by Paul Batters
‘That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public’ – Detective Doyle (Wendell Corey)
Often described as one of the greatest directors of all time (and deservedly so), Alfred Hitchcock knew how to play his audience and to paraphrase a line from The 39 Steps (1935) ‘lead them down the garden path’. Hitchcock did so not only through brilliant execution of cinematic technique, fascinating character arcs and truly thrilling plots but because he knew his audience. Francois Truffaut made the interesting observation, that Hitchcock shaped his films by asking ‘all the questions (he thinks) will interest (the) audience’.
Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s most celebrated masterpieces and one which usually tops the lists of favourite Hitchcock films. Critics raved about it at the time, with Bosley Crowther acclaiming the film’s tension and plot whilst also its’ thematic concerns. That acclaim has not died down. In 2000, Roger Ebert made the fascinating point that what was ‘intended as entertainment in 1954, is now revealed as art’. Indeed.
Photographer L.B Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is stuck in his apartment and laid up with a broken leg. Called ‘Jeff’ by his fiancée, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), he’s a frustrated man as his very nature as well as his job is to be out and about taking photos. Lisa is a beautiful fashion model and it is obvious to the audience that she wants to desperately be with him but is frustrated by his distance. The only other visitor is his therapeutic masseuse Stella (Thelma Ritter) whose early comments offer some foreshadowing to the greater crime that will follow.
As Jeff sits in his apartment, he looks out his window and in his direct line of sight are a series of apartments into which he watches the goings-on of their occupants. Jeff becomes immersed in what they do from the mundane to the sad and eventually the tragic. As Andrew Peachment states in Time Out: ‘everyone’s dirty linen: suicide, broken dreams, and cheap death…’ is hung out for all to see. As the story unfolds, Jeff will become more than a passive witness to all of this and find himself immersed in a murder mystery. This reviewer will leave you to discover that journey yourself! Needless to say, as much as Jeff’s involvement appears as passive, he will not remain as a strict spectator.
Hitchcock knows exactly how to draw in the audience from the moment the film begins. The camera not only guides the eye of the audience but becomes the eye of the audience, tracking across the neighbourhood and settling along the way on small details, seemingly simple moments until it sets itself on what will be the centre of attention. Before long, the camera and the eye of the audience will meld into the view of the protagonist and our journey ‘down the garden path’ begins with Jeff. It is a brilliant and incredibly empathetic approach from Hitchcock and his knowledge of his audience shines from the opening. Of course, the powerful irony is that the audience experiences it all through the eye of the camera.
But it is not enough for Jeff to watch with the naked eye and he uses his expertise with the camera, to get a closer, deeper and more refined view to feed his obsession. Interestingly, enough the camera acts as multi-functional tool for Jeff; it gives him greater and closer access but it still remains a barrier or shield, it provides greater intimacy yet provides him with distance and allows him penetration without fear of impotence.
Rear Window is a film about intimacy and the powerful irony of a man who watches the intimate moments of others whilst avoiding a more intimate and deeply emotional involvement with Lisa. Ebert has suggested that Jeff’s avoidance of something deeper with Lisa is a fear of impotence, symbolised in great part by being stuck with a full leg cast. If going by the many psychoanalytical essays written on Hitchcock’s sexual pathology, Truffaut’s statement that Hitchcock is revealing a great deal of himself in the film rings true.
Grace Kelly is unbelievably stunning whose ice-cold blonde beauty is one of controlled eroticism. Certainly a favourite of Hitchcock’s, the audience gets the sense that the focus should be on Kelly’s sexual allure and incredible beauty and not on what is happening in the apartments of other people. Indeed, one cannot help wondering ‘what the hell is wrong with this guy?’. Of course, with voyeurism comes a price.
