Rear Window is one of my all-time favourite films so in this episode I discuss its unique production, the ethics of spying and voyeurism explored in the story, and feminist critiques of both Hitchcock and his movies.
Rear Window is one of my favourite films of all time, which is why I’ve decided to do a standalone focus episode on it. I could have done an overview of Hitchcock but I wanted to look in depth at Rear Window because it’s probably Hitchcock’s most coherent and simple movie, and a great introduction to the themes and style of all of his films.
For those of you who haven’t seen it, Jimmy Stewart plays LB Jefferies, a photographer who has broken his leg and is wheelchair-bound throughout a long, hot summer. His girlfriend – Liza Freemont, played by Grace Kelly – is an upper class woman who works in the fashion and fashion magazine business. To keep himself entertained while he is recuperating, Jimmy Stewart spends much of his time looking out of his apartment windows across the courtyard in the centre of the apartment block where he lives. Most of the film is a three-shot repetition – we see Jimmy, then we what he is looking at (from his point of view) and then we see his reaction.
He lives, as I said, in an apartment block surrounding a small courtyard, which was created on one huge soundstage. The entire film – except for one insert shot with a helicopter that is very noticeable – was shot on this set. It was a bit like a miniature version of The Truman Show, in that they used lighting to create the effect of the sun going up and down, they had rain machines, it was a microcosm, a synecdoche of an entire city. Because they didn’t actually have sound stages that were that tall (this was in the 1950s) the crew had to break up the concrete floor and dig it out to provide another two floors’ worth of depth to the set.
So, while the film is essentially very simple, set in one location, it was very innovative in how it was actually made. I cannot think of another film that was made in this way. It enables Jimmy Stewart, and us the watching audience, to get to know all of the various people in the apartment block. There’s a music composer up in the studio apartment, a newly married couple in the block to the left of the window, and across the way there’s a lonely spinster on the ground floor, then Mr and Mrs Thorwald, and then a retired couple. There’s also a female dancer and another older woman whose lives we see playing out in front of Jimmy’s Rear Window.
Each of these people or couples has their own little part to play in the overall story that unfolds at the film progresses. The newly married couple start out blissfully, with the husband carrying the wife across the threshold of their new apartment, and Jimmy Stewart wryly noticing the blinds pulled down across the windows for the next few days. At one point the husband comes to the window for a cigarette, before being called back to bed by his new bride. By the end of the film the wife is nagging the husband because he has quit his job, and the honeymoon period is over.
The spinster who lives on the ground floor of the block opposite Jimmy’s is seen drinking herself to sleep, staging mock conversations with a potential lover, bringing home a young man from a bar who tries it on with her quite aggressively so she slaps him and throws him out. At the climax of the film she contemplates suicide, laying out a large number of pills and evidently thinking about an overdose. By the very end of the film she has befriended the composer, whose music acts as a recurring theme throughout the movie and is what causes her to abandon her plans to commit suicide.
The elderly couple I’ll get to later, but the composer is an interesting one because at one point we see Hitchcock in one of his usual cameo appearances, winding the clock in the composer’s apartment. As the film goes on the composer develops the song he’s writing, at times with great frustration, but by the end it is complete. Then there’s ‘Miss Torso’ – a young woman who works as a dancer who spends much of her time practising dance moves in her apartment in a variety of skimpy outfits. At the very end of the film her boyfriend comes home from serving in the military, and they are reunited and she is delighted.
However, the main plot (major spoilers ahead) is that Jimmy begins to suspect that Lars Thorwald – the salesman who lives directly opposite him – has murdered his wife and disposed of her body. He hears a scream one night, and sees Lars coming and going throughout the night with his large salesman’s case. The wife, an invalid who requires constant care, has disappeared. He convinces Grace Kelly that something is afoot, and calls his police detective friend to investigate. While the detective is initially sceptical, they eventually convince him that something isn’t quite right. Jimmy is still wheelchair-bound so Grace Kelly sneaks into Thorwald’s apartment to look for evidence. This ultimately causes Thorwald to figure out what’s going on, and than Jimmy has been spying on him, leading to a showdown between the two.
Thus, this is a straightforward murder mystery told in a very un-straightforward, unconventional way. I always feel that Hitchcock is at his best with material like this – simple stories of human vice and retribution. While I respect him for essentially creating the spy thriller as a movie genre, aside from Topaz I think Hitchcock’s understanding and depiction of geopolitics is much weaker. He grasped the essence of what made people kill, and what happened as a result. But I don’t think he ever understood politics with the same depth and sophistication.
The Ethics of Rear Window
That’s a clip from very early on in the film, when the medical insurance company nurse turns up to make Jimmy Stewart some lunch and look after him, and offers her opinions on his newfound hobby of spying on his neighbours. She is something of a harbinger of doom, warning him that he’s looking for trouble. Jimmy’s answer – that he would welcome a little trouble because he’s so bored of being stuck inside in a wheelchair – makes him the willing fool in this scenario. Or at least someone who goes looking for trouble and finds it.
