Many film fans consider Hitchcock’s career to have really begun in about 1951 (with Strangers on a Train) and to have ended in 1963 (with The Birds). Although we tend to find that more than a little incorrect—and if you’ve been following this series you’ll surely by now agree!—we appreciate that most every Hitchcock film that has left an indelible mark on popular culture has come from the extraordinary phase of his career. Though marked by a few mediocre entries, this run of twelve films in thirteen years is arguably the most exceptional string of films ever produced by a single director (notable competition: Ingmar Bergman’s bravura 17 films between 1957’s The Seventh Seal and 1973’s Scenes From a Marriage).
Rear Window asks us to question our perspective on the world we inhabit. What we observe, our subjective point of view, cannot always provide the full truth and treating it as such can be dangerous and perhaps even deadly.
I just finished re-watching this feature and the first thing I thought to myself was “Are my neighbors spying on me?” What do they observe me doing, looking into my bedroom windows through theirs? This thought was reciprocated by “Do they think I am spying on them?” What situations have I accidentally watched them in while I was preparing a meal at the counter or simply walking by an open window? And, perhaps more importantly, what conclusions have I drawn about them from these sporadic voyeuristic sojourns?
To be sure, whether we are city dwellers or moviegoers, we are voyeurs. Cameras, screens and televisions are merely windows into the lives and fantasies of others. Watching videos on YouTube, viewing photos on Facebook and lurking on Twitter are more contemporary extensions. By engaging in these activities we are fulfilling some perverse desire to watch. We get pleasure by lurking amidst the lives of others. And ultimately we draw our own one-sided conclusions about the characters and the lives they inhabit.
L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) knows a bit about being a voyeur and the dark places it can lead to. After injuring his leg, Jeffries is forced to sit, wheelchair bound, for seven weeks in his tiny apartment. Books no longer hold an interest, and there is no television or Internet to pass the time. He has a steady girlfriend in Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), a gorgeous high society fashion model, but he shows little interest in her, despite her nightly flirtations. His libido may be more fractured than his femur.
To pass the time, Jeffries decides to people-watch. Of particular interest are his neighbors across the courtyard. A heat wave has required these urbanites to leave their windows, curtains, and lives, open. A newlywed couple shares a series of intimate moments behind rustling shades. A songwriter works on fine-tuning a melody. A lonely woman holds imaginary dates and searches for love in the wrong places. A salesman cares for and argues with his bedridden wife. A ballet dancer practices in her studio, literally prancing around half naked. Jeffries shows more interest, more pathos and more lust for these distanced beings than for the woman who cares for him every day. A professional photographer accustomed to excursions in the jungles of Africa and mountains of Pakistan, Jeffries is used to viewing life from a distance. He does not so much take part in his adventures as he observes them. He, like many, is isolated in his own conception of the world. His point of view is filtered through the lens of the camera, a barrier that allows him to manifest conclusions about his subjects without ever really getting to know them.
Hitchcock uses a series of shots to detail Jeffries’ activities. First, we see a shot of Jeffries looking out at his neighbors. Then we see these subjects through his subjective point of view, framed with iris shots or outlined by the casings of windows. This is often followed up with a reaction shot of Jeffries. This structure works to denote him as the voyeur, and then extend that classification to us, the audience. We are Jeffries; he is our surrogate on screen, embodying our voyeuristic fantasies. We end up having similar reactions, similar interests, distastes and theories in the people we are spying on. And despite what happens, we continue watching, observing and scrutinizing.
There’s so much to see here that despite the simplicity of the plot—an invalid man believes one of his neighbors may have committed a murder—the film entices us to engage in repeat viewings. The courtyard is a buzz of activity with all the neighbors going about their daily activities. Hitchcock starts several sequences with a pan over the various apartments. Jeffries and the audience get a general understanding of where their subjects are at any given point in the day. The songwriter comes home drunk and frustrated late at night. The ballet dancer puts on her bra in the morning. The newlywed groom comes up for air only to have his wife call him back behind the curtain. People move in and out through an alley and along the road beyond. This is a tiny capsule of a fully realized world, where life extends beyond the edges of the frame. Love, happiness, tragedy, business and pleasure encapsulate the space Hitchcock has created. A few moments stand out, but for the most part we do not get to know these characters. Only tidbits of conversations escape across the courtyard. We watch the characters move in an out of view behind the walls of their apartments, their lives partially visible. The windows and walls separate us from them; we don’t need to know their true lives, just tiny morsels to fuel our fantasies. They are like exhibits in a cage, captured for our viewing pleasure.
This being a Hitchcock film there arises the pesky possibility of murder. Jeffries believes that the salesman, sick of being confined in his cage with a nagging, invalid wife, has cut her out of his life. He makes a good case, and what we observe is suspicious, but do we really want to go there? There is much reason to doubt his story. He has purposely distanced himself from everyone around him. He’s been sitting in a cast for weeks. Perhaps he has just gone stir crazy and has played a bit too much peeping tom. And it’s Jimmy Stewart, all around aww-shucks good guy. We have to trust him right? But then again, I never really thought of him as a voyeuristic pervert and he has been a jerk to his girlfriend lately. Maybe something is wrong with him?
Anyone who believes they are right will insist on the truth of their theory no matter what. Jeffries continues to try to convince his girlfriend. Eventually Lisa, because she loves him, because she knows and trusts him, concedes to investigate. And then she starts to believe him. Together they work out theories as more instances of window-watching reveal more clues. Actually talking and getting to know her, Jeffries sees a different side of Lisa, one he never observed before from his isolated perch. And he likes it. When Lisa goes over to get some evidence from the purported murderer’s apartment we again see Jeffries looking out the window through his camera. When we cut to his point of view, we see a change in perspective: a close zoom of Lisa in the apartment. The camera, our gaze, moves to follow her. She is no longer just an object passing through a window frame, but the focus of attention. By actually talking to her, by getting to know her, our initial impressions of her as merely a prissy fashion model have been erased. She is no longer an object of our voyeuristic observations, but a real person to whom we have developed an intimate connection. We, along with Jeffries, have grown to love her, and any barrier that separates us only makes us want her more.