Hitchcock & Legibility

Rear Window (1954)

An illustration depicting Grace Kelly's character from Rear Window (Lisa Fremon) as a bust with images of the apartment windows she and Jeff watch throughout the film inset into her hair.
illustration by Rachel Merrill

There is a moment, in the middle of Rear Window (1954), when the thrill stops. A woman’s dog is found strangled in the middle of the night, and, as a party pauses, lights flicker on, and all the half-familiar residents of the crowded block peek out of their windows, she cries out in grief: “Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog?” 

Her figure is small, almost indistinguishable in the darkness. “You don’t know the meaning of the word neighbors. Neighbors like each other—speak to each other—care if anybody lives or dies. But none of you do! But I couldn’t imagine any of you being so low that you’d kill a little, helpless, friendly dog…the only thing in this whole neighborhood who liked anybody! Did you kill him because he liked you? Just because he liked you?” 

The silence lingers for a beat, dense with grief and accusation. And then—in ones, twos, tens—the residents of the surrounding apartments shuffle off their balconies, return to their own lives. Some murmur to one another about the dog, or the night, or the display. No one offers a word of sympathy to the grieving woman. How could they? What response is left? 

Strange as it is, this monologue relieves tension for us viewers and for the film’s heroes.  Jeff (James Stewart), a daring photographer chair-ridden in a full-leg cast, and his captivating girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), have been watching a man through Jeff’s window for several evenings, a man whom they believe to have killed his wife. Nearly the whole film is given to us through this window, as Jeff watches his neighbors drift in and out of the confines of small, two-dimensional frames. These neighbors, not entirely composed of murderers, include a newly married couple facing their first conflicts, a depressed composer hacking at the keys of his piano, and a woman Jeff calls Miss Lonelyhearts who dines nightly with imaginary boyfriends, pouring a second glass of wine for no one at all. In the scene preceding the dog’s death, Jeff and Lisa are derided by Jeff’s detective friend, Tom Doyle, for acting like typical civilians—like amateur, wannabe sleuths. Doyle “proves” to them that the so-called murder is a figment of their busybody imaginations. When he leaves, the couple dutifully ashamed, Jeff muses to Lisa: “Much as I hate to give Thomas J. Doyle too much credit, he might have gotten ahold of something when he said that was pretty private stuff going on out there. I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long-focus lens. Do you … do you suppose it’s ethical, even if you prove that he didn’t commit a crime?”  Lisa shrugs off the ethics question, but observes: “You and me with long faces—plunged into despair—because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known.” Shame permeates their words: for being made fools, each in front of the other, and for being ashamed at all, when they should instead be glad that a woman is not dead. 

So when the dog is found strangled—proving that something is afoot, after all—it acts as a simple vindication of their intuitions, restoring to the pair their benighted purpose. But, more than that: the woman’s despairing monologue vindicates the very existence of the ethical dilemma, the intractable problem of what these people are to one another, whether this watching is good or bad. How can these neighbors make sense of their moral relationships? Is there even a moral dimension to such relationships? They are strangers who spend their time in close proximity—neighbors without schools, town meetings, or churches to form bonds between them. The dog-owner’s statement that they are not neighbors is not an accusation—it is a modern moral fact. 

After this monologue, the amateur sleuths resume their work with renewed vigor. But they have not learned nothing. They are no longer satisfied just watching. Now, they act. Jeff makes calls to the apartment and writes threatening letters to the supposed murderer. Lisa goes into the murderer’s apartment, climbing through the window in stilettos, to gather evidence. The spell of viewership has broken in favor of an attempt, dysfunctional as it must be, at neighborly intervention. The final facedown finds Jeff dangling out of his window, cast and all, two-dimensionality ruptured at last. By attempting to respond to the moral challenge posed by their ambiguous relationship to these people, they become heroes.

