NUCLEAR REACTOR: Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window

You know you’re in “favorite film” territory when you try and write a blog post, arrive at the million-word point, and realize you’ve only scratched the surface of what you want to say. You start over, go in completely different directions . . . and the same thing happens. This is the challenge for me when it comes to Rear Window. I could cheerfully sit down with another fan – indeed, I would rather discuss this film face to face – and talk for hours and hours about what I consider to be both Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece and perhaps my own personal favorite film of all. 

Why, you ask? Because Rear Window is the Hitchcock film where everything works: the casting is sublime; the plot is suspenseful; the screenplay is hilarious when folks are talking and, best of all, knows when to keep its mouth shut and let the visuals tell the story. (It was the second of ten collaborations between the director and cinematographer Robert Burks.) It’s a film that works on whatever level you want to watch it, whether you favor a lightly sauced “did-he-dun-it” mystery-comedy or a deeply ambivalent exploration into human interconnectedness. It is Hitchcock at his most inspired and productive, for he has taken a charming little story by Cornell Woolrich and imbued it with the best the director has to offer. 

It’s simply not possible for me to cover all the ground I wish and keep any of you beside me for the duration. Ironically, the next film we cover is Vertigo, and brilliant as that one may be, I have less to say about it than all the scholars who have deemed it one of the greatest films of all time. Maybe that’s because, unlike VertigoRear Window is fun! 

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I didn’t know their names. I’d never heard their voices. I didn’t even know them by sight, strictly speaking, for their faces were too small to fill in with identifiable features at that distance. Yet I could have constructed a timetable of their comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. They were the rear-window dwellers around me. 

Cornell Woolrich’s short story, “It Had To Be Murder,” finds that master of darkness in a surprisingly playful mood. The second paragraph above is about as dark as it gets, as Hal Jeffries offers the readers a list of excuses for his voyeurism. 

“Sure, I suppose it was a little bit like prying, could even have been mistaken for the fevered concentration of a Peeping Tom. That wasn’t my fault, that wasn’t the idea. The idea was, my movements were strictly limited just around this time. I could get from the window to the bed, and from the bed to the window, and that was all. The bay window was about the best feature my rear bedroom had in the warm weather. It was unscreened, so I had to sit with the light out or I would have had every insect in the vicinity in on me. I couldn’t sleep, because I was used to getting plenty of exercise. I’d never acquired the habit of reading books to ward off boredom, so I hadn’t that to turn to. Well, what should I do, sit there with my eyes tightly shuttered?

From there, it becomes a nice little thriller where Hal, with the aid of his manservant Sam and a detective friend named Boyne, tries to prove that his neighbor across the way, a salesman named Thorwald, has murdered his wife.

By now, we should all come to expect that when Alfred Hitchcock adapts a novel or story, he’s going to make wholesale changes to serve his purpose. Here, he has lifted the best the story has to offer – Jeffries with his broken leg and binoculars and the Thorwalds – and has built, both literally and figuratively, a whole new world around it. For decades, critics dismissed the director as a maker of thrillers, but we know the truth: Hitchcock’s films delved into the human condition, and the thrillerish aspects, whether a murderous salesman, uranium ore in the wine bottles, or a secret nest of spies, form the Maguffin by which Hitchcock’s main characters earn their status as heroes and, by extension, grow up

The Jeffries of Hitchcock’s film – L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries, rather than Hal – is an ace photo-journalist and a curmudgeonly man-child. In fact, he somewhat resembles Hitchcock himself, who over and over again in his movies makes the point that work may drive us but love makes us human, as Hitchcock’s lifelong marriage to Alma Reville did (thanks largely to the incredible sacrifices and hard work Alma put in that project!) Going back to The 39 Steps, where Richard Hannay lets a strange beauty pick him up with a casual “It’s your funeral,” (and it is, this being Hitchcock) and has to then run for his life and save England, all in order to meet, woo, and marry the lovely Pamela, to the heroes of Young and Innocent, Saboteur, Notorious, Strangers on a Train and more, Hitchcock’s heroes have to undergo a trial by fire to discover how much important it is to have a woman by one’s side. 

