It’s nighttime in New York. Humid air gives way to rain. A couple, sleeping on the fire escape, is forced to drag their mattress back inside. A man in a wet parka leaves his apartment with a suitcase. An intoxicated songwriter swipes at the paper music laid out on his piano. The man with the suitcase returns, and then leaves again. A woman, dressed up and returning from a long night, shoves the door in her date’s face. The man with the suitcase returns.
Some floors up, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is watching. He’s confined to his wheelchair with a broken leg, and the restlessness of being a sidelined photographer has gotten the best of him. During the day, he has a nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), and a fiancée, Lisa (Grace Kelly), to keep him company. But now it’s nighttime. He’s alone and he can’t sleep.
The courtyard his apartment window looks out on is a standard one, with a range of buildings: some tall and narrow and brick, others short and squat with more windows than square footage. Ladders on fire escapes lead to small gardens below. Each window offers miniature dramas: the heartbreak, the happiness, the loneliness, the mess. Jeffries’ vantage is perfect: from above, he can see without being seen.
When others should be dreaming, Jeffries is watching those who aren’t.
My first summer in New York was filled with fever dreams. I didn’t have an air-conditioner and the humidity laid itself thick. I waitressed at a bar most nights until three in the morning, went home to pass out in a soggy heap, only to wake up hours later, still inside a dream and sure I was somewhere I shouldn’t be. I’d hear voices in the other room, maybe the sound of a jukebox, as if I was still in the bar or in a bookstore or anywhere else except for in my apartment, alone. I’d panic and grab at a pair of jeans and pull them on, even as I repeated to myself: this isn’t real, this is a dream, you’re imagining this, you’re still dreaming. I’d believe it wasn’t real, but I also wouldn’t. The majority of mornings, I woke up still wearing those jeans.
That feeling wouldn’t leave for the rest of the day. It hung on me, that fear of being stuck somewhere between here and there, consciousness and unconsciousness. My life took on the tenor of the uncanny. I couldn’t differentiate between reality and dream, logic and feeling. Exhaustion and heat got the better of me.
This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this, but it was the first time I had as an adult. Growing up, I was convinced we’d had a dog we never had. It was years before my mom realized, and quickly debunked, what I considered a very real memory.
Another time, I dreamt I was at a ski lodge with my family. We were eating lunch, still wearing our gear and boots. I excused myself to go to the bathroom. In the hallway, I passed a boy a few years older than me, huddled next to an ATM while his wrist gushed blood. We made eye contact. I kept walking. No one else was stopping, so I didn’t either, and he continued bleeding. Even now, the only way I’m sure this was a dream is because there’s no way it could possibly be real. It’s too horrific and strange.
It’s a particular kind of writerly trait, to let dreams bleed into day, but these moments were visceral and dangerous. They clung to me, so that even if they weren’t real, their affect was. That particular summer, New York’s persistent heat broke down the slim separation between fiction and truth.
L.B. Jeffries stays in that small patch next to the window, a camera within reach, and watches his neighbors. He picks at the bare bones of their stories and assigns them meaning: Miss Lonelyhearts, the middle-aged woman cooking elaborate dinners for one and crying over her empty plate; Miss Torso, the scantily clad dancer entertaining a roomful of men; Songwriter, the man with a piano who is, Jeffries surmises, fresh out of an unhappy marriage.
The hollows of his neighbors’ lives are made all the more apparent beneath the bareness of summer heat. Remaining clothed and concealed is unbearable. It’s easier to keep skin unburdened, windows open, your life there for the surrounding world to see.
Stella side-eyes Jeffries’ persistent surveillance. She chides him: “I can smell trouble right in this apartment. You broke your leg. You look out the window. You see things you shouldn’t. Trouble.”
Jeffries fixates on a husband and wife a few floors down and across the way. He only sees slices of their story, but is sure he knows how to knit them together: an unhappy husband with a short temper, a sick but somehow missing wife, those strange comings and goings in the middle of that rainy night.
This is enough for Jeffries to become sure that the husband killed the wife.
Jeffries calls his friend on the police force, but the detective doesn’t buy it. “That’s a secret and private world out there,” he says. “People do a lot of things in private that they can’t do in public.” But what the detective isn’t acknowledging is the city’s two way street when it comes to voyeurism. You feel justified, watching neighbors across the courtyard, because they’ve left their blinds up. But when you’ve left your own blinds up, you’re all too aware of the potential exhibition. You know anyone can see, and yet you still perform.
The husband’s blinds are up, and he does little to deter the growing narrative. He has shifty eyes. The wife’s purse is still in the apartment, and why is he tightening up a trunk so firmly? Why is he keeping such strange hours?
Lisa is a reluctant participant at first. She corrects his assumptions about Miss Torso. When Jeffries thinks Miss Torso is spreading herself thin with so many men, Lisa shakes her head. No, Miss Torso doesn’t love any of them. “I’d say she’s doing a woman’s hardest job: juggling wolves.” When their attentions shift to Miss Lonelyhearts, Lisa calls her quiet actions a kind of “manless melancholia.”
