In early September 2004, I was in a car accident and sustained a back injury which laid me up for months. It was serious enough that I pretty much had to learn how to walk again. During that time I was often doped up on pain meds,1 lying on the couch, staring out the window. I really didn’t see much – my view was just the street, mainly I remember a lot of rain – nothing to divert my attention from the pain or the boredom, no apartment windows through which I might spy on my neighbors.
About twenty-one years prior to the accident, five Alfred Hitchcock films which had not been screened in over two decades were restored and re-released. I saw two of them – Rope and Rear Window – in the theater.2 The former I considered a mildly interesting diversion, the latter I found a revelation. The scenes in both are more or less confined to one apartment each – this is a limitation I particularly enjoy in film.3 I like the intimacy and/or the claustrophobia inherent in such an approach to storytelling.
Rear Window tells the tale of L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), a magazine photographer who broke his leg while getting a “dramatically different” photo of an automobile race. He’s laid up, in a wheelchair, stuck in his hot Greenwich Village apartment with nothing to do. He does have someone on his mind – his socialite girlfriend, Lisa Fremont, played by the stunningly lovely and dressed-to-the-nines Grace Kelly.4 She wants to get married; he believes they’re too different for the relationship to work in the long term, but doesn’t want to call it off entirely. To distract himself from this situation, he watches his neighbors through his back window. There’s Jeff’s fantasy woman, a dancer whom he’s nicknamed “Miss Torso;” a newlywed couple; a lonely single woman; a salesman and his ailing wife; an older couple with a dog; a songwriter; and others. Jeff often talks about them, so Lisa and Jeff’s nurse Stella have both become familiar with this cast of characters.
What goes on in these apartments is a kind of microcosm of the world of personal relationships, and some of the situations in them seem to parallel or comment on what is happening in the lives of Jeff and Lisa. For example, Jeff’s work as a photographer takes him far afield, just as Thorwald, the salesman, travels for his job; they are also both having problems in their respective relationships. Jeff compares Lisa to Miss Torso, whom he describes as “the eat-drink-and-be-merry girl,” whose apartment is often visited by prospective suitors – “she’s doing a woman’s hardest job,” counters Lisa, “juggling wolves.” However, Lisa relates more to “Miss Lonelyhearts,” and it is later revealed how they are emotionally similar.
After six weeks of relatively benign watching, Jeff hears a scream late one night and soon becomes convinced Thorwald has killed his wife. It is then that the spying, which had been simply something to while away the time, becomes an obsession. Initially, Lisa and Stella think it’s simply Jeff’s imagination running away with him; however, they eventually both believe Thorwald really may have committed murder.
Although Lisa, Stella, and Jeff’s friend Detective Doyle are free to come and go, the viewer is trapped in the apartment with Jeff, and sees the neighbors as he sees them, in long shots from his window, across the courtyard. With few exceptions, one gets closer only when Jeff, Lisa, or Stella looks through binoculars or a telephoto camera lens. In contrast, the apartment scenes are, on the whole, tightly composed. Therein lies a dichotomy – Jeff seems closer to, more emotionally invested in, his neighbors whom he only sees from afar than he does to his girlfriend in his own apartment.
Rear Window is about alienation and connection, two themes which are common in the work of many painters, myself included. I didn’t start painting seriously until a few years after seeing the film, but I had already started to form an aesthetic for what my work would become – perhaps that’s why the film had such an impact on me.
Although I haven’t been in constant pain in quite a long time, I still have back problems – I never fully recovered from my injury. I also never suspected a neighbor of murder. If I had, I may have felt inclined to solve the mystery, and it’s just as well that never happened – my better half, who did practically everything for me during those months, probably would have dug up the flower garden, but she definitely wouldn’t have climbed into Thorwald’s second story apartment window, especially in a floral-print dress and high heels.
1 Darvocet, which was taken off the market in 2010 because it was linked to a potentially fatal heart-rhythm abnormality, was one of them. It was also one of the “medicines” to which Elvis was addicted. Hey, if it was good enough for the King…
2 I believe it was the late, lamented Showcase, which was torn down in 1984 to make room for a parking lot, at 412 L Street in downtown Sacramento. The other three films were Vertigo, The Trouble with Harry, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.
3 Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Dial M for Murder are also very limited in terms of location. I think Rear Window is the best of the four, by far.
4 A few years ago, I watched several Grace Kelly movies in a short period of time. I mentioned this to my father, who was something of an old movie aficionado, and he said, “She didn’t make many movies, but she was never in a bad one.” I haven’t seem them all, but so far this has held true.