Rear Window is a 1954 suspense thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock, written by John Michael Hayes and based on the 1942 short story “It Had to Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich. Starring James Stewart and Co-Starring Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr.
J.B Jefferies (James Stewart), a magazine photographer, is confined to his apartment in a wheelchair with a broken leg, during a New York heat wave. From his window, he can see into the neighbouring apartments and shortly becomes obsessed with watching the private dramas that play out across the courtyard. He becomes suspicious of a salesman (Thorvald) as he suspects he has murdered his ‘nagging’ wife. Gradually, Jefferies becomes more and more obsessed and frantic over the situation, using binoculars and a telephoto lens on his camera to get a closer look. It isn’t long before Jefferies girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) also becomes curious and begins to investigate the suspicious chain of events.
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The opening scene shows three windows inside the apartment of L.B Jefferies as the blinds slowly start to roll up one by one. Straight away, a sense of anticipation as to what it is to see and the placement of the viewer inside the apartment to watch the courtyard and the unsuspecting neighbours. There are three situations; Jefferies watching, what he sees and daily life in his apartment; along with visits from his girlfriend, Lisa, his nurse, Stella, and his old friend, Tom, the police detective. Hitchcock sets the scene right away, the camera scans over the courtyard and its residents, a shot of Jefferies leg in a cast, written on it ‘Here lie the broken bones of L.B Jefferies’, moving onto a broken camera, a framed photo of two racing cars crashing with a wheel hurtling towards the viewer, thus photographer and camera, many more photos on the wall of significant events, cameras, a negative image of a woman and the positive on the front cover of the magazine. So we already know where we are, what’s happened to the main character, his name, his occupation. All of this information is given to us within the first five minutes of the film.
Fig. 1 – Thorvalds reflection in Jefferies lens
The viewer is automatically made as an accomplice to Jefferies voyeurism. When he picks up his camera lens to spy on his neighbours, the viewer looks too. What he sees, the viewer sees. It is a social taboo to pry and spy upon people without their knowledge, to watch in this hidden voyeuristic way, but from the very start, the viewer is doing exactly that. This makes it very difficult for the viewer to detach themselves. They’re automatically identifying with Jefferies, the viewer experiences a range of emotions, often guilt for being essentially immoral and taking liberties with others privacy. Stella describes Jefferies as a “window shopper” who “should have his eyes put out with red hot pokers”. He is presented as a typical voyeur and as Norman Denzin describes:
“…the voyeur is presented as a ‘diseased’, often paranoid, violent individual who violates the norms of everyday life. Films validate these depictions of the voyeur by having persons in power (family members, editors, supervisors, the police) articulate how and why the voyeur is a sick and deviant and why his or her gaze is inappropriate.” (Denzin, 1995: 3).
Mulvey stated that “at the extreme, it can become fixated into a perversion, producing obsessive voyeurs and Peeping Toms whose only sexual satisfaction can come from watching, in an active controlling sense, an objectified other.” (Mulvey, 2009: 17) This in turn can be related to Jefferies.
Fig. 2 – Lars Thorvald through Jefferies lens
What is displayed in the windows that Jefferies observes relates either him or Lisa or both of them. The people could become their doubles. Their situation is crudely reflected in Thorvalds. Jefferies sees a man, reduced from a free wanderer, to a travelling salesman, trapped by his constantly nagging and overtly settled bedridden wife. The windows portray all different relations, the joys and sadness of marriage and nonattachment, whilst society expects marriage as the next step, the success of it is not always made easy. This is all relative to our cultures concept of masculinity and the, maybe unobtainable, demands in makes on men and women. In this case, Jefferies is the one trapped and invalid with his broken leg that confines him to the wheelchair, Lisa is the one who is able to come and go. Miss Lonelyhearts and the composer reflect both Jefferies and Lisa, his lack of commitment to marriage and her wanting of his commitment to her. A view into the future could be either that of the newlyweds, shut in behind drawn curtains, or the childless couple whose joy in life is their dog. They portray the different levels of emotions about marriage and unattachment. Jefferies never makes the connection between his own life and the ones he sees playing out in the other apartments. Throughout the film, he focuses about the failing relationships, further highlighting the issues he has within his own life.
As Jefferies leg is broken, he is already trapped in his apartment. This feeling is intensified when Lisa comes over to see him, pressuring him about marriage, although he wants to break up with her. Every time she talks of it, Jefferies broken and highly symbolic leg itches.
