It’s an only child syndrome fostered by many hours in a library hiding from people who bullied me for one reason or another. I skipped class and read history and took naps on top of library shelves a lot to avoid people.
THAT’S NO ORDINARY LOOK
by Sarah Malone
Rear Window (1954) is one of those films so well-known, well-regarded and well-studied that even if you haven’t seen it you likely know a good deal about it: shot entirely on a Paramount set, as if we’re in the courtyard-facing West Village studio apartment of L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), a photographer for a Life-like magazine. Stuck indoors with a broken leg during a heat wave, Jeff busies himself spying on his neighbors, first to alleviate his boredom, then to prove that Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a jewelry salesman in an apartment opposite, has murdered his wife.
Jeff has a high society girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), whose desire for marriage, incredibly, he’s resisting. Instead, he peppers her with questions meant to prove that her refinement makes her unsuitable for the extraordinary rigor he just happens to be one of the few cut out to endure:
JEFF: Did you ever try to keep warm on a C-54 at 15,000 feet, 20 degrees below zero?
LISA: Oh, I do it all the time. Whenever I have a few minutes after lunch.
Nonsense, Lisa counters—people are people. That’s the last thing Jeff wants to hear.
In all likelihood you know even before Hitchcock’s name comes up in the opening credits that Jeff and Lisa won’t be left to sort this out on their own, that there will be a murder and they’ll be caught up in it. So the suspense becomes less about what’s going to happen than how and when.
And where. Is any film more about its setting, so attentive to daily rhythms of sunrise, sunset, torrid midday? Traffic surges and recedes; alarms go off, people go to work, come home, play music; parties spill onto balconies, and the horns of the great ships sound from the harbor. Jane Jacobs could have cited Jeff’s block for Death and Life of Great American Cities. Within a few doors live a sculptor, a composer, and a ballerina; young and older couples; the middle-aged woman whom Jeff dubs Miss Lonelyhearts; and, of course, the murderer. Thorwald’s address, 125 West Ninth Street, doesn’t exist, but if the real Ninth Street didn’t become Christopher Street west of Sixth Avenue, then Jeff would be spying on this block:
This thriving, Gershwin-paced New York, overpopulated with strivers, is at once cyclical and a clock ticking towards crisis: Jeff has one more week in the cast. Lisa promises to make it a week he’ll never forget. Unspoken is that as soon as he’s able to, he’s going to leave on assignment.
The same plot could be set in any number of locations: Levittown, with Stewart looking out of a tidy ranch house sliding door; or a small town, with Stewart peering through overgrown yews unpruned since the Roaring 20s. But Rear Window isn’t really about the murder. Jeff and Lisa risk proverbial life and limb by the film’s end to identify the killer, but the murder and their investigation only serve as focal points, bringing the stew of elements to a boil, breaking the heat wave and reconciling Jeff—by the end laid up with both legs broken—to the idea that maybe having the perfect girl isn’t something to worry about.
* * *
What if no murder occurred? The film would be a straightforward domestic negotiation. Who’s going to give up what to be with the other? How much of our lives before we couple up are essential to who we are?
The film opens with Jeff losing an assignment in Kashmir because of his injury—just an example, he tells the nurse, Stella, of how he needs to be free and able to go anywhere. “I need a woman who’s willing… to go anywhere and do anything and love it,” he says. He’s at loose ends without hardship to overcome, and he can’t stop reminding us about all he’s had to go through.
But when Lisa comes by that evening, bringing dinner from Twenty-One, we learn that Jeff doesn’t necessarily need those far-flung assignments. All capability and poise, Lisa spends her days networking in the worlds of fashion and upper crust New York. She enters with a little smile on her face, as if as entranced by her performance as we are. She’s planted items about Jeff in the New York press:
LISA: You can’t buy that kind of publicity… I could get you a dozen assignments tomorrow - fashions, portraits. Well now, don’t laugh, I could do it.
JEFF: That’s what I’m afraid of. Can you see me driving down to the fashion salon in a jeep wearing combat boots and a three-day beard? Will that make a hit?
LISA: I could see you looking very handsome and successful in a dark blue flannel suit.
JEFF: Let’s stop talking nonsense, shall we, hmm?
