“That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t do in public.”
Consider Lars Thorwald. That beleaguered, bespectacled, white-haired jewelry salesman fitted in an impossibly blue suit, played by Raymond Burr in the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece Rear Window. He works selling costume jewelry, shiny pieces that make women feel loved or happy or pretty or dazzling or maybe devalued, depending on the person. This job does not appear to be glamorous, nor the product especially interesting – it’s just a lot of stuff he unloads for women to buy or for men to pick up for their wives or girlfriends or mistresses. Wholesale. Thorwald is not making much money at this job either. He lives in a Manhattan apartment with his invalid wife who quarrels with him because she’s sick of their life and their marriage. Or because she’s mean-spirited. Or, because he’s mean-spirited or … he’s cheating, which means she has good reason to be angry with him. But from a distance she looks like what men would refer to as a nag. He serves her a meal in bed with the sweet added touch of a flower. But she mocks him.
At first, he’s upset but mostly he’s just morose, depressed. He moves slowly with a decidedly downcast slump. When we catch his eyes, we see that he’s full of angst, those blue eyes constantly concerned about whatever is happening in his world, something he’s not going to share with any of his neighbors (why would he?). Removing what we’ll learn of his horrible misdeed (murdering his wife and cutting her into pieces, he also kills a dog), we feel sympathy for Lars Thorwald (I do anyway, I can’t help it). Why would we want to destroy his already awful life? Why would we make such terrible assumptions about this broken man? Why would his sad, but not terribly unusual daily existence be the source of one’s voyeuristic amusement?
Here’s one reason among many: Because he’s married, and that is a very watchable horror movie for the film’s peeping Tom protagonist, L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart). Marriage – it’s drastic, as he’ll say. Stuck in a cast and bored, he’s been peeping at everyone across the courtyard, creating separate movie shows and characters with nicknames (like the disturbing Black Dahlia-sounding Miss Torso or the suicidally sad Miss Lonelyhearts, etc.) but Lars Thorwald and his wife grab potent visual attention to Jeff while he’s talking to his editor, Gunnison, on the phone:
Jeffries: If you don’t pull me out of this swamp of boredom, I’m gonna do something drastic.
Gunninson: Like what?
Jeffries: ‘Like what?’ Get married. Then l’ll never be able to go anywhere.
Gunninson: lt’s about time you got married, before you turn into a lonesome and bitter, old man.
Jeffries: Yeah, can’t you just see me? Rushing home to a hot apartment to listen to the automatic laundry and the electric dishwasher and the garbage disposal and the nagging wife.
“Can’t you just see me?” he says to the faceless voice on the phone (Gig Young’s voice, which in history and hindsight feels a bit spooky). Like Thorwald’s wife, Jeffries is also an invalid (though temporarily – he broke his leg from his line of work, that of a rugged, thrill-seeking news photographer) and is requiring meals served to him by his likable, no nonsense nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter). He’s also waited on by his beautiful high society girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) who comes wafting into his small apartment in the latest couture gown. Lisa does her own, though much grander version of Thorwald’s special little flower – she has a lobster dinner directly delivered from 21. Does Jeffries appreciate it? Not really. He says, exasperated: “Lisa… It’s perfect. As always.” She’s just too perfect, as he’s complained to Stella. He grumbles: “She’s too perfect. She’s too talented. She’s too beautiful. She’s too sophisticated. She’s too everything, but what I want.” What a pain he is. And Lisa is constantly hurt by his quips. Hearing the “Songwriter” (Ross Bagdasarian) composing a piece of music (its construction will work as a refrain throughout the movie, it also saves Miss Lonelyhearts life), she asks where is “that wonderful music coming from?” Jeff answers, “Some songwriter over there in the studio apartment. He lives alone. Probably had a very unhappy marriage.” Lisa says, lovingly, “It’s almost as if it were being written especially for us.” To which Jeff replies, “No wonder he’s having so much trouble with it.” This after she brings him a special dinner. I’m sorry but, what an asshole Jeff is.
He’ll finally fall for too-perfect-Lisa before he falls out of a window (pushed, rather, by Thorwald – Jeff kind of deserves it) when he can watch his girlfriend in his favorite movie: “The Downfall of Lars Thorwald.” So, when she joins in on solving the mystery of Thorwald’s missing wife and dangerously crosses over to the other side (into Thorwald’s apartment) where Jeff can watch, he is worried for her, but mostly he’s impressed and even a little turned on. We’re to assume he’s also now finally in love with Lisa but given how darkly humorous Hitchcock (and screenwriter John Michael Hayes, adapted from the Cornell Woolrich story, “It Had to Be Murder”) view marriage and relationships (murder, attempted suicide, constant frustration), who knows if it is love-love? It could merely be the satisfaction of a puppet master.
