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L.B. Jefferies has the perfect girlfriend—beautiful, intelligent, wealthy—but too perfect, he insists, for marriage. And so he spends his time spying on the love lives of his neighbors, and ropes his girlfriend into this project as well. Which, strangely enough, turns out to be a really effective form of couples’ therapy. What’s the connection between voyeurism and what Jefferies calls “the intelligent way to approach marriage”? Wes and Erin give an analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window.
Thanks to CranioDsgn for permission re-purpose his poster for the cover art.
The conversation continues on our after-show (post)script. Get this and other bonus content at by subscribing at Patreon.
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Wes: So Rear Window, this is from what I’ve read, Hitchcock’s most commercially successful film. Maybe that has something to do with the current nature of the subject matter, but it’s also a much studied film, and its premise is interesting and it’s technically complicated to execute. So let’s say a little bit about… about what that is, and you can give a brief summary as well.
Erin: Would you say that it’s his most purely enjoyable film? Because I think I would.
Wes: I think I enjoy this more than Vertigo. And yeah, I think I would say I enjoy this most of the films I’ve seen, I was very affected by the situation in which he’s stuck in his bedroom and for the most part of the movie, we as viewers are looking at everything through his point of view, from his bedroom with him that changes at the very end. But the way the characters in the other apartments that he’s watching are portrayed, there’s humor from the very beginning, which is typical of Hitchcock, and that… that’s one way I think the viewer gets drawn in. But this whole little diorama that he has… this little courtyard world that is available to him. I’ve been thinking about this a lot in seeing it, but I haven’t found a good way to describe why I find that so absorbing and amusing.
Erin: I was watching a couple of Jean Renoir films right before we watched this, which are always dealing with the theatrical and the proscenium arch and all of that, and I couldn’t help but notice that when I watch this… So, the beginning, I like how the curtain rises, you know the blinds of his window rise. And then at the end, when the credits roll the blinds close and the credits play over the blinds. The whole set up, the courtyard set up, is this interesting mix of the film screen, but then also the theatrical… like all of these… it’s kind of like a theater… like a theater in the round, so each one of the windows that he sees is like a little movie screen. But then also the fact that they’re in this physical space, all with each other with this courtyard in the middle. And, of course, Hitchcock actually built that entire set, which I looked it up.
Wes: It’s a very expensive set.
Erin: Seven apartment buildings, at least five or six stories high, and 30 of those apartments were lit and furnished to reflect the character of their occupants. Each apartment was individually wired so it could be lit separately. All of the controls for everything like the wiring and the lighting and all that. were actually centered in Jeff’s apartment to be controlled by Hitchcock. So he was from there controlling everything on the set, which is interesting because in the article that I read, they argue that that gives the sense of everything in the entire complex this sort of being, like based in Jeff’s apartment. It reinforces that sense that Jeff’s perspective is, you know, “the supreme perspective”. When I was watching it, one of the people I was watching it with made a comment that Jeff’s room was also like command central without knowing any of that. It’s like in a surveillance van or something, or in the CIA, where you have all these screens and you’re kind of like surveying, like watching everything that’s going on, which is interesting too. So this is kind of like this threefold thing, like movie screens kind of a theater, and then this command central idea too.
Wes: interesting, yeah. I think that’ll lend itself to some of the psychology of this, which we’ll discuss later. But his sense of omnipotence and control involved in his being a voyeur. But just good to come back to what you’re saying about Hitchcock, I also read that he’s communicating the other actors by radio. And it’s very complicated because he’s panning the camera across these apartments, and everyone has to hit their mark in their different apartments at the right time as the camera pans over as it’s focused on that particular apartment. So he gave himself a really complicated technical [laughter] task, pulled it off very well. The other part of that is the dreamlike quality of it because it’s inherently implausible. Maybe others will have a different feel than me. But so the premise is that because it’s so hot, everyone would leave their windows open and apparently their blinds and curtains open too, [laughter] which I don’t fully understand. So that seems implausible, but also the idea that he could be watching all of these things happen without them noticing him watching them, is inherently implausible. So you get almost this subtle feeling that his voyeurism is sort of complemented by the exhibitionism of all these different people, and their almost willful ignoring of him but also each other. And I think a little bit later on there’ll be a climatic moment, really the lead into the third act, when the woman with the dog is telling everyone what bad neighbors they are, where we get a little bit of a social commentary on that where this is in a way meant to be representative of people, more generally, ignoring each other or not being tuned into each other, except in this superficial way that Jeff is doing it, although they’re not even doing that. So they’re there to be seen, except for Thorwald at a critical moment, he remains unseen. You know, I’m not mentioning that implausibility, because I see it as a flaw in the movie. It actually creates a certain effect, a certain feeling, I think, for me, of a dreamlike quality or something surreal, the feeling that we’re lodged in Jeff’s fantasy world to some extent. And, yeah, I find that from the beginning kind of gripping.
Erin: I was thinking about that myself. When I was in college I lived in a dorm that had no outside windows, but they had… In fact, it was called “The Virgin Vault” for that reason [laughter]… there were no outside windows looking out. There was just a central courtyard. So you know, you had a window and it looked out on some sort of nature. But it was just the central courtyard, and we were all very conscious of the fact that we could see each other and you would pull your blinds down if you needed to get changed or whatever, even though it was an all female dorm. I’ve lived in apartments before that have, you know, like a big picture window. You’re kind of conscious of the fact that just seeing Miss Torso dance around and then that one minute where she’s putting on her bra and she sort of like, drops the bra, then puts it back on and her back is to the camera…
Erin: …and there was a moment where I was like: “Oh, that’s lucky”. Better back is to.. which is, like, really stupid thing to think, because, of course…
Erin: …that’s the point that her back is to the camera. But there’s definitely something that’s implausible about the fact that they don’t realize what’s going on around them or the fact that they’re on display, which…
Erin: …you know, in that kind of situation, you’re in an interior courtyard situation, you’re really on display. You know you might have, like Thorwald or… whoever in that building might also have windows…. imaginatively speaking, might also have windows that lead out onto that alleyway, and they might line up with other people’s windows or whatever on the other side of the street. Or they might not. But that doesn’t seem as intimate as this interior courtyard, so that seemed improbable to me, I suppose, when I thought about it. But then there’s also something I think that’s very urban about that that reveals something about urban life, like I’ve also been in situations where I was in New York, like commuting into work or just being on the subway. And there’s this sense that you could be on the subway and take the same subway every single morning and maybe even see some of the same people, but you never interact with um… you know, like you keep your own countenance, you do your own thing, and depending on how disgusting you are, you really can intrude on other people’s space without even realizing it or whatever the case may be. But so there’s this idea too, that… because of the compression of city life and the lack of privacy and city life, you sort of create your own… encasing yourself even when you’re in a huge crowd. So there’s this sense that you have privacy and maybe, to a certain extent too, anonymity in this urban space. The more I thought about it, the less probable it seemed. And then I thought about it a little more, and maybe it seemed more probable that they’re living their lives as if they’re on a subway and they’re reading a book or talking on the phone to their mother, having this really private conversation in front of everyone. But there’s a sense that they’re alone because anyone could be doing that and no one knows who they are and the neighbors don’t seem to really know each other very well, despite being all together. Like the sculptress tries to make conversation with Thorwald, and he doesn’t want to for obvious reasons, but that none of them are chummy with each other.
