Sunday, August 13, 2006

"That's what we're all thinking": Rear Window as erotic-thriller meta-narrative

Note: a slightly shorter and changed version of this post is now up at

Note #2: Over at his place, Raminagrobis expands on some points I raise here and offers a comparison between the climactic scene in Rear Window and the 1965 short starring buster Keaton, Film.

This lobby poster for Rear Window (1954) could not be a better representation of this film's dynamics of watching--or, indeed, of the dynamics of the (male) gaze in cinema. The view of the apartments and courtyard that present themselves to J. B. "Jeff" Jeffries (James Stewart) (two of which are visible in the lenses of his binoculars in the poster) provides him with the ultimate adult-male Choose Your Own Adventure site: real (female) bodies exposing themselves and their vulnerabilities to his view; real men dealing in various ways with their relationships with women. Jeff can ogle, approve, chuckle, or sit in judgment. No matter: these lives on display bring him pleasure of various sorts but none of the mess. It is a virtual reality.

Or, more accurately: it's voyeurism. And even as Jeff watches, three people watch him watching and, at first, sit in judgment on him: his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (the impossibly perfect--and beautiful--Grace Kelly), pictured on the poster; Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeff's visiting home-care provider (Jeff is in a full leg cast and thus confined to a wheelchair); and his friend Det. Doyle (Wendell Corey). They are us: We agree with them that voyeurism is childish at best, at worst a violation of the privacy of the person(s) watched, the very privacy we insist on preserving for ourselves when in our homes.

But even as we agree, we must confess that we are all guilty of indulging in it, if only fleetingly, more often than we care to admit. In fact, it occurs to me that our collective acculturation to the experience of being invisible to the people we see in films and on television, those media's framed quailty so strongly evocative of actual windows, makes us perhaps more prone to voyeurism, or at least more desensitized and thus less self-conscious as we engage in it, than we once might have been.1 Even Rear Window's main title sequence, with its slowly-rising window shades in Jeff's apartment resembling the old movie theatres with their drapes that would part or rise when the feature began, suggests that connection.

So, even our representatives in the film themselves succumb to the allure of the view from Jeff's apartment--because, remember, they are us.

A pretty long post ensues, just so you know.

As those of us whose gazes have lingered for more than a few seconds at an open window know, the next tendency is to begin to imagine--that is, construct--narratives for the occupants out of what we see going on (or not going on) in that space. We become what we imagine detectives to be, and it's true that Rear Window is, or becomes, a detective story. However, it's an odd one for a couple of reasons. The typical detective story begins with evidence of a crime; Rear Window, as its viewers know, actually ends with the producing of that evidence. What we have prior to that moment is speculation, a testing of a storyline. And that speculation leads us into fairly racy territory for 1954, as the title for this post suggests and to which I'll return later.

We viewers get some early practice at storyline construction as, right after the main title sequence, the camera returns from its pan of Jeff's view of the courtyard to pan over, in order, Jeff's plaster-encased leg, a smashed large-format camera, a photo of a spectacular racecar crash from the perspective of the midst of the track, to other photos of A-bomb explosions and brutal street violence, more cameras, and finally a displayed negative of a young woman whose picture also appears on the cover of a magazine. From this we learn not only Jeff's basic biography and can make a pretty good guess as to how he ended up in the cast (which, just in case, will shortly be revealed to us in Jeff's telephone conversation with his photo editor), we can also make some guesses as to his temperament and even, if we think for a bit about the strangeness of displaying a film negative, some insight into his relationship with the woman in the picture: deliberately not "developed" yet (much talk in the film is given over Jeff's resistance to the idea of marrying Lisa) but (he hopes) under his control.2

The other odd thing about this particular detective story is that, while the typical detective story is pretty clear as to which narrative we're supposed to be attending to, the lobby poster I've placed here indicates that the stories evoked by the tenants of the other apartments will compete for his (and thus our) attention. It's telling, in fact, that in the film's initial pan of the other apartment windows, the apartment that will come to command most of our attention appears to be empty of people. It is only after the film is well underway that Jeff's attention will shift perceptably more toward the Thorwalds' apartment.

But back to needing a crime to lend credence to our speculation that a crime has been committed. "That's what we're all thinking," Stella (Thelma Ritter) says by way of justifying her speculating aloud that Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is scrubbing his bathroom walls because he dismembered his wife's body there after having murdered her . . . assuming, of course, a murder has indeed taken place. This being a Hitchcock film, one has; our protagonists just don't know that yet, seeing as they don't know that they're characters in a Hitchcock film. So paradoxically it is through speculation on dismemberment that the narrative of Thorwald's crime is in part constructed.

