Rear Window is a 1954 crime/suspense thriller produced and directed by Alfred Hitchcock and written by John Michael Hayes, based on the 1942 short story, “It Had to Be Murder,” by Cornell Woolrich. The film stars James Stewart, Grace Kelly, and Thelma Ritter, with Raymond Burr and Wendell Corey.
It is considered not only one of Hitchcock’s best films, but it is also considered one of the best films of all time, placing at #42 on the AFI‘s 100 Years…100 Movies list (it placed #48 on the tenth anniversary edition). It ranked #14 on the AFI’s 100 Years…100 Thrills list.
Here are some quotes:
“The New York State sentence for a Peeping Tom is six months in the work house…They got no windows in the work house. You know, in the old days, they used to put your eyes out with a red-hot poker. Any of those bikini bombshells you’re always watchin’ worth a red-hot poker? Oh dear, 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. Yes, sir. How’s that for a bit of home-spun philosophy?” –Stella
[Discussing Lisa Fremont] Jeff: No, she’s just not the girl for me.
Stella: Yeah, she’s only perfect.
Jeff: She’s too perfect. She’s too talented, she’s too beautiful. She’s too sophisticated. She’s too everything but what I want.
Stella: Is, um, what you want something you can discuss?
Jeff: Well, it’s very simple, Stella. She belongs to that rarified atmosphere of Park Avenue, you know. Expensive restaurants, literary cocktail parties…Can you imagine her tramping around the world with a camera bum who never has more than a week’s salary in the bank? If she was only ordinary.
Stella: You ever gonna get married?
Jeff: I’ll probably get married one of these days, and when I do, it’s gonna be to someone who thinks of life not just as a new dress, and a lobster dinner, the latest scandal. I need a woman who’s willing…to go anywhere and do anything and love it. So the honest thing for me to do is just to call the whole thing off and let her find somebody else.
Stella: Yeah, I can hear you now. Get out of my life. You’re a perfectly wonderful woman – you’re too good for me.
Jeff: Did you ever get shot at? Did you ever get run over? Did you ever get sandbagged at night because somebody got unfavorable publicity from your camera? Did you ever…those high-heels, they’ll be great in the jungle and the nylons and those six ounce lingerie…
Jeff: All right. Three! They’ll make a big hit in Finland just before you freeze to death.
Lisa: Well, if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to wear the proper clothes.
Jeff: Yeah, yeah. Well try and find a raincoat in Brazil, even when it isn’t raining. Lisa. In this job, you carry one suitcase, your home is the available transportation. You don’t sleep very much, you bathe less, and sometimes the food that you eat is made from things that you couldn’t even look at when they’re alive.
Lisa: Jeff, you don’t have to be deliberately repulsive just to impress me I’m wrong.
Jeff: Deliberately repulsive! I’m just trying to make it sound good. You just have to face it, Lisa, you’re not meant for that kind of a life. Few people are.
Lisa: You’re too stubborn to argue with.
Jeff: I’m not stubborn – I’m just truthful.
Lisa: [preparing to leave] I’m in love with you. I don’t care what you do for a living. I’d just like to be part of it somehow. It’s deflating to find out the only way I can be part of it is to take out a subscription to your magazine. I guess I’m not the girl I thought I was.
Jeff: There’s nothing wrong with you, Lisa. You’ve got this town in the palm of your hand.
Lisa: Not quite it seems. Goodbye, Jeff. [She turns and starts for the doorway]
Jeff: You mean, ‘Good night.’
Lisa: I mean what I said.
Jeff: Well, Lisa, couldn’t we just, uh, couldn’t we just keep things status quo?
Lisa: Without any future?
Jeff: Well, when am I gonna see you again?
Lisa: Not for a long time…[pause]…at least not until tomorrow night.
Lisa: How far does a girl have to go before you notice her?
Jeff: Well if she’s pretty enough, she doesn’t have to go anywhere. She just has to be.
Lisa: Well, ain’t I? Pay attention to me.
Jeff: Well, I’m, I’m not exactly on the other side of the room.
Lisa: Your mind is. When I want a man, I want all of you.