This sets up the most prominent recurring theme in the film – of whether Jimmy Stewart, and later Grace Kelly, the nurse and others – are behaving ethically when they spy on his neighbours. They all get sucked in by the mystery of what happened to Mrs Thorwald, whether her husband killed her or she left him or she went to the countryside to convalesce. Years before the conspiracy thriller was even invented, Rear Windows stands as a cautionary tale about spying on other people’s lives and speculating about how to make sense of them.
There are some moments of dramatic irony, where we the audience see a little bit more than Jimmy Stewart, but never enough for us to be able to conclusively say whether Thorwald has killed his wife or not. For the most part, we see what Jimmy Stewart sees, his voyeurism and curiosity is our voyeurism and curiosity. And because we see things from his point of view, even his exact angle and position, Hitchcock is making it very clear that this is a warning to the audience about letting curiosity get the better of them. Even more so by pointed dialogue such as when the nurse says ‘we’ve become a race of peeping toms’.
As the plot thickens and more evidence emerges suggesting that Lars did murder his wife, Jimmy Stewart calls in his friend, a police detective, who is initially interested but sceptical, and he makes a few inquiries. One night while Jefferies and Liza are planning a romantic night in, the detective drops in to update them on what he has found out, and we get the most profound scene in the whole film.
There’s a lot to draw your attention to here – not least the line about Jefferies and Doyle serving together during the war, and how Jefferies made his name as a photographer. I think this is an allusion to how Jimmy Stewart was in the First Motion Picture Unit, helping to make films for the US Army Air Forces. While he was a fairly big star before that, it certainly helped launch him to the A-list.
When Doyle assures that that Lars is innocent and that Mrs Thorwald is alive, Liza and Jefferies become despondent, and wonder about their own behaviour in spying on and suspecting a stranger. It’s an interesting question that Jimmy Stewart asks – is it ethical to watch a man even if you prove he didn’t commit a crime? I would go further, and ask is it ethical to watch someone even if you do prove they’ve committed a crime?
After all, the right to privacy is not sacrosanct, most people believe that if the authorities spy on you and find you’re doing something wrong then that’s all fair and just. But I’m not convinced by that logic, for various reasons. Most prominently, I believe the right to privacy is very important, one of the most important rights a person has. I’m not convinced at all that spying and surveillance actually helps stop potential murders and other serious crimes, and definitely not on such a scale that it excuses the massive, intrusive surveillance here in the UK and in other similar countries.
For example, the London bridge attack just before the 2017 general election saw the perpetrators being watched by MI5 right up until the moment they launched the attack. That is to say, MI5 surveillance crews were following the men, saw them load up the van, were watching them in the belief they were potential terrorists, and it seems did nothing but follow them until they actually started running people over. This may explain why armed police arrived so quickly, which probably saved lives, but it didn’t stop the attack from happening.
So if surveillance can be that close and still fail to prevent an attack or murder then what use is it? What’s the point of all this intelligence and spying and analysis if they can’t even prevent a terrorist attack happening right before their very eyes? Of course, we’re heavily, heavily conditioned by slogans such as ‘if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear’ to excuse mass surveillance. But does it really work? Or is it more an intimidation tactic aimed at the population at large?
Rear Window also makes this point, or at least implies it. The cop gets it wrong – Lars Thorwald did actually kill his wife. For all Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly’s spying they do not prevent the murder from taking place, they figure it out after the fact. So what is Hitchcock saying? Because without the spying, there’s no story. Is he simply highlighting the human tendency towards voyeurism and suspicion? We are all guilty of that to some extent. Is he passing judgement, or merely drawing our attention to that fact?
I interpret the film as a cautionary tale – when Liza sneaks into Thorwald’s apartment to look for evidence she gets caught, first by Thorwald and then by the police. Likewise, the older couple who live in the apartment above Thorwald’s have a dog, who they lower into the courtyard in a basket on a rope and pulley. Halfway through the film the dog is killed after sniffing around and trying to dig up Thorwald’s flower bed. By the end of the film they’ve got a new dog and are happy again, but it’s a stark reminder of what can happen if you go kicking rocks over.
In short, are we all the little dog from Rear Window?
Feminism and Rear Window
In the decades since its release, Rear Window has become the target of criticism, most obviously from feminist critics. One of the most frequent comments I’ve come across is regarding the notion of the ‘male gaze’, since so much of the film is shot from Jimmy Stewart’s perspective. In all honesty, I find the ‘male gaze’ to be a sexist myth, because from my experience women objectify other women’s bodies far more than men do. Men certainly do have a hardwired tendency to watch women, but it is a feminist assumption that this has something to do with sex. In reality I find myself watching women walking down the street while I wait at the bus stop in just the same way as I watch a horse plodding around a field, or lambs prancing, or any number of other things I am not sexually attracted to.
