* SPOILER ALERT for Rear Window, Vertigo, Notorious, and The Birds *
Barbaric birds. Savage spouses. Mother-loving murderers. These are just a few of the characters brought to life by Alfred Hitchcock. Aptly nicknamed “The Master of Suspense,” Hitch had the power to keep an audience at the edge of their seat from start to finish, even if it was just in anticipation of his famous cameos. His impressive filmography, spanning about fifty years, is just masterpiece after masterpiece. When I first started watching Hitchcock, I was lost. Every film of his that I watched was an amazing experience, but I didn’t know why. I could see that every shot was filled with depth (ha) and symbolism, but I just couldn’t pinpoint what it was. I struggled through his filmography chronologically until I had a moment of clarity while watching the film I’m going to be writing about here…Rear Window.
Shot entirely on set at Paramount, Rear Window features all-natural farm-raised sound design and incredible costumes by veteran designer Edith Head (I’m obsessed with Grace Kelly…’s outfits). Known for his incorporation of numerous themes, Hitchcock pulls out all the stops with Rear Window. This classic is one of Hitchcock’s greatest commentaries on films and the audiences that watch them. For me, Rear Window addresses two big themes — voyeurism and gender roles — among others. I’ve only seen this film once and I’m basing this post off of my thoughts on this first viewing. This post barely scratches the surface of this film.
Rear Window is the story of L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart), a professional photographer who breaks his leg while shooting a racetrack accident. Jeff sits in a wheelchair, his entire left leg in a cast, staring out his rear window (whoa, title reference!) at the tenants of the building behind his. Jeff is not feeling the heat with his girlfriend, Lisa, claiming that the traveling photographer’s life is too strenuous for a woman. Jeff’s life is soon consumed with watching the intertwining lives of the people in the other building and he manages to drag Lisa and his home-care nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), into his obsession. He watches as the lives of those in the other building crumble until he gets sucked into their story, himself.
Let’s take a look at voyeurism, shall we?
The film begins, as they always did until a few years ago, with opening credits (above). As we see names and titles go by, the three shades covering the windows slowly rise, revealing the building where so much of the action will take place. Essentially, this is the curtain rising to signal the start of the show, and the subject of the show is the building that Jeff watches so carefully throughout the film. Right off the bat, we are introduced to the concept of watching and our obsession with voyeurism. Immediately after that, we get a beautiful shot that pans across the whole complex and ends with a shot of Jeff’s sweaty face. We cut to a thermometer at 94 ºF which takes us to another nearly identical shot of the building ending once more on Jeff.
This time, we see that he’s in a wheelchair and his left leg, waist down, is in a cast. For now, we’ll stick to the voyeuristic aspect of the film, and we’ll get to the temperature and other aspects of the broken leg a little later. Jeff is a photographer — he essentially stalks other people and records their movements…for a living…not to mention, he was injured in the process. Hitchcock is telling us that we have been crippled by our obsession with cinema for the wrong reasons. This idea applies now more than ever. People go to the movies to blindly watch other people live their lives. It is rare to walk out of a theatre and hear people discussing the thematic weight of what they just watched. They’re just talking about how hot Ryan Gosling looked in that one scene. Rather than watching to understand, we watch because we derive some perverse pleasure from knowing the ins and outs (yep) of someone else’s life.
With this first scene, we are immediately placed in Jeff’s place, and are now guilty of whatever he will do throughout the course of the film. Like him, we are stuck in a chair, doomed to stare at whatever plays out on the screen. It was not a casual choice to have the camera survey the building almost as if Jeff was watching. We are accomplices in Jeff’s stalking. In his apartment, every photo that he has on his wall is of some calamity — car crashes, explosions, bonfires. Then we see a negative of a model and stacks of magazines with the developed photo on the front. We see the effects of obsessive watching here: devastation and superficiality, something that applies more than ever today.