When Hitchcock was asked by Francois Truffaunt whether Jefferies was a snoop, Hitchcock replied:
“Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all? I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no-one turns away and says, ‘It’s none of my business.’ They could pull down the blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look.” (Hitchcock, cited in Truffaut, F, 1985).
Scopophilia and the Id, Ego and Superego
A main theme in Mulveys essay is the pleasure in looking, ‘scopophilia’, which cinema offers. This idea was originally linked to one of the main aspects of sexuality as explained by Freud. He associated scopophilia with objectifying and controlling others with your gaze. To look at, or to be looked at, Freud deduced that pleasure was gained from these acts. To watch somebody from a distance seems to relate with having a level of control, you feel power over them as you watch them, they are almost helpless to your unknown gaze.
It was Vienna in 1895 that saw the emergence of psychoanalysis within the publication of Freud’s ‘Studies on Hysteria’. It was also, coincidentally, the same year that the Lumiere brothers projected moving images to an audience of more than one, who paid for the experience. With Freud fresh at the forefront of people’s minds around this time, it is only natural to assume that people would, to some degree, begin making links between psychoanalysis and moving images.
According to Freud, we are all born with our ‘Id’ instilled within us. It allows us to satisfy our basic needs. Therefore it is closely linked with pleasure. For instance, when a baby is hungry, the id wants food, the baby will cry until it is fed. If the child wants attention, for any reason, the id is the part which tells the child to cry and until they get attention. Situation is not taken into account; it is a primal urge to have a need met, regardless of reality. Over the next three years, the second stage of the personality begins to develop. Whilst the child begins to interact more with people and the world in general, it begins to understand that other people have needs, the reality principle. This is when the child will look at their sometimes unrealistic and irrational expectations to gain what they want and begin to take other people into account. It is now the Ego’s job to satisfy the Id. By the age of roughly five, or the end of the phallic stage of development, which I have addressed a little later, the ‘Superego’ begins to develop. This decides what is right and what is wrong, our morals, which are largely instilled within us by our parents or caregiver. Many relate this to our conscience. According to Freud, the Ego is the strongest stage, satisfying the Id, but also taking into consideration other people’s feelings and the Superego, morals. It has to be an equal balance, because if the Id was the primal driving stage, gaining self satisfaction would be the main focus within a person’s life, whereas if the Superego became too strong, they would be ruled by strict and rigid morals. Freud also believed that what we experience; our emotions, feelings etc… Come from our unconscious. Even though they are not at the very surface of our mind, Freud believed they still impacted us greatly.
Fig. 3 – The Iceberg Metaphor
The above image clearly shows the different levels or our consciousness. As you can see, the conscious only makes up a very small part of who we are. Freud believed that we are aware only of what is in our conscious, therefore, we are only aware of a small proportion of what makes up our personality, the rest is buried ‘below the surface’, like an iceberg, being that only the tip is showing, but it is only a very small part of the whole thing. The preconscious is right below the surface, so if prompted we can access these thoughts, but they are not at the forefront of our mind or conscious. The nonconscious relates to things that we are not yet aware of and has not been integrated into our personality.
Freud believed that in the early stages of infancy, sexual desires are associated with basic needs, such as food, comfort, care. The main person in the child’s life, the mother or mother figure, becomes the signifier of satisfaction to those needs. The father asserts himself and rivals for the mothers attention, which forces the boy to give up the closeness he had with his mother to make way for his father, causing jealously and anger towards his father. Freud named this the ‘Oedipus Complex’, after the ancient Greek story of King Oedipus, who killed his father and married his mother. Although the story was much more complex, these were the main two aspects Freud focused upon. The feelings intensify towards the father, making the boy think he will do him harm by cutting off his penis, the ‘Castration Complex’. This relates to the phallic stage, whereby the focus of pleasure is through the genitals. The boy has associated his father with taking things away that cause him pleasure and satisfaction, firstly his mother, secondly, symbolically his genitals. Realising that his mother always ‘belonged’ to his father, he experiences feelings of guilt for the attachment he held with her and displaces the feelings he had with his mother towards other girls and later women. Another of Freud’s’ assumptions here is that when the child notices his mothers’ genitalia, not only is a difference noted, but a lack. The boy subsequently identifies with his father, becoming more like him, growing into a man. The feminine, seen as lacking, re-iterates the point that the masculine is to look, whilst the feminine is to be looked at.