Significantly, what leads Jeff and Lisa to want to test their hypothesis that Thorwald has murdered his wife is when Lisa says that if Mrs. Thorwald has indeed just left town for a few days, she would have taken her wedding ring with her. And that leads me to the other thing we're all thinking about as we watch this film: sex, as ably represented in the lobby poster by Miss Torso's reflection in the binocular lens. In the film's most erotically-charged scene, Lisa comes over to Jeff's apartment one evening with a small overnight case and the intention, as she says, of staying the night with him (this at a time when "nice" unmarried people were not supposed to let members of the opposite sex do so; here, then, we have the introduction of the forbidden). The release of that tension is delayed when Doyle arrives to inform Jeff that Thorwald appears not to be guilty of murder4; he leaves after having berated Jeff for his voyeurism and tsk-tsked said overnight case and what it signifies. Then Lisa heightens the sexual tension still further (and expands on the cinema-as-voyeurism analogy) by drawing Jeff's shades and announcing, "Show's over for tonight," then showing Jeff the sheer gown she's brought along and saying, "Preview of coming attractions." It's in this moment, though, that Rear Window (or at least Lisa) heads in a direction most erotic thrillers do not. In that genre, there's a very clear and often bloody nexus between the erotic and the violent; here, though, our protagonists seek to keep them from intersecting (meanwhile, though never stated directly, Thorwald has murdered his wife because he's become involved with another woman; offstage, then, that nexus has indeed occurred).

If not for Jeff and Lisa's insertion of themselves into the Thorwalds' narrative, like characters from a novel suddenly and anachronistically showing up in another novel, all that they had witnessed to that point would have remained inscrutable, images only; their speculations would have remained only that, attempts to explain but nothing to confirm those explanations. But while that narrative achieves closure, there remains the matter of that displayed negative of Lisa on Jeff's desk. What will develop from that? Let's consider the film's final scene: Jeff, both his legs now in full casts, is asleep in his wheelchair, and Lisa is reclining on a divan reading a book called Beyond the High Himalayas, a book which appears to exist. The title is evocative of the life of high adventure that Jeff lives for and which he has earlier argued that Lisa isn't suited for. When she sees that he is asleep, though, she puts the book down and picks up a copy of Bazaar--a magazine that, despite its title's evocation of exotic realms, takes as its subject the very life that Lisa has thrived in. What can we make of this scene? Is Jeff and Lisa's relationship still at the stage it was when the film opens? Lisa is not wearing a wedding or engagement ring, but/so are they together now, and Jeff has come to terms with who Lisa is? Or is she hiding from him her longing for that former life of hers--if "former" it is? Such is the paradox--and, for me, the pleasure--of meta-narratives that even as they are at pains to investigate and expose the dynamics of narrative itself, portions of their own narratives remain tantalizingly, fascinatingly, pleasurably open.
1Surely the perverse success of The Jerry Springer Show and others of its sort is due to their simultaneous catering to our inclination toward voyeurism and their (intentional?) causing us to face the fact that we really DO like to look at things that we know should be private. These programs should appear in the dictionary as the very definition of "Guilty Pleasure."

3Compare the framed negative with Lisa's entrance by way of "introduction" when Jeff asks who she is: She moves from lamp to lamp in the room, saying, in turn, her first, middle and last name as she turns each on, as though she is developing that negative herself via exposing it (and herself) to the light.

4As he is about to leave, the people at the composer's apartment begin singing "Mona Lisa" and we're shown Miss Lonelyhearts fending off the man she has brought home with him. Though the song asks whether Mona Lisa is wistful over the loss of a lover, it is in its essence about the fact that the viewer can never finally be certain what causes her expression (lyrics here).

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Raminagrobis said...

This was a very perceptive post (and I use the word advisedly!). A nicely nuanced variation on the standard reading of the film as a study in the voyeuristic nature of cinema. It prompted me to dig out my DVD of Rear Window and give it another watch (as your posts on film often do) - it's a film that certainly rewards repeated viewings. I have some further observations to make, which I may post on my own blog in the near future.

Andrew Simone said...

I certainly agree with your take and I think Raminagrobis aptly calls it, a "perspective post."

What has always intrigued me is why Hitchcock used the Lisa/Jeff tension at all? I knew it played out the way it did for some reason, but until this post I was sure.

You unlocked a few things for me.

Thanks, John

Camille said...

Hey John! thanks for the post. I love how Hitchcock wove such a complex tangle of viewers/actors. Thanks for sharing!