Looking In by Looking Out, by Scott Nye
Perhaps most of all his pictures, Rear Window perfectly toes the line between director Alfred Hitchcock’s playful sensibility and his morbid taste. Not as actively disturbing as later films like Vertigo, Psycho, and Marnie, nor as airy and almost carefree as To Catch a Thief or North by Northwest, it best represents the commercial conception (the “brand,” if you will) of the filmmaker. Its premise is instantly compelling and easy to summarize (a wheelchair-bound photographer suspects his neighbor of murder); much of the storytelling is handled visually (the photographer gathers evidence by looking out his window) without becoming stale (there are a lot of other windows to look in, too); and it has a likeable leading man (James Stewart) and a pretty leading lady (Grace Kelly).
Having only known the film on DVD, I expected seeing it at the Aero last week would make it feel like a much bigger film. Maybe I’d pick up all kinds of details in the wide shots of all those apartment windows. Who knows what’s in there! And while one cannot overstate the impact of Kelly’s introduction when projected on a fifty-foot screen, Rear Window became, this time, a much more intimate experience. In the realm of Hitchcock’s more straightforward thrillers, this may actually be his most effective character study.
Stewart’s introduction is itself quite a marvel. Hitchcock first gives us a shot of him simply asleep in his chair. This may give the audience a chance to cheer, a chance to warm to seeing one of their favorite actors. A couple more shots of the apartment courtyard, then back to Stewart, down to his legs, where we find out he’s wearing a cast on one leg, upon which is written “Here Lies the Broken Bones of L.B. Jeffries.” Already, we know the character’s name and predicament, and, it being a cast, that this probably isn’t a terminal one. The camera pans around his room, and we see photographs of a half-dozen spectacular, dangerous events. Is he an enthusiast? A publisher? The pan continues towards a framed negative of a beautiful woman; another pan, and the positive of that same photograph is on the cover of a magazine. One final pan, and we see his camera. In one shot, without a single line of dialogue, we know our protagonist’s name, at least one conflict, his profession, and his willingness to risk his life for said profession. We also know he’s either a bit of a pervert, or that he’s currently dating the model in the photograph. Maybe both.
All of these elements will be furthered discussed and elaborated upon in the first handful of scenes in the picture, wherein we will also learn another important fact about Jeffries – he doesn’t want to get married. This is handled in a fairly familiar fashion in the dialogue (he still yearns for adventure, she prizes comfort and luxury), but it was the way Hitchcock elaborates upon his psychological hang-ups, purely through the fact of the other apartments, that really grabbed me.
Let’s take a tour of the other windows:
There is the young ballet dancer, introduced topless (back to the camera, naturally), whom Jeffries frequently looks upon with no small amount of carnal interest. While his chances of going to bed with her are fairly slim to begin with, that option – and any other woman who might come his way – are instantly removed if he gets married.*
There are the newlyweds, blinds constantly drawn for the reason one might expect newlyweds wouldn’t want anyone peeking in. That sounds fairly nice itself, except every time the man opens the blinds for a moment of peace, his wife starts calling at him to do something; he sighs, and returns. In their final scene, we hear her say that if she knew he was going to quit his job, she never would have married him. Flexibility, too, goes away with the obligations of marriage.
But what if he has no more decent work left in him? Across the way, a composer struggles with a new piece in between visits from nosey guests and partygoers.
It’s not like never marrying is a very desirable option, either. “Miss Lonelyhearts,” as Jeffries has nicknamed her, on the first floor regularly pretends like she’s on a date with a man – setting the table, pouring the wife, making conversation with nobody. The bachelor life is good for awhile, but once all your friends are settled down, it gets terribly lonesome.
The married couple on the top floor seem to get on all right – in the midst of a heat wave, they’ve taken to sleeping together on the fire escape. See, Jeffries, some married people can still go on little adventures! Of course, once the rain comes and things get uncomfortable, it’s back to the bedroom with both of them.
Finally, of course, there’s the murder suspect and his recently-departed wife. What little we see of their life together does not seem pleasant. She’s sick in bed, reliant on him for every little thing, and at one point actually laughs at him when he’s trying to pursue something himself (maybe the affair Jeffries suspects him of having). An unhappy marriage is certainly bad enough – a lifetime of quiet torment – and being driven to murder is no happier end.
The apartment complex becomes an outward expression of Jeffries’ anxieties, those both spoken and left alone. He’s trapped in his room, but his mind is forever at play. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, perhaps the window is also where one can see their own mind at work.
*The ballet dancer gives Hitchcock a chance for one of his ghastliest jokes, inserting a shot of her lying on her bed right before Jeffries asks, “I wonder how you’d go about that, cutting up a body.”