Wes: That’s a good point. The compression of city life. Well, it’s interesting ‘cause there’s an idea of preserving one’s privacy, in a sense, but of course, that’s done psychologically, but not actually done in reality, right? So in other words, psychologically, you ignore people and you ignore their noticing of you. You block that out and there’s a quality of ensuring one’s, privacy and separateness from people, even as you inadvertently expose yourself to them exhibitionisticly, perhaps. And it’s also interesting ‘cause some of the murder mystery plot will turn on this question of whether it’s even plausible. Why would Thorwald do all of this leaving his window open? It seems completely crazy. And in real life it would be crazy. I mean, the movie, you know, it’s going to ultimately confirm Jeff’s suspicions. But in a different type of movie, you would understand that this is all just crazy and other speculations are silly. But the evidence that they offer is really weak [laughter] and speculative. The other part of this “being seen without seeing that you’re being seen” aspect of this as a lot of secondary literature points out, the movie is obviously playing with the idea that Jeff is a stand in for the film spectator, and the film is playing with the idea that not just that there’s a voyeuristic quality to the relations of spectators to films, but that there’s something important about the sense of being able to see without being confident that no one is gonna look back at you, which is actually just part and parcel voyeurism. There’s a certain kind of omnipotence to that. So when your friend says, you know, he’s in command central, part of it is the feeling that if he were in command central right, it would be TV screens and he could truly be confident. You know, if he were really just doing surveillance, he would truly be confident with not being seen. But in this case, he has that confidence and hence the sense of omnipotence and control that… just this. But that comes with this feeling that he can do all of this, including picking up a telephoto lens, by the way and binoculars. And if someone’s around the other side scanning apartments like him, he would be one of the most conspicuous characters ‘cause he’s at the window constantly and at some points, holding up a massive telephoto lens [laughter] so… I think at some point there’s a conceit that he’s trying to conceal himself in the shadows or something. But for the most part no.
Erin: He’s broken this unspoken urban contract that says that “you don’t look at me and I don’t look at you”. But then he does say to… I think it’s Stella that, you know if they want to, they could look back in at him.
Wes: The Rear Window ethic’s section, which we should talk about later on.
Erin: Yeah, but that’s interesting because he does lower the blinds at times when he wants to… or at least Lisa does when he doesn’t want anyone to look back.
Wes: Well, she only does that once after the conversation, which Doyle, in which they seem to have been briefly convinced that all those suspicions or not panning out, they’re not for real. Um… and then she does that. But go ahead. Sorry.
Erin: Now that I think of it, she does that only so that people won’t get the wrong idea, right? I mean, he’s basically rendered… how do I put this delicately? I mean, he had… that cast goes [laughter], goes around him like a chastity belt..
Erin: So she only closes the blinds so that the other people in the complex won’t get the wrong idea about her staying over. I mean, it’s still considered scandalous that she would be staying over at a man’s apartment, and she’s of course, wearing a nightie and everything but the couple with the dog across the way, they’re sleeping together outside on the fire escape, and she’s wearing her nightgown and everything, so it’s not a big deal. Nobody maybe knows that Jeff isn’t married to her or something. But they close the blinds so that no one will put together the pieces and think that something unsavory is going on there. Which is exactly what he’s doing by looking into Thorwald’s apartment or anybody else’s apartment. So they’re sheltering themselves from that kind of interpretive attack, you might say, but not giving other people their privacy, by that same token, though, I suppose maybe that means that everyone in the complex is responsible for their own privacy and by leaving the blinds open, they’re inviting it, in a sense.
Wes: Yeah, we could explore that a little later. I think we should talk about (quote-unquote) “Rear Window ethics” to use Lisa’s phrase. So, yeah, I think we should set up Jeff’s conflict and his relationship with Lisa. So the conflict is around… he’s a photographer who goes on lots of adventures and travels the world taking pictures of sometimes dangerous things, including the racing event in which he got too close to a car and so got his leg broken but also seems like war zones and remote areas and stuff like that. And he’s dating a fashion model who wants him to quit his job, and stop moving around, and to commit to her, and get married and all that stuff. And he’s clearly terrified of that. So at the very beginning in the movie he’s telling his nurse Stella that basically she’s too perfect a person, and she’s not the type of person who can fit into his life. And, you know, I think he talks to his… what’s the name of the person? The editor at um… Gunder Gunnison. So… and he’s talking to his editor, Gunnison, wanting to get a new assignment but not being able to. Gunnison actually thinks the cast is coming off that week, which it isn’t. It’s the next week and so that Jeff is ready for a new assignment, but it turns out he’s not. But Gunnison says something like “wives don’t nag any more, they discuss”, and there’s some connections here to the kind of worries that Jeff has are gonna be obviously connected to what he sees going on in other people’s apartments, so, for instance, Thorwald’s wife is clearly nagging him at the beginning, and at a certain point there’s a newlywed couple and eventually we’ll see… in the beginning they’re very happy but eventually we’ll see him… the husband’s getting nagged or having demands made on him by his wife and getting irritated by it. You get to see some of these worries early on with Jeff about being tied down, about married life, being unhappy. Essentially his wanting to break up or at least get rid of her is an obvious parallel to Thorwald getting rid of his wife. It’s as if his wish is playing out in everything he’s observing.
Erin: When we first see him, the camera goes through his window, looks around the courtyard, comes back to him and his head is back, his eyes are closed. He might be dozing or just just sitting there, and he’s sweating ‘cause it’s hot outside.
Wes: Mmm.. Get a shot of the thermometer 84 degrees or something,
Erin: Which is, I think it’s supposed to be first thing in the morning. It’s a pretty hot day, and then he’s on the phone and he’s watching everything that’s going on, and we get this sense of him as being kind of a voyeur established immediately. He watches Miss Torso do the thing with putting on her bra and then dropping and picking it back up again, it’s a little tease.
Wes: So she’s always wearing something skimpy and dancing around and that point where she drops it… I was pretty surprised, you know, for a 1954 movie [laughter] because she bends over in her underwear basically…
Erin: Yeah, and then he sees these girls going on the roof to sunbathe naked, and he’s kind of craning a little bit to see them. And then he sees this helicopter. So it’s kind of implied that all guys are um… voyeuristic or something in this, because the helicopter then kind of hovers over where these girls are sunbathing. And so he watches the helicopter watching these girls. And then when Stella comes in to talk to him about what he’s been doing and warns him about the New York state sentence for a peeping Tom, she takes his temperature, and she says that he’s got a hormone deficiency because he’s been watching these bathing beauties, and yet it hasn’t raised his temperature one degree in a month. So there’s this idea that he’s watching, and yet he’s like, sort of taking pleasure out of it, but there’s also this sense that it’s not really affecting him. This conversation with Stella about Lisa’s being too perfect and too this and too that and not being the, you know, go-anywhere, do-anything type. It’s interesting because she sets it up as a contrast to… kind of a more natural way of or what she thinks is a more natural way of falling in love with someone, she says. Like you see someone, you get excited, you get married. That used to be the way that it was, and it’s funny because he’s seeing people. But he’s not getting excited.
Wes: Yeah, so you get the sense that there’s something childish about him. As you mentioned, the cast on his leg is a… It comes up to his waist and it’s kind of a chastity belt, and there’s a sense of his impotence right because at crucial points in the movie he can’t do anything to help Lisa. He’s just immobilized. He’s stuck there. Clearly he can’t have sex with her. It’s unclear what’s going on. You know she’s all over him, but he’s distracted by Thorwald. He’s always sort of rebuffing or ignoring her advances and her attempts to get his attention. And so, yeah, we get a feeling… kind of a little boy-feeling from him and the sense that he wants a play partner or maybe some sort of tomboys. One of the guy’s type women who can run around the world with him doing what he does. But yeah, the other part of this, it’s what Jeff calls “the intelligent way to approach marriage”. So you mentioned that scene. Or “the intelligent approach to marriage”, I think it’s the phrase while Stella is massaging him on the table. So, as you said, people shouldn’t psychoanalyze each other and scrutinize each other before marriage. You know, studying each other like specimens. She kind of sounds like Charlotte in Pride and Prejudice, right? So [laughter] there’s this question that we talked about a Pride and Prejudice episode, about the sorts of… and I think it’s relevant here. The question of investigation is relevant, you know. How much do you investigate the other person before you say: “Okay, there, the right one for me and we’re going to do this.” And there’s an obvious parallel between that and the investigation of Thorwald because of the suspicion that he’s a murderer. That sort of investigation after you’ve been married and everything has gone wrong and something terrible’s happened [laughter], that’s a different sort of investigation. So Stella’s a lot like Charlotte saying: “it should be like taxi cabs.” I think it’s a fair comparison. Right.
