Though Alfred Hitchcock had it built on a Hollywood lot, the movie set for Rear Window (1954) depicts Greenwich Village in Manhattan. At one point, we even learn the killer’s exact address: 125 West 9th Street. When I first watched the movie on television with my parents in the late sixties or early seventies, I remember thinking how familiar the scene looked, like it could have taken place in my Brooklyn neighborhood of East Flatbush, where there were always those who looked and those who were looked at. That was part of the urban contract.
Ever since I was five and my father had gone bankrupt, and in a reversal of the suburban dream, moved us from Seaford, Long Island, to Brooklyn, my family always rented the street-level apartment of a two-family brick home. The owners invariably lived upstairs (away from prying eyes) while the renters lived below, where it was easy to be looked in on. Some message about social class and economic power got communicated to me: the higher-ups lived higher up. Privacy was reserved for the more well-to-do, for the landlords and landladies. To be poor was to rent the bottom floor and to have the threat of spying eyes upon you at all times. To be looked at was a badge of shame we wore along with poverty. To be seen was to be unmasked. To be unmasked was to be caught. To be caught unawares was to be made wary. To be wary and on guard was the price we paid for existence.
* * *
To look is always sexual—scopophilia as Freud, and later film theorists, called it. In Rear Window, we watch Jeffries, the war photographer (portrayed by James Stewart and perhaps modeled after Robert Capa), incapacitated with a broken leg, watching the blonde ballet dancer “Miss Torso” getting dressed in her skimpy outfits, while practically ignoring Lisa, his blonde, glamorous, stunner of a girlfriend who wears a different designer ensemble every time we see her on screen.
“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” the insurance nurse, Stella, complains to Jeffries, criticizing him for staring at the windows across the way. But soon, she too gets seduced into watching and trying to solve the suspected murder in one of the apartments facing Jeffries. Even his old army buddy, the ineffectual, scoffing police detective Doyle, gets so distracted by the ballet dancer that Jeffries, in a moment of exasperation, brings him back with a guilt-inducing jolt, “How’s your wife?”
“We’re all voyeurs to some extent,” Truffaut says in conversation with Hitchcock about Rear Window.
And Hitchcock agrees:
I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in the room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, “It’s none of my business.” They could pull down the blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look out.
* * *
Hitchcock may have made this off-hand remark (the everyone-does-it justification) in his interview, but in Rear Window the ethics of looking gets a more nuanced consideration.
jeffries: You know, much as I hate to give Thomas J. Doyle too much credit, he might have gotten a hold of something when he said that was pretty private stuff going on out there. [pause] I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long-focus lens. Do
lisa: I’m not much on rear window ethics.
jeffries: Of course they can do the same thing to me. Watch me like a bug under a glass.
The ethics of looking and being looked at: that is what Jeffries ponders at eighty minutes into the movie. And what are the implications for us, the moviegoers? If, as viewers, we are hyper aware of our own watching because it is raised to the second degree (watching Jeffries watching across the way), are we implicated or somehow absolved of any guilt? Does looking at looking cancel itself out? We are, after all, watching Jeff “like a bug under a glass.” What are the ethics of looking if it is looking at what others see? Is it still voyeurism if we are watching a voyeur do the watching?
* * *
At about age thirteen, I remember my mother, sedated as usual, reclining in bed in the afternoon reading The New York Post, at that time a popular afternoon newspaper. She hears something at the window and pulls up the shade, and is confronted with a pair of eyes—not more than two inches away from hers—looking right at her. A cat burglar! Both of them startle; she screams, and he runs away.
By this time, my mother has gone from having the figure of a forties starlet to the dumpy matronly look of middle age. Over the years, the drugs she has taken to control her schizophrenia have made her gain weight and have slowed her down. I am amazed she has the energy to get dressed, shop, and cook us dinner in her condition. But she does. Her broad Polish face only gets rounder and her large nose only more prominent. Her eyes, as she ages, seeming to recede and shrink inside their sockets. She never needs to wear glasses but I often wonder what she sees.
