees and how that person reacts.
Many of Hitchcock's films indirectly employed the use of voyeuristic framing to make the viewer feel like they are witnessing the events portrayed on screen. The frame is likened to a window through which the audience may satisfy its impulse to pry into the intimate details of the character's lives (Giannetti 46). In Rear Window, this voyeuristic framing technique is taken to a literal level in an attempt to expand the emotional involvement of the viewer. This presentation of overt voyeurism in the context of a confined setting presented a considerable challenge to Hitchcock. Not only must he tell an exiting story, but he must do so with an immobile protagonist who participates in the morally dubious activity of peeping. Hitchcock not only manages to create a sense of claustrophobia that is not suffocating, but he is also able to make an ingeniously subtle and profound statement on the morality of voyeurism.
The protagonist's only means of escaping his condition is by spying on his neighbors (Wood 101). On a literal level, the condition he is escaping is his broken leg, which has confined him to a wheelchair. This is an especially boring situation for Jefferies, as he is a very adventurous person. However, he is also escaping from the problems of his relationship with his girlfriend, Lisa Freemont. From the beginning, a clear link is established between his spying on his neighbors and his relationship with Lisa. What is interesting to note is what he sees in his attempt to escape from his problems with Lisa. All of the neighbors he chooses to watch represent his problems in some way or another. For example, he sees a man opposite (named Thorwald) that is plagued by a nagging, invalid wife. In a way, Jefferies regards Lisa as an encumbrance, and their relationship as a threat to his freedom (Wood 102). The parallel between Thorwald and Jefferies is striking. What happens in Thorwald's apartment represents, in an extreme and hideous form, the fulfillment of Jefferies' desire to be rid of Lisa (Wood 104). In confronting Thorwald at the end of the film, Jefferies has defied his fears and rid himself of this desire. In fact, Lisa inserts herself into this murder mystery in order to help Jefferies resolve his problems (Belton 79). Connections with the other tenants are less obvious, but still present. Each apartment offers a variation on the man-woman relationship or the intolerable loneliness resulting from its absence, and the only happy couple is passed over and forgotten (Wood 102).
While the parallels between Jefferies and his neighbors are interesting, they are not nearly as fascinating as the parallels between Jefferies and the spectator in the cinema. When considering this perspective, it seems that Hitchcock's motivation for using literal voyeuristic methods was to prompt the viewer to examine himself or herself. Jefferies watches his neighbors to escape his problems, just as the average viewer watches movies to escape his or hers (Wood 102). In fact, the set design reproduces the conditions of spectatorship in the conventional Movie Theater (Belton 82). Much like Jefferies chose apartments relevant to his problems, we pick movies that fit our own attitude towards life. Both the viewer and Jefferies are unaware of the connections between what they are watching and themselves. This represents an unconscious way of working out problems in a fantasy form. In the film, Jefferies nurse, Stella, says, "We've become a race of Peeping Toms. People ought to get outside and look in at themselves." This seems to be the underlying theme Hitchcock sought to present in Rear Window.
The first scene in this story that illustrates all of the mentioned parallels and connections is the scene where Lisa first arrives to cook Jefferies dinner. The scene begins with a long shot moving across the bustling courtyard in the evening. The courtyard is bathed in hot colors, emphasizing the bustling in the courtyard. The camera moves across, then backs in through Jefferies window (in a similar fashion to Renoir in La Grande Illusion), revealing a dozing Jefferies. Then Lisa enters and Jefferies stirs. In the dark, Lisa's beauty is evident, though it is a very natural beauty. She leans over and tenderly kisses Jefferies, at which time he wakes up. At this point, there is a drastic change in her behavior. She could only be herself when he was asleep. "Who are you?", Jefferies asks, and she moves away from him, turning on three lights as she pronounces her three names - Lisa Carol Freemont. With each new light, we see Lisa become less like herself and more like an act. In other words, we see her become a spectacle to be watched. The trend continues as she shows off her new $1,100 dress. The differences in their cultural backgrounds begin to show themselves. Jefferies is obviously not as wealthy as Lisa, and this point is expanded upon when she comments on his old cigarette box and her desire to replace it with a new one. Next, she suddenly announces dinner from Twenty-One and moves to the door to usher in a uniformed waiter carrying an ice bucket and food containers. The waiter brings the food to the kitchen while Lisa brings the ice bucket over to Jefferies, who seems to jump at the opportunity to consume alcohol. Perhaps his eagerness to drink can be equated with his need for escape, as many people turn to alcohol to address their problems.
