In Rear Window (1954) Alfred Hitchcock taps into a world of obsession. Not uncommon in a Hitchcock film, but Rear Window deals specifically with voyeurism. Voyeurism is a form of visual obsession, and windows allow the voyeur to see that which is supposed to be private. Windows in film also are synonymous with eyes, the "windows of the soul." The film's opening credits begin these themes. We see three shades opening, revealing a courtyard beyond. The camera moves through the window into the courtyard. Here we (the audience) see other windows allowing us to see in. Daily morning routines are practiced, which includes the lowering of a small dog to the courtyard below. The camera then returns to the room where we see L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) uncomfortably sleeping in a wheelchair, a cast on leg, sweating profusely. The camera moves to a broken camera, then action pictures framed on the wall, and then more cameras, flashbulbs, and other camera equipment. Cameras and lenses will also feature prominently in the symbolism of the film.
The phone rings, and from the dialogue we learn that Jeff has been in his cast for six weeks, with one more week to go. As he talks to his editor, he watches outside. There's a pair of topless sunbathers atop a nearby building. There's a helicopter trying to watch the sunbathers, the introduction to the topic of voyeurism. Jeff watches the dancer across the way, fixing her top as she goes to answer the door. He watches the ugly, overweight woman below the dancer's apartment look up with disdain. Meanwhile, the topic of marriage is introduced in the dialogue as Jeff watches a salesman come home, only to be greeted by a bedridden, nagging wife. To escape the salesman goes to tend his flower bed out in the courtyard. At this point Jeff's watching of his neighbors seems harmless.
Enter Stella, Jeff's nurse. She lectures about the social taboos against "peeping toms". She also prophesies that his watching habits will only lead to trouble. She is absolutely correct, of course, and soon Jeff is witness to events not meant to be seen by strangers. This occurs as Lisa (Grace Kelley) and Jeff discuss their future together and possible marriage. As they talk, they see the salesman arguing with the nagging wife over a phone call. They see the songwriter having trouble writing. Here Hitchcock makes a cameo, fixing the songwriter's clock. This is a visual clue for us that time is soon to be important. We see the dancer ("Miss Torso") fending off the unwanted advances of a gentleman friend. "Miss Lonely-Heart" is seen, acting out an imaginary date. We are seeing into the private world's, or "soul's" of Jeff's neighbors. Lisa leaves, and from somewhere comes a muffled scream.
Jeff, in and out of sleep, notices that the salesman leaves at ten minutes to two. He returns at two-thirty. The salesman leaves and returns again. In the morning, while Jeff sleeps, we see the salesman leave his apartment with a woman dressed in black. Jeff awakens and it seems to be business as usual. The dog is being lowered to do his daily business. The ugly woman is attempting to sculpt. The shades to the salesman's apartment are drawn. They block our ability to see "in". Into either his apartment, or by metaphor, his soul. It should also be noted that the salesman wears glasses, blocking our ability to see "in" to him.
Eventually he does open his shades, watching the dog below digging in his flower bed. The dog is scared off, much to the salesman's relief. Jeff's suspicions are aroused. He takes out binoculars (to "see" better) and watches the salesman wiping out his display case, and later replacing his costume jewelry into the case. Jeff later uses a camera with a powerful lens (again to "see" better) to observe the salesman wrapping a hacksaw in a newspaper. During all of these events, the shade is still drawn in the wife's room. Previously, we could see her even as she argued with her husband. Now we can see nothing.
Night returns, as does Lisa. Jeff and Lisa sit with their backs to the window, kissing intimately. Jeff is distracted, and brings up the curious events across the way. Lisa refuses to believe Jeff's suspicions that the salesman's nagging wife is now dead. The shades open, and we see the salesman with a rope (a Hitchcockian self-reference?), tying a trunk. This opening of the shades, allowing Lisa to "see" in, is also the catalyst that allows her to "see" Jeff's point of view. She now believes. Jeff calls a detective friend with his suspicions.
When Stella arrives the next morning, she believes as Lisa does. Lisa's conversion to Jeff's beliefs is mirrored in Stella (and perhaps in us as the audience as well). The delivery men come to take the trunk, and the salesman makes a long distance call. Jeff's friend comes, filled with disbelief. He tells Jeff the salesman's name is Lars Thorwald, that the manager of Thorwald's apartment saw him taking a woman to a train station, and that Thorwald received a postcard signed by his wife. The dog is seen digging in the flower bed again, and Thorwald tells it to "move along."