But not until she sees the wife’s abandoned purse, does Lisa allow that Jeffries may be right. She says that “women aren’t that unpredictable.” They don’t leave their purses behind. Anywhere they go, they take their “basic equipment.” It doesn’t add up.
She keeps Jeffries company while they keep watch, hoping to point at some proof that will change the police detective’s mind. In a quiet moment, Lisa turns the narrative labeling around on the pair of them.
“You’re not up on your private eye literature,” she says. “When they’re in trouble, it’s always their Girl Friday who gets them out of it.”
Here, Jeffries is the intrepid gumshoe and Lisa is Jeff’s Girl Friday.
The idea makes Jeffries scoff. And this, perhaps, is why Jeffries is so insistent on looking out. He doesn’t want to look in. No matter his feelings for Lisa, or her feelings for him, he’s sure they’re not a good fit. She couldn’t possibly live the life of a photographer’s wife. Jeff says he needs “a woman who’ll go anywhere, do anything, and love it.” As much as Lisa insists she’s capable of whatever lifestyle Jeffries throws at her, he won’t listen. Lisa is telling him one story––that she loves him, and he’s wrong to protest––and he’s telling her another.
Rear Window is a movie about the stories we choose to tell.
As a waitress at a small sports bar with very few clientele, I’d spend my nights watching others. Lads got drunk on Guinness and traded turns on Big Buck Hunter. New couples leaned into each other’s shoulders over buckets of French fries. An old man with a cane came in every night at 8 p.m. for a greyhound and a glass of cranberry juice. Actors got trashed off whiskey and performed soliloquies.
It was all very loud, and all very much about everyone else. So late one night, one of the few nights I had for myself, while out with a friend and a few drinks in, I decided we should go to a psychic. A very rational and sane idea. I found a name on Yelp, called the number, and an hour later, we were huddled in her hot stairwell, waiting for our turn.
The psychic worked out of her apartment’s small entryway. A short table with a cheap, gold cloth thrown over top was pushed against the wall, next to a door with a thin veil down it. I could look through and see her fridge, with photos stuck with magnets and boxes of tea piled on top. She handed me the stack of tarot cards, asked me to cut it, and then told me to keep a question in mind as she read.
I can’t remember what I asked, but I remember my intent.
The reading was rhythmic. The card, flipped. The card, interpreted. An occasional glance to gauge my reaction. She told me I was sensitive and quiet but emotional. She said I’d be going to court in the next year, but it would come out in my favor. She said I’d have more responsibility at work and no free time. She said my luck in love is zero but I have a good energy and would be successful. She told me not to settle until I found a home next to the ocean.
The reading was expensive and useless, but I still scribbled her words on the back of a receipt and kept it in my wallet, where it stayed for months. I wanted someone on the outside looking in to tell me what they saw, and I wanted to believe some version of it was truth.
Because Rear Window is a movie, the story Jeffries thinks he sees turns out to be true. Because Rear Window is a movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, it’s a story about murder.
So much of this movie mirrors a different aspect of itself. The way the film was shot on one stage mirrors Jeffries confinement to his apartment. Jeffries’ observation of his neighbors mirrors our own observation of him. But this breaks in the final act, when Lisa decides to shift their role from passive to active observers.
In order to disprove one story Jeffries is telling (that he and Lisa aren’t a good match), Lisa takes it upon herself to prove the other one. She is a woman that can go anywhere, do anything, and love it. He just has to see this.
Lisa goes across the courtyard and into the apartment, trying to find the wife’s wedding ring, because no woman would leave that behind if she weren’t dead. Jeffries remains in his apartment. We stay with him while he watches Lisa. He sees the husband come home while Lisa is still inside. All he can do––and we, alongside him––is call the police. But that final, shaky barrier between audience and performer is broken when the husband turns and, finally, looks up.
The stories tangle, no longer passive. The barrier between what might be and what is breaks. That Jeffries survives a near assault from this wife murderer is not the point of the next scene. The point is his ownership over a narrative that isn’t his, and the danger that brash sureness got him in.
He may have been right, but how much did he almost lose?
I bought an air-conditioner and my dreams stopped dragging themselves behind me like extra limbs. The receipt with the psychic’s predictions got lost on some late night in some bar. I tattooed a blue whale the size of a thumb to my right rib. My life settled. I tried, and often failed, to stop relying on easy narrative. I listened to my bones. I quit waitressing.
Rear Window finds a similar peace in the end. Characters from different stories (figuratively and literally) end up together. Miss Lonelyhearts and Songwriter assuage each other’s loneliness. The man Miss Torso truly loves comes home in uniform. And Jeffries and Lisa settle into the reality of each other.
Summer in New York is so many stories at once. Mini-symphonies filled with potential. It’s a love story. It’s a murder in a courtyard. It’s the tattoo artist around the corner and the whiskey sour you drink at dusk. It’s late nights and fever dreams. It’s a husband at the end of his rope and a girl trying to prove to the man she loves that she’s worthy.