Watching Rear Window during the Covid pandemic and the Trump reign of terror helps understand what the movie is about. It’s a political allegory, among other things.
The little society of Rear Window (1954) consists of seven different apartment windows that look out onto a rectangular courtyard from the four bordering apartment buildings; each is a screen on which the stories of the occupants play, like TV dramas. There is a common feature linking the community of the spied upon: All are leading stifled, unhappy, isolated, frustrated lives:
· L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a press photographer who craves action and adventure, the kind that got him imprisoned in a plaster cast: he stood in the path of two formula-1 race cars breaking up in mid-crash; a severed wheel coming at him at high speed smashed his leg and his camera. But he got a fabulous photograph. He pleads with his editor to give him an assignment, cast or no cast: “Six weeks sitting in a two-room apartment with nothing to do but look at the neighbors. I’ve been in this cocoon for six weeks. You’ve gotta get me out of here or I’ll do something drastic.” To add to his troubles, he’s pestered by a beautiful, young, wealthy high society woman, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who wants to marry him, calm his life, and elevate it to her level. Her love for him has turned vampiristic. You don’t think having Grace Kelly beg you to marry her is exactly a vampire attack? Hold on. I’ll explain it later. This is Hitchcock. Anyway, Jefferies isn’t interested. All he’s interested in is watching the TV dramas broadcast from the windows of the neighbors. His window is a panopticon opening onto the others. He tunes in to their stories now and then. Remarkably, no one ever looks back at him (until the end).
· Lars Thorwald, travelling salesman, is tired of waiting on his sickly, complaining wife, so he does her in, dismembers her, and sends her parts, by train, truck and taxi, elsewhere. Some wind up in the East River; one is buried in the garden of the courtyard.
· Miss Lonelyhearts (Jefferies’s nickname for her); a lady of a delicate age, so tortured by loneliness that she sets her table for a romantic dinner with an imaginary suitor and holds conversations with him. Later she brings a man home from a bar, who tries to assault, if not rape her. She throws him out and breaks down in despair. She is about to commit suicide when she hears the music from the next apartment. It is like a life-line. The music pulls her back into life.
· The musician, a “song-writer” composed the music that rescued Miss Lonelyhearts. He is struggling to finish a song, the unfinished fragments of which play like background music throughout. He’s at a dead end: no energy, no inspiration. He is slumping into middle age. We first see him shaving, the radio plays an ad: “Men, are you over forty? When you wake up in the morning, do you feel tired; do you have that listless feeling?” He’s at a dead end in his composition: he plays the same phrase over and over. He drinks too much. (Alfred Hitchcock is his butler). He comes home stumbling drunk one night and takes a vicious swat at his pile of music sheets, sending them flying; he collapses into a chair.
· Miss Torso, a good-looking young dancer who dresses, exercises and dances in full view of the neighbors. She’s pestered by rich, well-dressed “wolves,” whom she “juggles.” She doesn’t want their attentions, and makes it clear.
· An elderly couple who sleep on their balcony have only one pleasure in their life (at least the only one with a role in the TV show of their Rear Window life): their small dog, which they lower onto the courtyard and bring back in a basket. Later, the dog is strangled by the murderer for digging too close to where he has buried his wife’s arm.
· A newly married couple moves into their first apartment and spends the whole elapsed time of the movie—or most of it—behind closed curtains. AT least one happy family. Nope. After the first day and night, the curtain goes up, the bride-groom leans out the window looking tired. His wife calls in a pestering voice, “Haaary!” and his reaction shows little enthusiasm.
Jefferies does something drastic. He detects the murder across the courtyard and brings the murderer to justice. By clues so slim that his detective friend (Wendell Cory) laughs at them, he pieces together the murder of Mrs. Thorwald. At the start Jeff’s suspicion looks like he’s losing his mind. The detective work develops slowly with manipulative moves to entrap Thorwald. The immobile Jefferies is eventually aided by his lover (Kelly), whose daring and pursuit of danger makes her in the end attractive to Jefferies.
The individual stories (Jefferies’s included) are a spectacle of frustration, unhappiness, despair. It’s mid-summer in New York, hot (95 degrees in the first scene). The atmosphere is claustrophobic, stagnant; people are isolated and entrapped in their own individual forms of misery. The potential for community is strangled—by the nature of apartment dwelling in a big city, sure, but also by an obligation to privacy. To be selective in private relations is city life. No one goes to his neighbor to say, “Can we talk. I’ve got problems.” There is a tendency in the fabric of life to suspicion; nastiness comes easily, as when Thorwald, gardening, gets some friendly advice from a neighbor and responds with “Oh, why don’t you shut up.”
The core idea of the film is community, its loss, its recovery. The lady with the dog is the voice of this theme. Towards the end of the detective story, her dog is found dead, strangled near the courtyard garden. She hoists his body in her basket, cries out to the neighbors, who for the first time have come out of their apartments, and rails at them: “You don’t know the meaning of the word neighbor. Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies. But none of you do… [My dog is] the only thing in this neighborhood who likes anybody.” A party guest: “Come on, let’s go inside. It’s only a dog.”