The Oedipal process also takes place with girls, commonly known as the ‘Electra Complex’. It begins at the stage when a difference is noted between her genitals and boys, feeling that she is lacking she longs for a penis. Freud noted this as ‘Penis Envy’. The girl also realises that her mother doesn’t have a penis either, this recognition relates to other females, which severs the bond she holds with her mother, as she cannot give her what she wants. The girl turns to her father as her mother cannot give her what she wants. Her affections are also transferred from mother to father, seeing her mother also as a rival. Freud believed that girls/women substitute their lack of a penis by wanting/having a child.
Mulvey argues that visuality is structured in this gendered way, claiming that “in a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female. The determining male gaze projects its fantasy onto the female figure, which is styled accordingly.” (Mulvey, 2009: 19) Thus, Mulvey is stating that women cannot be represented as women in film, but only as castrated men:
“Ultimately, the meaning of women is sexual difference, the visually ascertainable absence of the penis, the material evidence on which is based the castration complex for the organisation of entrance to the symbolic order and the law of the father… the male unconscious has two avenues of escape from this castration anxiety: re-enactment of the original … or turning the represented figure itself into a fetish so that it becomes reassuring rather than dangerous… ” (Mulvey, 2009: 22)
Fig. 4 – Jefferies; A voyeur of voyeurs
The female threat has to be eliminated or turned into a pleasurable thing. Jefferies has created a scenario whereby Thorvald has murdered his wife, eliminating the anxiety. Jefferies is afraid to commit by marriage to Lisa. He doesn’t really show much interest in her. Her sexuality and concern for being a visually objectified other is reiterated through her appearance and obsession with style and dress. It is only when Lisa enters into the world on the other side of the lens, where Jefferies can hold a controlling gaze over her, does his anxiety begin to diminish and she becomes sexually desirable to him.
Mulvey connects the situation and placement of the viewer within the cinema back to Freud’s castration complex, relating to children’s fascination, voyeurism and instincts of sexuality. Jefferies is gazing out of his window to temporarily forget his problems, like the cinema-goers are there to take their mind off theirs. The viewers are seated low down, in a darkened room, creating feelings of isolation and segregation from others. Fixated upon a screen delivering scenes before their eyes. The contrast between the brightness of the screen and the darkness of the cinema only furthers the feelings of separation from others and active voyeurism. The playing of the film is indifferent to the audiences’ presence. They are not acting on making this happen, but it is happening, without any input from them. Mulvey stated that the spectators’ position is that of “repression of their exhibitionism and projection of the repressed desire onto the performer” (Mulvey, 2009: 17).
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Jefferies placement within the apartment is reflective of that of the viewer within the cinema. They become Jefferies doubles. The spectator is Jefferies double, whilst Jefferies is the spectators double, as the cinema mirrors the scene; the viewers are gazing upon a window/screen themselves. Also to take into account is that of the director, for he is showing all that is allowed. Our gaze is focused solely by what he wants us to see. Jefferies profession as a photographer almost mimics this, for we see only what the camera sees. Not necessarily Jefferies camera, but Hitchcock’s. This also clearly shows the separation which is stressed within the psychoanalytical approach to voyeurism. He isn’t active within the world he is watching. The spectator’s fantasies are reflected by what is happening in the apartments they see, however, these fantasies can quickly become nightmares, as the viewer has no control over what is happening. Jefferies tries to hide from others looking in on him, sitting within a darkened room. He tries to encourage Lisa and Stella to do the same. Although the viewers, throughout the film, feel relatively uneasy about the whole voyeuristic activity, it is rewarded in the end… If Jefferies hadn’t have been looking, a murderer would’ve gotten away with his crime, making his spying almost admirable?
There is one scene though, where we see, and Jefferies does not as he is sleeping. We watch as Thorvald leaves his apartment, with a woman that could very well be Mrs Thorvald. We are left with a sense of unease as we have made this discovery whilst Jefferies has not, knowing that we could be wrongly accusing Thorvald makes us question what it is we are actually doing by prying on other people; it takes us back to feeling uneasy and wrong about doing it.
Fig. 5 – Pleasure to burden
There is a stage in the film, once we’ve watched Thorvald wash down the axe, the knife, as far as the viewer is concerned, the murder weapons, the voyeurs attention shifts, because it is now that watching this world has gone past the pleasurable point, knowing the situation becomes a burden, not getting involved is no longer an option.