This is all true in Rear Window – and what a girl Hitchcock has bestowed upon Jeff! Lisa Fremont (and her portrayer, Grace Kelly) embodies every scholarly writing that has been made about cinema and the Male Gaze. The camera embraces her, clothes her in Edith Head and makes her the star of every shot she’s in. And yet . . . Jeff doesn’t want her!! Oh, he likes to kiss her and savor her beauty. But Jeff is stuck in his stubborn belief that a man’s work must come first, and his manly travels to the darkest corners of the earth in order to capture mankind and nature at their worst couldn’t possibly jibe with the rarified Park Avenue life that Lisa, as a top-notch fashion model and social butterfly, brings to the table. 

To be fair, while Lisa argues for coexistence, you can see that she wants to clean Jeff up a little, maybe dress him in Dior and set him up in his own photography studio on 5th Avenue. What they need is compromise, but at the start of the film, it appears that Jeff is simply not interested in meeting this beautiful woman halfway. It will take a brutal murder to change this situation, and at least Lisa has the self-awareness to acknowledge at one point that this makes the pair “two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known.”

Who needs captions? The pictures speak for themselves!

One brilliant aspect of Rear Window is the world Hitchcock has built for Jeff and Lisa to explore their relationship. It took set designers Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan six weeks to construct the elaborate inner courtyard of several Greenwich Village apartment buildings on the Paramount lot that serves as the view from Jeff’s window. The first time you watch the movie, you focus on the people living in those apartments. By the third or fourth viewing, you start to notice how the set is dressed and lit, how day follows night, how the heat and rain strike the pavement and affect the mood of the characters, how city life teems beyond the courtyard beyond the slim alley one can see from Jeff’s window.

Best of all, the neighbors matter here, each of them enacting a drama of their own, one that will either reflect upon, or have a direct impact on our main couple. In Woolrich’s story, the only neighbors who matter are the Thorwalds, and they are perfectly captured here by Raymond Burr and Irene Winston. Burr is at his physically heaviest, his hair distinctively bleached white. As you watch closely, other factors about the couple might become evident. Mrs. Thorwald is blonde and pretty; in coloring and attractiveness, she might bear a passing resemblance to Lisa. Lars Thorwald is clumsy as he stomps around the apartment and up and down the stairs; he also wears thick, Coke-bottle glasses that make his eyes huge when he peers suspiciously out his window. Compare that with Jeff, all but immobile from a broken leg, crashing around the apartment in his wheelchair, eye fixed on the thick camera lens he uses to spy on the neighbors. 

Like Cary Grant, James Stewart made four films with Hitchcock, but the trajectory of their films couldn’t have been more different. One can imagine that Grant was the man Hitchcock wished himself to be, and although he gave the actor darker roles to play in the 40’s (Suspicion and Notorious), by the 50’s he would just let Grant be Grant: debonair, unruffled (although Hitchcock would take great delight in ruffling him again and again). Stewart, on the other hand, was the man Hitchcock saw himself to be, a “man of reaction” rather than action, as author Edward White described, “expressing through his silent gaze unsettling things about being an ordinary man that Hitchcock felt but rarely articulated.

Unlike Grant’s characters, those played by Stewart for Hitchcock are linked in interesting ways, most prominently by a moral blindness that gets them into deep trouble. All four are primarily observers: Rupert Cadell (Rope) has been invited to a party by two murderers, and from his entrance Stewart’s eyes capture our attention as the truth of the situation slowly dawns on him. Dr. Ben McKenna (The Man Who Knew Too Much) is a tourist, not particularly happy in his travels, who witnesses a murder, plunging him into an assassination attempt. This leads to a desperate journey across continents, involving perhaps one too many misadventures while exposing the cracks in his seemingly perfect marriage. Que sera sera!

Jeff of Rear Window is an observer by trade, as is Scottie (Vertigo), who is a private detective. Hitchcock reinforces the link between them in various ways: both have women in love with them to whom they cannot commit; both have suffered a leg injury while at work (Rupert Cadell has a limp, too, of unknown origin); both become obsessed by the person they have been assigned (or assigned themselves) to watch; both even share the same picture window and blinds.  We’ll discuss Scottie next week, but the deterioration of both men is captured through Hitchcock’s focus on Stewart’s eyes. We see every decision, every fear, every iota of guilt and misery in those eyes. 

The most startling realization after repeated viewings of all the films Stewart made with Hitchcock – and this was with the actor’s blessing – is how much he throws off that “aw shucks” geniality that Jimmy Stewart was famous for and becomes genuinely unlikeable. Rope ends with Rupert getting justice for David, but we also watch him strenuously deny his own culpability in guiding the killers to action. His defense – “do what I do and not what I say” – is weak. Dr. McKenna reveals himself to be condescending to the world around him and more ordinary in his possession of intelligence and courage than he believed himself to be. He has to learn to join forces with his wife (Doris Day) if they are going to remain a family. And Jeff? Well, he rejects Grace Kelly, stares out the window at pretty girls, and prays mightily that his neighbor has killed his wife. 

