The Siren spent a number of her early New York years in a rundown apartment on the fuzzy border between Harlem and Morningside Heights. Everything about it was ramshackle, including the wiring, and our doubts about whether the outlets could stand up to an air conditioner meant I spent several scorching summers with only a few fans. Naturally I got in the habit of sleeping naked. You would, too.
One night, having been out too late, I awoke in the wee hours and decided I wanted some milk. Since my roommates were dead to the world I got up in the altogether and went to the kitchen, which faced a narrow airshaft and a window directly into the kitchen of the apartment in the next building. I didn't turn on the light. I opened the fridge, grabbed the milk carton and with the door still open, because the air felt good, I turned to grab a glass. And what should I see across the way but a neighbor, also stark naked, standing next to his fridge and also holding a carton of milk. I let out a shriek and bolted. I think he did the same.
Say what you will about New York, that kind of thing probably doesn't happen much in Dubuque. (And right now any readers I might have in Dubuque are saying, "Thank god.")
This brings us to Rear Window. Like all great movies it offers many avenues for interpretation, but today the Siren is after the question of what it may tell us about living in New York, shot though it was at Paramount.
Did you know that sellers of telescopes and binoculars do a brisk business in New York? Just one problem--the incredible amount of light pollution in the city makes stars hard to see. People aren't buying this stuff to look at Neptune. As with this woman quoted by the New York Times, they're hoping to "see something totally unexpected." Life being life, and not the movies, they usually don't. But, like James Stewart's photographer, still they look.
People go to great lengths in this most crowded of American cities to preserve a sense of privacy. If you live here, or visit, take some time on the subway to observe the almost balletic maneuvers that New Yorkers will make to maintain their personal space as the car gets crowded. Americans in general don't like people standing too close, but an average New Yorker needs Yankee Stadium around his body to feel truly comfortable. So observe, too, the way New Yorkers react to someone who, whether deliberately or out of ignorance, doesn't get it and insists on full-frontal contact with another passenger--the dirty looks, the impatient sighs, the way the New Yorker twists away from the clueless interloper.
The murder drives the plot, but it is far from the only thing that grabs you in that vast array of windows so impossibly arranged across Jeff's courtyard. You also focus on the composer, who is having a hard time with his art despite living in the most desirable apartment in the building (that's a very New York observation, sorry). There's Miss Lonelyhearts, kindhearted but hating every minute of being single. There's Miss Torso, doing her calisthenics and entertaining an all-male party (why all men?). There's the (probably) childless couple, lowering the wife's beloved dog into the garden every morning for a romp. There's the honeymoon couple...well, they're the most boring for sure.
The classic interpretation of Rear Window is as a metaphor for both moviemaking and movie-watching, Jeff (Stewart) standing in for both Alfred Hitchcock himself and those people out there in the dark. Rear Window is one of cinema's greatest uses of the subjective camera. Our point of view across the courtyard is always Jeff's, keeping our identification with him. So his dilemmas become ours, which is why the Siren thinks the Jeff-as-film-director-and-audience viewpoint is true, sure--but it isn't nearly probing enough. Where's the quandary in that? In both cases, people are just doing their jobs, the director making the movie and the audience watching it. Both acts are morally neutral. You can throw around the word "voyeur," but it's the reaction to what you see that counts. In the context of 1954, with Joe Breen and his minions still on smut patrol, it's amusing to note how Hitchcock introduces a non-stop series of sexual innuendos, from Jeff's (ahem) highly extendable telephoto lens to Lisa (Grace Kelly) holding up a filmy negligee and announcing "Preview of coming attractions." (This is the favorite part of every male the Siren has ever discussed the movie with.) Still, there's nothing particularly daring about pointing out to a movie audience that they want to be entertained, or even titillated, by other people's lives.
