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Hitchcock Annual (1994) - Rear Window, or the reciprocated glance







Hitchcock's stories, which often have their roots in paranoid fantasies, resemble the delusions of psychotics: people are after me (the chase plot); people are persecuting me (the pursued is innocent); everyone's against me (the pursued cannot go to the police for help because they think him guilty of some crime); I'm in danger and no one will believe me (even the good people don't trust the pursued). The Lady Vanishes (1938) is paradigmatic in this regard in that it portrays the urgency characteristic of the paranoid in the protagonist's efforts to convince the world (and a particular man) that her apparent delusions are real. Insofar as Rear Window's (1954) basic plot concerns an individual's efforts to convince people that a murder has taken place, it conforms to the pattern of paranoid fantasy that underlies so many of Hitchcock's films. More specifically, one member of a couple usually has to persuade the other member to believe him or her, and then they together have to prove to the world that they are right. In doing so, by working together, they develop their romantic relationship until the end of the film when they can join together in love. For love to be created, Hitchcock suggests that the man or the woman has to enter into the private mental world of the other; their fantasy lives must be shared.1

The mechanism of the film is on one level simple: everything L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) sees out of his rear window has to do with his own emotional and professional worries.2 After the credits, the camera moves to the window sill and watches a cat move swiftly up a flight of outdoors stairs leading to the courtyard of Jeffries' building (Hitchcock will later duplicate this shot when the camera watches Stella and Lisa enter the courtyard to dig up Thorwald's flower bed as if the film were beginning over again or as if Lisa were completing the cat's tentative invasion of the world across the way from Jeffries' apartment), and then pans upwards to reveal the building across the way; it looks to the right, then to the left, then down to show the street beyond the building — these are the boundaries of Jeffries' view.3 The shots establish the visual space of the film, roughly the shape of a proscenium stage (the three bamboo curtains being successively and evenly rolled up by an unseen agent during the credits also suggest a stage performance). Then the camera cuts back to the interior of Jeffries' apartment to show him asleep (dreaming); a close-up of his face shows him perspiring from the New York summer heat and humidity (a wall thermometer reads 94 degrees) and the camera shows us that he needs his morning shave.

The camera now cuts to various windows around the courtyard to look in on Jeffries' neighbors, and to tell us what he's dreaming about. First we see a songwriter shaving in front of a mirror on his mantelpiece (shortly we will see Jeffries shaving after he awakens); the songwriter hears a radio announcer ask, "Men, are you over forty? When you wake up in the morning, do you have that tired listless feeling?" The shaving suggests simple wish fulfillment: Jeffries dreams that he is already up and about, performing his morning ablutions, so that he can continue his pleasurable sleep. But the announcer's question is one that causes Jeffries anxiety: he is in love but reluctant to marry. And the songwriter's moving to shut off the radio is another wish-fulfillment, to repress the question. The songwriter is standing up and able to move about (as Jeffries cannot because of his broken leg). As the songwriter changes the dial on the radio, the camera pans to the left to see a couple sleeping on their fire escape awakened by an alarm clock. Jeffries' dreaming of someone else awakened by a clock allows him to sleep a little longer without guilt (the image also introduces the motif of time into the film). The transition from the ...