Fortunately for Jeff, Hitchcock has bestowed a grizzled Good Fairy upon him in the form of Stella, a nurse brought in by the insurance company to tend to him during his recuperation. Played to scene-stealing perfection by Thelma Ritter, Stella gets all the film’s best lines and delivers Rear Window’s moral at the film’s start: 

 “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.

Stella doesn’t even demand that Jeff pause and reflect on his life (“Nothing has caused the human race so much trouble as intelligence.”) The answer to all his problems is marriage. What’s more, marriage is both natural and easy to find – if people stop thinking about it 

(“When a man and a woman see each other and like each other, they come together – wham – like a couple of taxis on Broadway, not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle.”) She considers Jeff’s reticence over Lisa to be “abnormal,” and when he asks her to stop dispensing advice and fix him a sandwich, she responds,

Yes I will. And I’ll spread a little common sense on the bread. Lisa’s loaded to her fingertips with love for you – I got two words of advice for you – marry her!

Every neighbor bears a resemblance, superficially physical and/or emotional, to our main couple. For example, with one exception, all the women – the Newlywed, the sculptress, Miss Torso, the Lady with the Dog, and Mrs. Thorwald, are blonde, like Lisa. Only Miss Lonelyhearts is dark-haired, but Hitchcock manages, both through camera work and dialogue to link Lisa and Miss Lonelyhearts together in meaningful ways. Meanwhile, we can make connections between Jeff and the male Newlywed (whose sexual devotion becomes increasingly strained as the film progresses), the Man with the Dog (mildly henpecked and second to the dog in his wife’s affections), the composer (creatively frustrated), and, most of all, Mr. Thorwald himself, saddled with a wife who won’t give him the life he craves and peering suspiciously out his window through thick eyeglasses that resemble the camera lenses Jeff uses to spy on Thorwald and the others. 

The composer and . . . some clock repairman

Interestingly, Stella gets as caught up in Jeff’s investigation as Lisa. I think this lends credence and balance to the whole Maguffin aspect of the story. If Thorwald is innocent – and we have seen a woman come out of his apartment one cold dawn morning who could have been his wife, only Jeff slept through it – then Jeff and Lisa could possibly be damaging the life and reputation of an innocent man, which is Hitchcock’s most familiar motif. Part of the darkness of Rear Window is how badly Jeff and Lisa want Thorwald to be guilty: Jeff, because it will fill his time and prove his thesis that marriage is, more often than not, a doomed proposition; Lisa, because it will bind her closer to Jeff. But Stella, who is immediately established as a fount of wisdom, also believes in Thorwald’s guilt. And – spoiler of spoilers – Thorwald is, of course, guilty, which means that the danger that this sleuthing trio puts itself in will ultimately pay off with justice. If not for Jeff’s snoopiness and Lisa’s breaking and entering, he might have gotten away with murder!!

Along the way, Stella’s best qualities begin to rub off on the others. Both sprout a full-on sense of humor – 

Stella:  Let’s go find out what’s buried in that garden?

Lisa:    Why not? I’ve always wanted to meet Mrs. Thorwald.

Jeff:      (Thorwald) killed a dog last night because the dog was scratching around in the 

garden. You know why? Because he had something buried in that garden that the 

dog scented.

Doyle:  Like an old hambone?

Jeff:      I don’t know what pet names Thorwald had for his wife . . . 

-as well as a conscience. When Jeff’s neighbor Miss Lonelyhearts lays out all the apparatus for suicide and Jeff and Lisa forget all about it in their excitement over Thorwald, it’s Stella who calls their attention back to the pressing emergency. She’s also there to remind them of the sanctity of marriage, how Mrs. Thorwald would never leave her apartment without her wedding ring, and this provides them with the vital clue to Thorwald’s guilt. 

Let’s talk about Miss Lonelyhearts and all the fabulous neighbors Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes invented to fill the apartments. They are proof of the adage about a million stories in the naked city, and they serve multiple purposes. First, their separate stories eventually merge with Jeff’s, making a powerful statement about the importance of community. Secondly, they serve a symbolic function, as each reflects some aspect of Jeff and Lisa’s character or becomes the impetus for an important conversation between the main couple. 