He’s terrified of being domesticated. He imagines married life as “rushing home to a hot apartment to listen to the automatic laundry and the electric dishwasher and the garbage disposal”—all claustrophobic, pent up, sanitized imagery, the work done by labor-saving devices, and nothing for the husband to do but listen to “the nagging wife.” The film channels 1950s anxieties—not communism or atomic war, but something far more elemental: growing up. Settling down. Peace and prosperity. What you were supposed to be looking forward to. Jeff and his wartime buddy Doyle, now a detective, wax nostalgic about their Army Air Corps service. War was to their taste, so how—which they cannot say—do they live now? As Jeff looks across the courtyard and sees Thorwald catering to his bedridden wife, his sympathies are with the soon-to-be-murderer.
But as soon as evidence permits, Jeff is positively eager to suspect Thorwald. Any crisis when becalmed. A scream in the night—the murder—is only the preamble. Hitchcock turns the hinge upon which the film tips into thriller-territory the next morning, forty-two minutes in. It’s humid, after a midnight thunderstorm that sent the couple who sleep on the fire escape scrambling indoors. Jeff is talking with Stella, musing that the salesman, who moved three suitcases out in the middle of the storm, seems to be clearing out. “Sometimes clearing out is better than staying,” Jeff says. When he abruptly wheels his chair back out of the salesman’s sight and tells the nurse to get out of sight, we listen up. The salesman is standing in his window looking out. “That’s no ordinary look,” Jeff says. His voice is stilled, cautious, serious all grumpiness gone. He’s back in his element.
Lisa tries to dissuade Jeff from his suspicions, but seeing Thorwald rope shut a steamer trunk, she’s convinced. “Tell me everything you think you saw,” she says, breathless, “and what you think it means.”
The next day, while Jeff’s detective friend remains unimpressed, Stella is almost eager to have her suspicions of trouble confirmed. And after work that evening—Grace Kelly, coming over after work!—Lisa says she’s been thinking about the murder all day. She can’t get it out of her head. The proof of Thorwald’s guilt, she says, is in the handbag and jewelry left behind in his apartment. The admiration on Jeff’s face at her insight is the happiest he’s seemed. “I’d like to see your friend’s face when we tell him,” Lisa says. “Oh, don’t be too hard on him,” Jeff says. “He’s a steady worker.”
She’s proud and happy, too, but Jeff still has to pull them out of a delightful spate of banter about how in the detective stories it’s the girl who comes through in a pinch. “But he never marries her, does he?” Jeff says.
Hitchcock is patient, using quotidian details of Jeff and Lisa’s relationship to prolong the suspense. In one of the film’s numerous flirtations with the Production Code, Lisa brings out a foldout case with her nightgown and everything thing she needs to stay over… on Jeff’s single bed. While she and Jeff have canoodled plenty, of course they aren’t going to share the same bed; he sleeps in his wheel chair, where he can watch Thorwald’s apartment. (In an earlier nudge of the code, the older couple who sleep outside on an upper-floor fire escape share a mattress… but lie down with their heads at opposite ends of it).
It takes another night, and the film’s climax, for Lisa to win Jeff unreservedly. They may like to watch for circumstantial evidence, but they need tangible proof. When Stella and Lisa go into the courtyard garden to see what Thorwald has buried in the flower bed, Lisa climbs up Thorwald’s fire escape and in through his window in her heels and swingy dress. So much for being unable to accompany Jeff because of her society clothes!
When she returns, the look on Jeff’s face is unmistakable: pure adoration.
Finally, what he wants—a comrade in arms, a war buddy. And Lisa is as intoxicated by danger as he is! Lisa has only done what she’d been insisting she could do all along. But Jeff, apparently, is better at looking than at listening.
This isn’t yet the Hitchcock of Psycho or The Birds. Too bad for the victim, but our hero and heroine make it through: murder solved, heat wave broken, back to daily life in the city. Reboot.
In the last scene, exactly where we began, Jeff is asleep, both legs now broken—more dependent on Lisa than ever—while she reclines in penny loafers, Capris and a crisp, red blouse, reading an adventure magazine until she’s sure he’s sleeping, at which point she picks up her Harpers Bazaar. Who says you can’t have it all? As long as the man realizes how much he depends on the woman, and the woman recognizes that she has to be clever.
Oh, 1950s. All this around the corner from Christopher Street and the folk clubs, recording studios and soon to be derelict docks that within a few years would make history of Rear Window’s New York.
Shoutout to the girls gettin chub rub but walking like your life isn’t falling apart because your inner thighs are on fire