Hitchcock’s Rear Window is often remembered due to its stark display of voyeurism and the moral ambiguities it provides. The main character, Jeff, is immobilized for the summer and in order to pass the time begins to follow the lives of his neighbors by spying on them. The obvious response is that this is spying and is thus immoral, however through his voyeurism Jeff is able to catch a murderer who would have otherwise gone free. However, beyond the voyeur exterior, Rear Window depicts the growth of Jeff.
At the start he is an irresponsible and stubborn thrill-seeker, using his job and adventures to mask his insecurities with his own manhood and his fear of relationships. However, by the end of the movie he has come to terms with who is is and is comfortable with himself, no longer feeling emasculated by his cast. This change in how he identifies his self helps to move forward his relationship as well, which brings us to the underlying theme of the movie.
Rear Window is a study in relationships and how they evolve and change. In the apartment complex which is the setting of the film, the viewer is exposed to a medley of alternate versions of relationships, each juxtaposing another. To start with there is the juxtaposition of Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyhearts. Each of these women live alone, however the viewer sees that Miss Torso, a vivacious and beautiful socialite, is constantly surrounded by male admirers while Miss Lonelyhearts instead goes on imaginary dates where she sets the table for two and eats alone, pretending that she has a lover present.
They are two sides of the same coin (that is, the single woman in New York coin). In addition, the viewer has the contrast of the old content couple, who dote on their dog and sleep out on their balcony every night, with the newlyweds who hide themselves behind closed shades, most likely to have some privacy while they fornicate. Again, Hitchcock presents the viewer with two different versions of the same relationship; one old, and one new.
Perhaps though the most striking comparison of couples is the comparison of Jeff and Lisa to the Thornwalds. Although Jeff and Lisa are not married, as the Thornwalds are, they each play the role of a more middle aged couple (not to the extent of the couple with the dog, yet not quite as young and fresh as the newlyweds). However the Thornwalds are a reflection of Jeff and Lisa: they are like a mirrored image. In each relationship the viewer is presented with an invalid and a caretaker. The juxtaposition though is in which character plays the invalid and which is the caretaker. In the case of the Thornwalds, the woman is the invalid, reliant on the man to take care of her. Oppositely, Jeff is reliant on Lisa to take care of him.
Like the viewer of the film, Jeff watches the rest of the apartment tenants as they go about their daily lives. In fact, Jeff is the only character in the film (that we know of) who is watching everyone else, and therefore observing the juxtaposing relationships the way we are. Perhaps he is subconsciously aware of the similarities between his relationship with Lisa and the relationship of Lars Thornwald with Anna Thorwald. Certainly this would help to explain his aversion to the idea of marriage with Lisa. On some subconscious level, Jeff sees and understands that in his relationship, he is playing the role of Anna Thornwald, the victim. While he of course is sure of the fact that Lisa isn’t going to murder him, chop him into pieces, and bury him in the garden, that doesn’t mean he is certain of the stability of his power over her.
Jeff wants to be the one in charge, not only in his relationship but in life in general. In a way, in his observing of this relationship, his possible identification with a woman who loses all authority and becomes subjected to the whims of her husband he realizes Lisa’s power: although she is not strong physically, she is not only intelligent but also persuasive and motivated. He realizes that his position is similar to Anna’s in that, if he gives Lisa the power (as Anna gave to Lars), he will be subjected to her whims (getting married, settling down, losing his life of adventure).
This idea is abhorrent to him, as he is so intent on staying on top. Further though, he relates to Anna Thornwald in the fact that, even before she was murdered, she was confined to her bed and dependent on her husband. He is in a similar position, confined to his apartment and relying entirely on Stella and Lisa. Jeff, the man, is reliant on females to take care of him. To his adventurous and thrill seeking side, this is very emasculating. It’s adding insult to injury: not only is the adventurous thrill-seeker confined to his room, but he must also depend on two doting and (he believes) superficial women to take care of everything for him. Not only does this challenge the metaphoric idea of him, the man, as the breadwinner, but it also forces him to evaluate his ideas of his own independence.
Jeff is a character who lives off of thrills and adventure. For starters, he is a photographer. In most cases photographer is not a job that comes to mind when you think adventure. However, as seen by the photographs displayed around his apartment, Jeff is not any ordinary photographer. His photographs are not only shot from exotic places, but depict crazy subjects, one in particular being the death-defying race car with its tire flying toward the camera (presumably the reason Jeff is now handicapped). Later, he even gives an excuse to Lisa that they can’t marry because she wouldn’t be able to handle the intense traveling and craziness that is such a big part of his job (i.e. travel to strange places with minimal luggage, eat crazy local food, etc.). However, when he injures his leg, rendering him immobile and reliant on others for six weeks, he cannot handle the sudden change in lifestyle.
Repulsed by the idea of idleness, he continues to create drama and add thrills to his life by spying on his neighbors. He is looking for something exciting (i.e. a murder) to change up the monotony and boredom of his days. Obviously, he finds his dramatic fix when he witnesses Lars Thornwald acting as though he were covering up killing his wife. And though he is deterred often by logical and reasonable explanations as to what’s really going on with the Thornwalds, even after hearing the Anna was witnessed leaving the apartment, boarding a train, and being received at the end of her journey and thus could not be dead, he does not budge on his idea that Thornwald is a murderer and instead continues to look for reasons to disprove this evidence.
