Hollywood division of labor sometimes consists of one soul’s work opposing or complementing another’s. From Cornell Woolrich’s story, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a case in point. John Michael Hayes’s brilliant, cynical script represents the postwar complacency that Hitchcock’s filmmaking lays bare.
Photojournalist L. B. Jefferies, confined for weeks to a cast for a broken leg, has become a peeping tom. Each apartment window across the courtyard in his urban complex reveals another aspect of his own psychology, much of it having to do with his feelings of inferiority (buried under machismo), sexual unease, and fear of marriage. He thinks himself a “camera bum,” and notes the downward trajectory, from hopefulness to dissatisfaction, of a pair of newlyweds, and the even more acrimonious longtime union of a knife salesman and his nagging wife. (“Jeff” more or less wills this unfortunate man into murdering his wife.) Even before his accident, Jeff had been an outsider at home, living in a low-rent district not because he has to financially but because, always on the go, mostly out of the country, “home” is merely a pit-stop between assignments. Stella, his daily visiting nurse, remarks, “People should go outside and look into their own lives.”
Early on, a long-shot—in accordance with its point-of-view shots from the vantage of Jeff’s confinement, this is a film full of long-shots—shows a cat scampering up courtyard steps, free to roam or go home, (unlike Jeff) unfettered by constraints, including his own expectations and those of others. Another pet, a neighbor’s dog, is murdered by the wife-murderer (for sniffing about); the owner’s cry of anguish at losing her companion, her principal defense against the terrible loneliness afflicting everyone we see, contests a rampant complacency that individuals feel (or at least practice) toward others. Wrapped up in the wife-murder, Jeff is temporarily distracted from his moral obligation to help the neighbor he has dubbed Miss Lonelyhearts, who is attempting suicide. Equally compelling, even piercing, is Jeff’s reduction of the killer into a stick figure in a playlet of his imagination. He no more responds to this neighbor’s mental suffering than he had to the wife’s suffering.
Meanwhile, Jeff’s girlfriend, high-class model Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly, in the film’s best, most complex performance*), nauseatingly exploits Jeff’s obsession with solving the murder mystery in order to counter his misogynism by proving herself a fit companion for him.
Lisa and Jeff’s first kiss in the film, in dreamy slow motion, is proof that the two love one another, but Hitchcock’s presentation of it also suggests that the romance may be delusional, no more than a fantastic dream. Hayes’s script resolves the pair’s quarrel as to whether people can “change” to accommodate better their partner. But while Hayes the cynic sentimentalizes, Hitchcock leaves us wondering whether Lisa is up to the compromising she may be deluding herself into believing she is up to, and whether she ever should have allowed herself to be drawn into Jeff’s dubious perspective on things in the first place. Toward her, I find Jeff smug and condescending.
* Close second: Raymond Burr as Lars Thorwald, the killer, who confronts the tormenting Jefferies: “What do you want from me?!”
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