*This review is part of Ryan McNeill’s Blind Spots series.
Jeff (James Stewart) is a professional photographer whose lifestyle entails traveling around the globe for reportage. When the film opens, he is beginning the final week of his forced stay in his Greenwich apartment, the result of a broken leg in a cast. The only outlet through which he can direct his journalistic gaze is the titular window that opens to an adjacent apartment. Jeff, initially to quench his inner photographer’s thirst, but gradually to satisfy an unstoppable voyeuristic urge, looks out the window first with the naked eye, then with binoculars and then with his telephoto lens.
The victims of this spectatorial assault are the assorted neighbors whose vastly different lives are perfectly calculated by Hitchcock to serve dramatic purposes: a musician whose diegetic adventures on the piano provide the backbone of the film’s score; a young, blond dancer whose physical exercises are not just eye-candy for Jeff and the male audience, but give insight into his character’s suggested asexuality and emotional detachment from women; an older woman – nicknamed Miss Loneleyhearts – who humanizes the neighbours and contextualizes Jeff’s investment in their narratives beyond solving the crime.
The crime, of course, is the focal point of the narrative. Lars Thorwald, a jewelry salesman who lives smack in the middle of the apartment building across, is frustrated with his wife, though seemingly puts up with her. The wife appears equally annoyed at her husband but it is the man who decides to take drastic measures to solve their marital problems. In solving the mystery of Thorwald’s murder, Jeff has the help of two women: Stella (Thelma Ritter), the wise-cracking nurse who’s caring him back to health, and Lisa (Grace Kelly), the woman he is awkwardly, clumsily, maybe in love with.
Lisa is a wealthy socialite whose lifestyle is in stark comparison to that of Jeff’s but she is, rather impossibly, truly in love with him. Though the 1100$ designer dresses and Vogue magazines seem a peculiar match with the journeyman photographer’s meager belongings, she is at ease with Jeff’s personality and quite assured that one of them will eventually compromise to keep them together. Jeff isn’t quite so optimistic but is convinced, seemingly, when Lisa puts herself at the heart of danger to help him solve the case. Like many other roles Kelly played in her shortened film career, Lisa is befitting of the actress’ name. This is as beautiful and graceful as Grace Kelly has ever looked. She is the absolute embodiment of feminine beauty – not that you can find many instance where Grace Kelly isn’t the epitome of beauty – and yet, it is the fact that she’s at once patiently supportive and much braver than Jeff that makes this one of the most memorable characters she’s played.
Their blossoming romantic relationship, but for only a couple of instances, is rather implied in tongue in cheek flirtations. A similarly indirect approach is taken with regards to Thorwald’s murder of his wife. The act of the crime is never shown to Jeff, nor, consequently, to the audience, but the sudden disappearance of the woman raises his suspicions, as it does ours. It is, in fact, this similarity between what Jeff sees and we do that shapes our experience of the film. Jeff’s window effectively becomes the silver screen itself. Jeff’s temporary physical disability puts him in a position of helplessness that mirrors that of cinema’s spectators with respect to film. He is not an active participant in the outcome of the story, but rather a witness. All of his efforts to make a change are thwarted for one reason or another. When he finally enters that space, vicariously through Lisa, he is taken aback by how different the case suddenly feels, as if his close geographical proximity to the events hadn’t prepared him for active participation in them.
It is the sameness of Jeff’s experience and ours that makes the final encounter of the film all the more chilling. Thorwald’s intrusion in Jeff’s previously contained space is an assault on the private (or semi-private, for those who were lucky enough to see Rear Window in the theatre at the time of release) space from which we were watching the events unfold. It was us looking through the window and it is us fearing for our lives. With Thorwald finally arrested and Lisa safely in Jeff’s arms at the end, Hitchcock re-establishes Jeff’s relationship with the events of the building across the yard, and again, mirrors our spectatorial relationship with the cinema. We may root for our heroes the way Jeff does for his lover when she finds herself in Thorwald’s apartment, but we find it destabilizing if the distance between us and the screen is removed. The show must not go on.