Monday, July 28, 2008

The Women of Rear Window

I've been wondering what I could possibly have to add to the mountains of analysis that have been written about Hitchcock's Rear Window. Critics tend to focus on the theme of voyeurism which is a recurrent one in his work. But Rear Window deals heavily with another of Hitch's recurring themes: the plight of the unmarried woman. He comes back to this theme over and over and yet, it is almost always seen as part of the romance, which is not always taken seriously by film critics. Now that I've sufficiently beaten up on film critics in general, I'll name some names. Roger Ebert in his excellent essay on Rear Window sees the romance part of the film merely as a way to expose Jeffries' psychological problems, his assumed impotence and obsession with voyeurism. This is pretty typical and I think what Ebert does best is distill that mountain down to a concise readable version of what has come before. Seeing the romance as the "b-storyline" in Hitchcock is completely wrong-headed. Not only is the romance element enjoyable in and of itself, it is almost always the heart of the theme, driving the action forward.

Rear Window is the story of a photographer, L. B. "Jeff" Jeffries, (Jimmy Stewart) who is injured on the job and spends his time convalescing in a hot Greenwich Village apartment, watching his neighbors out his window. After the initial set-up of the apartment complex, and its cast of characters, Jeffries' nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) arrives and gives him some rather plain spoken advice about his weird hobby. She keeps this in a light teasing tone, and Jeffries' response is that of an errant child who is so cute he can continue to get away with his misbehavior. Stella moves on to the topic of Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), Jeffries' girlfriend. Having established this maternal role, she goes on to give him much unsolicited advice about his love life. Stella thinks he is an idiot for not marrying Lisa Fremont who is beautiful, talented and in love with him. He accuses her of being on Lisa's payroll. This is a joke, of course, but it spells out his attitude toward women.

Where women are concerned Jeffries is always distanced an cynical. Marriage is a trap laid out for all single men. This is first illustrated by Mrs. Thorwald, who will eventually be the victim of a murder, but before that, she is a nagging, unhappy invalid who requires constant care by her husband. We also witness the start of a marriage as a pair of newly weds move and their exploits are dramatized through a drawn shade and the comical attempts of the young husband to gain a reprieve from his amorous wife. These are familiar tropes, but the effect of placing them here, with Jeff's fear of marriage clearly spelled out is to show, supposedly why, he dislikes the institution so much. Jeffries is most comfortable with Stella perhaps, because she is happily married. When she cooks him a nice meal, he says that he knows why her husband still loves her. Stella, though down to earth and practical reveals herself as a romantic. She says that people should come together like two taxis on Broadway.

Two more characters in the apartment complex have important things to say about marriage and they are Miss Lonelyhearts and Miss Torso. Miss Lonelyhearts is a woman in her early forties who dresses up and has pretend dates with imaginary gentlemen. Jeffries laughs at her at first and then feels sorry for her as she ends her evenings alone, crying and drinking. Miss Torso is appropriately named for she represents a big part of voyeurism and male view of women. She is merely a torso, a piece of a whole person, the most interesting part for a man watching across a courtyard, to be sure, but Hitchcock, before the end of the movie will show us more than just her torso.

Lisa is introduced with one of those showy Hitchcock camera moves. She is in extreme close-up and looms over Jeffries in a way that makes the audience uncomfortable as we've grown comfortable along with him watching people at a distance. As Lisa moves about Jeff's apartment preparing dinner, Jeff watches Miss Lonelyhearts making dinner for her imaginary date. Lisa comes in at the end of her preparations as she's crying. Jeffries tries to cheer Lisa by saying that she'll never be like Miss Lonelyhearts. Lisa replies "oh, you can see my apartement from here, too?" Perhaps it is impossible to imagine her in the same desperate corner, but it's pretty clear that Lisa feels a real connection with Miss Lonelyhearts, er, loneliness. Next they turn their attention to Miss Torso's apartment where the "bikini bombshell" is entertaining three men with cocktails and flirtation. Jeffries says that this is much closer to Lisa's apartment. Lisa comments that Miss Torso is doing woman's most difficult job: juggling wolves. Jeff adds cynically that she's picked the most prosperous looking wolf, but Lisa argues that she doesn't love any of them and hints that she knows about this from experience.