The real question of Rear Window isn't about the morality of looking, it's about the ethics of intervention. A little less than a decade after the movie's release, a young woman was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens, stabbed to death within earshot of neighbors who mostly dismissed her screams. While later research led to doubts about whether the neighbors realized Kitty Genovese was fighting for her life, the story passed into legend, the ultimate indictment of people not wanting to get involved, forever to be cited as an example of the unique callousness of New Yorkers.
Rear Window is Kitty Genovese in reverse: rather than "I didn't want to get involved," it's New Yorkers getting very involved indeed. "I'm not much on rear-window ethics," says Lisa, but the movie asks us to become just that. At what point are you looking at things you shouldn't--when you witness one neighbor drunkenly trashing his work, or another's despairing loneliness? And when are you obligated to act--when you see that neighbor trying to kill herself? All right, that one's easy. But how about when you suspect a crime--any crime, let alone a murder--but haven't a thing to prove it, and can't get the police interested, either?
Only three creatures in the movie pay a real price for observing, and in all cases their undoing comes when they get involved. Jeff breaks his other leg. Thorwald (Raymond Burr), the murderer, sees Jeff across the courtyard and comes after him, only to get caught. Presumably he will pay the ultimate price off-camera. But the one creature whose curiosity ends in death during the running time is the neighbor's dog, who scratches in the flowerbeds where Thorwald has buried some part of his wife. When the dog's body is discovered, his owner flings her anger across the courtyard:
Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog? You don't know the meaning of the word 'neighbor.' 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 bein' so low that you'd kill a little helpless, friendly dog - the only thing in this whole neighborhood who liked anybody. Did ya kill him because he liked ya? Just because he liked ya?
As if to emphasize their complicity, Hitchcock gives us a shot of each neighbor. But is the dog owner's accusation fair? The Siren looks at Miss Lonelyhearts, tenderly placing the dog's body in his basket for the last time, and thinks not. The stricken faces around the courtyard don't suggest casual indifference. Maybe the characters don't trill "Good morning!" (though we do see some greeting going on) and inquire after everyone's health, but let's face it, that can be either heart-warming or annoying as hell. Many people move to big cities to get away from small-town nosiness. And we've been spending our time with Jeff and Lisa, who definitely care whether Mrs. Thorwald lived or died.
After the speech everyone moves away from the window, except Lisa and Jeff (and us, via Hitchcock's camera). But the most guilty person in the movie, the one who killed his wife, strangled a dog and doesn't go to look, is Thorwald. The shot of his apartment, dark save for the glow of his cigarette, is the Siren's favorite in Rear Window.
Could this movie have been about any city other than New York? Possibly, but it wouldn't have hit the same truths. Because New York is a city where neighbors ostentatiously stay out of each other's business when they're out on the sidewalk, then go home and do everything they can to find out what's happening across the air shaft. Sometimes, as with what the Siren's roommates later dubbed the "milkman incident," your discoveries are accidental. More frequently, you're looking on purpose. Either way, you gather information but usually don't need, or even want, to act on it. When the Siren encountered the milkman on the street a few weeks later, we did an excellent job of pretending It Never Happened.
isn't entirely true. But even if you take it for granted that Hitchcock was a control freak, what an actor does when the cameras turn is something that can never be completely controlled--for that you'd need a marionette. (Cattle, to cite Hitchcock's notorious comparison, can be even less biddable than a recalcitrant star.) Jeff's lack of power--his initial inability to catch Thorwald, his helplessness while watching Lisa in danger, his immobility when the murderer comes stomping up the stairs for him--is a highly exaggerated version of the way New Yorkers see more in a day than they can possibly react to.
In the penultimate scene, Thorwald confronts Jeff and asks "What do you want from me?" The question could be addressed to us as New Yorkers. What do we want? The city is beautiful, but so are many other cities. We make our lives here because our fellow New Yorkers are interesting, and because interesting things happen here. We want to observe the stories around us, but we also want to be left alone as we live out our own.
You gotta problem with that?