Jeff now uses his camera lens, sitting in the dark, to watch his neighbors. He's gradually moved from harmless observation to obsession. He observes "Miss Lonely-Heart" drinking, preparing to go out for the evening. "Miss Torso" is seen practicing. The ugly woman is still sculpting. He next views Thorwald return from the cleaners, and watches him begin packing all of his belongings. Thorwald next makes a long distance call, holding a purse, and what seems to be his wife's jewelry. Among the jewelry appears to be a wedding ring. His detective friend returns, with more evidence destroying Jeff's suspicions. Lisa comments that she and Jeff are some kind of monsters for being disappointed that they learn a man didn't kill his wife. She closes the blinds, a signification of blindness. Then they hear a woman scream. Her dog has been killed. Jeff's shades go up again, sight has been restored.
All of the neighbors look out their lighted windows and balconies to see what is going on. Only Thorwald's apartment is dark, with an eerie end of a cigarette butt glowing in the room. It's a sign of his guilt. Even though the room is dark, we can see into it enough to ascertain Thorwald's guilt. Which leads to an interesting twist of Hitchcock's usual themes. The wrong man accused by society is a common theme in many a Hitchcock film. Rear Window, in contrast, is about a guilty man viewed to be innocent by society at large. The whole narrative to this point has been building to the events that occur next.
The next day Thorwald is seen packing, he seems scared. Jeff writes a note telling Thorwald he knows what happened to his wife. Lisa goes to slip the note under the door while Jeff calls the police. We, like Jeff, see Lisa duck out of sight just as Thorwald opens his door after seeing the note. We see Lisa downstairs, hiding in the courtyard as he goes to the fire escape to glimpse the note bearer. She jumps inside just in time to avoid him. Jeff, like the audience, can do nothing to help Lisa. Hitchcock will place Lisa in greater danger later in the film, to greater effect. Jeff's inability to help her will mirror our inability to act. It's a highly effective suspense technique.
When Lisa returns, she's thrilled by the danger. Jeff gives her a look of genuine interest. Perhaps she's not the Park Avenue image of perfection he argued she was previously in the film. They hatch a plan to call a meeting with Thorwald, and Lisa, aided by Stella, go to dig up the flower bed while he's gone. Jeff calls, Thorwald leaves, but they find nothing. Lisa goes up to Thorwald's apartment to see if she can find a lady's wedding ring, and Stella return to Jeff's apartment. Lisa is searching the apartment while Jeff and Stella watch the salesman return. Jeff calls the police to report domestic violence, while he watches horrified as Thorwald discovers Lisa, kills the lights, and attacks her. Luckily, the police arrive, and arrest Lisa. She puts the wedding ring evidence and her finger, and knowing Jeff is watching, shows him by looking out the window and showing him where she put the ring.
Unfortunately, Thorwald sees this, and for the first time looks out his window and peers into Jeff's. Thorwald now "sees" who his accuser is. Jeff sends Stella to go bail Lisa out of jail, and calls his detective friend to tell him about their evidence. He hangs up, and the phone rings again. He answers, thinking it is still his friend on the phone. When no one speaks he realizes it was Thorwald on the phone. There's silence. Then we hear a door close. A light comes on in the hallway outside Jeff's apartment. Jeff, helpless, grabs some camera flashes. Thorwald's footsteps can be heard approaching Jeff's door. He opens the door and asks what Jeff wants from him. He approaches menacingly. Jeff uses his flash to blind Thorwald.
Jeff does this half a dozen times, each time Thorwald adjusts his glasses while his eyes dilate to the darkness. The devices that mask him from everyone else are also the devices that intensify the flashes and blind him. He attacks Jeff, the two struggle. Lisa, Stella, and a squad of police arrive at Thorwald's apartment. Jeff screams for help. They run to help him, but not before he's forced out of the window by Thorwald. Jeff is alive, and Thorwald quickly confesses to killing his wife.
The final scene mirrors the opening scenes. We see the courtyard, life continuing. The owners of the dog have gotten a new one. "Miss Torso's" husband returns from the Army. "Miss Lonely-Heart" is in the songwriter's apartment, listening to his completed work. The camera moves inside Jeff's apartment, he is sleeping with a contented smile on his face, both legs now in casts. He is not alone this time, the camera moves to Lisa, reading an adventure book. She notices Jeff sleeping, and trade's it for a copy of a fashion magazine. We next see the blinds from the opening credits closing over "The End."
Text (C) 2000 LCB