[Plot summary warning]
Jeff watches his neighbors closely — there’s Miss Torso, who dances around her apartment in her underwear, Mr. Thorwald, a jewelry salesman who cares for his invalid wife, Miss Lonelyheart and The Songwriter, who sit alone in their respective apartments, as well as newlyweds and two elderly couples. Jeff is woken in the middle of the night by a crash and a scream, and over the next few days he notices Mr. Thorwald making several late-night trips with large boxes, cleaning a knife and a saw, and sending away a large trunk with ropes tied around it. He is convinced that Thorwald murdered his wife, who was never seen again. Jeff uses his telephoto lens to spy on his neighbors with ease, bringing up serious ethical questions. Soon after, however, the dog of one of the elderly couples is found dead, and Jeff notices that Thorwald just doesn’t seem to care. Once again, he suspects Thorwald. Jeff tries to get his cop friend to look into it, but with no success.
It comes to the point where Jeff sends Lisa and Stella over to investigate multiple times. They slip anonymous letters under Thorwald’s door, dig up the garden to check for body parts, and even sneak into Thorwald’s apartment. When Thorwald discovers Lisa in his apartment, he beats her up, calls the police and makes his way into Jeff’s place. Jeff manages to temporarily blind Thorwald by setting off the flashbulbs on his camera (ha!) but in the struggle, he is pushed out of his own window. All is resolved, however, when Thorwald confesses and is arrested, and Lisa and Jeff are reunited…only now, both of Jeff’s legs are in casts and Lisa sits next to him, reading both travel and fashion magazines.
[Plot summary is over…phew]
The cleverest decision Hitchcock made in shooting this film was to use a set for the other building. That’s just it isn’t it? What we’re watching is not real, but we’re still obsessed with it. In essence, the other building is the movie screen, and we are Jeff, sitting in our own (slightly more comfortable) wheelchairs.
At the time this film was released, Hollywood was the ultimate glamorous life. It was everyone’s fantasy just to be associated with Hollywood. Though that still applies today, we now spend more time criticizing them than adoring them. But Hitchcock is definitely commenting on the extent to which we idolize cinema and its actors. Furthermore, the moment that Jeff finally realizes how much he really cares for Lisa, that he wants her in his life, is when she risks her life and goes to the other building — he really only loves her when she becomes a player in his fantasy film. To Jeff, the grass is a whole lot greener on the other side…until one of the ‘actors’ attempts to murder him. When Thorwald tries to kill him, his reflexive response is to use his camera to defend himself. But this attempt to shield himself with cinema fails, and he ends up more broken than he started. He finds out that the ‘other side’ is, in fact, a lot shittier. The film ends with both and Jeff and Lisa, peaceful and relaxed (the temperature at 71 ºF) with their backs turned to the windows.
When they finally realize the value of living their own lives, all issues become resolved…Miss Lonelyheart finds love with The Songwriter, Miss Torso’s true love returns from war, and the newlywed couple settles into the ups and downs of marriage with their first little tiff (I like that one). But Hitchcock isn’t just ripping on audiences…he’s showing us the true value of cinema. Film is an art and truly does hold the mirror up to society. As Jeff and Lisa watch their ‘movie’ there are elements of their relationship present in the other building. Thorwald takes care of his invalid wife just as Lisa cares for the injured Jeff. Jeff and Lisa mirror the newlyweds, finally accepting the reality of their relationship at the end of the film. Miss Lonelyheart and The Songwriter find love with each other and Miss Torso is reunited with her true love, just as Jeff and Lisa find balance in their relationship and come together.
The sound design in the film is another genius move on Hitchcock’s part. All noise in the film is completely composed of naturally occurring sounds. The only music, per se, comes from The Songwriter’s apartment when he plays the piano or from Miss Torso’s apartment when she dances (all the freaking time). The idea that film can mirror real life is supported by the hyperrealistic world created by the sound design. Yes, Hitchcock criticizes the idol worship that exists in the movies, but he simultaneously shows us the value that cinema has to speak truths about human nature.
