WORDS ON FILM
BY NOLAN LAMPSON
Try this the next time you are in an apartment, or a house, or a complex of any kind in which you can see into the neighboring homes and lives that have been built around you. Stand perched atop the back porch, the windowsill, the patio, the fire escape -- awaiting you, perhaps an autumn eve with lurking leaves. Or a brisk white rainfall with the living room embers gradually rising the heat. Whatever the place, whichever the case -- the assignment is rather simple. You do it every day, to an extent that you may not consciously realize. When you have a view of the complex of buildings and people and cars and street asphalt en masse -- just look. When you are comfortable inside your own home, you like the lights on and the windows to be open to catch the sun splashing through the glass. As does everyone else. As do your neighbors. So look. Observe, catch, spot; see the mother and daughter talking over the kitchen table in the loft down the avenue. About what? About money? About the financial security they have been gradually advancing towards as a family that now seems in dire straits? Or maybe somebody’s hurt? Maybe a relative -- not too close (maybe a yearly visit) but a relative nonetheless -- has taken a spill down a flight of stairs? Or got caught in the wrong side of a traffic intersection? As you watch from your patio you see the mother wipe sweat from her forehead. This conversation worries her, exasperates her usually calm self -- or, that’s what you’ve gathered from the way you’ve seen her, over the years, as you’ve made your way back from a long walk or caught a glimpse of her family while driving in. What are they talking about?
Your interest is piqued. You lean closer. You’re trying to see the linings and the shapes of the mouths as they move, chik chak, in real time, to string or collect whatever you may -- of course, you’re across the street, high up -- they cannot see you, but then, you cannot really see them. You aren’t sure what they are talking about. Perhaps you’ve taken too negative an approach. Maybe the daughter just got accepted into university. Maybe the family is uprooting to the sunny Hawaii they’ve always dreamed for themselves -- a nice, two-story on the beach, reserved for the mother, calm as she is (or that’s what you’ve gathered by looking at her all these years). Or maybe the stairs. Or the traffic intersection. This is the perception. This is the thought, the act of looking. This is observing. This is odd, you think, as you look away; but this is merely what you do, day in and day out, as you wander through this confusing, question-prone and confusion-borne series of looks and gazes that is your existence. This is you. This is your life. And in Rear Window (1954), one of the legendary director Alfred Hitchcock’s finest achievements, this is merely routine.
Sure, our protagonist, our budding interest, our pair of eyes, L.B. Jefferies is a photographer, and we get a round of his lens in the opening shots of his own apartment, which is never the film’s interest (who is fascinated by what they know, what’s lived-in?), but his lenses are only accessories to the human eye, the greatest observer and shaper of life that no camera can place against. He is trained as a looker, but as Hitchcock told director Francois Truffaut in their famed 1962 interview, “aren’t we all?” How else does one live, after all? Try going an hour blindfolded, active in your daily routine, in the middle of it all. You cannot. You must observe. You must look. And so it goes. Cursed on-assignment with a broken leg, Jefferies finds himself confined to the window of his apartment, apace with each scanning view of the surrounding apartments, their residents, from young musicians and dancers to older couples, among them salesman Lars Thorwald and his wife, directly across the courtyard. It is here we begin to take note of Hitchcock’s staging of the apartments which will surround us for the film’s duration.
And surround is appropriate. These places and spaces engulf us, not just by the means of their inhabitants who we are forced to look at, perhaps with some unease, through our “hero” Jefferies. Hitchcock had the unmistakable and indomitable mark of control on each of his films, and each decision was met with the utmost deliberation. Nowhere else is it as clear as the primary technicalities of Rear Window’s placement, or rather, our placement, in the grand scheme of it all. We are placed in the middle, right in the center. In the context of the apartment complex, we may just be the second of three floors, equidistant from the rivers Hudson and East; we might as well be in the exact coordinate-verified center of Manhattan. It is this honing of centralization that can give us essential articulations of our scenario: first, in our own view, we may inherently begin to note ourselves as accomplices as we glide through this telescopic tour of Jefferies’ neighbors, but there may be some hope of redemption for the audience if they vindicate any assumptions or suspicions of those they are watching, which is, of course, futile anyway. We watch and we collect, and what we collect stems from what we have experienced before. But Hitchcock clears all doubt of the accomplice viewing once he centralizes this apartment, and drops us here with a resounding thud. Now, under Jefferies’ eyes, we no longer have any inciting instinct to abandon; essentially, we are being told to stay.
We are becoming, all the while, numb to the fact that we are not any longer accomplices of Jefferies -- we are Jefferies, simply. After all, he is our pair of eyes. Several sequences of his scanning binoculars, where the frame accepts nothing but this closed, double-circled view, confirms this notion. And it is true, yes? Reflect for a moment. Every single thing you’ve ever experienced, ever seen, ever heard, you have been the center of it. If you saw it, it came from your eyes. If you heard it, it was told or delivered to you. No longer can we be accomplices when movies and experiences cater directly to us, and life caters directly to us -- movies do so as well, and the prospect of Rear Window begins its consequential conversation with that thought: is it us, or is it Hitchcock? Sure, he has an indomitable control, but is it of us, or is it of our perspective, being in the center of it all? They aren’t one in the same. Habit and space define character, and in this way, Hitchcock has formed us, no, doomed us to a voyeuristic perspective. We will never leave L.B. Jefferies’ apartment, because we will never leave his perspective. He is chair-ridden, and hardly moves -- and thus we are motionless, too.