Erin: Like cabs on Fifth Avenue, just crash into each other.
Wes: Just crash into each other [laughter]. She also says “people with sense can belong wherever they’re put”, because Jeff is arguing that she’s not gonna fit in in his world and that he doesn’t fit in in hers. So this idea of fitting into each other’s worlds isn’t accurate. You do it and then you navigate the results of that. You figure out a way to belong, and figure out a way to accommodate each other. But let me just find the intelligent approach quote… “But I can tell you this. When a man and a woman see each other and like each other, they should come together, wham, like two taxis on Broadway. Not sit around studying each other like specimens in a bottle”, and then Jeff’s response is: “There’s an intelligent way to approach marriage”, and Stella says: “Intelligence. Nothing has caused the human race more trouble. Modern marriage”. I think I’ve already discussed why I think that’s important. This question of intelligence and investigation and scrutiny and the types of things that just four years and gets transformed into that, at a certain point. At first, it’s amusement, he’s looking out of what he’s seeing. But as you pointed out, he doesn’t seem to be sexually excited by all the potentially sexually exciting things that are happening. It’s amusement. And then he gets fascinated by this murder mystery in parallel to his desire to scrutinize, let’s say, Lisa or it sounds like he’s already scrutinized her and ruled around. So I think somehow that question of what the right approach to marriage is is what hangs over all of this.
Erin: Right before Stella comes in and they have this discussion and he’s on the phone with Gunnison, he’s looking out talking to Gunnison while he’s looking out at the courtyard, and he immediately, I mean from the very beginning, makes this parallel between himself and Thorwald. He says, you know, “I’ll get married and then I’ll never be able to go anywhere” as he’s complaining about this potential life, being married and not being able to go anywhe… which is, of course, ironic because he’s not married and he can’t go anywhere [laughter] because he has this cast on. As he’s narrating the kind of married life that he expects or predicts, he’s watching Raymond Burr come in and… or Thorwald, I should say, and his wife is nagging him, and there’s this hot apartment that’s so terrible, and he just thinks how terrible this would be. And so he makes this parallel. But it’s funny, because I think Hitchcock wants us to maybe see something different. I mean, Hitchcock is even though everything is from Jeff’s perspective, Hitchcock is critiquing Jeff at the same time. When Lisa comes in, Stella leaves and Lisa comes in with dinner prepared for him from 21 you know, catered dinner, and she’s serving him dinner. At the same time Thorwald is serving his wife dinner across the way, and he brings in this tray. The tray has like a flower in it, you know, like a flower in a vase that he’s put on there and trying to make it nice or whatever, even though I mean, presumably this whole time he has another woman that he wants to murder his wife in order to be with. But anyway, he tries to make this gesture. And the nagging wife scoffs at him and laughs at him and rejects his overtures of politeness to her. And that’s exactly what Lisa is trying to do. I mean, you know, Thorwald’s wife is an invalid. Jeff is an invalid. There’s this association then, that Hitchcock seems to be making where he’s saying: “No, he’s not Thorwald. He’s actually the wife” or there’s this doubling there. And then Jeff makes some obvious parallels between Lisa and Miss Torso. And Lisa also acknowledges that… that she’s a young woman who’s obviously extremely beautiful, almost supernaturally so… And she must have all these men coming into her apartment trying to get with her. And Lisa understands Miss Torso and says, No, she’s not in love with any of them. She understands that there must be someone who Miss Torso really loves, and she’s just entertaining all these guys, too.
Wes: “Entertaining wolves”, she puts it.
Erin: Wolves yes, you know, maybe to help her career or something like that. So Jeff makes this parallel between Lisa and Miss Torso, and then she, in turn, makes a parallel between herself and Miss Lonelyhearts. That she’s sad and pathetic and alone because Jeff’s rejected her. But then that also kind of, I don’t know… To me anyway, it invited me to also see a potential future for Jeff and Miss Lonelyhearts that he doesn’t realize. So he looks around and sees all of these examples of these bad marriages or something, even though the couple with the dog, they don’t seem like they have a bad marriage.
Wes: Also they sleep head to foot, right? There’s something asexual about their marriage and all their affection is focused on their dogs. Yeah.
Erin: That’s true. Though I wonder if… if it would be improper in terms of filming it or… I wonder if it would be considered improper to sleep you know, normally
Wes: Not head to foot, head to head?
Erin: Yeah, to sleep head to head on a fire escape in front of everybody. So I wonder if that’s like a convention of the time or… So he builds this connection between Lisa and Miss Torso. Lisa says: “No, I’m more like Miss Lonelyhearts”, and Jeff doesn’t realize… maybe he’s going to end up like Miss Lonelyhearts. If he keeps rejecting this gorgeous woman who keeps throwing yourself at him. He sees how bleak his future might be if he got married. But he doesn’t recognize how bleak it might be if he doesn’t get married.
Wes: What I see in all the characters outside, some of them seem like obviously different possibilities. They reflect different possibilities for relationships or for not having a relationship. So, some of them are more obviously applicable to him. Thorwald and Miss Lonelyhearts being the two most extreme examples, right? You know you could end up alone, or you could end up with someone that you’re so miserable with that you’re willing to kill them [laughter], and then you have all these other things in between, so you have the piano player… There’s a suggestion at one point that he’s unhappy, comes in drunk and angry and sweeps his music.. I think, off his piano, something like that. And then you have Miss Torso, who will be entertaining all these powerful, rich, handsome and more powerful and rich. And then, she’ll end up with kind of a plain looking schlub army guy at the end of the movie, as it’s a little bit of a joke, we see some set up in that and that her sexiness is sort of undercut through the whole movie by her obsession with food. So in the beginning scene, she’s actually dancing around. She gets a chicken leg out of the refrigerator and is eating while she dances. And that whole eating thing goes on throughout the movie. And Jeff even makes a comment. She’s the drink-and-be-merry type, and Stella responds. She’s gonna end up fat and drunk and miserable, even with Miss Torso, that sense of foreboding about what she should do to win and keep a mate and what kind of made she should have. That’s always the question. I call them the goofy couple. But the fire escape couple… and their relationship seems oddly… not necessarily oddly, but they’ve reached some point of where it’s not particularly sexual… so the head to foot, I don’t know if that’s a convention or not, you know, and it could even be a way to stay cool or fit onto a small mattress or something like that. Probably. It’s like fitting onto a small mattress. But whatever the sort of rational explanation for it is… they’re kind of goofy, right? They have the alarm clock hanging over the edge, they lower their dog down in a basket… There’s something really quaint and cute about them, but desexualized.
Erin: I like them.
Wes: So that’s another possible avenue for marriage. Then you have the newlyweds. They’re passionate in the beginning, he’s already getting irritated though, just a few days and… in each case we’re looking at possible futures for Jeff. And so that’s part of why it looks so much like an extension of Jeff’s fantasy life like he’s deliberating or thinking through. You know, we talked about “an intelligent approach to marriage” and the kind of scrutiny… This is a new way, his way, of working through the problem in his mind. If we were to read this, all is a dream, whereas a fantasy, This would be the function of all these different people, different aspects of the working through the question of marriage.