Jeff: I’ve seen it through that window. I’ve seen bickering and family quarrels and mysterious trips at night, knives and saws and ropes, and now since last evening, not a sign of the wife. All right, now you tell me where she is…
Lisa: Maybe he’s leaving his wife, I don’t know, I don’t care. Lots of people have knives and saws and ropes around their houses and lots of men don’t speak to their wives all day. Lots of wives nag and men hate them and trouble starts. But very very few of them end up in murder if that’s what you’re thinking.
Jeff: It’s pretty hard for you to keep away from that word isn’t it?
Lisa: You could see all that he did, couldn’t you?
Jeff: Of course, I…
Lisa: You could see because the shades were up and, and he walked along the corridor and the street and the back yard. Oh Jeff, do you think a murderer would let you see all that? That he wouldn’t pull the shades down and hide behind them?
Jeff: Just where he’s being clever. He’s being nonchalant about things…
Lisa: Oh, and that’s where you’re not being clever. A murderer would never parade his crime in front of an open window.
Jeff: Why not?
Lisa: [pointing to the newlyweds’ window] Why, for all you know, there’s probably something a lot more sinister going on behind those windows.
Jeff: Where? Oh, no comment.
Lt. Doyle: Didn’t see the killing or the body. How do you know there was a murder?
Jeff: Because everything this fellow’s done has been suspicious: trips at night in the rain, knives, saws, trunks with rope, and now this wife that isn’t there anymore.
Lt. Doyle: I admit it all has a mysterious sound. Could be any number of things – murder’s the least possible.
Jeff: Well, don’t tell me he’s an unemployed magician amusing the neighborhood with his sleight-of-hand. Now don’t tell me that.
Lt. Doyle: It’s too obvious, a stupid way to commit murder in full view of fifty windows? Then sit over there smoking a cigar, waiting for the police to come and pick him up?
Jeff: Officer, go do your duty. Go pick him up!
Lt. Doyle: Jeff, you’ve got a lot to learn about homicide. Why, morons have committed murder so shrewdly it’s taken a hundred trained police minds to catch them. That salesman wouldn’t just knock his wife off after dinner and toss her in the trunk and put her in storage.
Jeff: I’ll bet it’s been done.
Lt. Doyle: Most everything’s been done – under panic. This is a thousand to one shot. He’s still sitting around the apartment. That man’s not panicked.
Jeff: You think I made all this up, huh?
Jeff: [Jeff watching Lt. Doyle staring at Miss Torso dancing in her room] How’s your wife?
Lisa: It doesn’t make sense to me…Women aren’t that unpredictable…A woman has a favorite handbag and it always hangs on her bedpost where she can get at it easily. And then all of a sudden, she goes away on a trip and leaves it behind. Why?
Jeff: Because she didn’t know she was going on a trip. And where she’s going she wouldn’t need the handbag.
Lisa: Yes, but only her husband would know that. And that jewelry. Women don’t keep their jewelry in a purse, getting all twisted and scratched and tangled up.
Jeff: Well, do they hide it in their husbands’ clothes?
Lisa: They do not. And they don’t leave it behind either. Why, a woman going anywhere but the hospital would always take makeup, perfume, and jewelry…That’s basic equipment. And you don’t leave it behind in your husband’s drawer in your favorite handbag.
Jeff: You know, much as I hate to give Thomas J. Doyle too much credit, he might have gotten a hold of something when he said that was pretty private stuff going on out there. I wonder if it is ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long-focus lens. Do you, do you suppose it’s ethical even if you prove that he didn’t commit a crime?
Lisa: I’m not much on rear-window ethics.
Jeff: Of course, they can do the same thing to me. Watch me like a bug under a glass if they want to.
Lisa: Jeff, you know if someone came in here, they wouldn’t believe what they’d see.
Lisa: You and me with long faces, plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known. You’d think we could be a little bit happier that the poor woman is alive and well. Whatever happened to that old saying: ‘Love thy neighbor’?
Jeff: You know, I think I’ll start reviving that tomorrow. I’ll begin with ‘Miss Torso.’