One factor that must be taken into account is that the point of view throughout the film is purely male and portraying males sexual anxieties. Firstly, Jefferies broken leg is mirroring the ‘castration’ that Freud spoke of in his theory. Within a patriarchal society, the symbol of power is the phallus. Loss of power would encompass many socially established masculine symbols, such as; money, authority, social status, therefore, loss of power is symbolic of castration, taking it back to castration fear as a child, rivalling the father for the mothers attention. At the beginning of Rear Window, we see Jefferies broken leg, ultimately a symbol of impotence, rivals his very masculine job, where he travels to dangerous places and takes risks. He broke he leg whilst photographing racing cars. It is this fear of castration and Jefferies attempts throughout the film to reaffirm potency and masculinity throughout the film that the male viewers will identify with. They will understand that a lack of power will make them feel weak and unable. Jefferies tries to re-assert his masculinity through the controlling gaze as he watches his neighbours. Firstly, he looks with his eyes, as his interest becomes more avid, he uses a pair of binoculars, and then a camera with a telephoto lens attached. The growth of the apparatus he uses to spy upon his neighbours is very referentially phallic, his impotency and lack of power is further re-affirmed, especially when Lisa is searching Thorvalds’ apartment, whilst Jefferies anxiously looks on from a safe vantage point.
Another thing to take into account is Jefferies as a photographer, never, throughout the duration of the film, loaded film into his camera to take shots of Thorvald. The only time Jefferies refers to images are of some generic shots he has taken of the courtyard, he notes the height of Thorvalds flowers has seemingly got less, deducing a body may have been buried there?
Marriage is crucially one of the main themes in Rear Window, as well as castration, both of them relative to one another. Jefferies, the all American man and adventurer, and Lisa, the ideal American woman, social and beautiful, she is pressurising him to settle down into marriage with her.
Fig. 6 – Lisa with Mrs Thorvalds wedding ring
” Editor: It’s about time you got married, before you turn into a lonesome and bitter old man.
Jefferies: Yeah, can’t you just see me, rushing home to a hot apartment to listen to the automatic laundry and the electric dishwasher and the garbage disposal and the nagging wife…
Editor: Jeff, wives don’t nag anymore. They discuss.
Jefferies: Oh, is that so, is that so? Well, maybe in the high-rent district they discuss. In my neighbourhood they still nag… “
This conversation takes place 5 minutes and 40 seconds into the film. Whilst it is taking place, we see
What Jefferies is looking at; firstly we see Miss Torso, dancing around her apartment, the composer, sitting at his piano making notes on his music and The Thorvalds; wife and husband arguing. This is showing what could become of Jefferies is he chooses to break things off with Lisa, he could get with the desirable Miss Torso, or could end up lonely like the composer, but on the other hand he could marry and end up trapped and unhappy with a ‘nagging wife’. It is clear from the conversation that the norm is to marry, or you’ll end up ‘lonesome’, but Jefferies sees it differently.
Fig. 7 – Jefferies surveying Miss Torso and the Composer
Fig. 8 – Mr and Mrs Thorvald
Another of the main climatic scene in Rear Window is the approaching Thorvald at Jefferies apartment. The loud footsteps we hear approaching and the shadow sneaking under the crack of the door adds almost unbearable tension. Thorvald burst into the apartment with a look of anger and confusion. You could almost pity him for a second. He’s a showcase of what could’ve been for Jefferies in life, not only Jefferies, but the male spectators in the audience. Approaching as a large, shadowed, menacing figure, Jefferies is no longer at a safe distance, not only from Thorvald, but realisation of life, he doesn’t have his camera, the object that has kept this distance. The flashbulbs he uses are only temporarily affective at dazzling Thorvald, Jefferies is helpless and again emasculated, he still approaches heavily, grabbing hold of him and pushing him over the balcony… We fall with him. In the closing scene, we see it’s still hot, we see Jefferies with both his legs in plaster casts, with his back to the window whilst Lisa lies on the bed reading ‘Beyond The High Himalayas’, dressed in jeans and a shirt, until she realises Jefferies is asleep and swaps it for ‘Bazaar’. This is showing the changes and compromise that are to take place. Miss Torso’s long lost love comes home from war, The Composer is playing one of his pieces to a woman in his apartment, we can hear it is about a woman called Lisa. The childless couple have a new puppy and the newlyweds are arguing about work. This ties the films loose ends up. Order seems as if it has been restored.
Scottie obsessed with Madeline, she dies falling from bell tower, meets similar woman, who he tries to make exactly like her, Freud, castration complex with mother, she’s the perfect woman, idealised… Father takes her away. He is making her dress a certain way, act, look etc…
Conclusion of points/mulvey
A viewpoint that Mulvey didn’t take into account with either Rear Window or Vertigo was the female cinema goer….
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