Sometime while watching the film, probably when they started talking about ethics, I knew that I wanted to write something about it, and my first thought was the embarrassingly on-the-nose title, “Rear Window is a Must-Watch for the Internet Age. Here’s Why.” Jeff is paranoid, isolated, stationary. He passes the time reading far too much into strangers’s lives, and he frequently misreads them. The moral ambiguity of his voyeurism bears upon our own lives—we who spend so much of our time steeped in the lives of strangers, in what they eat in a day, in what they think about this or that movie, this or that celebrity, this or that cultural trend. What does it do to our souls, all this mediated observation? And what about their souls? “Of course,” Jeff muses, “they can do the same thing to me. Watch me like a bug under a glass, if they want to.” Is this a fair exchange? If social media has taught us anything, it is that some people look better under a glass than others.

With 40 neighbors, one can, with effort, exit the role of voyeur and try to create intelligible responsibilities to one another. Dangle from the window, if you will. Such an attempt seems impossible, however, when thousands of windows surround us, their shades only up for 15 seconds a day, every apartment an Airbnb. I cannot emulate Lisa and Jeff’s moral heroism in the comments of a TikTok, no matter how rapidly my thumbs fly across the keyboard. And so a simple statement on the Internet is not quite what this film has to offer. Thank God. Of course, this will be apparent for anyone who has seen the film, for the real depth in Rear Window comes not from the thriller at all—its real center is the relationship between Jeff and Lisa. 

Jeff and Lisa’s relationship is preciously inaccessible and relentlessly tainted by misogyny. This coexistence—real love, gender roles—may seem very 1950s, but Jeff and Lisa are not unique: if anything, my friends and I are worse at navigating this coexistence in relationships than they are. 

Here’s how things go: I get acquainted with a guy. He’s good looking—or, at least, good looking-ish. He’s probably tall, a bit of an asshole, and reads novels published before 2004. I want him to like me. After a while, I develop a particular set of eyes, a particular voice, a particular tilt of the chin, a particular set of questions. It is as obvious to all the women around me—my friends, my roommates—as it is unnoticed by him. All I convey about myself is accurate—I tell no lies—yet the picture of myself is framed behind glass. I’ve made a stone statue of my personality. I will not be easily melted and moved, and so I will not be easily known, or honestly loved. 

These relationships last a couple of months and then begin to fizzle. I complain that he asks me no questions, which is typically true. But the real problem is that he’s fallen for it—the obvious veneer, the reflecting pool, the manic-pixie-whatever. It’s all that he believes me to be. That he ended up wanting that version of me proves him to be, irredeemably, a rube. I wasn’t testing him, but he has undeniably failed. Can we blame him? If so, for what? And—whether we can or can’t—what has this got to do with Rear Window?

 

There are two other paralyzing moments in the film. Near the beginning, Jeff and Lisa have an argument. We know Lisa wants to get married to Jeff, though she never outright says so; we also know that Jeff does not. In Lisa’s absence, he complains to his nurse that Lisa is “too perfect”—in his satisfying, Transatlantic drawl, he remarks that “she belongs to that rarefied atmosphere of Park Avenue, you know. Expensive restaurants and literary cocktail parties.” He is convinced that she could never follow him around through his nomadic photography career; he tells her in their argument, “You just have to face it, Lisa…you’re not meant for that kind of a life.” 

He doesn’t seem entirely wrong. And yet. When Lisa packs up to leave after he cuts her down so, wrapping herself in her gauzy, wispish stole, she pauses to say, frankly, “I’m in love with you. I don’t care what you do for a living. I’d just like to be part of it somehow. It’s deflating to find out the only way I can be part of it is to take out a subscription to your magazine. I guess I’m not the girl I thought I was.” The camera pans to Jeff’s face. He feels the full force of the blow. What a fucking asshole, we think.

Lisa is, of course, stunning. She wafts across the screen in every scene she’s in, wearing a different expensive dress, with a different careful, blonde updo. Because Jeff can’t leave his apartment, she brings candles, lobster thermidor, and crisp white napkins to affect a date night. Her face is nearly expressionless: her smile faint, her lip only vaguely petulant when they argue. She apparently runs a business, graces magazine covers, hosts elaborate parties—in Jeff’s words, she holds the city in the palm of her hand. And nonetheless, his condemnation of her as “too perfect” is a hopeless failure—a failure to read her. He has fallen for it. It is exceedingly common, this inability to read one another properly, and we don’t seem to have a way to avoid it. Men keep falling for it, and we keep them falling. 