Lisa: Not if I have to move in to an apartment across the way and do the Dance of the Seven Veils every hour. [She lowers the blinds] The show’s over for tonight. [She picks up her overnight kit of lingerie] Preview of coming attractions.
Thorwald: [entering Jeff’s apartment] What do you want from me? Your friend, the girl, could have turned me in. Why didn’t she? What is it you want? A lot of money? I don’t have any money. Say something. Say something. Tell me what you want! Can you get me that ring back?
Thorwald: Tell her to bring it back.
Jeff: I can’t. The police have it by now.
But what is the point of voyeurism here? One is fascinated with other people, how good they look or whatever interesting things they’re doing that catch our attention.
Now, there’s watching those whom we desire, then there’s being watched by others, which causes anxiety, something Lacan regarded as linked with desire. Lacan said that our anxieties spring from not knowing what others want–“the sensation of the desire of the Other…Anxiety is the feeling of the over-proximity of the desire of the Other.”
What both of these emotions have in common (in the Lacanian sense) is the preoccupation that the subject has for the object, or that the self has for the other. People gazing at other people–voyeurs–they’re people looking into metaphorical mirrors; for there is a dialectical unity between the self and other that I’ve explored before.
One desires to be what the other desires, to be as desirable to the other as one desires this other. Such is the feeling all men have for the provocatively dancing “Miss Torso” (Georgine Darcy, whose mother suggested, by the way, before she got the part in Rear Window, that she become a stripper for a “fast buck”!). Since she moves her booty around by a huge, open window so all her neighbours, like Mr. L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (Stewart), can enjoy the show, it’s safe to assume that she, at least unconsciously, wants to be as desired as she desires the company of male admirers (i.e., all those men she dates…while her beau is in the army!)
Then there’s anxiety when one is confronted with the other. Mr. Thorwald (Burr) takes a look around the rear windows of his neighbours just in case any of them is curious about what he’s doing with Mrs. Thorwald. Similarly, Jeff quickly rolls his wheelchair back into the dark whenever Mr. Thorwald looks into his window. When Thorwald confronts Jeff in the dark in his apartment at the end, he asks the voyeur in the wheelchair, “What do you want from me?”
In Woolrich’s short story–in which discussion of the neighbours (page one of the link provided above, in the first paragraph) is limited to the newlyweds and their forgetting to turn off the lights when they leave home, a lonely widow who inspires pity in the first-person narrator, and Mr. Thorwald–there are several examples of Thorwald making sweeping gazes of the entire community of rear windows, from one side to the other. This surveying is a vivid example of anxiety confronting the desires of others far too close to oneself.
And what are the desires of Jeff, the voyeur who is far too curious about the goings-on of the Thorwalds? To know his desires, we must go into his background. He is a professional photographer (i.e., his very job is seeing people and events and taking pictures of them…he was a voyeur of sorts long before he broke his leg). He has been stuck in that wheelchair in that boring apartment with nothing to do, for the past six weeks.
The breaking of his leg is a symbolic castration, a lack giving rise to his desire for something to relieve his boredom, and Thorwald has given him that relief. His beautiful, sophisticated, and fashion-conscious girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Kelly), would love to marry Jeff, but he’s afraid of commitment, using stories of the danger and discomfort of his job as a traveling photographer (Has he made these stories up?) as excuses to deter her from pressuring him to marry her.
…And here’s where his notion of Thorwald’s killing of his wife comes from, in my interpretation. Jeff wants to project his distaste of marriage, and the guilt he feels over his fear of commitment, onto Thorwald. Whether or not Thorwald is actually guilty of uxoricide is irrelevant as far as Jeff’s psychology is concerned: it’s all about making himself feel less guilty about not wanting to marry Lisa.
So the neighbours on the side opposite to Jeff are metaphorical mirrors, each in different ways, of different aspects of Jeff’s personality. Miss Torso reflects his wish to have a flamboyantly sexy and beautiful lover, those aspects of Lisa that he likes; the newlyweds represent a part of him that would like to commit to Lisa; Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) represents his fears of loneliness if he never marries; and the Thorwalds represent his wish to end his relationship with Lisa.