Soon, Lisa moves over towards the window and the two begin to talk. This is a medium shot that captures Jefferies, Lisa, and the entire complex in the background. The background is again dominated by hot colors, this time denoting tension between Jefferies and Lisa, who are wearing cool colors themselves. Furthermore, the positioning of these hot colors is in between the two, suggesting that the tension between them is also dividing them. During this whole conversation, Jefferies is facing the courtyard while Lisa faces away from the courtyard. Whenever a shot is shown from Jefferies perspective, the courtyard and its promise of escape can be seen. Lisa and the cool colors of her dress are drowned out by the hot colors of the courtyard on the screen. Lisa is also seen as blocking the open space of the courtyard, highlighting Jefferies confinement to his apartment. This is in contrast to Lisa's perspective, where Jefferies can be seen against the backdrop of his apartment, both of which are shown with cool colors.
Over wine, Lisa discusses the events of her day and it once again becomes apparent that her lifestyle is significantly different from Jefferies'. She suggests that Jefferies quit the magazine and settle down, which he immediately rejects. This is where the difficulty of their relationship, namely the refusal of either to compromise, comes to light. This lack of cooperation has stalled their relationship so that it can no longer grow or develop. Jefferies loses his patience and says, "Let's stop talking nonsense, shall we?" Hurt, Lisa goes into the kitchen to prepare dinner.
At this point, Jefferies immediately turns to spy on the neighbors in an effort to escape his own problems. He sees Mrs. Thorwald, the nagging, invalid wife, first. Then he moves his attention down to "Miss Lonelyhearts" who is pretending to have dinner with an imaginary guest. It is obvious that what he is seeing are two radically distorted images of Lisa. At one point "Miss Lonelyhearts" raises her glass in a toast, and Jefferies joins her, for he relates to her lonely situation. There is a slightly high camera angle showing her vulnerability and she is dressed in some shade of green for the entire length of the film, perhaps suggesting that she is envious of love. She buries her head in her hands in despair as Lisa comes out of the kitchen. "You'll never have to worry about that," he says, referring to "Miss Lonelyhearts". Lisa responds that he can not see her apartment from there, but Jefferies maintains that the apartment belonging to "Miss Torso", a gorgeous dancer, suitably represents Lisa's apartment. They both watch the apartment and offer differing descriptions of what they see: the queen bee and her drones, or a woman dealing with wolves. Lisa walks back to the kitchen and Jefferies glances at the window of the newly wed couple, then quickly moves on, ignoring the one apartment that presents a happy relationship.
His gaze eventually falls on the Thorwald's apartment across the way. There is a bit of foreshadowing when a police siren can be heard in the distance. Mr. Thorwald brings his sick wife a tray and an argument ensues. He goes back to the living room and tries to have a conversation on the phone, but his wife gets out of bed and mocks him. This scene and how Jefferies reacts to what he sees shows a parallel between the Thorwalds and Jefferies relationship with Lisa. He sees Lisa holding him down in the same way Mrs. Thorwalds holds down her husband. In another apartment, a composer begins to play the piano and Lisa enters with the food, commenting on the beauty of the song. She believes that the song was being played just for them and Jefferies makes a bitter remark about the composer having trouble with the song. Here, Jefferies himself is drawing a parallel between his relationship with Lisa and the composer. The scene ends with Jefferies sarcastically commenting that the dinner is "perfect as always."
