Imagine you’ve been hobbled by a physical calamity over which you had no control and are confined to your home for an extended period.
The living space affords you a peeping-Tom’s view of your neighbors’ (in the modern world, really strangers) intimate lives.
Now, consider that you draw not only conclusions about those lives, but moral conclusions about the conduct of your neighbors. Their apparent conduct makes you question everything about what you believed about human strengths and weaknesses. It also makes you question your own actions and decisions, your own situation, your own relationships.
Would such a situation change you?
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window,” based on a short story by Cornell Woolrich called “It Had to Be Murder,” hit theaters in 1954. It’s considered one of Hitchcock’s most ingenious films and stars James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Witter and Raymond Burr.
It was nominated for four Academy Awards (Best Director, Cinematography, Sound Mixing, and Best Adapted Screenplay). It deserves the accolades it has received and perhaps more—as in “The Rope,” this “parlor” drama is a master-class in the choreography that exists between camera and player.
The film reveals Hitchcock as the director par excellance in manipulating the 180 degree rule—the orienting physics of the film world that relates the subjects to each other and their environment and the audience to the filmic world in a way that is both fluid, dance-like and jarring.
Hitchcock offers a story of a passive voyeur that highlights how the audience of the film itself is also a voyeur of the voyeur. We’re all implicated thereby.
In 1961’s “Psycho,” Hitchcock would ratchet up that implication by making the audience complicit in every transgression on screen. “Real Window” lets him imply the guilt that attends merely seeing transgressions and involves the audience in a kind of helpless participation in helplessness.
Knowing itself is a kind of guilt. That itself is a philosophically modern situation. And Hitchcock seems to want the audience to know and be guilty.
Stewarts’ Jefferies is an injured photographer trapped by an unexplained broken leg in his apartment. We suspect it’s the result of his profession and his willingness to risk his life to “get a shot.”
His Greenwich Village apartment that overlooks (from perhaps a third floor) a courtyard gives him a view of the opposite apartment, a four story building with a view of a live street through a passage down-screen left, which, frequently, features people passing to and fro, going about their lives.
These are, for the most part, the innocents of society who are unaware of the evil being perpetuated within their midst. One imagines a young David Lynch watching “Rear Window” and conceiving “Mullholland Drive” or “Blue Velvet” and showing everything that Hitch declined to film.
Think Nic Pizzolatto in the much misunderstood second season to HBO’s “True Detective,” in which his main characters internalize their complicity in the crimes they investigate and hope to purge from society and themselves.
Or the hints in just about everything David Fincher ever did.
The film camera always gives us the “impossible view” as every filmmaker of note learned from Orson Welles. Hitchcock nailed that film is voyeurism and seeks to implicate all humanity in the sins of humanity—by merely looking—and sometimes it reveals that redemption is possible and suggests avenues for such redemption.
“Rear Window” gives us the not quite ordinary man’s obsession with coming to know his fellow man’s own obsessions—except, because he’s reduced to the voyeur’s view of his neighbor, he must fill in the blanks; a kind of cut and paste existence for meaning. And one that he seeks because the questions he is asking are really about himself. And because he looks through a series of lenses and not into a mirror.
There is a book to be written about Hitchcock’s films and its title ought to be “American Paranoia.” Something about every one of his films is about what it means to be open, to be seen, to be worried about what it means to be seen and, like the Greek Tragedies of old, about the blurring of lines between what ought to be private or public.
At the same time, the British-born director is fascinated with an American habit for self-blindness. Hitchcock not only blurred that line in his films but obliterated it.
It’s hard, in the end, to know who is the villain in most of his films—because the camera shows you things you should never have seen. And what you shouldn’t have seen constitutes what you shouldn’t know. Ever. And, yet, you do.
Wim Wender’s “Wings of Desire” (1987, Argos Films, France) lets us overhear what Angels ruminate about, puzzled by the human condition. Hitchcock’s films let us see the very worst about the most mundane of human nature that are the last things we want to see in the mirror.
Stewart’s Jefferies sees what he thinks he can confirm was a murder. He lives in a world decades before the social media age — but how different is his situation to ours? And how many Hitchcock films implicate the viewer of his films in the very crime they display and constitute a kind of inhumanity of man against man?
Are there any that don’t bracket the role of women in this obsession?
Kelly’s Lisa Fremont is at once the cipher for the desire that Jefferies cannot himself quite consummate and an ideal for the untouchable beauty for which society itself is erected to protect. Yet she’s the character who scales the fire escape to investigate Jefferies’ own suspicions of murder by a neighbor he knows literally nothing else about.
It’s not until she puts herself in danger that we see that Jefferies is really interested in her. He needs her to participate in his fascination with the perversions of human conduct before he can actually see her. It’s as if Hitchcock knew in advance what porn would do to the male eye, reducing it to a slavish obsession with the body, as if the body itself was both the most and least important thing there is.
Yet—he offers it in a film that has its male protagonist completely agnostic to the physical charms of his potential sexual partner, even though they are highlighted in ever single scene in which she appears. There’s a paradox here and one that pre-dates the feminist view that men commodify the female body.