It’s important to see that, despite all his watching, Jeff often gets these people wrong. He believes that Lisa is most closely akin to Miss Torso, the attractive young dancer who hangs out practically naked in the studio across from his and entertains groups of men on weekend nights. Lisa, of course, recognizes a kindred soul, an entertainer whose beauty forces her to regularly “juggle wolves” but whose heart belongs to a different character entirely. It’s telling that Jeff sleeps through the reunion of Miss Torso and her beloved. It might have given him a better understanding of women. 

Jeff cannot imagine anyone less like Lisa than Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn), to which Lisa responds caustically: 

Jeff: ‘Miss Lonelyhearts.” Well, at least that’s something you’ll never have to worry about.

Lisa: Oh? You can see my apartment from here, all the way up on 63rd Street?

Actually, it’s Jeff who most closely resembles all the neighbors. He is an artist; so is the Composer, Miss Torso and the Sculptress. So, too, is Miss Lonelyhearts, who every night touches up her make up and acts out her romantic fantasies. Like Lisa, she is caught up in a dream of marriage and rather naïve about it (does anyone think Lisa brings over her nightgown in order to have sex with Jeff? Only Inspector Doyle does, and he’s the typical wrong-headed Hitchcock policeman.) Like Jeff, Miss Lonelyhearts tries to make those fantasies real and puts herself in real danger. After Jeff and Lisa spy on her nearly getting raped by a bar pick-up, even Jeff questions his right to snoop on his neighbors. Here is where Hitchcock introduces some ambivalence about the issue of spying, as he could have been of help to Miss Lonelyhearts and called the police, both during her attack and before she could commit suicide. 

Hitchcock doubles down on this after Lisa brings the curtains down on their peep show when a scream causes all the neighbors to rush out to their window and discover the death of a neighbor’s dog. 

Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog? You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbor.’ Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies, but none of you do. But I couldn’t imagine any of you bein’ so low that you’d kill a little, helpless, friendly dog – the only thing in this whole neighborhood who liked anybody. Did ya kill him because he liked ya? Just because he liked ya?

This is a turning point in the movie. It confirms the truth about Thorwald, the only neighbor who didn’t come to the window but sat smoking in the dark. It also starts a chain that links neighbor to neighbor as the climax approaches, and Hitchcock uses some stunning camera work to underscore this. In one of my favorite moments, Lisa has snuck into Thorwald’s apartment, and the camera shows us what Jeff and Stella see: at the top of the screen Lisa searches for Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring, while below her Miss Lonelyhearts lays out enough sleeping pills to put the entire neighborhood to sleep. (Moral question: which would you rather watch?) Suddenly, both women are arrested from their activity by the Composer, who is playing the final version of his new song. They stand in parallel positions, entranced by the music (the song will ultimately be called “Lisa” and will bring the Composer and Miss Lonelyhearts together) – and then Thorwald appears. 

I still get chills from this sequence, how it links the two women and how the subsequent moments finally link Thorwald to Jeff when both men finally gaze through their lenses at each other.  Their final confrontation is immensely satisfying because both men end up paying for their crimes: Thorwald with his freedom and Jeff with another broken leg. After his climaxes, Hitchcock likes to end his films quickly, sometimes abnegating his responsibility to explain what happened (North by Northwest). Here, matters move briskly but satisfyingly. We get an explanation of Thorwald’s crime, a final quip from Stella, and then we move to the final moment where every apartment gets its ending: the honeymooners lose their lustre (and threaten to become the Thorwalds), Miss Torso is reunited with her soldier beau, the Sculptress is inspired (especially since the heat has finally broken), the older couple have a new dog, Miss Lonelyhearts has a realprospect . . . 

. . . and it looks like Jeff and Lisa will finally be united. Here’s where things take a slightly darker turn, however. True, Lisa is clad in dungarees (fashioned by Edith Head, too, no doubt) and reading an explorer’s magazine. But then we see her true colors come out as she shifts to the latest copy of Vogue. Will Lisa and Jeff find bliss together? I think the tone of the film suggests they will. But here we have a woman who will not entirely lose herself in capitulation to her man’s desires. I think that if this works, it will only make a better man out of Jeff. 

However, it’s a sign that things are turning for Hitchcock. More and more, we will find endings mired in ambiguity and darkness. Take next week’s double bill, for instance. Both films entail a search for justice . . . and both exact a terrible cost. 

See you next week!