Clueless–Audience Role in Rear Window

The outlier of the three films studied here, Rear Window leaves the option with the audience to veer towards madness or sanity. Our remove from the usual curiosities is almost maddening in itself. Our narrow scope of Hitchcock films leads us to expect to be told what side we’re one. But here, we aren’t following a disguised murderer or analyzing people close the fine line by going wherever they go. Action is the most important here since, from across the courtyard, there’s only so much action we get to see at all.  And even in context of short episodes where we do meet someone from across the way, analysis of the person gives way to judgment of their actions. Having found ourselves on neutral, if impatient, ground, this is all we have to go on.

The compressed and stifled feeling, which is also tangible in Psycho and Spellbound, is here accomplished by a wide-open window that lets in a view of a small collection of diversions. These diversions are the neighbors, each caught in an immobility that, for some, lifts whether they are lucky or not. Jeffries only has time to notice them because of his own physical entrapment, his broken leg. He’s going crazy with boredom, having to stay in only one place, because his photography occupation has made him travel and that’s what he’s used to: movement. That’s how he got hurt in the first place, standing in the way of an out-of-control racecar to get a still of it. In scenes close together in timing, he threatens to get married just for something to do, then later laments how perfect his girlfriend Lisa is, which is to such an extent that he would almost rather have her gone. Everything, especially superficial things, come easily to her, and he wonders if she ever worries about anything at all. Her pretty appearance and girlish ways convince him she would never be able to keep up with him as he continues around the world at an editor’s beck and call, and his pretense is to warn her away from her interest in him, though the subtle feeling is that he wants to avoid all weighty ties. He detests predictability but appreciates patterns when they might help him solve a problem.

His photographer’s habits have made Jefferies ever alert to motion; he’s always ready to find something to watch (out for) and willing to watch it. He doesn’t sense any danger in simply watching his neighbors, which is why a separate character (and not so much emphatic music like in Psycho) has to be wise of a different sort. Jeffries is worldly-wise, having seen the world for what it is – dangerous and exciting. It’s a narrow view, but to his credit he has captured very poignant moments, such as an explosion. Stella, though, senses the world, their immediate world, for what it could turn into, what present actions bode for later. “I smell trouble,” this nurse is wont to say, and she reminds Jeffries that we aren’t all that distant in time from a society that would poke out the eyes of invaders of privacy. Later, in a twist of symbols and plot, Thorwald’s burning cigarrette glows from the darkness; he is the man who will come to do Jeffries in for watching him, and will almost succeed despite the blinding light from Jeffries’ flash bulb.

Just as interesting images feed in through the window to Jeffries, the same sort of view gets to us through the camera lens, and we can only watch. “[…] Hitchcock’s technical finesse is always in service to the theme: the camera establishes symbols that, because of the way they are shot, affect the audience emotionally, but the emotions evoked lead ultimately to the idea of the film, its essential meaning (Allen 122).” Our remove from the action makes us reactionary, and appalled at relationships we can’t intervene in; we can only lend ourselves to or throw our lots in after the fact, and that becomes the effect and meaning of Rear Window. We are always being dragged or yanked along, which sometimes makes our breath catch. Mrs. Lonelyhearts is a heartbreak on display. It’s her sweet, sad oddness that draws our attention when she pantomimes a romantic evening, sometimes even allowing us, without her knowing, to peek in on her prep and preening. It isn’t clear whether she is reminiscing or this is wishful thinking, but her incompleteness is clear. That’s why we aren’t prepared for the roughness of her near-rape by the very man she invites in. We are ready for a cosmological justice to play in, for her discomfort to be gone.

Hitchcock hits us again with the unexpected, but begins to wrap up the story of Mrs. Lonelyhearts, by saving her again, and this time it also wasn’t at our doing, only our noticing. Very complete strangers that they are, never having met though surely one has hear the other before, the pianist’s music floats into her room, stopping her from killing herself. We are so sure that death was her fate, because the knowledgeable Stella recognized the pills. Bursts of terror and worry smooth themselves out so fast in this case. It’s interesting to note that Hitchcock used this swiftness in parallel with the agonizing wait for the Thorwald death, if that’s what it is, to unfold it’s own answers so neatly.

Being seen in conversation with a woman who can’t leave her bed of her own will, Thorwald’s earliest identity is that of a married, caring man. He is also a salesman. That’s innocuous enough. Why is he going out on business in the middle of the night in the rain, and multiple times, too? Jefferies, who would rather deal with the abnormal any day, latches onto this. Since we haven’t followed him before, picking up and accepting the same process and knowledge as he has (something we were able to do with Dr. Peterson and with Detective Arbogast), we don’t know whether he is thinking critically or reading into the situation, imputing a shadiness on Thorwald. This skepticism, and exasperation, is the position Stella and Lisa take at first, the easy live-and-let-live Lonelyhearts effect that Jefferies will, justifiably in the end, intrude on. To draw us in further, Hitchcock had to show something solid – a wrapped-up murder weapon and rolled-up mattress – not only to drive up the suspense but to also turn our voices of reason into voices of adventure. If these objects and mentioning “a little neighborhood murder” are enough to make Stella and Lisa drop their barriers, they are enough for us, too, and we wait for the inflow of more evidence. Each new piece of evidence – a forgotten ring, a slain dog, a man unwilling to answer a phone and angered by an anonymous note – are blows to what used to be a peaceful what-if mindset. Unlike in the Lonelyhearts situation, these additions only make the characters want to fight for more clues, even so far as to stick their necks out inside the murderer’s home, and though dangerous, the things they learn are actually taken as positives. Lisa has even allowed her socialite air to be yanked away, and it is for herself, for justice, not (at least noticeably to us) to gain Jefferies’ approval.

When the story is resolved and a sense of normality is returned to, it is in a final outlier aspect, in that the suspected man really was the murderer after all. Where audiences expected the blood to be on Dr. Edwardes’ and Mother Bates’ hands for almost the whole time we know or know of them, in Rear Window he actually ended the tale as we expected. That is probably the biggest oddball he throws at us, between Rear Window, Psycho and Spellbound. This may have been because this film was an adventure in sight, with very little movement, little room for analysis, and little interest in defending someone that was sketchy almost from the beginning. Everything was left up to what we saw, making a suspenseful and almost straightforward case due to the fact that the most interesting people, the neighbors across the way, did the major movements for the viewing, and this small look at life needed only someone who was there long enough to put the pieces in order.

(Tyler Borges)


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