Lisa is charming and sympathetic and lovely. She's everything that Stella said and more. She's also a walking wound of insecurity. She reads disinterest, distance and dislike in almost everything she does that night and she's not far off. What follows is a fairly civilized break-up which ends with Lisa flopped casually in the seat opposite Jeffries' wheelchair. They argue, they go round and round the same topics: he's an adventurous photographer who spends most of his time abroad and she's a fashion model who lives in the world of lunches at 21. This is a familiar scene for anyone whose spent anytime in the dating world. Perhaps the details are more glamourous, but the net result is the same. Two people love one another, but not quite enough to change their lives. It's painful to watch someone go through it and yet, it's kind of comforting to see "perfect" Lisa have to live through it too. After a long tedious discussion that finally comes to the conclusion that the worlds in which Lisa and Jeff live can never be brought together, he maddeningly asks when he will see her again! His implication is that though there is no future for them together he wants to continue to have her company as long as he's in his cast. Am I the only woman watching this who wants to pull a Raymond Burr and throw him out the window an hour early?!

After Lisa leaves, the murder is committed which takes Jeffries hobby into a deep obsession. He spends the rest of the movie trying to prove what he saw and eventually Stella and Lisa join him in the belief that Thorwald has murdered his wife. When Lisa begins to watch alongside Jeff, there is a change of sympathy toward women. Watching Miss Lonelyhearts' first date with an actual man, Jeffries comment is "he looks a little young for her." (Ironically Stewart was five years older than Judith Evleyn, the actress who played Miss Lonleyhearts). Lisa says nothing but reacts in horror when the man attacks Miss Lonelyhearts who throws him out of her apartment. Lisa rings down the blinds on their voyeuristic activities for the night.

As the movie goes on, Lisa's pluck and resourcefulness in smoking out Thorwald prove her mettle to Jeffries. In one critical scene she enters Thorwald's apartment to search for evidence. Thorwald returns and Jeff and Stella are supposed to phone the apartment to warn her to get out. They are distracted by Miss Lonelyhearts who is about to commit suicide by taking too many sleeping pills. It would seem that Hitchcock is trying to show us that in her way, Lisa is as fragile and vulnerable as the pathetic Miss Lonelyhearts.

Ultimately Lisa prevails. She gets her man. She has to risk getting her neck wrung by a murderer but that would seem a small price to pay to win the heart of the man she loves. The whole action of the second half of the fillm serve as an audition in which she proves that she's adventurous enough to be his mate. It is not till Jeffries views her at a distance in Thorwald's apartment, when she becomes part of his voyeuristic fantasy life, that he falls for her. Strangely enough, this doesn't seem to be a problem for her. Though Stewart is the hero of the film, he is trumped by the heroine who sits in control at the end (literally wearing the pants) happily reading a fashion magazine while he doses in his now double cast. Miss Lonelyhearts too triumphs in the end. She hooks up with the composer whose music distracted her and prevented her from killing herself. They seem to be soul mates as his romantic theme wafts down from his studio to Jeff and Lisa together. Hitchcock throws out a final bit of comic irony when Miss Torso's boyfriend returns home from the army. He is a good head shorter than she is and certainly isn't the most prosperous looking wolf. And yet she adores him.

1 comment:

kda0121 said...

Jenny, you are one of the few people who understand Hitchcock's films. Suspense might have been the method with which Hitch unfolded his movies, but he essentially made love stories. Almost all of his best movies going back to his British period were "boy meets girl". Suspense was merely a piece of thin gauze he wrapped gently around his protagonists to propel the story.

It's surprising that more so-called critics don't realize that Hitch was really a sentimental slob and he told of love, yearning, passion, loss and anguish as well as anyone. Anyone who has ever read any bios on Hitchcock know the psychological neuroses in his films were an expression of himself. Hitch was really the leading men of his movies; realized through Robert Donat, Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant and James Stewart.

Rear Window is certainly one of Hitchcock's best films and love stories. You have already covered things so well in your essay, Jen, that I hesitate to add for fear of diluting your key elements, but here goes.

I have disagree with Roger Ebert's analysis that Jeffries was impotent, other than emotionally. Perhaps I'm too open-minded in my interpretation, but when Lisa came over with her overnight case and pulled out her negligee, for me it was a given as to where the evening was going. Only the constraints of the production code at the time prevented things from being made more explicit. If there was one level on which Jeff and Lisa were compatible, it was one of their obvious mutual attraction.

Perhaps because of the times and attitudes towards women of hopefully bygone eras, it seems that many times women had to somehow prove themselves to be worthy of the man in the story. This certainly seems to be the case with Lisa towards Jeff. Whatever his psychological hangups about commitment and marriage were, Lisa proved herself Jeff through her "daring do" in the course Rear Window. Her digging up a garden to find potential body parts, scaling balconies, breaking and entering and fending off a murderer was finally enough for Jeff to realize that Lisa was the gal for him. Too bad she had to go through all that for him to figure out what he had in front of him all along.