Erin: There’s a sense, too, that he’s making certain assumptions about Thorwald based on the semiotics of what’s in front of him and the same thing with all these other couples. But he’s wrong with Miss Torso, he’s wrong. He makes the snap judgment about her, and it turns out she really loves this short, schlubby guy. And there’s also a sense that there is the potential for a happy marriage. I mean, the composer is the only other single man, it seems in the apartment complex, and he’s very unhappy, maybe because he has to work out his own problem with his composing.
Wes: Lonelyhearts ends up in his apartment at the end, there, right?
Erin: Mm-hmm. He works through his problem, but also through his composing, he’s able to make a connection with Miss Lonelyhearts. And there’s a sense that these two people are going to be much happier together than they were apart. So he’s making these judgments about people based on what he sees, and though he turns out to be correct in Thorwald’s case, it’s not necessarily…
Wes: He shouldn’t have been. It was absurd.
Erin: That’s true. Yeah, and Hitchcock, I think, kind of parodies this at the beginning. Like I was reading some of his own thoughts on Rear Window and what he was trying to get at. He talks about the idea of montage and film. He said there was this instance of this russian director Rudolph Kin. The famous Russian director many years ago took a close up and put various objects in front of a woman’s face, and it was the combination of her face. She never changed her expression and what she looked at, whether it was food or a child or what have you that seemed to give an expression to her face. He said: “If you have Jimmy Stewart and he’s smiling and then you put a child… a woman with a child in her arms, you say: “Oh, what a nice guy he is. But what if you took that same picture and interbursted with Miss Torso and now he’s like a dirty old man.” He’s kind of playing with this. I think throughout… like we’re doing this when we see Thorwald, or when we’re seeing Jeff’s reaction to Thorwald and all of these various things which are spliced together that add up to murder and Jeff’s mind. But we’re doing that, too. He models this even in the first shots of the film. When the blinds open and we scan across the courtyard, we’re kind of trying to figure out who these people are when we see Jeff, and then the camera shows us a series of images. It shows us his broken camera lens and pictures of race cars crashing and then Jeff’s leg, and now we know immediately what’s happened. We put those things together and…
Erin: “Ah yes, he broke his leg taking some sort of action shots because he’s a photographer.” Putting things together, which, in Thorwald’s case or in Jeff’s case, in relation to watching Thorwald could be completely wrong. But it’s just what these things add up to in our minds. And Jeff often is wrong, and you think you should be wrong about Thorwald. You think it’s too improbable?
Wes: Yeah, I think that’s interesting because you’re reminding me of actually… on The Partially Examined Life we did an episode recently on Aristotle’s poetics, where Aristotle says part of the pleasure of art is figuring things out, and Aristotle’s example, unfortunately, is just where you’re looking at a painting and you’re going… “Oh yeah, I know him” or “yeah, I know who that’s a picture of”… Like that’s figuring it out, you know, figuring out that this particular representation is of a particular person [laughter]. So for Aristotle, there’s this inferential role. There’s a way in which art gets the mind moving, and part of the pleasure is a kind of thinking and inference. And what you said about Hitchcock’s own commentary on himself, the use of images to get the audience to draw these inferences is important, I think. One of the challenges for a screenwriter, right, is to explain things and to give back story and all that stuff without being so on the nose that it’s boring or implausible, you know, right? So saying, having characters say things that are clearly for the sake of exposition, they would never say in real life. It’s just jarring. So how do you accomplish exposition smoothly? Maybe ideally you don’t rely on dialogue. You do it visually, and you do it in such a way that the audience gets to draw inferences. So what you’re pointing to is there’s some parallel between the film audience and Jeff, and here we get a parallel between the inferential investigative role that each of them plays. You know, so, us having to draw inferences based on visual evidence in the film and him having to draw these inferences based on what he can see across the way and the potential for error. They’re actually… one of the things that in the beginning, when I was trying to figure out what I find so affecting about the whole set up is that it’s as if he’s watching a silent film and everything that’s communicated by all the characters in the other apartments has to be done essentially silently. Sometimes we hear garbled dialogue. So, for instance, when the sculptor woman is trying to talk to Thorwald, give him advice on his flowers, we hear her voice, but it just… it’s like “blah, blah, blah”. We don’t hear exactly what she’s saying. I think we do here a little bit of what he says, you know, “go away” or something. And we hear a lot of music. We hear a lot of city sounds, but we don’t get to hear what any of the people say. We just get to interpret what they’re doing visually, and I wouldn’t say any of it is exaggerated exactly. But the characters are vibrant. And, you know, he might have had more boring neighbors so he might not have a Miss Torso who’s willing to dance around while eating a chicken drumstick and [laughter]… and all the other stuff that goes on. So part of the effect of the movie is to put so many visually fascinating neighbours and situations within his point of view at once. But coming back to your question of being forced to interpret all these silent images I think you were getting at, the possibility there are, for instance, in their interpretation of Thorwald… and there’s even a scene where he’s asleep, that he doesn’t get to see when Thorwald does leave with a woman who might be his wife. So we’re left in suspense about whether or not he’s really correct about all of this stuff. But despite the fact that they turn out to be right, their inferences are poor and later on, Jeff, right, is relying on Lisa’s inferences to some extent. What Doyle will call “women’s intuition”. So she knows that a woman wouldn’t have left her purse to go on a trip or her jewelry wouldn’t be in her purse or any number of other things that depend upon her knowledge of women. And as Doyle points out, this is just all absurd speculation. And I think he’s right.
Erin: There is very little that we’re actually left to interpret on our own as viewers. I think we get the sense that we’re interpreting it. Really we’re watching Jeff interpret. He’s reading the signs throughout the whole thing. It’s like in a…. Arthur Conan Doyle story. We’re not left on our own to interpret all of the clues. We watch as Sherlock Holmes interprets them. So we’re reading it… how Jeff is reading it. There’s never any doubt in my mind as I’m watching it. I mean, at least I never questioned it. I’ve seen this movie a lot of times. Every time Doyle comes in and gives his alternate reading, you think: “No, no, it’s not right. He murdered his wife. How could Doyle not tell?”. And for a second, maybe you think: “Oh, you know there’s a possibility…”, you know, cause we do see that woman. But then immediately, I think it’s… Lisa gives us an alternate reading of what we’ve seen, even when Jeff wasn’t awake to see it, which is… I think she said something like: “You know, we can agree that the witnesses saw a woman, but we don’t agree that that’s Thorwald’s wife”. So I think it’s just our sympathy for Jimmy Stewart as an actor that we are throughout 99% of the movie, totally on board with Jeff’s reading of all of the signs that he sees. And it’s not until after that you think to yourself: “Oh, you know, he was wrong about this and he was wrong about that” and that corrodes our confidence in him. We’re reading things along with Jeff as our reliable narrator, but we don’t realize maybe until after the fact that he’s an unreliable narrator. I mean, it struck me this time through what a jerk he is to Lisa, which I never really realized before.
Wes: Just talk about her and their relationship a little more. One of the really incredible things about the movie is her first appearance, right. Hitchcock and his women, these stunning and overwhelmingly beautiful women. We’ve seen our first look around the courtyard, he’s been talking on the phone to Gunnison, he’s already had his conversation with Stella while she’s massaging him, we get another quick look around of the courtyard, and Stella says to him… as he’s looking at the newlywed, she calls him a “window shopper”, and then it fades out. And then we fade in and see him sleeping… And then I think we see her face first in close-up, and then we see him, and then her shadow kind of come over him and then him again from his perspective looking at her perfect face. And then there’s this incredible kiss between them, which, it seems to me, like it begins in slow motion. I don’t know if you noticed this, or maybe I’m even wrong, but…
Erin: It’s almost like stills that are cut together.
Wes: Yeah, okay, so there’s some kind of effect there that makes this more dramatic. Um… is that a typical thing? Or is that a Hitchcock thing? Or…
Erin: I don’t know that I’ve seen him do that in any other instance, but it’s highly effective at giving this dream-like quality to it. It looks like a series of stills that are strung together so that she’s caught in individual frames.
