In his article on "Film Production" for the 1968 Encyclopaedia Britannica Alfred Hitchcock gave the following example of "pure cinema:" "Show a man looking at something, say a baby. Then show him smiling. By placing these shots in sequence – man looking, object seen, reaction to object – the director characterizes the man as a kindly person. Retain shot one (the look) and shot three (the smile) and substitute for the baby a girl in a bathing costume, and the director has changed the characterization of the man." In these terms, his 1954 film, Rear Window, would be a sustained exercise in pure cinema. It is a film about the power, the pleasure, and the moral (and even physical) danger inherent in the shot/countershot alternation Hitchcock takes to be at the heart of cinematic representation. His protagonist, the news photographer L. B. Jeffries (James Stewart), confined to a wheelchair with a broken leg, experiences alternately the thrills and fears of a filmmaker and a moviegoer as he unravels a murder story from the fragmentary evidence he manages to glimpse from the rear window of his second storey apartment.
Hitchcock had an unusually large set constructed to represent the interior courtyard of a New York City apartment complex in a lower middle-class neighborhood. The array of characters visible to the peeping Jeffries exteriorize the tensions and dynamics of his sexual fantasies. They are known to us by the names he assigns them: Miss Torso, a scantily dressed dancer attracts his prurient interest as she exercises or entertains her many suitors; the Newlyweds carry on behind a drawn shade, but when the husband appears at the window for a respite his insatiable wife calls him back for more activity; a middle-aged Miss Lonelyhearts comes to the verge of suicide in her failure to find a suitable companion; an older couple sleep on the fire escape hot summer nights, head to foot; a father is briefly seen dressing his very young daughter. At opposite ends of the courtyard are two artists, of image and sound, corresponding to the two tracks of a film. A middle-aged woman at one side makes modernist sculpture: her annular creation, Hunger, suggests sexual as well as gastronomic need. Her opposite is a young male composer of songs, who drinks too much until his music brings him together with Miss Lonelyhearts.
In the center of this psychic microcosm, a row of windows like a strip of cinematic frames looks in on the apartment of the unhappily married Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) and his bedridden wife. When Mrs. Thorwald disappears, Jeffries convinces himself, his doting girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), and eventually his visiting nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), that Thorwald has murdered her, dismembered her body in the bath-tub, buried some of her limbs in the courtyard, and mailed the rest in a trunk.
Most of the drama is concentrated in the confines of Jeffries's small apartment. Lisa, an affluent fashion designer, is so eager to get a permanent commitment from the reluctant Jeffries that she has his meals catered from the Stork Club, and ignores his discouragement when she comes to spend the night in the apartment. Stella, a voice of earthy common sense, insists that there must be something wrong with Jeffries to reject the attention of someone like Lisa. Although she puts up a formidable resistance to his "ghoulish" fascination with the Thorwalds, she too enters his fantasy and joins Lisa in a hunt for limbs under flower beds in the yard.
Behind the witty comedy of Lisa's seductions and Stella's homely analogies, Hitchcock explores the sexual trauma at the core of Jeffries's fear of marriage as if it were linked to the scopophiliac pleasure involved in film-viewing. As Jeffries becomes engrossed with the evidence of his murder story, he uses his large telephoto lens to get close-up views of Thorwald's rooms. The changes of lenses indicates an optical erection. Lisa instinctually recognizes that the way to Jeffries's heart is through his eyes. She calls her overnight lingerie a "preview of coming attractions." She threatens to rent a back apartment and do Salome's dance of the seven veils unless he pays more attention to her. When threats and enticements fail, she actually enters his fantasy, first digging with Stella in the yard, then climbing into Thorwald's apartment, when he is out, to find incriminating evidence: his wife's ring. Thorwald catches her in the act, but Jeffries saves her by telephoning the police.
Significantly, it is when she signals to Jeffries that she has found the ring – by putting it on her finger and waving it behind her back toward his window – that Thorwald triangulates the view and thus spots Jeffries as a mortal threat. This is the moment when Lisa's fantasy, symbolized by the wearing of the ring, coincides with Jeffries's masochistic excitement at seeing her gravely threatened. Thorwald then breaks the cinematic analogy by looking directly at Jeffries, as if an actor could see a spectator.
Within the psychodynamics of the film as well as the rules of the genre, this is the beginning of the inevitable denouement. Once the immobile Jeffries becomes the potential victim his identification with Mrs. Thorwald is complete. His latent fantasy of being the victim of male aggression comes to the fore, and the Oedipal nature of his erotic confusion is underlined by his last minute efforts to blind temporarily the attacking Thorwald with flashes of his camera lights.
Jeffries survives the attacks with another broken leg, whereby Hitchcock suggests that his fantasy is doomed to repetition. A series of black jokes about the limb the police have recovered culminates in a Freudian topos: they have it in a hatbox. This body part which we never see, but seek through the second half of the film, is both Mrs. Thorwald's head and imaginatively her castrated phallus; for the latter fantasy is central to Jeffries's voyeurism and his fear of women.
Release Date: 1954
Starring: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Judith Evelyn, Ross Bagdasarian, Georgine Darcy, Jesslyn Fax, Rand Harper, and Irene Winston
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: John Michael Hayes
Source Citation: Sitney, P. Adams. "Rear Window." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. Ed. Sara Pendergast and Tom Pendergast. 4th ed. Vol. 1: Films. Detroit: St. James Press, 2000. 1000-1002.