Immobilized in his Greenwich Village apartment with a broken leg, photojournalist L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) amuses himself by spying on his neighbors. Inevitably, observation becomes obsession. Jeff imagines that he has uncovered a murder in an apartment across the courtyard.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, which opens Friday at Film Forum in a print newly restored to its original Technicolor grandeur, was one of the master’s greatest stunts. Not only is this a thriller without on-screen violence or a visible (human) corpse, but virtually the entire movie unfolds in a single room, albeit facing out on one of the largest, most elaborate sets ever built on Paramount’s back lot.
Steeped in fetishism, concerned with l’amour fou, and structured by dream logic, Vertigo is Hollywood’s surrealist masterpiece; Rear Window showcases another side of Hitchcock’s vulgar modernism. It’s a blatantly conceptual movie, self-reflexively concerned with voyeurism and movie history, the bridge from Soviet montage to Andy Warhol’s vacant stare, as well as a construction founded on the 20th-century idea of the metropolis as spectacle—or, more specifically, on the peculiar mixture of isolation and overstimulation the big city affords. Reveling in the simultaneity of the 8 million stories in the Naked City, Rear Window is the slyly alienated precursor of multiple narratives like Short Cuts or Magnolia.
As Jeff’s wisecracking nurse (Thelma Ritter) tells him, “We [have] become a race of Peeping Toms,” and like Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr. or, in another sense, Dziga Vertov’s The Man With a Movie Camera, Rear Window is one of the great allegories of cinephilia. No less than any viewer of the movie, Jeff is immobile and transfixed. Observing without being observed, at once godlike and impotent, he treats other people’s daily lives as though they were his show.
The photographer not only spies on his neighbors, treating himself to close-ups by using the telephoto camera lens his nurse calls a “portable keyhole,” but gives them names and invents little backstories. These dramas are, necessarily, staged in highly emphatic pantomime style, and, as in silent movies, music—almost always supplied by the handy composer who lives across the courtyard—substitutes for dialogue. (The movie’s complex sound mix has been considerably brightened in the restoration.) A pair of newlyweds keep vanishing “off-screen.” The statuesque blonde Jeff calls Miss Torso affords a primitive peep show in contrast to the pathetic fantasies enacted by the character he’s named Miss Lonelyhearts. And then there is the unhappy domesticity unfolding in the Thorwald apartment. . . .
Contemplating the courtyard, Jeff is the warden of his own panopticon, and yet it is he who is in a state of heightened anxiety. Does the hypervigilant photographer suspect that, just as he spies on his neighbors, they might be observing him? “I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars,” he muses. “Course, they can do the same thing, watch me like a bug under a glass.” Rear Window has a definite paranoid edge. Placing his neighbors under surveillance, Jeff is a freelance agent for the national security state who seems taken aback when a cop explains the need for a search warrant. But mainly, Rear Window isa demonstration (two decades before cine-theorist Christian Metz) that the spectator identifies with the camera, and that the entire cinema machine is predicated on what psychologists call the scopic drive.
Absorbed in his neighbors’ lives, the world of images and vicarious experience echoed by the photos on his walls, Jeff has a marked aversion to intimacy—most obviously in his ambiguous relationship with his “too perfect” lady friend Lisa (Grace Kelly, who, as befits a movie about voyeurism, may be the most gorgeous creature to appear in any Hitchcock film). Only slightly less neurotic here than he would appear in Vertigo, Stewart projects a mixture of defensive normality and sexual ambivalence. If he is obviously discomfited to hear his nurse wonder if Lisa’s father is “loading up the shotgun” to insure their wedding, his anxiety reaches comic proportions once Lisa proposes to spend the night. “I just have one bed,” he protests.
When Lisa closes Jeff’s window shades (“the show’s over for tonight”) and changes into a filmy nightgown (delightfully announced as a “preview of coming attractions”), she draws attention to the movie’s two narratives, the murder mystery playing across the courtyard and the love story acted out in the apartment, as fictional constructions. It remains for the viewer to make the connection.
** Hitchcock considered Rear Window his “most cinematic” movie and, by way of explanation, paraphrased the famous Soviet montage experiment known as the Kuleshov effect: “Mr. Stewart is looking out into the courtyard and—let’s say—he sees a woman with a child in her arms. Well, the first cut is Mr. Stewart, then what he sees, and then his reaction. We’ll see him smile. Now if you took away the center piece of film and substituted—we’ll say—a shot of the girl Miss Torso in a bikini, instead of being a benevolent gentleman he’s now a dirty old man. And you’ve only changed one piece of film, you haven’t changed his look or his reaction.”
Like the Soviets, Hitchcock understood movies as a machine to evoke a series of conditioned responses, and Rear Window, one of his most commercially successful movies, was almost universally hailed when it opened during the summer of 1954. Despite the blatant metaphoric content, no contemporary reviewer seems to have seen it as anything more than a superior entertainment—although The New York Times‘s Bosley Crowther surely did protest too much in declaring that “Mr. Hitchcock’s film is not ‘significant.’ What it has to say about people and human nature is superficial and glib.”
The only critics to take Rear Window seriously were the movie-mad writers of Cahiers du Cinema. “One can see Rear Window again and again, even when one knows the denouement,” André Bazin observed, while Claude Chabrol plumbed the dark side of Jeff’s “amorous fixation,” noting that “in the end one no longer knows whether the crime may not have been made a reality simply by Stewart’s willing it.” From here it is a small step to proposing that what happens in the Thorwald apartment is but the most extreme fulfillment of Jeff’s desire to be rid of Lisa. (“For all you know, there’s something a lot more sinister going on beyond that window,” she had kidded about the Newlywed Show.)
Rear Window has enjoyed a long classroom run as Exhibit A in Laura Mulvey’s canonical “Film and Visual Pleasure,” an essay suggesting that cinema is founded on the pleasure derived from looking, unseen, at another person as an erotic object. Movies, Mulvey argued, allow men to gaze upon women within the context of illusionist narrative—and this sense of control compensates for the very castration anxiety exemplified by Jeff’s helpless state. Lisa does perform for Jeff throughout Rear Window (and just as his voyeurism is rationalized by his profession as a photojournalist, so her exhibitionism is underscored by her career in fashion), but for most of the movie, he has more fun watching his imaginary movies than relating to his girlfriend.
Jeff’s aesthetic distance is shattered, however, when intrepid Lisa materializes in the theater of the Thorwald apartment. Suddenly, the voyeur is reacting like the most naive spectator, shouting a warning to a figure who cannot possibly hear him: “Lisa, what are you doing? Get out of there!” Lisa’s appearance on the screen is paralleled by Thorwald’s evolution from a distant silent actor to the all-too-real creature who, as in some Pirandellian nightmare, enters Jeff’s space hissing, “What do you want of me?” In a denouement Time correctly identified with Mack Sennett slapstick, the movie turns interactive—although, by this time, the joke is on the audience.
Thorwald’s question is really addressed to the spectator. (Lisa speaks for all when she tells Jeff they are “ghouls” for being “plunged into despair [to] find a man didn’t kill his wife.”) Jeff’s pad is just one more window. As always in Hitchcock, there is no pleasure without guilt.