Wes: Yeah, up to this point, we’ve heard about all his doubts, and Stella saying she’s beautiful and rich, he should marry her, and then we get hit over the head with this. It’s as effective an introduction as you could get to her. The power of her appearance, basically, of her beauty. And I know that you’re not a fan of Grace Kelly, right? [laughter]
Erin: I think she’s good in this movie. I think.. [laughter] I think, in other movies she’s not. I think she’s good in this and To Catch a Thief. But I have a lot of really strong opinions about actors, some of which aren’t fair. Like I hate Grace Kelly on principle because she won the Oscar that Judy Garland should have won. And also she’s too perfect. She’s like a porcelain doll or something. I don’t find her to be very… in this movie she’s very vital and alive-seeming. But in movies like The Swan, she seems to me to be very aloof, and I also just don’t… This is a terrible thing to say, but I don’t… I don’t like blonde women in a lot of circumstances…. [laughter]
Erin: I mean, I do in real life. Don’t… I don’t want our listeners to think that I hate, like, blonde women as a rule. I just… that kind of cool beauty that Hitchcock loves, sometimes I find that to just be very bland. It’s not in all circumstances, but in some circumstances, that pale look… I think I like Grace Kelly best in To Catch a Thief because she’s so tan. Weirdly. But anyway, sorry.
Wes: It’s interesting you mentioned coldness because she’s supposed to be extraordinarily elegant as well and high society. And there is that porcelain doll perfection quality to her. She’s supposed to be in a sort of exemplary, outstanding appearance. She’s on the cover of magazines, so she’s complimentary to his obsession with taking photos of things in a way, right, and to this obsession with being a voyeur. But on the other hand, she is meant to represent this threat to him, this threat of a woman who’s coming on too strong, too engulfing, wants too much from him, making too many demands, you know, wants him to quit his job, and she’s gonna unilaterally replace his cigarette box whether he likes it or not. And… and the other aspect of this, you know, right after that scene where she kisses him, or while she’s leaning over him, she’ll say, in this very flirtatious way, she’ll kind of play doctor: “How’s your leg? How’s your stomach? How’s your love life?” [laughter] And to that last question he’ll answer “Not too active.” And she’ll say: “Is anything else bothering you?” And he’ll say: “Yeah, who are you?” [laughter] So it’s actually a nice, flirtatious moment, but it’s also… there’s an intensity to it, where I think you can feel some of his terror in all of this, actually, in his sense of being overwhelmed and engulfed. So there’s this contradiction between that coldness that you talk about. I mean, that’s a natural effect of someone being so perfect and her having the type of profession that she has, in which he’s kind of selling her appearance. So that’s the image, in a way, if you want to think about it, that’s that’s the power of the image. But this sort of image is actually something that somehow he can’t just keep a distance from. It’s the sort of image that he can be engulfed by, or maybe absorbed into. So instead of just taking photos of things and maintaining his safe distance, it’s as if the image has invaded his life. Um.. she is the image personified, come to invade his life [laughter] and not actually let him maintain that distance.
Erin: I know that Hitchcock liked this sort of ideal Englishness of the woman who’s cold on the outside but has this heat on the inside when activated properly. [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] That’s great. He went actively. Yeah,
Erin: But, you know, you’re right. I mean, I think like Grace Kelly through this whole thing. I mean, maybe we get the sense that because she’s in Jeff’s apartment, she’s trying to seduce him or whatever that this is her activated the whole time. Whereas when she’s at her job, she has to be very fashion-model or selling things to people. I can’t remember what exactly does… she does. She works in a store, maybe where she’s, like, they used to have models in the store that would model stuff in these high end stores… and selling things to people. So maybe that’s where she has this facade of coldness that I see in other films. I mean, obviously Hitchcock saw this in her, but the uniqueness of the fact that you know she goes into his room and it’s very intimate, even though you know potentially there’s the suggestion that other people could be looking in, but it’s very intimate, and so she’s warmer and she’s more open in that scenario.
Wes: But I wanted to join things back to you talking about what a jerk he is, ‘cause I noticed that, too. He really is quite mean to her…
Wes: And for the most part she takes it.
Erin: She lets him know, I think, how much he’s hurting her. And yet he doesn’t acknowledge that. I mean, he must know, because she has this stung reaction to a lot of what he says. And yet he seems to be deliberately blind to that and not give in or apologize or anything. Or he thinks that she’s like playing being hurt like she’s incapable of actually being hurt by him, maybe.
Wes: I mean, I get the sense that this is him trying to definitively push her away, although they kind of both backtrack in the end. She is ready to leave and call everything off, and then he’s like: “No, wait, can’t we just be friends with benefits?” No. [laughter] What he says is ambiguous, but no way, ”can we just keep the status quo?”. But yeah, I mean there’s lots of things that he doesn’t make you think that this is a long standing part of the relationship. So, for instance, he doesn’t really ask her about her day. She just has to launch into it: “Oh, what a day I’ve had”, and then she talks about fashion magazine stuff, and I think he scoffs at that whole world, you know, she describes all her high society appointments. And then it’s while she’s setting up dinner that he first sees Miss Lonelyhearts playing make-believe. So Miss Lonelyhearts is having a fake dinner while they have real dinner, pretending that she has a guest and pretends kissing him on the cheek and things like that. And then, at the point where Miss Lonelyhearts starts sobbing, Lisa reappears and says: “That’s what I call “manless melancholia””, and then these… there’s that whole thing exchange where: “you’ll never have to worry about that”, he says to her, and she’s like, “Why, can you see my apartment from here?”… And so on… And then they see Torso, the whole juggling wolves scene, and then the Thorwalds fighting, and Mrs Thorwald mocking Thorwald. And then there’s the scene with the composer, and Hitchcock makes his cameo winding the clock in the composer’s apartment. It’s right after that little scan of the courtyard: “Let me go back to their fight about conflicting lifestyles”, and he tells her to shut up one point. I think this is what I was trying to get to this point where he’s telling you, you know, “You’re not meant for this kind of life, the kind of life that he has”, you know? “Have you ever eaten fish heads and rice?” Or evokes the idea of her wearing high heels in the jungle. All these concrete images having to do with the ways in which he could not fit into his existence before she finally says: “I’m in love with you” and then, there’s the whole final conversation and she leaves saying that she’s not going to see him for a long time, which turns out to mean “tomorrow”. Yeah, so he’s a jerk, and it seems like he’s trying to get rid of her not in the Thorwald manner, but in the jerk manner, but by the end of this first act, and that’s where the first act ends with that little conversation, followed by the scream, which turns out to be Mrs Thorwald getting married. Right after she leaves… sorry, getting murdered. Wow, that’s a Freudian slip, isn’t it? [laughter]
Wes: [laughter] I think that says everything. We could just stop recording right there. [laughter] So that’s the end of the first act. It’s right at the moment where he’s tried to get rid of her essentially, and he’s almost successful. They both backtrack together, we’re alerted to a more definitive form of breaking up. Let’s put it that way. [laughter]. Thorwald’s. That’s the permanent, most permanent of breakups, if you murder someone and dismember them…
Erin: Which I love… This is apropos of nothing, but I love how fascinated Stella is by the idea of his having dismembered her and exactly how he did it.
Wes: So that’s another interesting little sort of sub-plot, sub-theme. So she’s fascinated with the idea of dismemberment. She talks about “blood spattering” at one point, and there’s this back and forth where Lisa is getting offended. So Lisa’s delicate sensibilities are kind of played up at that point: “Oh, you’re disgusting. Stop talking about what’s disgusting”. But then, at the very end, Doyle, when they suggest that they’ve found a box which presumably will have a body part in it. He basically says to Stella: “You wanna come look?” [laughter]. She’s like: “No”. She turns down his offer so she doesn’t seem…
Erin: But then she kind of seems like maybe she will… look.