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  1. Recently, Thomas M. Leitch has argued similarly: "In order for Jeff and Lisa to earn their happy ending, they both need to prove they can act as in accord with each other's wishes." See his Find the Director and Other Hitchcock Games (Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 1991), 172.
  2. Francois Truffaut in his interviews with Hitchcock (Hitchcock, rev. ed., [New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984]) points out that the stories Stewart watches across the way "convey an image of the world," and "have a common denominator in that they involve some aspect of love" (216). Truffaut was anticipated by Jean Douchet in "Hitch et son Public," Cahiers du Cinema 113, November, 1960, rpt. in Cahiers du Cinema 1960-1968, ed. Jim Hillier, trans. David Wilson (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986), 150-57, and followed by Robert Stam and Roberta Pearson in their "Hitchcock's Rear Window: Reflexivity and the Critique of Voyeurism," Enclitic 7, no. 1 (1983): 136-45. This article is a full- scale analysis of the film as an allegory of the cinematic experience, and is excellent, except for some small errors about the content of the film, e.g., the authors say that Hitchcock forsakes "his usual cameo appearance" (138), which is not so, and that Jeffries is the only person "allowed to look through the phallic telephoto lens" (143), while in actuality Stella looks through it to see the pills Miss Lonelyhearts is laying out.
  3. For a more extensive treatment of the use of space in Rear Window, see John Belton, "The Space of Rear Window" in Hitchcock's Rereleased Films, ed. Walter Raubicheck and Walter Srebnick (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991), 76-94.
  4. Freud discusses the symbolic meaning of the Medusa's head: "The terror of Medusa is thus a terror of castration that is linked to the sight of something ... it occurs when a boy ... catches sight of the female genitals surrounded by hair ... The sight of Medusa's head makes the spectator stiff with terror, turns him to stone." See "Medusa's Head" (1922) in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love, ed. Phillip Rieff (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 212-13.
  5. Truffaut, 222.
  6. Patricia Ferrara rejects the idea of reading the film as either an allegory of movie watching or as a projection of Jeffries' psyche, and offers an alternative interpretation of the film as about the various ways in which people relate to one another through seeing. She argues her case coherently and powerfully in "Through Hitchcock's Rear Window Again," The New Orleans Review 12, no. 3 (1985): 21-30.
  7. In the Preface to his book of interviews with Hitchcock, Truffaut tells of an exchange he had with reporters: In the course of an interview during which I praised Rear Window to the skies, an American critic surprised me by commenting, "You love Rear Window because, as a stranger to New York, you know nothing about Greenwich Village." To this absurd statement, I replied, "Rear Window is not about Greenwich Village, it is a film about cinema, and I do know cinema." (11)
  8. Hitchcock's control of cinematic time is most evident near the end of the film when Thorwald tries to push Jeffries out the window, and Hitchcock shows the neighbors coming to their windows or doors to see what is going on. The sequence is tremendously tense, and Hitchcock speeds up the film for the movements of the neighbors, which are intercut with shots of Jeffries struggling with Thorwald. Here Hitchcock creates psycho¬logical or subjective time: at such a moment of suspense, time races in the perception of the spectators, and so does the film. (Today's audiences, sophisticated in their perception of such effects, do notice Hitchcock's manipulation of speed, but I doubt that the audiences of 1953 did.) The sequence, like so many others in the film, has its earlier counterpart in the episode of the discovery of the murdered dog, where the neighbors successively come to their windows or doors to hear the woman who owned the dog denounce the neighbors for their indifference.
  9. I here gratefully acknowledge Maurice Yacowar's superb treatment of this subject in his Hitchcock's British Films (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1977), 270-78. Yacowar was, I believe, the first critic to refuse to take Hitchcock at his word when Hitchcock claimed that his appearances became a nuisance to be gotten out of the way as near the beginning of the film as possible.
  10. Truffaut, 73.
  11. Hitchcock comments to Truffaut, "The symmetry is the same as in Shadow of a Doubt. On one side of the yard you have the Stewart-Kelly couple, with him immobilized in a cast, while she can move about freely. And on the other side there is a sick woman who's confined to her bed, while the husband comes and goes" (Truffaut, 216).
  12. Both Hitchcock and Truffaut comment on the symbolism of the ring (Truffaut, 223).
  13. Michael Powell also uses the myth of Perseus and Medusa in Peeping Tom (1960), where the murderer films his victims as he kills them with a stiletto extending from one of the legs of his camera's tripod. At the same time he has a mirror attached to his camera so that he can photograph the expression of fear on their faces as they watch their own deaths. His victims are all women, whom he fears only because they are women, and like Perseus he destroys their power over him by turning what he takes to be their murderous looks back upon themselves. Laura Mulvey frequently points out connections between Peeping Tom and Hitchcock's films in her running commentary on the 1994 Criterion laser disc version of Peeping Tom.