Thursday, 7 January 2016

Crime Week: Rear Window (Murder!)

Alfred Hitchcock's iconic thriller Rear Window is most often remembered for its unusual structure. The majority of the film's action is set in one apartment, with any action outside only observed through the titular rear window. This makes sense from a narrative standpoint, seeing as it aligns the viewer with L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), a photographer trapped in a wheelchair. It has also been frequently the subject of academic discussion. One of the most popular interpretations of the film involves the idea that the windows Jeff looks into are meant to resemble screens, and that he is watching them like one would watch a movie.

Still, there is a deeper meaning towards this seemingly straight forward thriller that often goes unnoticed. Beneath the usual Hitchcock trademarks and experimental editing, the film also serves as a critique of 1950's society. In fact, it is through the use of the central murder itself that Hitchcock draws attention to the flaws of 1950's social attitudes, especially with regards to women. This is reflected in large part through two of its central characters: the protagonist, Jeff,  and the main antagonist, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), who both represent different sides of 1950's ideals.

Both men live opposite lifestyles. Thorwald struggles to take care of his bed-ridden "invalid" wife, while Jeff is confined to a wheelchair and cared for by Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly). The early scenes present a darker vision of the ideal conformist lifestyle of the 1950's, with Jeff and Thorwald struggling to maintain control. Thorwald is attending to the constant demands of his wife, and seems to be losing control. It gets to the point where the wife, supposedly an invalid, actually gets out of bed only to be intimidated by him into getting back in. Thorwald is determined to avoid having his control lost to a woman, and in the end the only way to prevent it is murder.

Jeff also displays what might have seemed an ideal life for the 1950's. He is bound to a wheelchair with two women who tend to his every need. This would not have been too unusual as a male fantasy. Federico Fellini famously imagined such a situation on a larger scale during the harem sequence of , during which the protagonist imagines all the women he has known in his life living with him in a farmhouse and showing constant affection. They even go as far as to stage rebellions so the main character and feel like he has total control.

By placing Jeff in a wheelchair, Hitchcock is creating a cynical version of this same fantasy, but one where it is dull. He is a photographer trapped in a single apartment with nothing to do but look out the window. He is a working-class man with a beautiful socialite girlfriend (a relationship between classes, something not easy at the time) and he wants to break up with her. According to Jeff, Lisa is not fit to live the same kind of life as he does, but from the moment she appears there is evidence to the contrary. Lisa proves to be loyal, but not submissive (she actually does take action when Jeff hurts her feelings). She is also mentioned to be a businesswoman (though probably in the fashion industry), already establishing that she is a lot more intelligent than Jeff might realize.

It is during these early scenes that Jeff also makes an effort to take control. He is the one who wants to break up with Lisa at first. When he talks to her about this issue later, her tries to explain that she is not meant for a life of travelling while obviously making assumptions about who she is. He is basically trying to rationalize his decision despite being in many ways a poor judge of character. This is evidenced by his early observations of the neighbours, several of whom add to this critique.

One notable example is the attractive ballet dancer "Ms. Torso" (Georgine Darcy), who throughout the film is seen interacting with various men who only seem interested in her beauty. Jeff assumes she is the kind of person to drink, have sex, and marry fast. In fact, she outright stands up to a man who has been sexually abusing her (locking him out of her apartment), and at the end of the film is revealed to be waiting for her (short and spectacled) husband to come home from military service. Jeff also claims on numerous occasions that Thorwald's wife was "an invalid" even though she is clearly shown standing up and walking out of her bedroom. Thorwald's subsequent attempt to scare her back into bed suggests an abusive relationship that goes unnoticed by Jeff.

It is on these grounds that the two men cross paths. Both are struggling to maintain control, and both face it differently. Because of his assumptions, Jeff's credibility upon seeing an actual is brought into question. He no longer has any control over what others think. Lars is similarly determined to silence his wife. The difference is in their ultimate decision. Jeff gradually chooses to relinquish his control, allowing himself to step onto equal ground with Lisa, while Lars becomes determined to maintain absolute power as a man over the woman. It is only when Lisa, as a fellow detective, also joins the investigation that Jeff is able to make any real progress. Lisa even alludes to this in one of her conversations with Jeff, when she comments on how in the "detective stories" it is the girl who is always saving the hero.