Wes: Oh, does she?
Erin: Yeah, I think she kind of has a little turn there.
Wes: Okay. She looks shocked to me. I think I remember her looking kind of shocked. I’m not sure what that means, but…
Erin: She’s like: “Oh, how dare you?” And then she’s like: “Mmm… maybe, I don’t know, ask me again”. Stella is such a great character, and I love the secondary women in Hitchcock movies, and it’s funny because they’re usually a foil to the main woman in that they’re set up as an alternative to the man. Of course Stella isn’t, but she has that thing that I think I find missing, maybe, in a lot of Hitchcock’s heroines, which is she sets herself up as being the “blood and guts”, the person who deals with real life or something.
Wes: She’s down to earth. She’s…
Erin: Yeah, she’s earthy. She’s…
Erin: Right. Well there’s something about the Hitchcock woman that’s like: “Oh, I can’t, I’m too delicate to deal with that”. It’s just funny that in this movie it’s someone who’s not set up a sexual alternative to the blonde. I was re-watching The Birds a couple nights ago, and Tippi Hedren is colder. She’s not as warm as Grace Kelly is in this movie. And then her alternative, who’s a sexual alternative for Rod Taylor, the main character is Suzanne Pleshette, who’s very earthy and very sardonic. And that’s the kind of character that I like. The dark-haired alternative, who seems to be kind of world-weary and have a little bit of an edge to her. Grace Kelly has no hard edges. She’s warm and yet kind of virginal. In a way, it’s because it’s just a blonde thing.
Wes: Yeah, but I think Stella’s interest in dismemberment and the gory aspect of things. I was trying to think about why Stella and Lisa can get drawn in. You know, at first they’re skeptical but he manages to draw them into his little world in the way that he can’t ever draw Doyle in, for instance. And the moment he draws Lisa in, it’s that moment where I think she’s really been giving him a hard time about how implausible all theories are, and then she sees Thorwald’s trunk across the way and she says: “Tell me everything you’ve seen and what you think it means”. Something like that. Suddenly she takes him seriously. But for Stella, I forget the exact point where Stella starts taking him seriously. But I think you can relate her interest in the investigation to her interest in dismemberment. So the analytical part of us, right, cuts things apart. There’s something about investigation that’s dismembering, so to speak. The other connection to draw here, I think is there something dismembering about voyeuristic objectification. So where if you’re lustfully looking at body parts, you’re kind of singling them out. But the concept of objectification, treating people’s meat, for instance, or however you wanna put it, can be related to… I guess, both to the act of murder and to the act of dismemberment. So I haven’t thought it through well enough beyond these connections, but I thought it was interesting that Hitchcock at least had the intuition that it would be interesting to have a character overtly, morbidly curious in that way. There’s a definite connection to the whole theme.
Erin: That secondary woman always is more… more connected to real life: the meat-side of things. But it’s funny because what interests Lisa, now that you say that, what gets Lisa on Jeff’s side is what actually turns out to be a red herring. He’s putting the ropes around the luggage.
Erin: Which, you know, it turns out to be that her clothes are in that. You know, Lisa is interested in, you know, the wrong way to pack clothes or something. [laughter] It’s not Louis Vuitton, you know, luggage. It’s…
Wes: [laughter] Right.
Erin: You know, putting ropes around things which seemed suspicious to her. And it turns out that the lock was broken and that it was just her clothing that he was sending to her, supposedly.
Wes: Interesting. Yeah.
Erin: That’s what convinces her something that’s maybe superficially suspicious only in the most unlikely way or something.
Wes: And this is after she’s been giving him… and this scene starts with her: “What does a girl say? What does a girl have to do before you notice her?” And he says: “If she’s pretty enough, she doesn’t have to do anything, she just has to be”. She says: “Pay attention to me when I want a man, I want all of him” We get more of the sense of the ways in which he might feel like he’s being engulfed or overwhelmed by her having too many demands made upon him. But she’s essentially trying to fool around with him while he’s preoccupied with this mystery, you know, like “why would a man do such and such?”. And there’s even that great line where he says: “It seems like something’s terribly wrong”. And she says: “I’m afraid that’s me”, where she’s directly connecting his interest in this to his desire to be distracted from her, away from her. And then she accuses them of being crazy. You know, having all these wild opinions about every little thing that he sees “it’s disease” she says. And then she gets at the implausibility of all of this. So there’s lots of people, lots of husbands and wives have problems, and, you know, it doesn’t mean there’s murder. And do you think a murderer would let you see all that? Do you think he would parade his crime in front of an open window? Don’t you think he would pull the shade? Some of these things Doyle will repeat. All of that makes the turnaround even weirder. The fact that she just has to see one image, and suddenly she goes from all of those objections and her own preoccupation with establishing intimacy with Jeff to suddenly she just clicks and she’s like: “All right, I’m on board, I’m in. Let’s do this investigation thing.”
Erin: Is it that she looks through his binoculars?
Wes: I don’t have that in my notes.
Erin: I don’t know if she does, if she literally, you know, borrows his eyes and sees it his way.
Erin: It does seem to me that the longer Stella and Lisa, and even maybe Doyle, to a certain extent, are in Jeff’s space, the more they take on Jeff’s opinion.
Wes: Oh, you know, the other thing here that I left out… So right before she sees the trunk, she suggests that there’s something more sinister going on at the newlyweds place.
Erin: Oh yeah [laughter]
Wes: So that sex would be more sinister than murder, even though she’s suggesting that there is no murder. There’s also the implication that there is something worse about sexual transgression, violent transgression. And he gets this look on his face like he’s a bashful little kid and just says: “no comment”. And that’s then that she sees the trunk and everything shifts.
Erin: Well. And then let’s talk about Jeff’s perspective, switching on her.
Wes: I don’t think she has binoculars, by the way. I think she’s just… after that, she glances out the window and then…
Erin: Or she stands near him. She has her hand on his shoulder or something like that, like there’s a twinning in there where she’s seeing things from his perspective. She can’t get down to his level because he’s in the wheelchair. I think she’s standing over him.
Wes: But I think it has something to do with them brushing up against this idea that there’s something sinister about sex. And it’s almost as she’s induced with his fear, because he’s been evading her attempts to fool around her, to get close. I don’t know what this implication is supposed to be about sex between them, whether there has been or not, the movie leaves that entirely opaque. But it’s almost like, at that moment where he says: “No comment”, this “No comment” is a way of saying that there’s something inexpressible about all of this, and it kind of smashes everything. I don’t know. It interrupts everything in this way. It’s almost like he successfully hits her over the head with the very thing that’s afflicting him with that phrase, weirdly enough.
Erin: What’s interesting is when Jeff starts to see Lisa as something finally interesting to him, and maybe we could talk about that for a second. So they go to investigate the garden. Stella and Lisa both get involved by going to look and see if there’s something buried in the garden. Jeff kind of breaks the fourth wall or something by directly tampering with what’s going on in Thorwald’s apartment, by sending him this note that Lisa goes and delivers and pushes it through his mail slot on his door, which says: “What have you done with her?”, and it gets Thorwald to react. He knows someone’s onto him. Then Jeff directly calls him up and gets him out of the apartment. So, Lisa and Stella then go and dig in the garden where the dog has been sniffing around. Presumably, Thorwald’s buried something there, and they don’t find anything. So then Lisa decides that she’s going to climb up the fire escape and go directly into Thorwald’s apartment and just go up the fire escape And then I guess the door or the window leading onto the fire escape is locked. So she has to then go in through another window, which involves her hanging on the side of a building for a second…
Erin: …So Lisa becomes like… like an action star for a second, and gets directly involved, goes in through the window, that a lot of the action and Thorwald’s apartment has been happening. And so she goes in there and starts rifling around. And that’s when Jeff has his first maybe, like look of admiration for her, where he’s finally seeing her for the first time. But I want to talk about that as being interesting, like he can only get involved with someone to the extent that he’s watching them in this distant way. So the minute she gets on the screen, as it were… and becomes an object for him to look at from far away as a voyeur is when he starts to become interested in her. But she also is passing this test that he’s established, which is that he needs someone who is going to be able to participate in these death-defying activities that he participates in. So she proves herself on the screen as being an action heroine. And he gets… he seems to get excited for the first time by her.
