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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Blending the perverse with the everyday

“Rear Window” is probably Alfred Hitchcock’s most popular film, and its popularity is well deserved—one could argue that it is his masterpiece. It isn’t as seamlessly crafted as “Notorious,” or as provocative as “Psycho,” or as singular and dreamlike as “Vertigo,” my personal favorite. But “Rear Window” remains the film that best synthesizes Hitchcock’s defining gifts. It brings to the surface our fascination with voyeurism and violence, creates a protagonist whose darkest impulses haunt each of the story’s major developments—and the film does all of this under the pretense of being a lighthearted mystery/thriller.

The key to the film’s ostensible lightheartedness is its focus on romance and marriage. The affable Jimmy Stewart plays L.B Jeffries (who goes by ‘Jeff’), a freelance photographer who broke his leg on a daring journalistic mission. He is now under the partial care of his doting girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), a model and socialite whose lifestyle is as glamorous as Jeff’s is rugged. This set-up invites the viewer to believe that a light romance is underway. Jeff’s hired caretaker Stella (played with gruff charm by Thelma Ritter) most aptly voices our expectations, dismissing Jeff’s pessimistic analysis of his own relationship with Lisa and instead claiming that “when two people love each other, they come together—WHAM—like two taxis on Broadway.”

As genre conventions demand, the film does ensure that Jeff and Lisa come together with relative swiftness. We watch as Jeff attempts to overcome his concerns about his own wild lifestyle being incompatible with that of Lisa. However, even as this happens, Hitchcock shows the real brutality that can come about when two people get married, thereby giving Stella’s facetiously violent car-crash metaphor a disturbing twinge of reality. Simply put, “Rear Window” is the story of a couple whose romantic success is directly predicated on another couple’s violent marital fallout—Jeff learns to love and respect Lisa when the two come together to investigate what may or may not be a murder. The investigation is directed at next-door neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a grumpy salesman whose sick wife has mysteriously disappeared.

Armed with binoculars and abundant spare time, Jeff keeps an eye on Thorwald, analyzing his every move. And by helping solve the mystery, Lisa can show Jeff that she’s not too pampered to be as adventurous as he is. The originality of this film, the way it makes a murder mystery and a romance into one unified narrative, can make us lose sight of how truly perverse it is. Hitchcock uses the grotesqueries of a domestic murder—real or imagined—as a therapeutic tool for the salvation of Jeff and Lisa’s relationship. The ways in which this irony emerges makes each viewing of “Rear Window” more disturbing. Hitchcock uses small details to keep us consistently aware of the warped connection between Jeff and Lisa and Thorwald and his possibly murdered wife. For example, Thorwald is in the position of caretaker for his sick wife, thus reversing the dynamic between Jeff and Lisa.

Some critics have suggested that Jeff’s fascination with Thorwald symbolizes his investigation into his own dark unconscious, making “Rear Window” an exploration of the violent consequences that could come from Jeff’s nagging discomforts with Lisa. This angle makes sense on many levels. Like Thorwald the travelling salesman, Jeff likes to roam free, uninhibited by the cozy domesticity that Lisa represents at the start of the film. What’s more, some of Jeff’s and/or the viewer’s key discoveries about Thorwald happen around the time the protagonist falls asleep, making the investigation seem like a foray into the unconscious.

However, by bringing up this interpretation, I run the risk of making this film seem overly sordid, which it is anything but. Hitchcock is able to fill each scene with such a range of emotions, in part because of the large canvas he allows himself. “Rear Window” was shot on a constructed set of an urban neighborhood courtyard, a few adjacent apartment complexes looking over a grassy center—the space that Jeff’s window looks onto. We are able to see into multiple windows of the courtyard and roughly half a dozen mini-films thereby unfold. They all involve the romantic lives of these neighbors, some of which are comedic, some filled with sadness. The whole range of emotions and genre conventions associated with romance are thus allowed to coexist, on top of and around one another, in these little apartments across Jeff’s courtyard. Jeff’s potential romantic success with Lisa and Thorwald’s potential murder of his wife exist as two poles on a vast spectrum of different romantic situations. Hitchcock’s ability to fit so much detail into such a tight, forward-moving thriller makes “Rear Window” endlessly re-watchable. It plays this week in Harris as part of Grinnell’s Favorite Films Festival in the mystery/suspense genre.

-Colin Carr ’12

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