And the idea of becoming motionless will not suit us forever. Because, after all, there is a story here, and in the most traditional Hitchcockian way (an epigraph purely implying intense and unforgiving “kill-your-darlings” mentality. You can see why a man born in 1899 to a fresh new medium is so tall and towering today). Our parade of apartment interiors commences only with principles and ethics for awhile. For instance, about sixteen minutes in, two newlyweds across the complex begin to make love, and for the first time, we are noticed. The couple shrugs and smiles, letting us off easy, and shuts the blinds. Couldn’t you picture audiences upon release, in 1954, turning their heads in the theater when realizing their snooping has not gone unnoticed? Or only a few moments later, when Jefferies’ nurse arrives and jokingly says, “the The New York State sentence for a peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse!” These comments and gestures come with humor and jest, but almost immediately we can see their consequence, their backhandedness. We dismiss them, of course, as Jefferies does. Because one particular apartment interests us. Mr. and Mrs. Lars Thorwald seem to have a tumultuous relationship through our window, what with Mr. Thorwald’s irascible expressions that stretch long across the courtyard, and the missus’ inclination to stay in bed, probably stricken with some household colds of the bustling, urban ilk. Not to mention their constantly and continuously closed blinds, curtains, shut doors -- something struck as odd when we get several shots of sweat, rising thermostats, a painted Paramount-lot July sky, and even a couple above the Thorwalds that sleep on the fire escape to avoid the heat -- air conditioning be damned. As Jefferies will engross himself into these minutiae, so will we. And before we can trace it, Mrs. Thorwald is gone, Jefferies’ mind is racing, and a full bevy of suspicion ensues in our heads.
Interpersonal relationships begin to decline as Jefferies continues his observations, which could at this point adamantly be called investigating -- after all, if we’re committing these surreptitious acts, why not apply some heroics to it? We know something odd is happening in that apartment -- there has to be, or we wouldn’t have spent so much time on it. Or maybe? We begin to feel doubt on our own truisms when each person in Jefferies’ life dismisses the couple’s difficult behavior, but then, we side with our pair of eyes, our investigative hero, even if it isn’t sound to do so. His nurse, who repeatedly refutes his claims of witnessing possible “evidence”, grows distant and bitter when Jefferies acts similarly towards her. His muse, played by the effortlessly beautiful Grace Kelly, couldn’t give more effort to be noticed by Jefferies if she tried, and it’s not for her lack of looks; in point of fact, Jefferies finally notices her when she risks her safety by searching Thorwald’s apartment while he is away, in a ruse set up by the two. Significance overrides spectacle, and for our hero, nothing is more significant than what has been captured by the two lenses on either side of his face. Even a friend, a detective himself (surely he must agree with us!), can’t seem to budge with no substantial evidence, and not only do we immediately jump to the side of our vulnerable hero, whose knowledge of circumstance and procedure is of course nothing to an actual detective, but we actually could see the detective with distaste. Hitchcock frames him respectfully, as he should, but we are at odds with our emotions -- we must be right, but are we?
Suspicion ensues. As does risk, as does careful plotting, as does getting into enough trouble that Mr. Thorwald is indeed aware someone is watching him, that gut-twist feeling you have when you acted and you are conscious of a reaction -- like Jefferies tells his nurse, “why else would he look around like that?” It’s a great line, underlining his attention, but also his own unawareness, as if he is saying: who would look out of their apartment to their neighbors suspiciously? Who would -- oh, wait… Then, before we know it, His Window-Murderness himself arrives, tensity tightens, faces erupt, and by the end of the film, by god, we were right. Thorwald did it. What? Well, in short, everything we threw on him for approximately ninety minutes. Our other safeties (maybe she just left in a fit…) are tossed. Hitchcock is assuring us, no, no, you were right. He is, though without an outright affirmation, endorsing us to peep, telling us it is okay to stalk like this, because, well, we were right after all. And every day, when we look out the window, we continue to believe we’re right. And what if we are?
Rear Window is a thrill. A shock. A pulsing delight. A charming startler. It’s about paranoia in distress, clumsiness in intensity, and curiosity in loneliness. It’s about watching movies -- Jefferies looks through his box, a window, and from his eyes he gathers pieces and pieces and tries to put them in place. We look through our box, the movie screen, and act similarly. Movies can be escape, too, and surely Jeffries uses the ruse and pretense of suspicion to escape the marriage to his girlfriend that he doesn’t want, and the treatment by his nurse that he doesn’t appreciate. Simple game of connect-the-dots. Only it’s not too cynical, it’s just living. What Hitchcock has done is exemplified the central experience approach, by revolving this world of Greenwich Village around Jefferies and the audience. We need not seek to look, as we did with the mother and daughter in our imaginary neighborhood at the start, but the implication of looking is still there, and Jefferies feels no guilt for it. We don’t, either. He is, after all, a photographer. And we are, after all, human. It is our job to observe, to look. This is merely routine. This is gaining new insight and trying to extrapolate. This is wondering, inside, aloud, above. This is thinking, investigating, acting. This is looking. This is you. This is your life.
So look. ❖
As of January 2018, this website is looking into a slightly different direction. In the context of watching and discussing movies, it remains untempered. Rather, the format will adjust. The focal point will now be on films of all eras, genres, periods, etc. and will have the appearance of a formal, analytical essay, the alternative being the short review of films currently playing in theaters. In this way, I find my writing to be more interesting, captivating, and above all, I hope, engaging the reader to movies and scenarios they may not have otherwise attempted. I do not know how many readers will be at this point and indeed watch Rear Window if they haven’t already, but I can say here that they should, and that the simplest of treasures and pleasures can be those experiences had with films and their makers of times before our own, made in places beyond our travels. I hope you are willing to explore the vast river of cinema with me; the river’s current is indeed strong, and the canoe is free. ----- Nolan
comments on the screen by nolan lampson.