So here is the real demand Rear Window makes on Jeff: it does not ask him to dangle over the windowsill, nor to exit the role of voyeur, but simply to see. When he looks out his window at a beautiful young dancer partying with a set of eligible bachelors, Jeff calls her Miss Torso, and wonders which handsome man she will select. The end of the film proves this is a blunt misreading of the woman. In fact, as consistently as Jeff observes his neighbors, he misunderstands them. By no accident, he is depicted as propped up on an easy chair, watching seemingly-stereotypical dramas play out on flat surfaces, just like us viewers in our comfortable seats. He’s watching his neighbors’s lives like you might watch a bad movie: sit back and let the clichés roll. But watching a good film demands more than just keeping one’s eyes open and following the plot. We interpret. Lean forward. You can watch a Hitchcock film just for its thrills, but you’d be missing the point. 

Jeff is watching everyone wrong, Lisa and Miss Torso alike. But his problem is not that he is violating some simple right to privacy. His problem is that he is watching badly. Of course, perhaps expecting someone to see correctly is not fair. How can we require a man to interpret a woman like a text when she is constantly dissembling? But if he fails to interpret, he is not irredeemable, nor even a misogynist. The requirement is difficult to meet—but, then, many moral requirements are, and relationships are difficult to sustain in a number of ways. This is simply to say: love requires us to try our best to see one another.

Failure to watch well bloats our relations with loneliness. Proximity of bodies, utter distance of minds—this ubiquitous relationship ought to be subjected to the dog-owner’s wild, grieving accusation. It is painful to be pressed right against people and not be known. My generation’s relationships are often structured by comfortable expectations. I swipe on Tinder until I see someone who, based on his job, favorite songs, and the degree of irony in his bio, resembles someone I have already hooked up with. This is the type of knowledge we use: trope knowledge, category knowledge. But category knowledge is insufficient, and, when we are on its receiving end, it puts us on guard. If you see me as a #cleangirlaesthetic, green-juice-calendar girly, you must be a run-of-the-mill, econ-bro sexist. If, in your eyes, I’m a girl-dinner chaos-monkey ironic listener of the Smiths, then you’re a male-manipulator. Categories beget categories. When I prefigure myself into categories, I am misread by the men for whom I am constructing my image, which subsequently makes me stick them into a category. Or: when they read me as belonging to a category, I artfully fit myself into it. I’m not sure which comes first. 

To build a relationship using category-knowledge is to see your lover like a bad movie, with no capacity to surprise or undo you. To try to be loved like this is to offer myself up as a mediocre rerun. It is very easy to exist simply within tropes, and it is absolutely deadening. But such is modern life. Today, we only have more voyeuristic opportunities than Jeff had; we watch and are watched all the time. The question can’t be how to stop watching; rather, we need to know how to view well, how to be viewers and neighbors, viewers and lovers. There must be some way to rise to this challenge—to have relationships more meaningful than dull movies or adjacent windows of high rises.

How might we watch each other well? Jeff and Lisa construct genuine mutual understanding by the film’s end. Their transformation is obvious, quite simply, in the way they look at each other: in what the camera shows us on their faces, in the miniscule recognition scenes Hitchcock offers his viewers. As they solve the murder together, they come to a fuller understanding of each other and the way the constraints of gender figure in their relationship. 

