Some musings on… Rear Window and its themes

Having very recently re-watched Hitchcock’s Rear Window, a few thoughts coalesced in my mind and I thought I’d better scribble them down on here while they remain fresh. Besides, I thought, it’s about time I used this blog to publish more frequent random ramblings, instead of just the occasional lengthy essay. What I currently want to ramble on about is Rear Window and its main themes. I’ll assume most have seen it but in case you haven’t you should expect some spoilers!

I find there to be two primary themes at work in the movie, perhaps a third too which we can simplistically define as the loneliness of inter-city life, that is the breakdown of neighbourly relations in urban agglomerations. But all this is basically put into words in one speech to the whole block by the lady who has just found her dead dog, and it doesn’t seem as pronounced as the other two themes (it could perhaps even be seen as an offshoot of the first theme).

The first and main theme is of course the act of watching, or if you want to call it so, voyeurism. It is well known by now how this features again and again in Hitchcock’s filmography, and much has already been said of how the windows L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) gazes into give the idea of being movie screens, drawing a neat parallel between Jeff’s passive peeping and our own. Jeff, like a movie audience, is passively watching events taking place within a rectangular frame which he has no direct influence on (for him due to his broken leg, for us because we’re watching a fictional film on a screen). It is in this sense then that voyeurism is the key theme of this movie: a constrained voyeurism where you can see something (from a distance perhaps) but cannot do anything to interfere or intervene.

This is why the film’s scariest moment is Jeff’s complete helplessness watching Lisa (Grace Kelly) trapped in the apartment of the killer Thorwald just as he comes home. Rooted to his wheelchair, Jeff can do no more than look on and anxiously ask the nurse Stella what to do. (At this stage I thought the best course of action would be to scream and let the killer know he has witnesses, but anyway the scene fully gets across the anguish of watching a loved one in trouble while being helpless to do anything about it.) Imagine being like Jeff, stuck in a cast and wheelchair, and seeing from a distance someone you care about in grave danger. In fact, as we are accomplices in his voyeurism, we get the same sensation in the movie when we helplessly watch Thorwald burst into the apartment with Jeff incapable of defending himself. It’s a deeply frightening situation to envisage, even if it’s not a loved one but a neighbour you don’t even know, e.g. Mrs Thorwald but also note here the sub-plot of ‘Miss Lonely Heart’ planning her suicide being suspensefully built up as we wonder how Jeff can possibly prevent it.

But on a far larger scale this situation can be generalised to wider examples, let’s go all the way and liken it to the act of watching depressing world events on news reports and not having the first clue how to make a difference. For it must be remembered, and this is crucial, that Jeff is a news photographer, reporting from far-flung places (see the speech he gives to Lisa about how life with him might turn out), who started out taking pictures during WW2 (we learn this in dialogue with Lt. Doyle) and urged his editor to send him to war-zone Kashmir. This is a man who refuses to look away from awful things, be it a missing woman in his neighborhood or wars on the other side of the world. But how much can he really achieve, other than photograph what he sees? His pictures might get published in newspaper reports but will they stop the wars? Is he not just as paralysed before the events he photographs as he is when Lisa is caught by the killer, able to do nothing but merely watch and take a visual record? Thus Rear Window constructs its theme of passively watching reality in front of us but without directly being able to change it. (Of course in the end, the killer is caught and so Jeff indirectly was able to impact on what he was peeping, but a lot of it depends on Lisa’s quick thinking, the police and other external factors.)

Secondly, the other major theme running throughout Rear Window seems to be the wryly cynical outlook on gender relations. Particularly through its depiction of marriage and courting, and via Jeff’s opinions, the film gives voice to a belief in fundamental incompatibilities between the sexes, which no doubt old Hitch would have had a chuckle about. Time and again the motif of marriage or relationships crops up, to be undermined in various ways. In Jeff’s view, wives only nag and marriage is a trap, a prison, which in his personal case would take him away from his camera and all the globetrotting his job and passion require. We note this throughout, in his often cruel dismissiveness of Lisa’s advances and affection. The theme also comes out through other characters, here are just a few examples:

  1. When Lt. Doyle stares at Miss Torso, Jeff sarcastically asks him “How’s your wife?”.
  2. The young newlywed neighbours Jeff (and we) occasionally spies on are also a running gag, as their early mutual enthusiasm gradually dissipates into petty quarrels even over the small time period of the film. The last lines of the film are indeed theirs, where the young wife declares that she’d never have married him if he hadn’t lied about his job… marriage is a battlefield to the end.
  3. Of course the Thorwalds’ marriage does not end too well…
  4. According to Stella, her marriage has lasted only because they are ‘maladjusted misfits’.

This all adds up to an overall picture where women (i.e. Lisa, to some extent Miss Lonely Heart and Miss Torso, and also Stella in her constant badgering of Jeff to marry Lisa) seek monogamous committed relationships, stability and homeliness, while men try to flee from the restrictiveness and imprisonment of marriage. Even when at the end, Jeff and Lisa are finally together the ending leaves some ambiguous signs concerning their future happiness together; nothing much has changed, Jeff is still an invalid with now two broken legs and Lisa has to nurse after him and reads a book on the Himalayas – implying she is the one who will have to change lifestyle. What are we to make of this theme? Do Hitchcock and the film side with Jeff’s view? Or do they subtly undermine him, hinting at a darker side to his character? After all nobody really likes a peeping tom, even one played by as likable an actor as James Stewart.

So how do these two themes relate to each other then, this is what I pondered immediately after watching. Naturally I suppose they don’t have to, but wouldn’t the film’s coherence and unity be even greater if these two main themes somehow connected and reinforced each other, each one having something to add to the other? The two themes do come together briefly at times, for example through the Thorwalds (the subject of Jeff’s voyeurism and the most extreme example of marital failure) or in how Jeff’s potential love interest/wife Lisa is herself a model, the perfect counterpoint to his status as photographer. But what does this say exactly, about the act of watching, and about marriage and gender relations? And about how the two are related? Does the film betray some old-fashioned stereotypes on marriage? Or is it somehow progressive in its attacks on monogamy and thus patriarchy? What can we take from the darker aspects of Jeff, is he not in some way a tragic character whose inability to act beyond watching is linked to his inability to commit to relationships or to love? Is watching/voyeurism to be seen as metaphorically an act of power, which by making Jeff an invalid is thus turned into utterly impotent power? Is Lisa’s attempt to join Jeff in his quest (after all she is the one who does the ‘dirty work’ of actually going into Thorwald’s flat) a sign that she no longer wants to be a passive model in front of the camera, but wants to share Jeff’s metaphorical power behind it?

I’m not too sure how to resolve all these questions right now, but I’m inclined to think that the most interesting way these two themes connect is through Jeff, and in the way the film actually undermines him behind his initial likeability. His paralysis is what traps him inside both themes, forced to watch without being able to act, and forced to be unable to accept and give love. This is how these two themes connect in the most fascinating way in my opinion. A lot more could be said about this but these are my thoughts for now. If and when I have anything to add, I will! But hopefully some of this has at least been mildly thought-provoking. Perhaps you have some of your own thoughts about Rear Window, or you disagree with me or think I may have missed something or have answers and theories to propose to the questions I’ve posed… In any case I’d be very glad to hear from you in the comments box below!

2 thoughts on “Some musings on… Rear Window and its themes

  1. Thank you for this post.

    It was quite refreshing to read about this film as it has been a few years since I have watched. Your in-depth look and interesting analysis has made me eager to revisit this film in the near future.

    Keep up the excellent work, your thoughts are always a pleasure to read 🙂

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