Rear Window is a marvel. It’s called “pure cinema” at times, and unsurprisingly. They say 8½ is the best film about film ever made, but we should lighten the requirements for such explicit “film” content to qualify for the award. If Rear Window isn’t about cinema, no film ever was. Hitchcock apparently enjoyed either restricting himself to a single set for his films or having so many sets that the viewer can hardly become accustomed to one before transitioning to another. Lifeboat, Rope, Dial ‘M’ for Murder, and Rear Window may be the best examples of the single-set Hitchcock style. Then you have The 39 Steps and North By Northwest as special examples of the opposite, along with a host of other films with more conventional setting variety. The viewer in Rear Window is pretty well sutured to Jimmy Stewart’s character, confined to the apartment, and visually and aurally limited to what Jeff (Jimmy Stewart) can see and hear. This renders the viewer powerless, impotent, like Jeff, too. This is fitting if the film really is about film, or the film experience. Stuck in a theater, we’ve rather incapacitated ourselves and submitted to the handicap of needing to watch this movie and see what happens.
Hitchcock films often function well as textbook examples of film theory, but they always contain that extra element of genius that sets them apart from the mere “textbook.” This is what we have in Rear Window. The opening credits raise the blinds and give us an establishing shot of what will be, almost entirely, our view for the film, give or take a few zoom-ins and reverse shots. The raising of the blinds is tantamount to drawing the curtains in a theater before said credits start rolling. It’s the window into another world, not our own; the look of the voyeurs (read: cinematic spectators) into the lives of those we’ve never met into a universe from which we’re comfortably detached – or are we?
Following the establishing shot, there’s Jeff sitting there all pathetic and lame. Apparently ancient Greek mythology symbolized castration with an amputated leg, so Jeff’s cast aptly illustrates the impotence that defines him throughout the film. Constantly in this film, especially at the beginning, other characters talk over him as he struggles to get a word in edgewise. This is most often the case with Lisa (Grace Kelly) and Stella his nurse. Rendered incapacitated by his own foolish willingness to stand on a racetrack and take photos, Jeff is now at the mercy of the women who are willing to help him along his road to recovery. He’s only along for the ride, it seems, as they tell him when to get up, what to eat, what not to look at, and (indirectly) when to shut up.
Hitchcock fittingly includes a character immediately across the apartment courtyard of a young woman – “Miss Torso” – who practices her dance moves while scantily clad. She often grabs Jeff’s attention, and therefore also the attention of the viewer. We are stuck seeing, for the most part, only what Jeff sees. We’re even given facial and aural cues to react to the scenes the way he reacts to them, whether it’s a reaction of curiosity, disgust, fear, suspense, happiness, or pleasure. Only at one point does Jeff seem embarrassed by what he sees: when the newlywed couple moves into their new homestead and embraces, just before they (and they only) have the sense to drop their blinds and withhold the view of onlookers. Miss Torso is an appropriate inclusion, since the very idea of the peeping tom brings such an image quickly to mind. There is little or not narrative necessity for her, but immense thematic necessity. In case the viewer ever thinks to excuse Jeff’s voyeurism (and that of the spectator), there is this reminder that such looking is fundamentally one-way. It is for the pleasure of the looker and not the one looked-at. The looker is typically a “he” and the looked at a “she.” Only when the object of the gaze is a male (which ends up being the case in Rear Window) is there a revenge, a return of the gaze. The male looker can safely look at the passive female object without fear of the returned look.
This, however, is one place where Hitchcock shies away from the textbook. Enter Grace Kelly, whose first appearance in this film is dream-like, ethereal, surreal. She moves straight into Jeff’s view before Jeff’s eyes are quite opened. So as she moves simultaneously into the film spectator’s view, she appears a little hazy and overwhelming, an image of objective perfection, to-be-looked-at-ness (à la Mulvey) and to-be-desired-ness. Lisa (Kelly) tries again and again to seduce Jeff, but Jeff’s impotence prevents her success. The tables are turned here; instead of the male agent desiring the woman, things are reversed. Jeff is castrated and without true desire. With his manhood constrained, his desire must be mediated through an image, through proxy. Lisa represents a threat to his masculinity by desiring him. At the moments of what should be maximum romance, Jeff is distracted by wondering about the action across the courtyard. What about Thorwald’s wife? Where is she? Etc.
It’s Lisa who draws the most explicit attention not only to the look, the (fe)male gaze, but also to the cinematic image and its correlation within the diegesis of Rear Window. As she tires of Jeff looking out the window rather than at her, she at one point drops all the shades and tells him, “Show’s over for tonight.” She then lifts up an impressive piece of lingerie (especially for the 50s) and says to him, “A preview of coming attractions.” A fade-out and fade-in later, she’s wearing the outfit while posing, allowing the door frame to contain her like the image she wants to be. This is the modern woman, Hitchcock seems to imply. She may the the object of the male gaze, she may be the looked-at one, but she chooses it to be so. She wields the power that only women can wield and holds it over a powerless man. Lisa’s job, after all, is to wear swanky outfits the designers give her and be seen in them. She wallows in her position, a position that intimidates and, really, terrifies Jeff. When she proposes to him that he stop traveling the world and get an office in New York, he scoffs at the idea. He shifts into a defensive mode, arguing how ridiculous it would be for him in his safari boots and a three-day beard to walk down Park Avenue, or for her in her high heels to cross the Sahara (in so many words). She is always on the calm offensive; Jeff is always on the insecure defensive.
Probably at no point is Jeff’s impotence better seen – and better equated in the cinematic experience – than when Lisa is being accosted by Thorwall in Thorwall’s apartment. Jeff sits in his wheelchair writhing and squirming, asking his nurse desperately, “Stella, what do we do?!” while he grabs at his own neck and panics. He is truly handicapped, truly stuck in his chair and unable to reach across the range of his view into the action he witnesses and intervene. (This should sound a little like the experience of watching a film.) Hitchcock, who by this point has already related the premise of Rear Window explicitly with watching a show, equates Jeff’s helpless feeling of voyeurism with that of the audience watching Jeff. The film audience, like Jeff, is punished for vicarious pleasure; visual enjoyment by means of cheating. With cinema, at least, the images are meant for our eyes, while those Jeff witnesses were not.
The film’s conclusion couldn’t more securely set these ideas into stone. After Jeff falls out of his window (in a bit of poetic justice, perhaps), Lisa comes to his aid and cradles him in a maternal manner. Instead of the classic pose in which the hero holds his woman, here the heroine holds her boy. A subsequent shot shows that Jeff is doubly castrated, now with a fresh cast on his already-broken leg in addition to a cast on the other leg. Nearby at the window seat is Lisa. We first see her looking at a National Geographic magazine (or something like it), implying that perhaps she has changed to suit herself to Jeff’s preferences. She is, after all, wearing pants rather than a dress or skirt (or lingerie) for the first time in the film. She drops the magazine quickly, though, and picks up a copy of Bazaar, confirming that she not only has two functioning legs but continues to remain steadfast in her womanhood. Whatever it is she has going is working, while Jeff’s traditional masculinity is apparently outmoded in the modern world and bound for failure.