The Lives of Others: Watching Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 murder mystery, in a post-COVID world

Many aspects of Rear Window (1954) ring even truer in an era in which rising authoritarianism and the ubiquity of social media, combined with pandemic-enforced isolation, is pushing us more and more into the once socially dubious roles of the lurker, the invisible spectator in the dark.

Trisha Gupta October 25, 2020 12:21:20 IST
The Lives of Others: Watching Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock's 1954 murder mystery, in a post-COVID world

All stills from Rear Window (1954)

“The movies make us into voyeurs. We sit in the dark, watching other people's lives. It is the bargain the cinema strikes with us, although most films are too well-behaved to mention it,” wrote the hugely popular film critic Roger Ebert in his 1999 review of the film Peeping Tom. Michael Powell's film caused great outrage upon its release in 1960, and Ebert speculated — nearly 40 years later — that it was because it broke that unspoken contract between the audience and the filmmaker. By making its protagonist a serial killer who liked to film his victims in the throes of death, Peeping Tom forced viewers to contend with the violence of our own scopophilia, the pleasure we derive from looking.

Six years before Peeping Tom, another British director had made a film about the pleasure of looking, featuring a news photographer instead of a film studio focus-puller. But Alfred Hitchcock was too clever to make his audiences too uncomfortable. The kernel of Rear Window (1954) lay in a 1942 Cornell Woolrich short story called 'It Had To Be Murder', where the temporarily laid-up narrator's view of the windows across from his own leads him to suspect a murder. “I could have constructed a timetable of [my neighbours'] comings and goings, their daily habits and activities. Sure, I suppose it was a little bit like prying, could even have been mistaken for the fevered concentration of a Peeping Tom,” concedes Woolrich's narrator, before quickly denying any intentional voyeurism. “That wasn’t my fault, that wasn’t the idea.”

Hitchcock's hero doesn't get let off so easily. Within the film's first few minutes, his no-nonsense nurse Stella berates him as a 'window shopper' who spends his days looking at newly married couples and “bikini bombshells”. Stella has no doubt that spying on other people is a modern-day evil: “We've become a race of Peeping Toms. They used to poke your eyes out for that sort of thing, with a red-hot poker...” . But Hitchcock, along with his superb screenwriter John Michael Hayes', transforms the original story to make his hero a professional viewer of the world — and his film all about looking.

The Lives of Others Watching Rear Window Alfred Hitchcocks 1954 murder mystery in a postCOVID world

LB Jefferies, better known as Jeff (James Stewart) is a globe-trotting photographer who's fractured his leg on a particularly adventurous shoot. When the film opens, he has been holed up in his New York apartment for five weeks, with nothing better to do than look out of his rear window. While he converts these telling glimpses of his neighbours into stories — and in Hitchcock's unspoken self-referential extension, into cinematic fictions complete with a plot — Jeff himself is never seen. Or at least, he tries his best to ensure that he isn't: wheeling his chair back, keeping his lights off, even hiding at opportune moments. Not really the usual style of a cinematic hero.

There is all sorts of genius in this Hitchcock treatment, starting with the fact that Jeff thinks of himself as being of generally superior intellect to others in his locality. He does have an interest in the outside world, but usually it is reserved for distant places that impinge on his consciousness only in some headline-making way — when his editor calls to propose a trip to Kashmir because the “place is about to go up in flames”, Jeff's excited response is “Didn't I tell you that's the next place to watch?”. His immediate vicinity he thinks of as dull, lulling us into that assumption — and also making us feel a little guilty about the voyeuristic gaze that seeks excitement.

Dullness appears to be a problem both for those outside relationships and those in them. One single female neighbour — Jeff calls her Miss Lonelyheart — often drinks herself to sleep. But her efforts to date are ill-fated, too: we watch one much-awaited young man thrust himself on her as soon as the front door is closed. Another single woman — Stella's 'bikini bombshell', named 'Miss Torso' by our hero — has no shortage of male admirers, but none of them looks worth having. A single male songwriter above Miss Torso seems equally starved for love.

Meanwhile the couples lead lives of sweetly boring domesticity, or else bitter conflict — the sort that can lead to murder. Our hero himself has a girlfriend most men would have killed for, Grace Kelly as a model called Lisa Fremont who appears on the covers of magazines, but he isn't happy either. He thinks she isn't cut out for marriage to someone like him, who spends weeks on the road in rough places. “If she was only ordinary,” Jeff whines to Stella. We're meant to see that Lisa's Park Avenue perfection and high fashionista status is dull as ditchwater to Jeff: once he even asks what her cocktail companion was wearing, only to ruthlessly mock her reply.

The Lives of Others Watching Rear Window Alfred Hitchcocks 1954 murder mystery in a postCOVID world

Alfred Hitchcock lets Jeff tell many an uncle joke about nagging wives and the sad fate of husbands. But Rear Window can also be seen as undercutting Jeff's rather comfortable narrative: the rough-and-ready adventurer remains tied to his chair till film's end, while the exquisitely-turned-out Lisa does all the mystery-solving legwork, even putting herself at risk. Lisa's physical fearlessness is what finally impresses Jeff — he seems to think he's kindled her sense of adventure. And of course, Jeff's fracture literally bars him from legwork. Even so, his reliance entirely on visual tricks is fascinating: even when the murderer walks into his room, all Jeff can think of as a weapon is a battery-operated flashlight to blind him temporarily. And it's definitely possible to read Rear Window in a way that sees Jeff's immobility as emasculation, and emasculation as marriage — Hitchcock's hero ends the film with both legs in a cast and firmly embedded in traditional coupledom.

Rear Window is a ridiculously apposite watch for a post-COVID world, where travel for travel's sake seems to have gone, well, out the window. For one, Lisa's attitude turns the perfect side-eye upon Jeff's grandstanding travel stories. Other aspects of the film ring even truer in an era in which rising authoritarianism and the ubiquity of social media, combined with pandemic-enforced isolation, is pushing us more and more into the once socially dubious roles of the lurker, the invisible spectator in the dark. On our screens and off them, stalking and surveillance have greater currency than ever before. Stella's “homespun wisdom” — from a 1939 Reader's Digest — seems almost poetic in its appropriateness: “What people ought to do is get outside their own houses and look in for a change.”

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