Lisa, dressed in an emerald two-piece set complete with white gloves and a hat, meets Jeff one night and confesses she has not been able to stop thinking about the strange happenings across the courtyard. She cites details about the case that worry her—as a woman. The wife would never have gone anywhere without her jewelry; she certainly would not have kept her jewelry, as it appeared to be, stuffed in a handbag, where all the chains would be mixed up. Jeff listens, and when Detective Doyle comes over, the couple presents to him this analysis. Doyle is roundly dismissive: “That feminine  intuition stuff sells magazines,” he tells them, “but in real life, it’s still a fairytale.” While Jeff recognizes Lisa as having some knowledge about women that he distinctly lacks, Doyle rejects this possibility. And when Doyle’s dismissal is shown to be hasty, and Jeff and Lisa are vindicated, Jeff’s acceptance of his own knowledge gap—and, conversely, Lisa’s expertise—is confirmed. Here is a lesson in epistemic humility.

From Lisa’s expertise, Jeff learns to watch with an eye to archetypes, to typical gender montages, to genre and its limits. Each evening, the attention he pays Miss Lonelyhearts, and his interpretation of her plight, is broadened by Lisa’s presence and intervention. In turn, his picture of Lisa is made complex as he identifies the two women as facing similar issues, both constrained by similar plots. At the start of the film, when the two watch Miss Lonelyhearts have an imaginary boyfriend to dinner, Jeff dismisses aloud the possibility of Lisa being at all like this woman, who is depicted as a melancholic but humorous subject of his attention. But the humor of her storyline does not last. Just before the dog is found strangled, Miss Lonelyhearts has a young man over to her apartment. Jeff and Lisa watch as they have a drink; she closes the blinds, and then, in a play of shadows, a male body overpowers a woman’s. There is a struggle. A smack—and Miss Lonelyhearts drives her assailant out of her apartment. 

During the assault, there is a single shot of Jeff and Lisa at the window. It is about three seconds long. Lisa watches with rapt attention and her once-expressionless face now radiates empathy. Jeff’s gaze flickers nearly to Lisa, but stops, as if hitting some magnetic field, as if he is holding himself back from meeting her eye. Lisa, eminently unpitiable, hard and glamorous as a diamond, has so far seemed an Amazon, leagues above all the women Jeff observes, if still frivolous, far too girlish, and petulantly naïve. A mutual stoic silence in the face of sexual violence, however—a mutual brute recognition, no shock, no horror, just acknowledgement: the edge to gender is clarified, and, most importantly, both Jeff and Lisa see that the other knows precisely where this edge lies. Miss Lonelyhearts’s sorrow is neither laughable nor peculiar. It is human, and ugly, and pervasive. 

Jeff’s initial variegated but insufficient image of Lisa—hard as a diamond, insubstantial as a gauzy stole—suffers these blows. After the episode, he views her more accurately, and on her own terms. She climbs into the murderer’s apartment in stilettos, naively, heroically. She arrives, fresh-faced, from sprinting back, and says, breathless: did you see what I did, can you tell me what the murderer’s face looked like? And instead of a sardonic comment, Jeff just stares in wonder. His expression is one of recognition, at long last. Her virtues, eminently feminine, entirely human, are made visible to him through the two of them facing the genre constraints of gender, together. 

Lisa, too, has a role in all this. In the beginning of the film, she pulls out all her perfect stops. Lobster, candles, expressionlessness: an impeccable mise-en-scène. She gets Jeff publicity by pulling strings at Harper’s Bazaar; she plays now seductive, now clever, now innocent. She tilts her chin and widens her eyes. She wears clichés like expensive dresses. By the film’s end, she is climbing fire escapes, making mistakes while doing so, nearly getting Jeff killed. She quits treating him like a manipulatable audience and instead risks foolishness to disrupt the genre. Evading the trappings of femininity is a difficult enterprise. It’s rotten work to peel oneself open, particularly when men too often fail miserably as viewers anyways. But acting in a category engenders category reception. If I present myself as a mirror, men will always be reflected as rubes. 

Relationships, like films, will always operate on scripts. But lean forward. Let her surprise you: her charm, her foolishness, and the way her gaze meets yours, nearly indecipherable, measuring you up. Stumble over your lines, jar the viewer, move under the force of the camera’s winking pupil. If I’m going to be watched, hell, I’m going to try to be half as strange, half as open to interpretation, half as alive as Rear Window.