But, it doesn’t stop there. This film is also a detailed exploration of the changing gender roles at the time. Opinions on Hitchcock’s women go both ways. Hitchcock’s controversial relationships with his leading ladies has caused many to hold on to the idea that the women in his films are there merely to be gawked at. I guess it’s easy to see why…Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Eva Marie Saint. But upon closer inspection, Hitchcock has masterfully woven his very woman-centric view of post war gender roles into his films. Though our race is completely dependent on women for its survival (until we can factory manufacture children with iPhone apps), our society has always attempted to force women to stay just a few rungs below men. The ‘typical’ relationship always has the male in the active role and the female in the passive role. With Rear Window, the set up of Jeff’s injury makes the audience accept the completely opposite set up — Jeff barely gets out of his wheelchair in the film. He watches in the dark, while Lisa is constantly on the move in every scene, her elaborate outfits fluttering around her. In a sense, Jeff’s building represents a change in the world, while the other building is the past. All of the women in that building are either dependent on their men, shut down by them, or both. Mrs. Thorwald is killed by her husband, Miss Lonelyheart is assaulted by her date, the new bride is left penniless because her husband quits his job, and Miss Torso is promiscuous and wild until her army man comes back to tame her. Another theme throughout the film is impotence. Jeff’s entire left leg is in a cast. It’s large, it’s stiff, it’s straight, and it starts at his pelvis…phallic image, huh? Not to mention, it’s broken. Put two and two together and it is very clear that his cast is mean to symbolize impotence. And how does the film end? Both of his legs in a cast, with Jeff smiling in his sleep. He’s dreaming of his dominance over Lisa, but that’s not the reality at all. In the end, it’s Lisa and Stella who take the initiative and action, while Jeff cowers in his own room, watching everything through his camera from a distance.
Throughout the film we see Lisa’s dominance over Jeff. Framing similar to the shot to the left is all over the film. Lisa lies comfortably, smiling looking away from Jeff, while he sits, squeezed into his rigid wheelchair, giving her that oh so classic James Stewart puzzled look. This translates beautifully into a representation of the mindset of the time — Jeff, like all those trying to stop change, are stuck in their close minded thinking, shown to us through Jeff’s boxy old-fashioned wheelchair. Meanwhile, Lisa’s ‘forward’ thinking (more like common sense thinking) attitude is evident in her freedom to come and go as she pleases, and especially her ability to lie down, stretch, and sit comfortably on a couch or bed. Jeff thinks that because she is a beautiful woman, she cannot be strong and independent…nor is she capable of international travel, apparently.
Hitchcock’s women, however, never conformed to ‘traditional’ gender roles. There is one scene where Jeff asks Lisa, “Can’t we just sort of keep things status quo?” Lisa responds with a defiant, “Without any future?” Constantly, Lisa is taking charge and making her opinions known. It’s interesting to note the difference in Hitchcock’s women. Some, like Lisa, don’t accept the chauvinistic society they live in, while others are weak and afraid. The women in Hitchcock films are a perfect way to understand his views on gender roles. When the women take charge, like Lisa does, the films always end with them in a dominant position. When Rear Window ends, Lisa is reclining on the couch, reading Beyond the High Himalayas and Harper’s Bazaar, making it clear that she is perfectly capable of balancing style and travel. However, films like Vertigo, Notorious, and The Birds feature women who are submissive…and things don’t end well for them.
Okay, yes…that Vertigo screenshot is not really from that final scene, but she really does die that way at the end. I promise. Every one of these submissive followers is either dead or almost dead at the end. Hitchcock is showing that the submissive women fail and the strong women succeed. This is a great thing to see, not only because Hitchcock has been given such a bad reputation with women, but also because at the time, women were always told that speaking out is un-ladylike and that submission is the way to go. For all the stories about Hitchcock objectifying women, he really did preach equality.
Rear Window is a wonderful look into some of the themes that Hitchcock deals with in his films, and repeated viewings are sure to bring up many many more ideas. The Master of Suspense has a filmography that spans years and so many of them are classics. If you haven’t already, watch a Hitchcock film. You won’t regret it…or maybe you will.