Jeff also enlists the assistance of another woman, his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter). She and Lisa ultimately prove the only ones who are any real assistance to Jeff. He tries to turn to police detective Thomas J. Doyle (Wendell Corey), but he ends up being mostly useless. Doyle constantly refuses to believe that a murder has been committed (though not without good reason) and is bound by police regulations preventing him from taking any major action, while also getting easily distracted by Ms. Torso. He dismisses Lisa's observations as nothing more than "female intuition" and in doing so comes dangerously close to letting Thorwald get away.

Being in a wheelchair, Jeff has no choice but to depend heavily on Stella and Lisa, thus challenging the old idea that a women should depend on a man. The three have to be a team, using their combined skills to outwit Thorwald. It is through his discussions with Lisa that Jeff manages to uncover several holes in Thorwald's alibi claiming that he put his wife on the train. While Jeff himself is the one to figure out that Thorwald buried something in the garden outside his apartment, it is Lisa and Stella who figure out its significance and decide to investigate, while Jeff is forced to stay behind and create a distraction for Thorwald.

Finally, it is Lisa who makes a daring move during this sequence. She voluntarily breaks into Thorwald's apartment. She also uses a risky method of doing so, by climbing over the fire escape into his second-story window. The fact that she is even willing to attempt such a move is an obvious clue that there is more to her character than her socialite status would suggest. Clearly she is a lot more daring and cut out for an adventurous life than Jeff initially assumed.

Thorwald, being confronted by a smart, resourceful young woman, once again finds himself determined to maintain his power. Just like he did to his wife, Thorwald tries again to scare Lisa into submission. This time, he fails. Lisa continues to resist his advances and when she is finally taken by the police, she manages to sneak out the one piece of evidence (a wedding ring) that finally confirms Thorwald's guilt. Thorwald has now lost his control as a man, having been outsmarted by a woman. His efforts have ultimately done nothing but make his situation worse, and he has no choice but to confront Jeff himself.

In this final confrontation, Jeff is faced by Thorwald, who tries to push him out his own rear window, but just like the detective stories Lisa referred to earlier, she is ultimately the one to save the hero. She is the first to see him being attacked, and immediately notifies the police (who were about to enter an empty apartment). The process is now completed. Thorwald, who has attempted to maintain absolute male authority, has now lost all control of those around him. Jeff, meanwhile has managed to accept Lisa as a human being, and a whole new world has opened up to him as a result.

This is seen at the very end. In the movie's final scene, Jeff is lying in his wheelchair with both legs in plaster. This forces him to be more prepared to remain in one place, as Lisa tried to tell him to do earlier. Lisa, however, has also changed. She has abandoned her fancy dresses in favour of a simple shirt and pants. She is also seen reading a book about the Himalayas, indicating a readiness to travel, but she then abruptly shifts to a fashion magazine. The implication is simple. Lisa is more complicated than Jeff realized, and there are many sides to her. Her socialite and adventurous personalities are not mutually exclusive. By realizing this, she has become an equal to Jeff.


  1. This movie and what it has to say always fascinates me because it can be interpreted a variety of ways. Is Hitchcock really making a commentary on 50s society as a whole or just giving life to his own sexual proclivities? I think it can go either way, especially given that it is widely accepted that is Hitchcock did explore such things in his work. Excellent write-up.

    1. I'm actually taking a class on directors at the moment, and a portion of it was dedicated to Hitchcock. One thing I've found is that when it comes to his views on feminism, he really is all over the place and very inconsistent. Some of his early work is especially notable. Blackmail does have a woman defending herself when she is nearly raped, but it also ends with a cop laughing about the idea of getting "Lady Detectives" at the precinct. The Thirty-Nine Steps shows the main character basically raping the female lead to escape from the cops. Then there's the strange feminist slant that appears in Rear Window. It's very strange.