Wes: That seems to begin with the external world conforming to an unconscious, murderous desire. But then she can help him solve that somehow… [laughter] find the killer. So in a way, it’s a way of her helping him resolve his repulsion to her, his desire to get rid of her and obviously it involves her… this evidence that this… that she’s giving, that she can hang in his active and dangerous world.
Erin: And everything happens very quickly after that, Thorwald comes back, finds her, Jeff has to call the police and get the police to come. Meanwhile, Miss Lonelyhearts, he notices that she’s about to kill herself. Thorwald realizes that Jeff has been watching him. So Just as Lisa goes into Thorwald’s apartment, there’s this exchange where then Thorwald comes into Jeff’s apartment. With Lisa going in there and becoming the object of Jeff’s viewing pleasure from across the way. I wonder what that means symbolically there… that for Jeff is being sort of like the symbolic moviegoer. That means something a little bit kind of strange for me, like in order to get a man to be interested in you, you have to become a movie star. Or I don’t… I don’t know [laughter]… I don’t know what that means, or you have to sort of give him the long view or something like that. And have them see you in… from a new perspective maybe, but it’s a very uncomfortable moment, because Jeff is the moviegoer and then she has to invade the movie.
Wes: So what psychoanalysts would probably say about this is that part of the motivation for perversion in this voyeurism is perverse. I’m not gonna say in detail what that exactly means right now. Part of the meaning of that, and especially of fetishism… I’ll just recommend this to readers as well. There’s a famous essay by Laura Mulvey, which is very famous, called Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, and she discusses Rear Window in it. Part of the function of perversion is to deal with the anxiety of women’s castration, which I know is going to sound weird to most people. It’s the idea that women seem to be castrated because they don’t have penises. But the broader psychological idea, and I think it’s more universally applicable. It doesn’t just involve women. It goes both ways. Is the idea that if another person wants you, if they desire you, then there’s something lacking in them and the impulse is to furnish them with some sort of potency. So the most basic level for Freud, you know a fetish, for instance, is an attempt to furnish a woman with a symbolic penis. And in this case, the idea is that Jeff needs to become aware of her potency so that she is not just this engulfing image who needs him and is just gonna devour him because she’s so hungry. It reminds me that… that sculptor woman, she tells someone that the name of her sculpture is… that she’s working on out in the yard is “Hunger”, that he’s not just going to be devoured by her, but that she’s more than “need”, she’s more than “lack”. So that’s part of what her being able to go out and do all that stuff demonstrates to him. And so, psychologically you would think it helps him get beyond. I think one of the fears that’s motivating him, that’s repulsing from… him from her, which is just that: she’s all image and no reality. And she’s all “need” and “want” and “hunger” and has no agency and potency of her own. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but…
Erin: No, it does. It does. It also helps me appreciate the Maulvi essay..
Wes: Yeah, the Maulvi essay will be weird. It’ll just seem weird to most people in the first reading and most you’ve been inducted into sight. I understand outside how weird psychoanalysis seems to most people in first [laughter]. But anyway.
Erin: I get caught up in her… her sort of feminist view, which I disagree with her reading of that. But…
Wes: Yeah, and you have to deal with if you don’t share those politics or if you don’t share them to the same degree you have to kind of look past that because there’s an inevitably political element in that. So I think that’s part of the explanation.
Erin: And then this idea of Thorwald coming into Jeff’s space and Jeff having to prove himself against Thorwald though he continues to just use the camera as a weapon. I mean, he’s completely helpless. I love the shots of blinding Thorwald with the flashbulb and then the dissolve in red after each flash.
Wes: I know we’re not far from the end here, but I thought before we stopped, we could talk about Rear Window Ethics, which is a line that Lisa gives. So they seem to have been convinced by Doyle that he’s given them lots of evidence to believe that they were wrong about all of this. Lisa will remark like: “We should be happy she’s alive. We shouldn’t be so sad about all of this”. You know, it’s almost like we’re wishing that she had been murdered [laughter] and Lisa will make a comment. You know, “whatever happened to love thy neighbor?” which… that’ll come up shortly after again in the woman, once the dog has killed the fire escape woman’s rant about how everyone is a bad neighbor and then he’ll say: “Well, should I start by loving Miss Torso”, and then she’ll respond to that. So this is actually backing up a little bit before that. But part of Doyle’s argument is there’s this secret private world that people have that can’t really be explained publicly, so your attempts to explain it are inevitably bound to… lead to error. So that’s another interesting idea at work here: that… that spying and looking into private worlds is not a good way to produce relevant evidence. It actually leads to misinterpretation. Whereas you would think you would normally think: “Well, if I could do that, then I get to the substance of things by looking into them further”. And so Jeff will ask: “Well, has it been ethical to watch, even if we prove he didn’t commit a murder?”. That’s a really weird idea, because instead of saying: “Does it turn out to be ethical to do all the spying even though he didn’t commit the murder?”, he asks: “Has this been ethical even if we prove he didn’t… commit the murder?”, as if the guy needed them to prove that…like, yeah, “Please spy on me neighbors, so you can prove that I’m not doing anything wrong. That would be great benefit to me”. That’s a really weird way [laughter] to put all that. So she’ll respond: “I don’t know”. You know, I’m not much on Rear Window ethics. And then the question is: “Well, what does that mean, Rear Window ethics?”. So I think it has something to do with going back to Doyle’s point: the ethics of how much we ought to scrutinize other people, how much we ought to evaluate their private lives and draw inferences from that, and this is really… has a broader relevance on what’s going on in this movie, right? So it has something to do with what’s going on when we gossip about people, which there could be a really sadistic, invasive quality to that where we’re… I think, often people are sharing information that might be regarded by that person as private… I think the ethical question at work here is whether non-intimate relationships can do the trick. So relationships of the voyeuristic sort that Jeff seems to prefer in the beginning, with keeping one’s distance from people, keeping him at arm’s length, whether that is actually a workable solution or whether intimacy is actually required. I see that it’s sort of the central Rear Window ethics question.
Erin: Maybe going back to what we talked about at the beginning, there’s a sense in which these people in the courtyard are offering themselves up for scrutiny, you know, especially with social media, our idea of privacy is deeply compromised as people offer more and more of their private lives up to scrutiny. I was talking about this with someone just the other day where I said… we were talking about something that someone had seen on Facebook and I said: “You know, I don’t… I don’t know if we should be talking about this”. And they said: “Well, you know, they posted it on Facebook. So as far as I’m concerned….”
Erin: “…it’s fair game”. So the idea is: to what level of privacy are we entitled? And to what level of intrusion in other people’s lives are we entitled? Like Hitchcock seems to think it’s okay in the end… it’s been justified in the end, because he was able to catch a murderer and therefore all of his snooping was justified in… in a sense. But, is it? I guess it’s a good thing that a murderer has been caught. Especially a guy as sick as this guy, because he must be pretty sick.
