Hitchcock in 2018: Rear Window

[This first appeared at The Jagged Word on August 3.]

I’m not proud of it, but Alfred Hitchcock is one of the gaps in my film self-education. It’s sort of like those classic books of the Western canon I always tell myself I’ll get around to. I’ve got good intentions to read more Dostoevsky or Greek dramas or Moby Dick or Les Misérables… well, they look good on my shelf, at least. So I finally watched Vertigo last year, and now Rear Window. Rope and North by Northwest are next. (I know, I know. By the way, have you all seen these great new shows, Breaking Bad and Justified?)

Hitchcock is justly famous for influencing so much of how movies are shot and, still, so many years later, they feel unique. You barely notice that everything is viewed from within Jefferies’ apartment, from the perspective of how much he can see through binoculars or a camera lens. Not only the shots, but the films themselves feel distinctly modern, in spite of their generational markers. Rear Window takes place in a world where men wear suits and hats, and women wear dresses and heels. That and the limitations on Hitchcock’s special effects locate them historically.

But Rear Window is near prophetic in its examination of accidental voyeurism. It’s more than a little disconcerting to note all the similarities between Jefferies’ window into all his neighbors’ lives and the ways that social media connects people. Watch him as he can barely concentrate on conversations happening in the same room because he’s focused on what’s happening across the yard. One of the most beautiful women in the world is kissing him, and all he can think about is what Thorwald is doing to get away with murder. The distraction and obsession is so much like how people act on their cell phones that it becomes clear that human nature doesn’t change, regardless of the instrument of distraction.

Technology has increased the opportunities for looking through our neighbors’ windows, but it didn’t create it. The main difference is that we are willing exhibitionists, creating and “curating” the content of our lives for public consumption. I don’t know how many celebrity gossip magazines there were in 1954, but I’m guessing there were fewer than now. Rear Window puts that gossip in the windows of two apartments, one with a dancer and one with a musician.

In fact, though Jefferies’ suspicion of his neighbor is the heart of the plot, the surrounding dialogue is more telling. Hitchcock is, indeed, the Master of Suspense. We do not find out until the very end whether or not Thorwald is guilty. And even though Jefferies is happy with the outcome, perhaps he’s lost more than he knows. Both Lisa and Stella act essentially as his conscience throughout the first half of the film. At one point, Stella says (apparently quoting from Readers’ Digest), “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.” And Lisa—though Jefferies thinks her way of life prevents her from knowing how real life is—sees deeper than he into the reality of things. She says that his obsession is poisonous, and that in their suspicion (which, finally, becomes the obsession of all three of them), they are “ghouls.”

The question raised at the end of the film, at least for me, is whether they will be able to go on with life as it was before Jefferies was stuck in a wheelchair. Perhaps their voyeurism will become their way of life, rather than being the subjects of life. This idea runs throughout the whole film. Jefferies is unable to participate in life, complaining to his editor that he’s got to get out of the house, unable to scratch his itches sufficiently. So while he watches, all his neighbors live: getting married, moving into their first apartment, arguing, suffering, partying, despairing, creating, trying to keep cool in the heat.

This leads to one of the most poignant moments in the film, and what stands out as the fundamental heart of Rear Window: when the woman who sleeps on the fire escape finds her dog dead, she screams at all the other residents, “You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbors’! Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if somebody lives or dies! But none of you do!”

Whether neighbors like each other or not, our ability to look into each other’s lives has created an illusion of care, rather than actual evidence of physical and concrete care. Sad faces and likes are perhaps encouraging, but might they fundamentally change how we respond to people in need? We have expanded our technological voyeurism to such an extent that our rear windows are everywhere at all times, and unlike blinds that can be pulled down over windows, we never close our windows, though we choose to some extent what we want people to see.

What is the cost? We joke about our obsessions with social media, as Jefferies’ is glib about what he can see outside his window, but we may not even know what we have lost in human connection until it’s too late. We do know to some extent, I believe, but the ubiquity of electronic devices and their seeming indispensability make it almost impossible to relinquish them once we have them. Rear Window, despite its historical situation, might serve as a warning against thinking we can control our obsessions.

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