He is looking and grasping at reasons or proof that Lars killed his wife. Considering he views the Thornwalds relationship as telling of his own, this determination to find something wrong with Lars is a metaphor for his adamance in finding something wrong with Lisa, a reason not to marry her. Again, he is relating to Anna Thornwald. Since he subconsciously identifies Lisa with Lars and obviously is disgusted by the murderer, there is a part of him that is repulsed by Lisa because he associated her with Lars. And just as he is finding reasons why Lars killed his wife (basically, what’s wrong with him) he is finding reasons why he and Lisa shouldn’t be together (again, what’s wrong with her).
Despite knowing of Lisa’s feelings for him and believing that she is a perfect girl (similar to how he is constantly given alibis and proof the Lars is not the murderer) he doesn’t want to get married. He doesn’t want to give up his thrilling lifestyle and is unwilling to compromise on the idea of marriage telling her that either she can learn to live his lifestyle, which he doubts she can, or the relationship is over.
This ultimatum shows his stubbornness and selfishness: it is his way or the highway, and despite the fact the relationships should be give and take. Through what he sees in the Thornwalds apartment he is “project(ing)… his own desires” (101, Wood). He is “a man who has never come to terms with himself” displaying “a lack of self-knowledge and consequent tendency to lapse into compulsive behavior” (101, Wood). Refusing to take responsibility, and still somewhat mentally a child, he issues the ultimatum to Lisa. She gets no say in how they will proceed, she instead bust chose from one of his convoluted propositions.
He is trying to make up for the emasculation he feels in being rendering immobile, and thus refuses to show any sign of feelings for her. In fact the first time the viewer starts to see his growing affection for Lisa is when she starts participating with him spying. Superficially, she is proving that she can adapt to his adventurous lifestyle. In addition though, she is removing herself from Lars, which allows Jeff to think of her as her own person and to grow affectionate for her. As he sees her side with him and be repulsed by the acts of Lars also, he can separate Lisa and Lars. This distinction becomes especially strong in the scene where Lisa climbs into the Thornwalds apartment and is trapped there when Lars comes home. This scene is the first time we see Jeff showing true and genuine feelings toward Lisa, and its because she is put right next to Thornwald.
On a physical level, it is the first time that Jeff can put the two of them next to each other, removed from him, and he realizes that Lisa is far different from Lars. In addition though Lars begins to attack Lisa, causing her to be associated with Anna, and therefore with Jeff. In the metaphor she is shifted from being the equivalent to Lars, the caretaker, to becoming Anna, the victim, and thus becoming Jeff. Because of this shift Jeff is able to realize his true feelings for her, as he now sees her as an extension of himself and not of a person he despises.
In the end of the movie it is revealed that Thornwald was a killer and he is arrested. All of the relationships of the film appear to be resolved, yet still stay in contrast with each other. The old couple is still around, with their new dog, and the young couple is beginning to bicker. It is shown that Miss Torso has a boyfriend who was away in the army, and he returns. In contrast, Miss Lonelyhearts falls for a musician in one of the apartments above her.
And while the Thornwalds are gone, presumably both dead (Anna was killed and Lars is most likely facing capital punishment) Lisa and Jeff’s relationship is thriving. Jeff, now with two broken legs from being tossed out of his window by Thornwald, is content to be taken care of by Lisa, who appears to be changing to fit the relationship better. Content that Lisa is not going to try to dominate him, and that he has final say in their relationship (he has persuaded her to read a travel book, most likely meaning that they will be traveling and he will be keeping his job) he doesn’t mind being at her mercy. To him, it’s no longer him as a victim and her as a caretaker, he is still has the power even if he is handicapped.
The experience has changed him, as Bozovic describes: “Jeff… is impatiently awaiting the day he will rid himself of his cast, sees himself as a caterpillar trapper in a cocoon… as an insect undergoing the process of the transformation” (172, Zizek). Jeff’s “transformation” is that he no longer feels that he has to constantly prove his manhood. By being immobilized and using his brain and wits to fight off and protect others from a murderer he no longer must rely on the stereotypical brawn to make him feel manly and in charge. At the end of the film he is now stuck in two casts, but he has changed into a person comfortable in his immobility. He knows there is more to him than his ability to move around (or, be adventurous) as he was able to save himself, Lisa, and other potential murder victims without the use of his leg.
The seemingly resolved ending of the film is, however, an illusion. The viewer is left questioning the morality of spying on their neighbors, which in of itself creates a problem. However it is perhaps the relationship of Jeff and Lisa that, although better, is still left quite unresolved. In the last shot as the camera pans away we see Lisa reading a travel book and, when she notices Jeff asleep, put it down to read a fashion magazine instead.
Her effort to fit into his lifestyle is superficial, she is acting only to lease him when in reality she has not changed. Meanwhile the viewer is left to question the security of Jeff’s feelings of himself. When he is freed from his cast “cocoon” will he continue to be comfortable in his manhood, or will he revert to his old ways of irresponsibility? Has he decided that his hobby of peeping in on the lives of others is over, or will he continue to spy on his neighbors? And would it be so bad if he did?
Wood, Robert. Hitchcock’s Films Revisted. Revised Edition ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. Print. Zizek, Slavoj. Everything you always wanted to know about Lacan but were afraid to ask Hitchcock. London: Verso, 2010. Print.