This mirroring is also an expression of feelings of empathy: Jeff feels sorry for Miss Lonelyhearts, and he can understand Mr. Thorwald’s unhappiness with his marriage, hence his projection of ill intent to his woman onto Thorwald (however repressed Jeff’s own ill intent towards Lisa may be). We, as an audience of voyeurs into his world and those of his neighbours, also feel empathy for Jeff whenever he feels a hard-to-reach itch, then share his relief when he finally scratches it.
Now, just as Thorwald has his anxieties over whatever Jeff could want from him, Jeff too has anxieties over what Lisa wants from him. What is Jeff supposed to be for her? A future husband? The loss of his freedom to travel the world taking photos terrifies him; Lisa as his wife would make him feel as grounded as Thorwald feels with his invalid, bedridden wife (See how the two relationships mirror each other.). Still, what heterosexual man in his right mind would ever refuse a woman of Grace Kelly’s beauty?
Pairings of characters are mirrors to each other. Lisa’s vanity mirrors Jeff’s narcissistic wish to continue being an adventurous, risk-taking, globe-trotting photographer. Thorwald’s apparent wish to knock off his wife reflects Jeff’s conflicted wish to avoid marriage with Lisa.
Elsewhere, Miss Torso’s desirability mirrors how desirable she finds so many men. The newlyweds reflect their passion to each other so intensely that they often have their window coverings down…on days so hot (symbolizing the heat of desire) that one always wants to keep one’s windows open. A piano-playing songwriter’s creativity (envied by Lisa), as well as the creativity of “Miss Hearing Aid,” the sculptress (Jesslyn Fax), reflects Jeff’s artistic talents as a photographer. And Miss Lonelyhearts’s fantasy dinner-date with an imaginary man looking back at her at her dinner table reflects the emptiness in her heart, her feeling of not even existing herself.
People are mirrors of each other in this film–a reflection of how there is much of the self in the other, and vice versa–hence all the gazing and voyeurism, representing a wish to connect with other people, WRD Fairbairn‘s object-seeking libido. That intoxicating shot of Grace Kelly’s face up close when we’re introduced to Lisa–we the audience want to be who Lisa desires, yet she desires smiling Jeff, and she gives him a kiss we’ve wanted to receive from her.
While Jeff eventually manages to get her and Stella (Ritter), the insurance company nurse, to believe his suspicions about Mr. Thorwald; his friend, a New York City Police detective named Tom Doyle (Corey), refuses to believe him until the end of the movie. I’m inclined to side with Doyle.
Though it’s assumed at the end that Thorwald is indeed guilty of murdering his wife (and of course he probably is), technically speaking, we see and hear nothing more than circumstantial evidence throughout the film. Mrs. Thorwald’s body is never produced, and we only assume that she never really went upstate on vacation. (Actually, there’s a scene–at night, when Jeff is sleeping–with Mr. Thorwald leaving his apartment with a woman: is this a mistress? The more natural interpretation is that this is simply Mrs. Thorwald.)
Whatever crime Thorwald confesses to is never explicitly stated as him having killed his wife; a detective at the end only tells Doyle that Thorwald will take them “on a tour of the East River,” which presumably will lead to finding his wife’s body (there’s incriminating evidence, which the dog was digging up in the flower bed, and is now in a hat box in Thorwald’s apartment; we never explicitly hear what it is), or it could refer to a different crime, one Jeff has known nothing about, but which could be what Thorwald has referred to by mentioning how Lisa could’ve turned him in, but didn’t.
Thorwald’s attempted murder of Jeff may be for either this suspicion of another crime, or for a fear that Jeff is going to blackmail him with something else (i.e., Jeff’s note about whatever Thorwald has “done with her,” and Jeff’s remark on the phone about Thorwald’s “late wife” could have been interpreted by the confused receiver of the note and phone call as a threat other than knowing about an uxoricide…perhaps a threat to kill his actually still-living wife). Thorwald could simply be a man with a nervous disposition, with as vivid an imagination as Jeff has for dreaming up threats against himself (making him all the more a mirror reflection of overly-imaginative Jeff!), and Thorwald’s resulting fear would be enough to drive him to want to kill Jeff.