Wes: I was trying to broaden this again, and this is a broader issue than the literal surveillance that he’s doing from the apartment, because it’s a question of the way we relate to people in general. So the question of their privacy… It’s about more than what we have the right to know about them. I mean, I think it has something to do with the way we think of other people as well. So yeah, it goes back to this whole question of scrutinizing “the intelligent approach to marriage” or “the intelligent approached other people”, drawing inferences about them… maybe pigeonholing them, saying: “This person is like this. That’s why they do this sort of thing”, or coming up with narratives in which they’re no longer autonomous actors, in which they’re no longer… and maybe even dehumanize them, no longer or objectified, no longer conceived of as “free” or having agency or even as human. I think that subtly that happens quite often, when I go back to the example of gossip, when we talk about other people to a third party. A lot of the function of that is actually…sadistic may not be the right word, but it’s kind of almost a kind of jockeying for status where you’re trying to evaluate where they are on the hierarchy. There’s a certain way of thinking and talking about others, which it’s not literally an invasion of privacy, but it’s a misinterpretation of them based on reflections on their private world. So when Doyle says that there’s a secret private world out there and these inferences you’re making… we can explain our secret private worlds publicly. They won’t really make sense to other people if we try to give them an explanation. That might sound strange to us because we’re used to thinking of the public persona, the image of what’s being presented as the superficial thing. And then there’s the private stuff, which is real. And if we can just get to that, then we’re getting at what’s real and so if we’re mulling over the character of another person and analyzing them, like, as Stella would put it, you know, specimens. If we’re doing that, we might think that we’re getting to the substance of that other person, when really we’re largely engaged in misinterpretation, because their private psychological world is too specific to them and so we can’t do justice to it. This goes back to the whole Pride and Prejudice thing again, because it’s all about analysis of character, and it even lends itself to the criticisms of literary interpretation and our relationship to text and to esthetic objects, but that’s just a hint that I’ll leave aside for now. But it’s a question of: with these sorts of investigations, into what is private, do real justice to people? Or if we have to go Stella’s route and just say: “It’s better to get to know someone by slamming into them like um… two cabs [laughter] in New York”. It’s almost… this is… suggests it’s almost sleazy to try to get inside them in that way and that to some extent we have to respect them as people as to, in a way, as to not invade their privacy, and that means not invading their psyches with our foci analysis, just letting them actually be who they are. So the question is: “what does intimacy rely on?” you know, does it rely on the more invasive? Does intimacy imply something more invasive? Or is it just something that is too ineffable to be gotten at by that concept? Where the invasive, it just becomes too analytical and it’s just, you know, as Stella suggests, it’s almost just, being in someone’s company and being aware of them at some different level.
Erin: Maybe this is too rosy of you or something. Maybe I’m not understanding myself very well in this instance. When I gossip or I talk about something that has nothing to do with me, it’s usually… I’m trying to figure out to what extent, when we look at someone else and we try to figure them out, are we actually trying to figure out ourselves.
Erin: This is maybe related to the parallel in movie-going throughout the whole… all of your window, and Jimmy Stewart is seeing these images, and he’s trying to relate himself to them. There’s a sense in which he’s not really judging them per se. He’s trying to put himself in their position maybe, in order to figure out what’s going on, so he seems to be able to relate to these images in terms of how he is able to imagine himself in their position. Like there’s something in that, maybe in the murder mystery story, too, right? We have to think through it as if we were the criminal in order to understand the crime that was committed…
Erin: …as well as thinking about it in terms of the detective, to piece everything together. So the relationship with movie-going I think it’s kind of a complicated one because the question then becomes “Well, why do we go to the movies?” Is Hitchcock trying to turn the camera lens to ourselves and say, you know: “Why do you go and you watch these imaginary scenarios?” Are we exercising some muscle that would ordinarily be exercised by looking at our neighbors?
Erin: It’s a purgative where we’re relieving some desire and ourselves to look at each other by instead going to this culturally sanctioned event, which is going to a movie and having these people stand in for people that in our own lives that we might otherwise be talking about. I think about Roger Ebert, a quote of his that I love, which is “movies in its highest form or the greatest ambition for movies is as a machine for empathy”. So we can better understand other people in different cultures, at different time periods, in different situations than ourselves as a way to better understand the world and what is going on around us. And I wonder if that’s kind of what the… I mean it’s an ugly thing to think about, but I wonder if that’s kind of what the function of gossip is in its own sort of degraded way…
Erin: …which is to try and understand other people, to understand where they fit in, but to a greater respect, where we fit in and what wewant to accept or reject on the basis of this kind of character analysis, like what decisions we’re going to make for ourselves, based on what decisions we see other people making.
Erin: Like, I wonder whether this is something that Hitchcock is kind of saying, like: “We all have to hold each other up for scrutiny as a way to get over our own problems or work through our own problems”. It’s not really about the other person. It’s really about us.
Wes: I’m glad you’re giving the other side of this because, well, I’m of two minds about it, you know? So I think I was giving the negatives, saying that gossip is, yeah, uniformly bad thing. But it’s unclear to me. In some cases, its function is obviously bad. I mean, I’ve… I see that with people, and there are people who are obsessed with talking negatively about others to the point where you know it’s an obvious function of their insecurity and It’s demeaning. It’s just demeaning to be part of it. It’s, you know, just something I think as if you’re mature enough, you just don’t… you avoid that level, you know? You still want to vent about people, but it’s just a matter of how charitable it is. And so I think you’re right. “Gossip” has this, and scrutinizing other people does have this important role and evaluating ourselves as well. You know the whole question of how much we scrutinize others, “the intelligent approach to marriage”… All that stuff I raised those things as questions. I’m really not sure ultimately [laughter] which side one ought to come down on. Maybe you know there’s, I think, there’s a point to each side of those arguments, so…
Erin: I mean, it would behoove me maybe to defend gossip because I would be defending myself. But…
Wes: Well, you’d be defending everyone. None of us avoid it.
Erin: Right. Not to be too self-congratulatory about it, but I do feel as though… when I do that, it’s because I’m trying to figure out what the right thing is. I, like, run things past people a lot and say, you know: “What do you think about this?” I think that’s what we’re trying to do, because when we gossip we’re not just thinking about it ourselves. We’re talking about it with someone else. There’s an extent to which we’re talking it over and we’re trying to, you know, maybe our motivations are tainted, like we’re telling a story about what happened at work, and we want the person to see it from our perspective and tell us that we were right in that instance or something. To a certain extent, that’s what Jeff is doing. Like he’s saying to Lisa and Doyle and Stella: “No, see this from my perspective. This is what I think is going on”. And they’re buying into that. Even though he’s not really part of the equation per se, though, his analysis of it maybe makes him part of it.
Wes: And you could see any work of literature or film as it’s just a form of gossip, right? We are being told a story and part of its interest is predicated on our identification with characters and the ways in which we might work through certain things with ourselves through those identifications. So the question is, a work of art would fail if it became sadistic, it would fail if it were purely or it would become pornography if it were truly just voyeuristic. So it’s a question of the quality of the gossip. Let’s put it that way, or how advanced it is, how mature it is because, you know, a writer can’t be a good writer, for instance, if they’re just… they hate certain characters and idealize others, and they’re just inviting us to do those things as well. So, what the psychoanalyst would call “splitting”. And so maybe that’s the question of how much splitting into good and bad, how much demonizing and idealizing one is doing versus how much integrative activity and true attempts to understand others that’s going on.
Erin: Mm-hmm. That’s a good note to end up.
Wes: Have we reached the end? Okay.
Erin: I think so.
Wes: All right, as I’m sure listeners know, there’s a lot of stuff that we didn’t get to. But at some point when this is on a website, I will put up some of the incredible secondary literature that’s out there on this film really…
Wes: …fascinating stuff and also stuff about the nature of voyeurism, which we touched on a little bit, but I didn’t want us to get too side-tracked on that, on the psychology of that, because it gets… it could spend the whole episode on that. So I think, yeah, this was a lot of fun, as usual. Thank you.
Erin: Thank you.