That night, when my mother tells my father over dinner at the kitchen table what happened, with me piping in some details, I remember he jokes about who was more scared: my mother or the burglar.
“Can you imagine the look on the burglar’s face when the shade rolled up and he saw your mother’s face!”
He laughs. My sister and I—even my mother—laugh along with him. Now it makes me wince at my dad’s cruelty—at my own and my sister’s—toward my mother. He must have resented her for how unattractive she had become. And yet, I have no recollection of feeling hurt or ashamed for my mother’s sake at the time. Maybe I needed my father too much when I was growing up and could not afford to be angry at him, to side too fully with my mother. He was too lively, too charismatic, too normal for me to risk losing him. I had to laugh along; I loved him too much to judge him.
* * *
I spent my teenage years talking on the telephone in my bedroom for hours to my girlfriends. There I must have been, reclining, with one leg akimbo over the other, jabbering away with a friend, when there was a rapping on the side door to our apartment. Our next-door neighbor, who had a strange mother with the bottom of her face missing, was standing at the entrance to our kitchen with a redheaded teenage boy of about sixteen in front of him. The boy was visibly shaking. I had already come out of my bedroom when I heard the commotion in the kitchen. Maybe our dog, a Bedlington terrier, alerted me with his barking; it was rare for us to have an evening visitor.
“I caught this boy peeping in your back window. What do you want me to do with him?”
Our neighbor had the barrel end of a shotgun pointed in the middle of the boy’s back; the boy, tall and freckled as I recall, looked into my father’s face, trembling, silently pleading for his life.
“Shoot him!” My father spat out.
Of course, this isn’t the movies and no one got shot. But the idea of it, the possibility that it could happen (I had never seen a shotgun before), must have been enough to frighten the boy into staying far away from our house.
As I listened, I realized our neighbor was talking about my bedroom, so easily accessible to the street from the yard with its unlocked gate. The incident left me with the unsettling feeling that I was always in danger of being watched by a stranger through a crack in the window into my bedroom. Our building was on the corner of East 54th Street and Glenwood Road, so my bedroom had one window facing Glenwood Road and one facing our backyard. A stranger could easily hop over the low-lying bushes and stand at the windowsill and peer in. Or else open the gate to the backyard and stand next to the air conditioner and look for a chink of light between the window shade and sash, which was probably where my neighbor caught the boy, since the side of his house faced our backyard, where my bedroom window was.
I might not realize it but someone could be watching me any time the lights were on. It didn’t titillate me that someone might want to peer in at me. It felt like a threatening intrusion—one more thing out of my control. Some guy getting the better of me by spying on me unawares. And so I lived as though it always might be happening—always a little uneasy, wondering if I were being watched.
* * *
In Rear Window what always keeps my attention—and Jeffries’—are all the other lives across the way. Part of what captivated me as a teenager—and still does—are the myriad possibilities for women that exist from Jeff’s window: The single woman artist who sculpts a figure with a hole in the middle and calls it Hunger. “Miss Torso,” as Jeffries labels the ballet dancer, with her many admirers. The new bride who has such a voracious sexual appetite that she keeps summoning her new husband from the window back to bed with a wail from within: “Haaaaaarry ….” The bedridden wife of the traveling salesman Thorwald. “Miss Lonely Hearts,” who fails miserably at getting a boyfriend until the end, when she is so inspired by the composer she stops herself from taking a bunch of pills and committing suicide. The middle-aged, frowzy blonde woman who sleeps on the fire escape with her husband, and who owns the dog that Thorwald eventually strangles to death. Of course, there is also Jeff’s frustrated girlfriend Lisa Fremont, played by Grace Kelly, who became for this blonde girl watching on her TV set in Brooklyn the paragon of beauty and class. An unattainable ideal.
* * *
lisa: How far does a girl have to go before you’ll notice her?
jeffries: Well, if she’s pretty enough, she doesn’t have to go anywhere. She just has to be.