Jefferies has penetrated into their secret, walled-off worlds with binoculars and telescopic lens, but without any particular empathy; he’s mildly amused at the foibles of these small, lonely characters—until he’s gripped by the possibility of a crime. He wins over Lisa and Stella (his private nurse, Thelma Ritter), who become his private investigators. They ensnare Thorwald, who is arrested in a dramatic scene where his crime is exposed to the whole community; the police arrive and rescue Jefferies from Thorwald’s attack, and for the second time in the movie, everyone comes out of their apartments to see what’s happening.
The surface of social life favors isolation and alienation, but also concealment and crime; In Hitchcock it takes some gross violation of surface restraint to break through: Richard Hannay (Robert Donat) stands up in the middle of a music hall performance and shouts, “What are the thirty-nine steps?” Doris Day screams at the top of her voice in mid-concert at Albert Hall to prevent an assassination (The Man Who Knew Too Much); Cary Grant causes chaos at an auction to thwart his own assassination (North by Northwest). In all those cases, the two worlds, the normal and the criminal, collide, and the crime, submerged and hiding in normality, is force to the surface
Jefferies’s (illegal) search and manipulation of Thorwald brings his crime into the open. It always takes some transgressive act of exposure by some heroic figure, often himself the prime suspect, to solve the crimes in Hitchcock films. The police are never of any use except to lead away the perpetrator.
Jefferies’s detective work restores community. The capture, the exposure of the crime, transform the place into a happy utopia. It seems the walls of isolation are penetrated; there is a miraculous release of all tensions (or most), and a solution to all problems. The final shot, no edits, one long shot packed with narrative (like the opening shot):
· We see Miss Lonelyhearts in the song-writer’s apartment, listening admiringly to his song, now recorded. She tells him: “I can’t tell you what your music has meant to me.” We know that what she means is “it saved my life.” They are clearly a thing.
· Miss Torso is surprised and delighted by the return home of the love of her life, a nerdy-looking GI, about three inches shorter than she. She hugs and kisses him. He rushes to the refrigerator for a ham sandwich. Bliss.
· The elderly couple has a new dog. The lady is training him to travel in the basket in a voice all sugary with love and happiness.
· There’s trouble only with the newlyweds. He has quit his job, and she’s wondering if they should have got married at all.
· Grace Kelley is happily ensconced in Jefferies’s apartment, in (for her) sporty dress, ready to share the adventurer’s life. He is now encased in two casts, having broken both legs in the fall from his window.
· The murderer’s apartment is getting a fresh coat of paint.
A string of humane events and kind actions follows magically on the main event, the murderer’s exposure and arrest. Tension, frustration and hostility are dissolved; they all have left with Thorwald. The community seems transformed in mind and action. (It’s only changed for the worse with the newlyweds, though given the attitude of this film towards marriage, divorce might well be a welcome release, maybe an alternative to murder.) Otherwise the whole society breathes easy. There is a feeling of community restored; humanity redeemed. The climate, i.e. weather, itself is part of this transformation; the air is clear; the thermometer reads 72 degrees. The “song-writer’s” song plays; it’s called “Lisa,” a sign of the way the world of the individual apartment dwellers blends into the life of the others. The composer presumably didn’t know Lisa Fremont or that she had early on stopped in her tracks at hearing the music and commented how beautiful it was. Realism or no realism, there is a magical connectedness linking the members of this community. The song plays with sung lyrics, while Lisa basks on Jeff’s couch reading Beyond the High Himalayas but secreting a copy of Harper’s Bazaar from the view of the sleeping Jeff.
The movie is an allegory of a stagnating society, turned inward, self-seeking, individuals living as in quarantine, having lost sight of the benefits of community. There is some crime at its heart, some flaw or failure that governs the stagnation, that pollutes and infects the atmosphere. The release from that infectious influence produces the happy-ending world of the conclusion.
A tyrannical, narcissistic central figure commits a horrendous crime. It pollutes the place, just as the crime of Oedipus causes a plague in Thebes, the only cure of which is the elimination of Oedipus. Thorwald’s world has poisoned the community. The poison is in the air like germs. He is the self-seeking autocrat acting for his own good, against the law, allowing himself even murder, which is favored by the divisions and isolations of the neighbors. He draws the whole society into the miasma of inhumanity that surrounds him.
The USA knows that effect, the society infected by the faults of its leader. Whatever else the Corona epidemic is, it is a symbol of the poisonous influence of Donald Trump.
L. B. Jefferies is the free press. Where the law and the police cannot touch the criminal, it is left to the press to trouble the waters and expose the cause of infection. This same logic is at work in the present pandemic: it is not the experts of the CDC and the NIH, not the gentle-spoken excuse-making Republican senators and government employees fearful of their jobs, who call out the governing criminal: It is Maggie Haberman and Savannah Guthrie, CNN and the New York Times, who investigate and expose his crimes. One of the most troubling facts of our political climate is the passive acceptance of a criminal president.