Granted, my own devil’s-advocate, speculative reinterpretation of Thorwald’s motives is probably even more far-fetched than Jeff’s suspicions seem to Doyle, but my point is that–even allowing for Jeff to be perfectly correct about Thorwald–Jeff’s suspicions have less to do with him being right than they do (from the point of view of theme) with him projecting his wish to avoid marriage onto Thorwald. In fact, Thorwald’s attempted murder of Jeff turns projection into projective identification, which is a manipulation of the one on whom projections are hung into being the very embodiment of such projections…hence, Jeff’s suspicions become a self-fulfilling prophecy, goading Thorwald into being the very murderer Jeff has fantasized that he is.
What’s more, Lisa’s belief that Jeff is right about Thorwald stems in large part from her noticing how his wife has left the apartment without her handbag or jewellery; this, too, seems to be a projection of Lisa’s own preoccupation with having such things available to her at all times. Again, who knows what possible reason Mrs. Thorwald could have had for not taking them? Just because we don’t have an available alternative explanation doesn’t mean no such explanation can exist.
To return to the theme of desire, we should consider Lacan’s dictum that “there’s no such thing as a sexual relationship,” meaning that feelings of romantic love between two people are an illusion, right from the beginning of courtship. Jeff can intuit this, so in spite of his physical attraction to Lisa, he knows their love will decay. Similarly, Stella knows such decay will apply to Miss Torso, who she says will “wind up fat, alcoholic, and miserable.”
We see the illusion of romance manifested among all the neighbours, in one form or another. Obviously, the romance died a long time ago (among other things, it seems) with the Thorwalds. The songwriter dreams up illusory expressions of love at the piano. The middle-aged couple that sleep outside show more affection to their dog than to each other. Miss Lonelyhearts is constantly frustrated in her efforts to find love (with her imaginary date, with the young man who attempts a sexual assault on her…and though her time in the songwriter’s apartment, listening to his new song, gives us hope for her, we have no guarantees things will work out for her afterwards).
Furthermore, Miss Torso is unfaithful to her short army boyfriend, yet she also has to fight off a lecherous date at her door. Doyle is married, yet he ogles Miss Torso, giving Jeff an opportunity to project his own fear of commitment onto the police lieutenant. Finally, even the newlyweds–whom we’ve assumed to be so happy and deliriously in love–have an argument when the wife realizes her husband has quit his job.
Oneself is afraid of losing the other, but one doesn’t want to be entangled with the other, either. Hence Jeff’s mixed feelings about Lisa, and whatever problems there have been with the Thorwalds.
This love/hate relationship we have with each other is a projection of the love/hate relationship we have with ourselves. As a man stuck in a wheelchair and unable to go outside, Jeff is dependant on others to give his life meaning…yet he’s afraid of commitment to Lisa! External, social alienation comes from inner, psychological fragmentation, which is symbolized by Jeff’s broken leg(s).
Rear Window may feature a murder, but the film in its essence is about relationships, the jolts of attraction and repulsion that exist between the sexes. Woolrich’s story, lacking the girlfriend for the protagonist/narrator, and without the variety of neighbours and their idiosyncrasies, is just about solving a murder that is proven to have happened.
Hitchcock’s film expands the murder case into a study of the dialectical paradoxes of human relationships: we attract and repel each other; we love and hate each other; we’re lonely, yet afraid of losing our free solitude; the self and other are dialectical reflections of each other, reflections expressed through mutual projection and introjection.
Speaking of dialectical paradoxes, another one is that between light and darkness, something exploited in Woolrich’s story, too. This opposition is sublated in the climax when Thorwald, trying to approach Jeff, is blinded by the flashes of Jeff’s camera. The villain emerges from the darkness only to be put in deeper darkness from the light of the flashes.
What makes Rear Window such a great film–in my opinion, for what that’s worth–is this interplay of unified opposites: love/hate, attraction/repulsion, self/other, loneliness/entanglement with others, and light/darkness. As I concluded in Un Chien Andalou, the union of opposites is a universal quality, and greatness in art comes from universality.