This exchange happens on the second night, when Lisa is in his arms. Of course, the viewer knows, as does Lisa, that this isn’t true. The only way Jeffries notices Lisa is when she goes over to the apartment across the way, with Stella the insurance nurse, to dig in the garden looking for evidence, but even more so when she boldly climbs up the fire escape and enters the bedroom where they both believe Mrs. Thorwald had been murdered. Lisa has to become an object for Jeff’s voyeuristic pleasure, which requires distance coupled with danger. He can finally look at her with love and desire after she has risked her life for him: Thorwald returns, finds her in the apartment, and a physical struggle ensues that might have ended in her being strangled to death if the cops had not rushed in to intercede. She has to become the surrogate wife of Thorwald (even to the point of wearing his dead wife’s wedding ring and flaunting it to Jeff across the way, which Thorwald sees, tipping him off as to where Jeff lives).
Until this moment, Lisa has put on a one-woman private fashion show, both for Jeff and for us: the first time she enters as a shadow falling over Jeffries’s sleeping form, then leaning in for a kiss in slow motion with her full red lips and blonde wavy hair falling over his face. This close-up of her face still has me mesmerized by her utter beauty, no matter how many times I watch it. When he asks her who she is, she sashays around the room, turning on three lights consecutively while ringing out her three names: “reading from top to bottom: Lisa … Carol … Fremont.” She shows off her latest ensemble, which she declares is “right off the Paris plane”: a short-sleeved black bodice, low cut front and back, cinched with a thin patent leather belt above a full chiffon skirt embroidered with black flowers. At her throat, a choker of white pearls, with an abundance of smaller ones around her wrist. She is bringing him a lobster dinner from the 21 Club. Yet Jeff remains inured to all her charms. In fact, on this first visit, he is determined to end the relationship because he knows she wants him to marry her.
On the second night, when Lisa again attempts unsuccessfully to seduce Jeffries, we see her in a black sheer blouse, attempting to make love to him. But he is too distracted, ostensibly by the murder he suspects has happened in the apartment across the way the previous night.
Nothing stirs him like danger. In that same conversation, where he tells her she just has to be, he asks her, “Don’t you have any problems?” She seems too perfect for him. He deflects her attempts at lovemaking to let her in on his preoccupation, not with her but with murder: “Why … why would a man leave his apartment three times on a rainy night with a suitcase and come back three times?” Clearly, looks don’t work; sexual advances don’t work; gourmet food doesn’t work. Becoming embroiled in trying to catch a murderer works. Perhaps this was a lesson I intuited about beauty: that it would not be enough.
* * *
Thorwald the traveling salesman and his bedridden wife. Something keeps me coming back to thinking about them. My father, Irv, was a traveling salesman and my mother, Selma, was practically bedridden. Mrs. Thorwald (played by Irene Winston) looks svelte, much younger and more beautiful in her white chemise than my mother was in her pastel, cotton shift nightgowns. Thorwald, on the other hand (played by Raymond Burr), is much less handsome: a bespectacled, heavy, lumbering figure with a full shock of grey hair compared to my sprightly, slim, dark-haired, blue-eyed dad. “Always a smile, always a grin, that’s how Irving keeps in trim.” That’s the jingle published in my father’s high school yearbook about him. He repeated it to me over the years because he was proud of how well it still fit him.
On watching the movie yet again, I notice in one quick shot from the vantage of Jeff’s binoculars that Thorwald is wiping down the inside of his silver metal sample case and replacing the costume jewelry that looks like rhinestone necklaces, which he sells wholesale. I have never paid such close attention to this detail before. It reminds me of my father, when he sold shoe ornaments, and after he had been away on a sales trip he would come home, open up his tall, black sample case, and pull out a tray of rhinestone clip-on shoe buckles. Underneath, he would have hidden small gifts for me, such as real Mexican jumping beans that worked because, I discovered much later on, there were little worms (moth larvae) inside that made them move.
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