Edited for clarity
Perhaps no film director has been studied, debated over, written about, psychoanalyzed, copied, butchered, chastised, and celebrated as Alfred Hitchcock. Inevitably, the question always comes up: What’s your favorite Hitchcock? A tough question, and admittedly not one I would retort to with Rear Window But if the question was “what is Hitch’s greatest commentary on film?”. Well, that’s another story altogether.
The story is simplified to its bare, jagged essentials, allowing depth and filmmaking craft to take over for breadth. Essentially, we have LB Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), a photographer here rendered bed-ridden by an accident which forces him into a cast. Bored out of his mind, he takes to observing his neighbors across the street through their apartment windows from his own window, aided by his trusty camera. Soon enough, he witnesses what he grows to think may be a murder of a wife by her husband, known to Jeffries as Mr. Thorwald (Raymond Burr). Jeffries has no evidence, but we soon find out a pesky thing like truth isn’t enough to get in the way of a man with a camera and his ego.
Rear Window is first and foremost a thriller, and a master-class of the genre. The film is taut and filled to the brim with suspense, paced with fire and brimstone and unsparingly committed to tension through ambiguity. The director does not tip his hand as to the truth of the murder until the very end; we are given only what Jeffries knows and what drives him. As such, we become Jeffries, filmically rendered when Hitch literally gives us Jeffries’ view of his neighbors by depicting them from first-person through Jeffries’ camera. He is an every-man, and key to our suspense is our link to and understanding of his actions.
But the film’s suspense doesn’t come only from our concern that Jeffries may be right about whether or not his neighbor Mr. Thorwald did kill Mrs. Thorwald, which is in some sense just a particularly centric MacGuffin. Deep down, Hitchcock is interested in something far deeper, scarier, and more self-deprecating. Although Jeffries is presented as our protagonist, Hitchcock’s view of Jeffries isn’t entirely positive; he’s egotistic and needs caring for, and fails to value and respect the people who clearly care about him, and his desire to solve this crime is transparently an excuse for him to authorize his right to “look”. His mind always goes back to the people across the street, people he doesn’t know and thus can define for himself. The fact that the entire film takes place in his apartment isn’t just a coincidence; it speaks to how Jeffries constructs his life as a standoffish observer. Whenever a character does enter his apartment from the door, the lighting underneath it is artificially enhanced, suggesting that, in entering into his life, they move from the “theater” to the “real” as it is defined for Jeffries, literally stepping off of the external stage he has defined for himself.
In this capacity Hitchcock is not only presenting us with a hero who “watches” rather than acts; he’s deconstructing his hero by connecting his actions to that of Hitchcock’s favorite form of sheep, the film-goer. Many cite Vertigo as the master’s most intellectual and most psychoanalytically telling film, but in Rear Window we find his greatest commentary on the nature of cinema as an act of simple and depraved voyeurism. For most of its running length, LB Jeffries is a snoop. Roger Ebert famously described him as a “man who likes to watch”. A photographer, he defines his life based on the pictures he takes of others, bridging the gap between observing others and constructing others. Finding himself caught up in his wheelchair, he naturally takes to exploring, and even constructing, the lives of those around him. For most of the film, he really doesn’t have much of any evidence that he’s witnessed anything especially out of the ordinary. His dogged persistence keeps him going, and perhaps his need to narrativize the lives of others.
Later on in the film he coerces and takes advantage of others around him. He puts his girlfriend Lisa Freemont (Grace Kelly) and his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) at great risk. We assume it is because he desires justice, but we’re also concerned, as is Hitchcock, that it is more out of his own desire to watch, to make up a story out of his neighbors’ habits and to act on it to legitimize himself. At various points, he refuses to act in the best interest of the only people who care about him not out of a sense of justice at discovering an assumed killer, but because he likes to watch and, by definition, not to act. As he continues to observe them even in danger, failing to act to help them, we begin to wonder whether he enjoys putting them in danger as part of his own theater, as part of his construction of the world around him and his desire to observe, or create if he can’t observe, the exciting in the mundane.
While Hitchcock stops short of indicting cinema-goers for defining their lives through the lives of others, he comes close. The ending ultimately reveals which way Hitchcock leans, but he isn’t afraid to drag his viewers, and himself, through the mud to get there. At least once, a character who routinely chastises Jeffries looks at the camera head-on (completely breaking any “good sense” rule of filmmaking), as if to implicate the audience and clearly remind them that Jeffries is in fact they, and she is speaking above all to the audience. Hitchcock’s cavalier attitude here, his reckless abandon with film convention, is unnerving as it burns with filmic pitch-black energy and self-conscious manipulation. If Jeffries is supposed to reflect us, the cinema watcher, we aren’t only supposed to “connect” with him to support him; we are supposed to be a little frightened of him, and thus of ourselves.