Thorwald, a murderer, represents Trump? Really? Come on. Well, How many people would not have died if Trump had acted responsibly, how many immigrant children would not have lost their parents, how many Trump supporters would not have driven their cars into crowds of protesters, how many policemen would not have shot unarmed black people?
The string of happy endings in Rear Window works better as allegory than as realistic narrative. The arrest of the villain breaks the spell that held the community in the condition of a wasteland and leaves in its place a humanized society. Community and humanity are reunited.
If you think that’s an improbable interpretation, consider the circumstances: it was written during a pandemic: confinement, no movies, no museums, no libraries, no restaurants, no guests for dinner, just TV and Zoom to make contact with the outer world. What grounds of empathy with Jefferies! What else is there to do but sit at the computer, look out at the neighbors and occasionally type something?
By an interesting coincidence, a book by the sociologist Robert Putnam just appeared, The Upswing: How America came together and how we can do it again (2020). The fragmented world of greed and excess that was the “gilded age,” transforms into a society based on a sense of unity and national obligation during and after WW II. This is what he calls an “I” society moving into a “we” society. It is the same arc that the plot of Rear Window follows. So you might also see the ending of that movie as a reflection the Upswing of America. Of course, it swings down once more after the 60s. The good news is that a society is practically, not magically, able to rescue a development into fragmentation, division, hatred and self-interest.
SOME MARGINAL NOTES
Hitchcock played a trick on Grace Kelly and the audience in the shot which introduces Lisa. And he characterized her pursuit of Jefferies with the same visual joke. At first we dont see her at all, just her shadow. The scene opens with Jeff asleep in his wheel chair, his head leaning to the right, his neck invitingly exposed. Suddenly a dark shadow appears and advances slowly up his chest and neck. The viewer has no idea what or who it is. At neck-high, cut to a counter-shot: the stunning Lisa, full close-up. As she moves in on him, the shadow darkens his face; his features are barely visible. Back to Lisa very slowly closing in. She kisses him, both faces now fully in the shadow.
This is a private joke of Hitchcock in remembrance of his journeyman days at the UFA Babelsberg studio in Berlin. That was 1924. In 1922 W. F. Murnau had released the vampire horror film, Nosferatu, which Hitchcock admired. Jonathan Harker is the guest of the weird Count Dracula. The vampire enters his room at night, and moves slowly towards the sleeper. The shadow of the monster moves slowly up Harker’s body, up the wall, claw-like hands raised in horror-story gesture of “here comes the monster!”; then the shadow descends slowly onto Harker as the vampire heads for his victim’s throat. Finally covers him in darkness.
The later scene is based on the earlier; the vampiristic assailant, shown in Nosferatu in terrifying detail, is suggested by the much more elegant Lisa Fremont, whose vampirism has been toned down to the pursuit of a man who doesn’t want her. Hitchcock must have taken a malicious pleasure in putting the irresistibly seductive actress in the cinematographic frame of the terrifying vampire.
You can compare the two scenes:
Nosferatu at 30:45 / Rear Window at 16:00
THE MARRIAGE GROUP
Let’s look at the stories of the ‘marriage group’. They’re all bad–or they go bad. We’ve seen the salesman’s tale of woe in broad strokes. Next comes the young married couple. Things start well. They move into their apartment, he carries her across the threshold, they embrace passionately, close the curtains and are not seen for a while. Morning, two days later, the curtain rises and the bridegroom leans out the window in his pyjamas, yawns, still foggy from sleep and marital exertions. His wife calls to him in a pleading, pestering voice, “Haaarry!” His response shows that the edge is off his bliss.
But the serious marriage story is that of Jeffries himself. We know from the outset that he considers marriage a trap for a freedom-loving adventurer like himself. We learn that he has a lover. Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) is rich, high society and beautiful. She is after him. But he doesn’t want to marry, and he doesn’t want her. He’s bored with her, despises her values. She leads a life he couldn’t possibly share. She promises him a fashion photography business, wealthy customers, blue suits and ties. He doesn’t want any of it. She won’t let loose, even swallows some harsh put-downs. Telling her about the musician, he says, “He lives alone. Probably had a very unhappy marriage.” Lisa: “It’s enchanting. [the song] It’s almost as if he were writing it for us.” Jeff: “That’s probably why he’s having so much trouble with it.” Once she is drawn into the murder story, things change. She becomes his assistant, helps dig up the garden, breaks into Thorwald’s apartment, faces him down when he returns unexpectedly. Jeff is suddenly full of admiration for her pluck and daring. The last scene suggests they’re reconciled. Crime-solving has brought them together. (Woody Allen picked up this plot turn for Manhattan Murder Mystery. A wobbly marriage rescued by husband-wife crime-solving.) She reads a travel-adventure book but once Jeff falls asleep, out comes Harper’s Bazaar. So the source of trouble in their first round is still there. It’s a gesture like the final scene of To Catch a Thief, where Grace Kelly is also the repelled agressor courting the desirable male, Cary Grant. Hardly has he asked her to marry him on the veranda of his Villa above Nice, when she comments–last line of the film– “Mother will love it up here.” There goes his lone wolf existence.