Yet this links to the theme of obsession, one which Hitchcock regularly explored, most famously in Vertigo (1958). Of course, both Vertigo and Rear Window star Jimmy Stewart, in two very different roles yet both sharing an obsession with what they see. For Scotty, it is obsession with Madeline; for Jeff it is an obsession with the lives of his neighbours. Yet they also share a deeply-rooted problem with intimacy – Scotty cannot make that physical connection with ‘Judy’ until she transforms into Madeline, the woman with whom his obsession took root. Indeed, he becomes obsessed with transforming ‘Judy’, objectifying his obsession and driving her to exasperation. His ‘impotence’ is ‘cured’ once the transformation is realised.
Jeff is similarly impotent, as discussed earlier, and indeed completely imprisoned as well as incapacitated by his predicament. The only release that he has is to watch his neighbours and thus this becomes his obsession. It is also one which creates an intimacy without being intimate, and additionally an escape. His broken leg may very well be a hindrance to expressing love and connection for Lisa but the deeper symbolism holds far truer. But there is another level of intimacy that becomes apparent and that is that of the audience experience. It’s far easier to love from afar than finally have what he desires in his arms only to find that he cannot perform sexually. Avoiding that disappointment becomes the easier option. It is a foundational reality at the core of the theme of voyeurism. Michael Sragow in The New Yorker correctly describes Rear Window as ‘an audience-participation film’, although our own impotence is evident through the inability to act.
That theme of voyeurism is also at the core of the film’s gaze. The audience and Jeff meld into one, both restricted to and yet drawn into the secretive world of Jeff’s view. His eye, the audience and the camera all become the one vision, which as a result will also heighten the tension and leave us bound by Jeff, as much as he is bound by his broken leg. Perhaps this is part of Hitchcock’s little joke on us. Of course, the tension and danger are also born out of his inability to act, as the audience watches the danger unfold and like Jeff all that we can do is watch.
Rear Window is also a perfect example of how story is always the driving and central force of any film. The famous constructed courtyard set offers a view into many other apartment windows and becomes an obvious focal point, due to Jeff’s incapacitation. But it also shows how suspense and tension does not need multiple or expansive sets, nor incredible special effects. Nevertheless, the real art of the set is found in its’ construction; far more intricate than meets the eye.
There are other clever in-jokes as well. Listen carefully and you’ll notice Bing Crosby singing “To See You Is to Love You”, hinting further at Jeff’s obsessions and the addiction of voyeurism. (I can’t help but see this as foreshadowing of Vertigo!) Hitchcock was not simply a master of the visual but of the complete cinema experience, and was careful to use sound as a powerful part of that experience. Diegetic sound beckons to Jeff (and the audience) as it drifts across the courtyard, drawing him towards the windows across from him. It also amplifies that Jeff is a part of the neighbourhood, which he is only watching and not participating in. Of course, sounds such as a far-off siren not only signal life in a city but is also ominous for the danger that will unfold. To quote Peachment again, the audience in essence is watching a ‘silent film’ of other people’s lives, whether across a courtyard or up on a screen…’ with the sound of the action being incidental.
Jeff gives his neighbours interesting and even humorous names (Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts etc), ‘knowing’ them from watching them. Yet, does he know them or what is he projecting onto them? Jeff’s need to watch them and track their lives also exhibits an intimacy with being intimate.
Hitchcock holds the spell right through to the end. The final moments of the film between Jeff and Lisa suggest some sort of common ground to their relationship. Hitchcock gives the audience some sort of ending, regarding the neighbours whose lives have been carefully watched. A wry smile would surely appear on the audience’s face when the newlyweds have their first fight and the other ‘stories’ are also suitably dealt with.
And yet the greatest joke of all is that the audience shares that obsession with Jeff. We, too, enjoy watching what they are all doing and wonder how their story will unfold. All of Jeff’s neighbours have their own stories and perhaps we find kindred spirits in the lives of those we are watching. In the midst of our mild disapproval of Jeff’s actions, we are also voyeurs and the greatest irony is that as film-viewers, we too are enjoying intimacy without being intimate.
Paul Batters teaches secondary school History in the Illawarra region and also lectures at the University Of Wollongong. In a previous life, he was involved in community radio and independent publications. Looking to a career in writing, Paul also has a passion for film history.