Goes without saying, but spoilers follow.
The films of Alfred Hitchcock need no introduction. One of the greatest directors of all time, his legendary career spanned from the silent era until the 1970’s, and many of the films he helmed are now regarded as some of the finest work the medium has to offer. From 1950 to 1960, though, is what many consider to be his peak, a decade including some of his most iconic films including Strangers on a Train, Dial M for Murder, North by Northwest, and ending with Psycho. Within that decade a trilogy of films develops that shows the director at arguably the height of his technical and artistic abilities, all of which are revelatory in some way as to the nature and appeal of the act of looking, and by extension the act of making and watching films — 1954’s Rear Window, 1958’s Vertigo, and 1960’s Psycho. Hundreds of books have been written about these three movies, but today I want to look at the first of the bunch and analyze how it takes the act of looking and turns it into something far more complex and revealing.
Quick and dirty details on the plot: Rear Window is about a man named L.B. Jeffries, Jeff for short (frequent Hitch co-conspirator James Stewart), an action photographer who is wheelchair-bound in his apartment after breaking a leg during a shoot. He’s in a relationship with chic and sophisticated socialite Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) but he’s not confident in it working out long-term, and is thinking about breaking it off. He spends his days bored, being cared for by his nurse Stella, entertaining visits from Lisa, and watching the neighbors, among them Miss. Torso the ballet dancer, Miss. Lonelyhearts the depressed bachelorette, Miss Hearing Aid the sculptor, the struggling songwriter, and the married couple across the way, the Thorwalds. One night, he sees Mr. Thorwald behaving uncharacteristically shady, and the next morning starts to suspect that Mrs. Thorwald has been murdered by her husband. He convinces Lisa of it, and after a detective’s inquiries into the matter come up empty, Jeff and Lisa try to uncover the truth themselves; a nighttime break-in and some close calls later, they learn that their hunch was right, Mr. Thorwald is apprehended, and the neighborhood returns to peace.
In any movie, there’s a number of different kinds of looking that are occurring at any given moment, but they can be lumped into three different categories: the look of the characters, the look of the camera, and the look of the audience. The look of the characters only exists within the diegesis of the film, it communicates the direction that attention is being paid or perhaps some unspoken knowledge shared between characters, but what makes it important is that this is the mechanism that drives narrative. There is no plot, no action, if characters are not directing their attention at different subjects that are then made into objectives, whether those subjects be a person, place, thing, or even a concept. The look of the camera is divorced from the diegesis, it is essentially the eye of god, or the eye of the director, although in this setting those titles are interchangeable. The camera can look wherever it wants whenever it wants, although in narrative cinema it is encouraged by certain rules in order to maintain continuity, and in general the camera should be looking at the things that are most important — two characters arguing, a close-up of a hidden weapon, an empty chair where a colleague used to sit, and so on. The audience adopts the camera as their point of view to interface with the world of the film, but they have their own look as well. They exist outside the film, viewing the film in two dimensions, opposed to the three of the camera, thus distinguishing the film-watching experience as separate from and subservient to real life; additionally, the look of the audience is what generates any sort of reaction to what is happening in the film. The camera alone cannot fill a certain image with emotional resonance, that is only generated by having a subject to witness that image and react to it. No image is inherently happy, sad, scary, funny, erotic, suspenseful — these meanings can only be generated by having someone to witness the image.
When these three looks are aligned, they become a POV shot, implicating all three looks in the same act of observation or, in some cases, voyeurism. This is what Rear Window trades on, and what propels it forward as one of the premier movies-about-movies. Jeff has no choice but to look, he can do literally nothing else in his current state. He is a ready-made audience surrogate, and that’s exactly the role he fulfills. He even uses a camera with a telephoto lens to do his spying; Hitchcock is not exactly being subtle here. (If the film were written and made from the perspective of Lisa, this would be a different story. She is still complicit in acts of voyeurism throughout the film, but she is also a more active character than Jeff, she is not formally restrained to solely perform acts of looking. And also, as Vertigo makes more clear, the fact that it’s a man that is looking is very important.) Jeff’s eye wanders through the courtyard, travelling from neighbor to neighbor in search of something, anything, to occupy his attention. A murder mystery grows out of this search, but the search itself is the story, that’s what motivates the entire film.
It’s telling to examine what Jeff’s search for stimulation repeatedly returns to. Linda Williams wrote an essay titled “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess” in which she outlined what she called “body genres,” genres of movies that are defined by their excessive bodily spectacle and the requisite bodily reactions they are intended to elicit. She identifies three: pornography, horror, and melodrama, the former two considered to be the lowest forms of film, and the latter not too far above them due in part to their reputation as women’s films. Williams gets much more nuanced in how she comes to identify these genres and what they mean, but I want to stay with the broader categorizations, because we can see all of them represented in Rear Window. The places Jeff’s gaze keeps returning to are Miss Torso’s apartment, the Thorwald’s apartment, and Miss Lonelyheart’s apartment — pornography, horror, and melodrama, respectively. Miss Torso is a young ballet dancer, and Jeff repeatedly watches her get dressed, practice her dancing, and entertain groups of men. It’s something of a recurring joke that Jeff and the other male character to enter his apartment, Detective Doyle, keep getting distracted when they see Miss Torso across the courtyard, performing another highly eroticized routine. Miss Lonelyheart is seen over and over again trying to overcome her loneliness. She acts out an entire dinner scene with an imaginary guest, she brings a man home but is turned off by his aggressive advances, and in the climax of the film, appears to prepare to commit suicide before the neighbor’s piano playing snaps her out of it. The story of Miss Lonelyheart that Jeff watches unfold is one that generates an extremely heartfelt reaction in him, not the erotic voyeurism of Miss Torso but a sympathetic voyeurism, to the extent that he nearly calls the police to stop her suicide attempt before being interrupted.
