Rear Window: a small-scale model of spectator’s activity

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Rear Window (1954), Alfred Hitchcock

In 1962, when Francoise Truffaut was in New York to present his film Jules and Jim (1962), in one of the interviews where he praised Rear Window (1954), he got caught of guard by a question posed by one of the American critics: “You love Rear Window because, as a stranger to New York, you know nothing about Greenwich Village.” Truffaut’s wonderful response to this ridiculous statement was: “Rear Window is not about Greenwich Village, it is film about cinema, and I do know cinema”  (Hitchcock/Truffaut: 1985, 11).

The story starts with L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), a professional photographer, who is recovering in his apartment after he had broken his leg, few weeks earlier. L.B. Jeffries is immobile and in a cast, so for the most part of the film, the camera is recording only those events visible from his apartment. What L.B. Jeffries sees, we see. Nothing more, nothing less. With extra time in his hands and nothing to do Jeffries starts prying into lives of his neighbors using the familiar tool, his telescope. What started as an innocent distraction, amusement in a way, turned out as a whole idea, a suspicion, that one of his neigbors, a certain mister Thorwald (Raymond Burr), killed his own wife, mutilated her body and burried it somewehere in the garden of their courtyard. His effort to prove that this „murder“ no one saw, indeed happened, puts his fiancee, Lisa Freemont’s (Grace Kelly) life at stake (and his own, at the end of the film) while at the same time, just like him, we are unable to do anything but sit and watch the horror unfolding before our very own eyes and all of this from a limited perspective of window frame and telescope range. Beyond this, we do not exist.

Following this line of thought we must regard L. B. Jeffries as a spectator (film character observing his neighbors), a director/artist/curator (Hitchcock himself pointing the audience where to look), mirroring us (observing him and his neighbors through him). Hitchock’s intention is to use Jeffries possition so he would “define the nature of the spectator, and specifically the nature of the Hitchcockian spectator” (Douchet 150). The latter being a ‘voyeur’ who wants to enjoy the spectacle which is precisely the condition upon which the reason of tying up the main protagonist to a chair and why the camera throughout the film never leaves the room (until the very end) is based on. Furthermore, in films, and Hitchocks’ films in particular, it is the spectator who creates a ‘suspense’ (when I say spectator I mean first and foremost Jeffries, mirroring us). His wish for crime to happen is so strong that the crime eventually materializes itself and happens. In other words, Hitchcock “first excites the worst feelings of his audience and then, through his spectacle, authorizes them to be satisfied. The sense of horror which audience experiences gives rise to other feelings, pure and noble feelings, which alone allow the first feelings to be cancelled out. Here cinema is not just therapeutic, it is a genuinely magic art” (Douchet 151). Hitchcock chooses his vantage point very carefully by firstly positioning the audience in the apartment of L.B. Jeffries and secondly by providing the audience with just enough information so that we, the audience, could indentify with Jeff – we see what Jeff sees, we know what he knows and last but not least, we are, just like him, trapped in the position of demobilized observers, a moral extension of voayerism, unable to participate in the dreadful event unfloding in front of us—Jeff  cannot help Lisa because we cannot help Lisa. This is the concept upon which the Rear Window is based.

The title itself, beside the literalness of its denotation, evokes the diversity that comes with the word window and its meaning: the eye as the window, lens of the camera, the lens of the projector, the window in a projection booth, the screen as the window that facilitates the film and the film as the window into the world (Elsaesser 14). But, in the context of Rear Window, perhaps the most important one is that of a triple window reality (triple as those three bay windows, covered with blinds we saw in the opening sequence of the film). His intention with this initial shot is, according to Douchet, to “unmask reality and show it to us in a triple form” i.e. three different modes of reality: everyday life, world of desire and intellectual world. The first reality is the obvious quotidian world, recognized by the spectator immediately, which serves as a fixed base of director’s structure for it holds the film together. The second one opens onto the world of desire, that is, onto the perception of the apartment from the other side of the courtyard, which is regarded as multiple projection of Jeff’s fixation. “Everything that happens in the everyday world – in Stewart’s apartment – is inscribed here, projected as on a screen. Stewart’s own apartment is duplicated and framed there many times, peopled by forms which are themselves animated by the forces which gave birth to them. These forms-forces personify the secret thoughts, mental attitudes and above all the desires of our hero.” The third blind is what represents the intellectual world (space that constructs the story) and intellectual world is precisely what connects these two, parallel universes enabling their communication. How? Well, James Stewart sees what he believes is a quotidian world however, in ‘reality’, it is his own reflection, the world of desire. A horrific crime happened here yet he never saw it. Therefor, the terror of this crime dwells in his own imagination; his “attention is roused, his intellect is placed at the service of his interest” (Douchet 152), the mere satisfaction of curiosity.[1] In other words, “Stewart is like a projector; the apartments opposite, the screen; the distance which separates them, the intellectual world” where the story is constructed, in the minds of the audience, “would then be occupied by the beam of light” (Douchet 152).

We are a race of Peeping Toms indeed for Scopophilia (pleasure in looking) and voyeurism are deeply inscribed in our society; in cinema, the audience, embodied by Jeff, is placed at a voyeuristic distance and can unashamedly satisfy its curiosity.Immobility, a play with (self) identifications and a consumption-oriented attitude are the conditions that constitute the movie watchers’ position” (Peyer 02). And to say that Jeff’s position in Rear Window is a movie-watcher’s position (in cinema auditorium) is a tautology for he is an “immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the story. The second part shows what he sees and the third how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea” (Hitchcock/Truffaut 319-320).


[1] To further elaborate this (to the readers), Douche decided to displace Jeff from the courtyard in New York into a hotel in Phoenix where the opening scene of Psycho (1960) took place. And if you have ever read anything about Psycho then you know that much was talked about this scene. The reason? Well, to put it bluntly – “Janet Leigh’s brassiere”. We are in Phoenix. The camera goes into a room where the blinds are shut in the middle of the afternoon. We see a couple in bed, holding each other which indicates a certain level of intimacy and physical attraction. John Gavin is shirtless while Janet Leigh is wearing a brassiere. Needless to say, Gavin’s naked torso pleased only half of the Psycho audience while the other half is left unsatisfied. Jeff who is now placed in the position of the latter wants to see more. And he will, because just like that murder in the Greenwich Village he never saw, materialized itself for him, towards the end of the film, so will the naked body of Janet Leigh. To paraphrase Douchet, it is only logical that his aroused desire finds its conclusion at the end of her journey. “She will be naked, totally, offering herself totally. The sexual act performed on her will also be extreme. So the wish is gratified beyond all hopes.” (Douchet 153)

Text by Monika Ponjavic (excerpt  from the MA thesis in Performance Research, Film Curation: Deconstructing Cinema)

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