This scene does a fantastic job portraying not only Jefferies' relationship with Lisa, but the parallels between their relationship and the various other tenants. On top of that, this scene also offers distinct parallels with the spectator watching the screen. Whether they realize it or not, the spectators usually tend to stress aspects of the film that are most relevant to their own problems in much the same way Jefferies identifies with "Miss Lonelyhearts" or the composer, but not the newly wed couple.
The next scene that depicts the parallels of Rear Window is the final scene in the movie. Jefferies has confronted his fears and is ready to accept marriage and while the ending may appear to be happy, it is, in fact, a very precarious situation. The first thing the scene shows is a thermometer that reads 92 degrees. In the opening of the film, this thermometer was at 94 degrees. This decline suggests that things may have gotten better, but it is still hot. The scene continues with another long take that first examines the composer's apartment. The composer seems to have overcome any difficulty with his song and is playing his new record for "Miss Lonelyhearts" who is apparently not so lonely anymore. The camera keeps moving across, revealing that the Thorwald's old apartment is being repainted. "Miss Torso" receives her true love in an excited fashion. Still moving across we see that the newly weds have begun to quarrel. This shot, more than any in this scene, implies that there will still be trouble in the future. Once again the long shot moves back through Jefferies' window to expose a dozing Jefferies, this time incapacitated with two casts on both his legs. Jefferies is facing away from the window, hinting that he no longer seeks refuge for his problems. On the bed next to him lays Lisa reading a magazine.
The Ending of Rear Window shows the achievement of an uneasy equilibrium (Wood 106). None of the problems between Jefferies and Lisa have been solved, but the fact of their engagement and Jefferies back-to-window positioning indicates that progress is being made. Parallel to this is the apparent resolution of the problems of the various tenants that were so recently spied upon. Hopefully, the viewer's problems have also been resolved. However, the happy ending is by no means meant to suggest that things will definitely turn out well. The superficial situation the film leaves is a delicate one that could be smashed by even the faintest amount of opposition. Indeed, this is what Hitchcock intended, for the viewer's responses have been very carefully controlled by his masterful use of the language of cinema. Despite this careful manipulation, Hitchcock has remarkably told a story that does not proceed too linearly and obviously, and that has surely made this a better film. Rear Window is a brilliantly crafted film that has fully realized its potential to explore the complicated relationship between the watcher and the watched.
What do you think of the parallels between Jefferies and his neighbors? Jeffereies and the filmgoer?
Do you think we pick certain movies in an unconscious attempt to work out problems in a fantasy form?
Have any of Jefferies problems been resolved by the end of the movie? Will all turn out well for he and Lisa?
Stella: We've become a race of Peeping Toms. What people oughta do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How's that for a bit of homespun philosophy?
Lisa: Why would Thorwald want to kill a little dog? Because it knew too much?
Jeff: Are you interested in solving this case or in making me look foolish?
Doyle: Well, if possible, both.
The Geometry of Terror
The Society of "Rear Window" Ethics
North By Northwest
Rear Window (dvd)
Rear Window (vhs)
Rear Window (book) : by Cornell Woolrich (the source for the movie)
The Art of Hitchcock's Rear Window (book)
Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (Cambridge Film Handbooks)
Belton, John. "The Space of Rear Window." Hitchcock's Re-Released Films. Ed. Walter Raubicheck, and Walter Srebnick. Detroit: Wayne, 1991. 76-95.
Giannetti, Louis. Understanding Movies: Eighth Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1997.
Pallasmaa, Juhani. "The Geometry of Terror". Web Page: http://www.safa.fi/ark/ark4_97/hitchcoche1.html. 1997.
Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Perf. James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter. Paramount, 1954.
Wood, Robin. Hitchcock's Films Revisited. New York: Columbia, 1989.
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