Film Response #3 – Rear Window (1954)

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Week 3’s discussion was of Rear Window, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring James Stewart and Grace Kelly. I am falling in love with these films more and more each week! I chose a brief one-minute “pan” to analyze in the paper below. This brief transition appears right before the end of Jeff and Lisa’s second night together in his apartment.

Left: Lisa (Grace Kelly). Right: L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) – Rear Window (directed by A. Hitchcock, 1954)

In Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), James Stewart plays an injured renowned photographer named L. B. (“Jeff”) Jeffries, who, at the tail end of a seven-week recovery for a broken leg has been limited to people-watching through his apartment windows during the peak of summer. Hitchcock quickly conditions the viewer to believe that every time the various neighbors and their apartments are shown, they are seeing shots in Jeff’s point-of-view. Additionally, the camera pauses at various medium shots of the various apartment dwellers, then the camera cuts to a close up of Jeff’s reaction to these images or micro-scenes. At the beginning of the second night of the main narrative, however, Hitchcock departs from that conditioning and simultaneously satisfies the addicting quality of voyeurism that has arrested the entire narrative. Laura Mulvey discusses the “pleasures” that cinema offers, and it seems clear that Hitchcock explores this effectiveness of scopophilia in at least one key turning point in the film.

In the opening phone conversation with his editor and through the initial dialogue with his nurse, Stella, Jeff establishes his disconcerting views of marriage. During the first evening, Lisa enters Jeff’s apartment jovially, advertises the coming seven days to be a week Jeff will never forget, and their contrasting views toward the trajectory of their relationship are earmarked to become the core conflict of the narrative until after her departure when Jeff, immobile and alone again, watches the peculiar activity of the salesman, Mr. Thorwald, across the courtyard. From Jeff’s POV, we see Thorwald leave and return twice; then, in what becomes a departure from the established point of view, we see Thorwald and a woman leave the apartment before the camera pans to a sleeping and oblivious Jeff. This momentary POV shift is crucial to the entire narrative, and it is the first key detail that makes viewers just as much voyeurs as Jeff has become. Through dramatic irony, we are now even more helpless to communicate concerns and theories to Jeff as he is to Stella or Lisa. 

The second departure from Jeff’s POV recycles a shot on the thermometer, suggesting that both Jeff and the activity within his vantage-point have cooled a bit. The camera pans left and slightly up and down throughout what seems to be his POV which exhibit a series of symbolic nods to Jeff’s stated concerns of his future. The first image is that of the shirtless (vulnerable) pianist, who mops around the piano and is apparently cleaning up a past discretion–likely the drunken one he had had while alone the previous night. He pauses his work momentarily during an obvious flash of inspiration, keys a few chords, but unsuccessfully capitalizes on that flash and angrily returns to his obligatory duty. Symbolically, this parallels Jeff’s own artistic drive as a photographer and how his physically disabled state has stunted his growth as an artist. Notably, though, the pan pauses here, capturing an unsavory moment of self-loathing and frustration. Secondly, in a brief high-angle shot during the right-to-left pan, we see a father assisting a child with pajamas on the balcony. This wholesome scene is clear but never stops (as it had with the pianist), and it is also the most distant in space from Jeff’s point of view. This glimpse is a probable microcosm of the images Jeff has seen over the past six weeks on this balcony. He may envision himself as a father, but because these characters are so minimally featured, it becomes clear that Jeff does not anticipate positioning himself into domesticity and parenthood anytime soon. 

The camera pans down and left and blazes past the salesman’s empty, but lit, room as we hear the whistling from the dog owners above. The flowing pan finds the whistler, then cuts downward to find the dog running toward its retrieval basket. By now, the camera pan has mirrored the natural instinct to spot movement and immediately discern whether the movement is either arbitrary or threatening. Lastly, In a continuous stream, we see brief glimpses of the harmless women near Thorwald’s apartment opposite Jeff: “Miss Lonelyhearts” (sewing), “Miss Torso” (grooming), and the spinster artist below Miss Torso (sculpting). These three women also represent various aspects of Jeff’s life and desires: repairing/healing (sewing); independence and self presentation (grooming); and returning to his artistic craft (sculpting). The flowing pan continues left and withdraws back into Jeff’s apartment to reveal that these images were not observed by Jeff at all, but rather by the audience alone. Lisa sits on his lap, obstructing his view as they engage in amorous activity, but she is also obstructing his concentration on the Thorwald narrative he’s been constructing since the previous night. This second “departure” from Jeff’s POV further deepens the viewers’ investment in this neighborhood. Interestingly, the scene unfolds as Lisa attempts again to engage in romantic exchanges, yet Jeff struggles to reciprocate fully because he has become so immersed in the mystery across the courtyard. As the scene develops, we watch a frustrated artist wrestle with his desire for Lisa and his moral obligation to protect a stranger. Hitchcock uses this scene to demonstrate that at least some men are not driven solely by conquering sexual desires. This exchange challenges a stereotype and complicates the relationship he has with Lisa, but moments later, she finally sees what he has been seeing and becomes just as enamored as Jeff has become. 

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