But Jeffries is as much a mirror of Hitchcock’s own controlling nature. The director, when quoted that he thought actors were cattle, famously retorted that he merely said “actors should be treated like cattle”. Jeffries might agree, for he uses others like cattle throughout the film, remaining uninterested in those who enter his life except insofar as he can use them to define his life of the cinema, his life through his camera-lens pointed out of his window. Jeffries’ view is as Hitchcock would see the world through his camera and we would see it through images projected for us onto a screen. Jeffries sees through his camera, but it doesn’t necessarily tell any truth other than the one he wants to see (something Hitch cheekily comments on through the other, lesser troubles Jeffries suspects from his other neighbors). By making his camera, a camera which not only observes but distorts, our viewpoint, Hitchcock implicates us in what we are watching. And he implicates himself in his very distortion of reality behind the camera. In essence then, the film is a morality play about the truth value of cinema. It is a man’s quest to prove to himself that what he sees through a camera might help the world.
It’s important that the nature of a crime is an assumed wife-murder, in this regard, because it is Jeffries who actually puts not one but two women he holds dear in danger throughout the film – the connection is too clear to have been unintentional, especially considering Hitch’s own propensity for blondes in distress. Even though he does display concern for them when out observing Thorwald’s apartment, he pauses and waits before he calls them back and warns them, more concerned about his desire to watch than their lives; he is passive, but he’s bet on his passivity to assert agency onto others anyway. According to the film, Hitch, as with Jeffries, can only control others to change the world – he can’t act on his own, and may be a passive male figure outside of his camera lens. It is this that scares every bone in his body and forces him, above all, to come to terms with it filmically, to produce movies like his life depended on it. But it’s a vicious cycle: if film soothes the fear of truly interacting with the real world, then it also pushes one further down the rabbit hole of selfish observation. Judging by Rear Window’s existential dread, Hitch is far down this rabbit hole, and he knows it too.
Just consider the film’s very introductory crawl, where the prowling camera practically fondles Jeffries’ image-captured bundle of personal adventures and conquests throughout the world, the final image tellingly of Lisa. It’s also a negative image, a camera negative, enervated of color and personality and trapped in the frame as a totem to Jeffries’ conquests, destroying her color and identity outside of her relationship to him and subjugation under him. When she almost immediately shows up in the flesh, she violates his sanctuary of male gazing and invades his world, putting him at war with his own fragility and the woman free to transgress the boundaries of apartment/theater and outside world/stage while he remains ensnared in his cinema-watching shrine. Rear Window suggests that Jeffries’ physical immobility is a foundationally identity-shattering dilemma for his male ego, a state of mental catastrophe he can only remonstrate via reanimating his personal agency through sight. He feels he must, at any cost, clarify that he – and only he – truly sees the murder, sees the truth, masters the world’s mysteries through sight – and his camera – when he no longer can through movement.
Hitch would go on to explore, implicitly, his own obsessiveness and controlling nature to greater extents in the stunningly nihilistic and subversive Vertigo, perhaps the cinema’s greatest analysis of gender and the male gaze. But he never filtered his implicit obsessiveness through a direct and monomaniacal critique of film-watching like he did here, implicating not only himself but his entire audience in the process. He knows, in fact, that we want what LB Jeffries wants – we want a mystery, we want to keep watching even when we know it may not be good for anyone and when we may abuse others around us by continuing to sit and watch when we could have better things to do. Hitch knows the undeniable appeal of Jeffries’ actions, and he approaches us about them and forces us to gaze upon them in deeply difficult ways. He knows that, for all the joy of the cinema, in watching a movie we may be missing the forest of life for the trees. If he comes up mostly in favor of cinema at the end, well 1954 was still the master deep in his populist phase and not quite ready to truly lash out at himself and his audience. He was still in the mindset of merely making great, semi-subversive fun. For those who crave something with a little bit more of a heightened death drive, never fear: the anti-populist Vertigo was creeping around the corner, ready to pounce. In the meantime, Hitchcock once said “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano”, and he seldom played so potently as when gazing through that Rear Window