Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writer: John Hayes
DP: Robert Burks
Editor: George Tomasini
Score: Franz Waxman
Producer: Alfred Hitchcock
Starring: Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr
Distribution: Paramount Pictures
Length: 1 hr. 52 min.
Rear Window is pretty much famous as metacinema because of its main character's voyeurism: Jimmy Stewart's L.B. Jefferies, laid up in his apartment with a broken leg, amuses himself by observing his neighbors through their windows. We, the audience, who sit down to watch this movie for our amusement, are possibly doing the same thing.
The first thing Rear Window does right, then, is in its choice of how to amuse us. It knows we need some information about its characters, so it starts out by letting the camera explore the main character's apartment. It gets the story going by peering into a man's personal space and letting us see his personal effects for ourselves. Voyeurism in Rear Window isn't just a matter of watching, it's a matter of what you're watching: should we be seeing this?
It provides us with a scenario that makes this question very difficult to answer. In Jefferies's peeping, he believes he finds evidence of a murder, and begins undertaking an amateur investigation. Yes, he was watching only for his own amusement and not because he's a vigilant and responsible member of his community; nevertheless, there are apparently some things that need to be exposed.
There's also the matter of what a person watches when they decide to watch something. Several narrative threads besides the central murder mystery are maintained in the silent performances of the neighbors Jefferies spies on. Jefferies isn't the only watcher, though; others join him in his apartment, and they all end up seeing at least something out his window. Each main character is illuminated how they react to each of the neighbors, or what in Jefferies's neighborhood happens to catch their interest.
Rear Window, then, has two central topics: voyeurism and personality. What we experience of this film is largely a matter of these things overlapping. As the characters exchange volleys of dialogue arguing about ethics or romance, the world outside Jefferies's apartment interferes, either through the characters' responses to it punctuating the conversation, or by some sound from outside the apartment leaking inside. On the other hand, when the camera's attention is on the neighbors, the question of what the others are doing remains open and relevant; in some scenes, we're unsure which part of the neighborhood the characters are attending to, and there's tension over whether they're noticing the most pressing matter at hand.
The presence of the community is always so keenly felt in Rear Window. It's interesting, then, that the personal conflict between Jefferies and his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) is as prominent in the film as the possibility of murder in Jefferies's neighborhood. He denies the possibility of marrying her, expressing doubt that their relationship will work out in the long term, believing her lifestyle is too different from his own (a belief that comes with a not-inconsiderable measure of self-aggrandizement). He attributes this difference to Lisa's living on the East Side; Jefferies, meanwhile, is a part of a more Bohemian community, evidenced by the many artists also living in his apartment complex and his own occupation as a professional photographer.
The truth of his assertions falls into question when he's so obviously influenced by forces beyond his control and beyond his private wold, especially when his complaints about marriage seem to parallel the situation of the man he eventually accuses of murder. Also, over the course of Jefferies and Lisa's efforts to expose the crime, Lisa shifts Jefferies's opinions in her favor by putting herself on display in various ways. The way she moves, talks, and dresses would resemble femme fatale if the film regarded her influence as a threat; instead, the film's climax draws attention not to her influence, but to where it comes from: from being watched.
This, I think, something that really helps tie the film together. The potential justice of exposure, the right to privacy, and the problems of distraction from or misjudgment of what's really important are all involved in the action Lisa takes in these late scenes. The film cannot resolve these problems, and whether the characters learned anything about them from their experience is dubious; but we can see, because of all that Rear Window does, something that's hard to see through our self-centered eyes: working with communities and relationships involves allowing ourselves to be watched as much as it involves watching for our own advantage.