Hitchcock is rather too clever for the critique by half. Jefferies is immune to the physical charms of Kelly’s Fremont, no matter how hard she dumps them in his lap.
Hitchcock seems to have intuited something of Foucault’s false “Panopticon.” He must have read Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and seen that the ultimate evil was an attempt by a Devil to become the all seeing Eye: who sees us, implicates us and makes us complicit in the crimes we see.
“Rear Window Ethics” is the easy out for the passive viewer of others’ lives—and a line in the film speaks it: “I’m not much on rear window ethics,” Lisa Freemont says.
That seems to express that it’s an easy thing to make judgments when one is looking through a neighbor’s window. But rear window ethics are not a reference to the orientation of Jefferies’ apartment windows upon his neighbors.
There is no suggestion in the film that there are “forward” looking windows in his apartment. Rather, “rear” refers to “after the fact,” as in, “You have seen what you’ve seen and now you have the comfort of judging based upon incomplete information.”
That is, you see the disasters of humanity in hindsight; you do not participate. You get to see and then say. And then you get to pretend nothing is your fault.
This isn’t to say that a murder hasn’t been committed nor that Jeff is wrong in his judgments regarding what he has seen or he thinks he’s seen.
It’s to say that it’s a dangerous thing to step out your door, which Jefferies is literally precluded from doing.
When one is confined by some calamity over which one has no control, all one can do is see and judge. One cannot really participate—and that’s the key; because in that situation, one never risks being implicated. One can safely judge without being judged.
And Hitchcock constantly gives us films in which folks determinably don’t step out their doors—rather, they let the world come to them.
Now that we have been locked in our houses for two years, I’d recommend a re-viewing of “Rear Window” with a greater appreciation of how the film predicts so nicely the psychological effects of imprisonment.
We’ve been imprisoned but with a port-hole window (social media), and it’s turned us into paranoid, judgmental “Karens.” Our only defense is to accuse our neighbors for their behaviors even as we deny the image we see in the mirror Hitch already held up to our faces.
Hitchcock made us voyeurs in order that we could see ourselves.
Remember the painting Norman Bates lifts to spy on a naked Marion Crane is Susanna and the Elders, by Frans Vans Mieris, from the Book of Daniel in the Old Testament, of lecherous men gazing upon a naked woman bathing.
Norman looks past the lecherous men looking at the naked woman bathing to look upon the naked woman bathing while we watch him look past the lecherous men looking at the naked woman so we can see through his eyes him seeing the naked woman bathing.
It’s just like Jefferies looking at his neighbors and interpreting their meaning.
We don’t notice that we are using his lens to look upon a story that he interprets for us. As if his view is ours and not really ours at the same time. As if Hitchcock has not nailed us in a box, like Eliot’s “Prufrock” feels like an insect, “pinned” upon a wall. Hitchcock’s films reveal that human beings are often trapped but the view they suffer. And film, thereby, is not a liberating art in the way that one wants to think.
We have been imprisoned for two years now—watching and judging our neighbors in earnest by watching and judging them via social media. Sure, Jefferies turns out to be (neatly) right. But is that what Hitchcock is saying? After all, his films are obsessed with murder.
How then is he implicating us in the pleasure we experience in watching other people watch other people commit crimes without their being directly implicated?
As Benedic from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” would say, “There’s a double meaning in that…”
COVID-19 has made us all into passive observers of other people’s lives. We’re ready at a moment’s notice to defend (at least on Facebook and Twitter) our own proscriptions for the remedies that could cure the sickness of our world.
But how well did Hitchcock himself predict the reasons that we’d find ourselves in this particular moral hazard?
He implicated us early on for our pleasure in believing that others were worse than ourselves by offering us a voyeuristic view that is impossible without film: A “god-like” view provided by the camera that we actually adopt but cannot possibly deserve; a view we do enjoy, feel guilty about and, ultimately, regret.
I think Hitchcock was hypersensitive to the idea that human beings deeply sympathize with and are repulsed by the human condition—and he offered a view that might lay bare the contradictions inherent in that paradoxical combination of sympathy and envy.
Now that we live in a world, however, in which the only view we can see is the voyeur’s peeking through the social media window, we need to ask ourselves—shall we be the reposing Stewart’s Jefferies who relies upon his camera and his perch and satisfies himself that he is right? Or will we be Kelly’s Lisa Fremont who risks life and limb and scales a fire escape to discover the truth?
I hope we chose the Fremont option; but I fear that Hitchcock’s forward-looking pessimism has been born out with our sheepish response to our current real-world conditions.
After all, watching movies is fun and judging other people from afar is easy.
Gregory Borse teaches film appreciation, history & development, philosophy, literary theory and a variety of literatures on a small campus in a large university system in the South. His short story “Joyellen” was selected as an online exclusive for West Trade Review’s Summer 2021 issue. He has published or presented in the past on Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” Stephen Frear’s “The Grifters” and seminal horror films ranging from “Nosferatu” to “Halloween,” “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Strangers,” among others.