The last, and main, focus of Jeff’s gaze in the film are the Thorwalds. Mr. Thorwald is a generally unhappy salesman, and Mrs. Thorwald is a bedridden, demanding woman. Jeff watches them fight every so often, and that drama is stimulating, but what really gets him going is what he can’t see. After an unusual night for Mr. Thorwald, Jeff notices the bedroom blinds are drawn, and he doesn’t see Mrs. Thorwald all day. Mr. Thorwald wraps up a saw and knife in the kitchen and goes through a handbag with some jewelry in it, and Jeff gets to thinking that a murder has happened right under his nose. The erotic and sympathetic stimulations of his other neighbors are ultimately no match for the morbid fascination that foul play has over him. It doesn’t even matter that the evidence is slim, and the alibi seems airtight, because the fantasy of witnessing a horrific plot from his apartment window is enough to keep bringing Jeff back. He’s ultimately correct, and Mr. Thorwald did murder his wife, but that point is made sort of irrelevant, it has no real bearing on how the plot resolves. Lisa asks him, “Tell me what you saw, and what you think it means,” think being the operative word here. The fantasy is a reward in itself.
The danger of the POV shot, however, is in being looked at in return. An actor looking straight at the camera is always going to be a move of immense discomfort because it violates the boundaries of the various looks that have been set up. The camera does not “exist” in the world of the characters, and so a character seemingly acknowledging its presence disrupts the divide between fact and fiction. But even more than the object of the camera itself that is being acknowledged by the character, the look into the camera implies the knowledge that there is an audience on the other side of the lens. The narrative mode is suspended in favor of direct address, when the fiction is conscious of itself as fiction and makes an appeal to the viewer. There’s a lot of ends this technique can be used for, but in Rear Window there are two main instances of it occurring, once in the beginning when Lisa is introduced, and once towards the end when Mr. Thorwald realizes there’s someone watching him.
In the first one, Lisa enters Jeffries’ apartment in the dark and approaches him sleeping in his wheelchair by the window. We have a close-up shot of her as she hovers over him, looking directly into the camera. This is followed by Jeff slowly waking up, followed by another POV shot of Lisa leaning in closer, keeping eye contact with the camera, and culminating in a slowed-down kiss with Jeff. Part of the function of this series of shots is in aligning the audience perspective with Jeff’s, which is itself fairly intuitive; Jeff is our main perspective, and so we should perceive what he perceives, in this case his beautiful girlfriend, and in turn she is doing this for Jeff, so she is looking at his face, which is where the camera is positioned. However, in the first shot of this series, Jeff is not awake, because we see him wake up in the next shot. If Jeff is not awake at that moment, then he could not be looking at Lisa, and so the camera can not be exclusively bound to Jeff’s perceptions. Lisa is not meeting Jeff’s eyeline, she is meeting the audience’s — she is framed, she exists in this shot not for Jeff, but for the audience. In other words, she is cast into the position of performing as a spectacle, for both Jeff and the male-coded audience/camera, but her look into the camera suggest an awareness on her part of her position that implicates the viewer in the process of objectification. This whole dynamic is elaborated much further in Vertigo, but the gendered aspects of looking are present here.
The other instance that this self-reflexive technique occurs is around the climax. Lisa has just broken into the Thorwald apartment and found the wedding ring. The police have arrived and are taking her away, but before she leaves she holds her hands behind her back and waves towards Jeff. He pulls out his camera and looks at the ring on her finger, but he also sees that Mr. Thorwald has noticed her signaling. Jeff looks at Mr. Thorwald, and Mr. Thorwald raises his eyes and meets Jeff’s gaze across the courtyard, the first time that anyone has figured out that they were being watched. It’s a moment that feels dangerous not only to Jeff, but to the audience as well. Jeff is handicapped, so any physical threat that comes his way as a result of the tables being turned will be amplified by his inability to properly defend himself. But more than the danger towards the character, it shatters the illusion that we have had a comfortable distance from these subjects for the whole movie. The entire time, we have been watching other people without them knowing it, some of them in very intimate moments, and it’s been thrilling. When Mr. Thorwald looks up, he’s not only looking at Jeff but at the audience, communicating that the anonymity we had enjoyed before no longer exists (there’s more than one reason why movie theaters are dark). It feels gross to be suddenly confronted with the fact that these people know we have been watching them this whole time. Vertigo and Psycho make this more explicit, but it’s akin to having a perversion or fetish revealed. It’s all fun and games until the watcher becomes watched.
Ever since it’s come out, there have been numerous riffs on the premise and themes of Rear Window, but there’s still an incredible potency to the streamlined precision of the original. What Hitchcock fully understood was that the true appeal of watching movies is not to enjoy the story or acting or music or any other aesthetic or intellectual quality, the most basic urge it fulfills is the ability to watch other people, consequence-free. When that gaze is turned around, when the receiver of the viewer’s gaze suddenly asserts their own gaze in return, the fantasy ends, the shadows clear, and the fun is over. Much like the perfect murder being pulled apart by a nosy neighbor, we’ve been caught in the act. The comforting separation of fiction and reality is disrupted for a moment, as the fictional subjects become aware of somebody on other side of the screen. We have become violators. The moment will pass and the fantasy can continue, but that rupture can’t be erased. All the bells and whistles of have been stripped away, and the film is reduced to the essential parts: one person watching another.