I know I love Lisa at the end of the movie and throughout – from her appreciation of a dress, to the perfection of packing that Mark Cross overnight case, to her eagerness to work with Jeff, to the way she gamely climbs into Thorwald’s apartment (who says a woman can’t escalate a fire Escape and balcony in an Edith Head dress and heels? I’d like to see Jeff try this). Her work in fashion isn’t anything to look down on, as Jeff does, and it’s rooted in its own kind of fantasy and show (“Preview of coming attractions” she says about her gorgeous nightgown, one that gets interrupted by a dead dog). The Peeping Tom should understand. Hitchcock, famously, took clothes very seriously, so he surely feels sympathy for too-perfect Lisa. There’s an art to what she does and who she is. When I interviewed Eva Marie Saint a few years ago, she said: “Hitchcock did oversee everything, of course. And the makeup, and the jewels and the shoes and the bags, and the dresses. I loved it! Because he had this idea about this sexy spy lady and it helped me compose my character and all of that. It’s not only the internal, but the external always helps. Costumes are of such importance to an actor… He wasn’t happy with some of the clothes they had given me [on the movie] so he took me to New York, took me to Bergdorf Goodman and we sat down and he had arranged some clothes he had seen and picked them out… That was quite a shopping trip.”
I don’t think Jeff would take Lisa on any kind of shopping trip, much less understand the aesthetic value of costume. The “acceptable” Lisa is when Lisa becomes what Jeffries wants – when she jumps into his narrative of Lars Thorwald, one that Jeffries is nearly controlling, like a director (as stated in numerous essays, it’s no surprise he’s a photographer). But she is at a distance and viewed through his camera, which he seems to prefer. As much as he nags Lisa about not being able to handle the challenges of his exotic, rough job (“Well, try and find a raincoat in Brazil, even when it isn’t raining.”), he prefers real life from the safety of a lens. There’s a separation. So, when in the apartment, he does sit staring, stressed and frightened for Lisa, incapable of doing anything other than calling the police when Thorwald returns. But, still, from his perspective, she’s part of his show. At this moment, however, it’s like Lisa and Thorwald break through his story and take over – and I love this bit because, frankly, I think Jeff’s story needs some help, needs something beyond him. And, as charming as James Stewart is, his Jeff sometimes comes off as a bit of a glib sadist. (Though we all understand his voyeurism, and we also understand looking at people, making assumptions, think of how we scan the windows of social media) So his horror movie becomes a double threat in a most clever way – when Lisa points to Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring on her finger – a good find to bust Thorwald, but also a big hint to Jeffries. And then at that exact moment, Thorwald looks at the wedding ring, sees that Jeffries is spying, and stares back with both fear and an “Oh, you are fucked,” look on his face. The prospect of marriage is double doom by the threat of Thorwald. He might be married and he also might DIE.
“Drastic” as he said earlier. Jeffries has lost control of his narrative, so when Thorwald enters his apartment, he can only sit back, the big withholder that he is (“Couldn’t we just keep things status quo?” he asks Lisa who tries to leave him because she loves him too much). Thorwald is now a very real person and beseeches him in an almost intimate way: “Say something. Say something! Tell me what you want! Can you get me that ring back?” Jeff’s movie villain storming into his real life, that ever-threatening wedding ring, that white-haired man across the way now, looming and too familiar – these are all, to Jeff, as terrifying as being chucked out of the window. Thorwald’s eyes are an intense, burning blue, matching his blue suit, and Burr is so fantastic in this role, he manages to make Thorwald simultaneously menacing and tragic. This is why audiences often gasp when Thorwald breaks through the fantasy – not merely because he’s scary but because he looks so wounded. This is such a penetrating moment that the flashbulbs Jeff pulls out are not going to save him – his camera will not put enough distance between him and his subject.
There’s so much written about Rear Window, it’s one of the most analyzed films in cinema (from story to meaning to technical narrative achievement) so nearly everything in this picture has been famously studied. And certainly its view of marriage and relationships (as I have written here) have been frequently essayed. So, after multiple viewings, I often think of after the fact: What will happen to Lars Thorwald? We’re supposing he’ll be punished (which he deserves), but he’s such a marvelously mysterious character, such an aesthetically compelling subject (that strange hair, that glowing cigarette in the darkness, those eyes, that suit, that voice, captured so brilliantly by cinematographer Robert Burks), that I always hope he’ll live on – somewhere – like in a photograph. He lives on in the movie, for us, but in the lives of these fictional characters I have to wonder about Jeff, the photographer. He helped create this man, he spent days watching him, why on earth didn’t he take his picture? This is, after all, his greatest work of art.