Nonetheless, in the film Jimmy Stewart does refer to two of the characters in a fairly reductive way – Miss Lonely Hearts and Miss Torso. Whether you see this as sexist or as a simple way to tell the audience something about both the female characters and the male character referring to them in this way, or both, is pretty subjective. Indeed, Jefferies is the most voyeuristic character in the film, which is a cautionary tale about voyeurism, so he isn’t being heroised for this behaviour. This isn’t something the audience are being encouraged to emulate.
Likewise, Hitchcock did not see women as equal to men – he had a weird fetish for killing icy blondes on screen, there are quite widespread reports of his behaviour towards actresses being, shall we say, less than gentlemanly. Indeed, in the run up to the 2012 biopic about the making of Psycho there was a string of mainstream media articles about Hitchcock’s attitudes towards women. For example, from the Guardian:
In Rear Window, LB Jefferies (played by James Stewart) is a photographer recuperating from a broken leg, idly watching his neighbours from his window. One of them is a shrew, a nagging wife. She gets a shrew’s comeuppance when her husband kills her, parcels her up and disposes of her in suitcases. Then he assaults Jefferies’s girlfriend Lisa when she goes to investigate, although she’s saved at the last moment. Rear Window’s a strange, cowardly, mean film. It ought to be about the horror of witnessing a wife-killer doing his business. Instead, the subplot is about gratuitously bringing the loving, sincere and helpful Lisa down a peg or two – and then showing how (yep) untrustworthy she is. Played by Grace Kelly, Lisa goes from being a glittering socialite to a modestly dressed girl next door who’s interested in camping. In the film’s final moments, though, she slyly reads a fashion magazine when her beau’s asleep. Because that’s what women are, you know. Sly.
This description of the film is as reductive and simplistic as you’d expect from the Guardian, and it fails to acknowledge key elements in the plot that run absolutely contrary to this interpretation. For example, when the elderly couple’s dog is strangled it is Lisa and the nurse who go and check on the flower bed to see what Thorwald buried there. It is then Lisa who sneaks into Thorwald’s apartment – showing both personal bravery and the only moment of physical skill and dexterity in the entire picture. One could, in fact, argue that this makes Rear Window a feminist film, with a female hero doing all the things male heroes did in 1950s films.
Furthermore, when Lisa explains to the detective, Doyle, about female behaviour he is dismissive, but her ‘feminine intuition’ is ultimately proven right, and not by a man, but by Lisa herself. There is no suggestion in any part of the film that Thorwald’s wife is guilty of anything other than nagging, nor that she deserves what happens to her. Indeed, the two acts of unmitigated brutality – the murder of Mrs Thorwald and the strangling of the dog – are committed by a man. Both Miss Lonely Hearts and Miss Torso are shown being the subject of aggressive male affection, which they have to rebuff, even physically. No woman does anything particularly bad in the film – all the bad behaviour is that of men, whether it be unrequited sexual aggression, murder, attempted murder, neurotic voyeurism, drunkenness or killing an animal.
So, this Guardian article is a desperate attempt to interpret Rear Window as misogynistic when it is, at worst, objectifying. But then there is the secondary plot, whereby Lisa wants Jefferies to commit to her, move in together, give up his life as a globetrotting photographer. Jefferies is, quite understandably, resistant, and clearly doesn’t think much of marriage as an institution. Emphasising what I said above, Lisa isn’t some pampered housewife who expects a man to provide for her, but works, makes her own money and her own decisions, and by the end of the film she is the hero, not Jefferies. So the final shot of Lisa lying on the bed in the apartment, setting down her adventure book and picking up her fashion magazine, probably isn’t supposed to be interpreted as sly, to my mind it is quite sympathetic because they’ve built her up to be intelligent and capable.
As is so often the case, the conflict between Lisa and Jefferies is not female vs male, it’s not about sexism, it’s about class. Jefferies is working class, or at best middle class, while Lisa is upper class.
Thus, this is a clash of class and culture, not of sex and sexism. Jefferies isn’t saying Lisa couldn’t live his life because she’s a woman, but because she’s grown up in wealth and had a somewhat sheltered existence. And, as we find out later in conversations between Jefferies and Doyle, Jefferies is quite cynical about marriage in general, which I sympathise with because I’m exactly the same. It’s one of those curious sexisms, that when women say marriage is a patriarchal institution that mostly benefits men that’s all fine and dandy, but when men say marriage is a matriarchal institution that mostly benefits women, that’s somehow wrong and a sign of inner misogyny.
So, while I’m not denying that Hitchcock had a somewhat limited view of women, and a weird predilection for murdering beautiful women on screen, Rear Window isn’t a strong example of that, certainly when compared with Psycho, his most commercially successful film. In that story we never get to know the woman who steals the money and flees town and ends up getting murdered at the Bates Motel, so we don’t especially sympathise with her. The fact that Psycho was more successful than Rear Window probably says more about audiences than it does about Hitchcock’s sexism.