A Race of Peeping Toms [Rear Window]

We’ve become a race of peeping toms. What people outta do is get out of their house and look in for a change”- Stella (Rear Window)

Nothing should resonate with us more than the thrill and horror of living our lives in the confines of one room. And amidst the current pandemic, nothing should ring truer than the frustration of Jimmy Stewart’s character, Jeff, being confined to his apartment for the foreseeable future, as he convalesces from a broken leg. Out of his boredom blooms an amazing film that all takes place in one room, a terrific feat of filmmaking and storytelling.

Rear Window serves as a reminder of how easy it is to live parallel lives, to live near each other but not with each other. As Jeff occupies his time with binoculars and his rear window, looking out amongst his colorful neighbors, he becomes enmeshed in their lives, their loneliness and love, their anger and happiness. Entire story arcs are created through Jeff’s observations, which is enthralling and amazing, and also a criticism (at the time) of how easy it is, even in a sprawling city, to isolate ourselves from those around us and a portrayal of the consequences of that isolation. That idea has aged well and leaves Rear Window firmly entrenched in many people’s top ten movie lists (gotta have a token ‘classic’ movie), including my own. Since this movie debuted, we have invented more and more efficient ways to be social without knowing people (I am using one right now), to live parallel lives of isolation. So as the world Jeff observes from afar slowly creeps into his apartment, the thrill and discomfort of it all resonates in our bones.

The art of Rear Window is in how slowly the outside world creeps into the room, both the one occupied by Jimmy Stewart (I just can’t call him Jeff for this whole piece. He’s Jimmy Stewart) and the one from which you watch. There is such innocence in his early window-gazing, a tantalizing naughtiness as he explains the drama of his neighbor’s lives to his in-home nurse, Stella, without ever having spoken to any of them. Plus, what else is he supposed to do? He is stuck at home with nowhere to go (sound familiar?), let’s forgive him for engaging with lives currently more interesting than his own. 

But then feelings become involved. Empathy for Ms. Lonely Heart, lust for Miss Torso, and anger at mean old Mr. Thorwald. For the viewer, there is an investment in these people’s lives that becomes greater than the investment in Jimmy Stewart (besides the non-plot based frustration at him for not immediately throwing his life and career away for Grace Kelly. I don’t know if this is the manliest thing ever or the dumbest. Could it be that Jimmy Stewart trumps Grace Kelly in relationship leverage?). There is a necessary and intriguing plotline about Lisa’s ability to live the life Jeff wants to live, and on the opposite side, the questioning of Jeff’s decision to continue this type of life rather than settle down with a great gal like Lisa (I am aware of this understatement), and it serves a fitting thematic and narrative backdrop to the story, but it isn’t nearly as thrilling as when that camera rotates right, and pans across his neighbors and their sometimes dastardly but always interesting deeds.

Then those feelings become a theory. Stewart takes his observations and does some deduction and convinces himself that Thorwald has killed his wife. He is beyond emotionally invested. He has made himself the glue to the story. The only one that knows the truth. He is still an isolated observer with a telephoto lens and boredom, but he is mentally interacting with his outside world, and it, therefore, starts to take up residence in his mind and his apartment. 

And eventually they become enmeshed, and as this happens the viewer can’t help but wonder how long they have been on the edge of their seat without knowing it. The plot moves from Lisa harmlessly (despite almost getting caught) delivering a note under Thorwald’s door so Jeff can observe his reaction, to Jeff calling Thorwald to get him out of the house, to Lisa digging up flowers to look for remains and then recklessly climbing the fire escape so she can break into Thorwald’s house, to Stella and Jeff noticing Ms. Lonely Heart’s suicide attempt, and ultimately to Thorwald’s return to find Kelly and notice her signal to Stewart. It’s a breathtaking sequence that seamlessly crosses that glass divide between observation and interaction. A barrier that, once breached, reveals a much faster route to involvement. But as Lisa is barely saved by the police’s arrival before Thorwald had a chance to bludgeon her to death, and the viewer is finally able to unclench their butt cheeks from this onslaught of tension, there is a moment of marveling at how quickly we went from observing to being right in the thick of things- our journey paralleling Lisa and Jeff’s.

The pacing of this story is a master’s class in narration. The time Stewart spends observing and thinking about everything out the rear window, the amount of time it takes to convince Stella and Lisa, not about everything, but enough to get them curious, the innocuous backstory between Jeff and Lisa that makes Lisa dare to be so reckless and dangerous, and then the avalanche of actions that happen with the dropping of a snowflake. No one has time to think, to ponder, to exit the thought matrix that leads them into Thorwald’s apartment and eventually Thorwald into theirs. Which creates a type of moment that are my favorite in film and television- or books for that matter. A moment that creates apparently overblown emotions in comparison to what is occurring. It is the mark of great storytelling. 

For example, if you just played the scene of Thorwald turning out the lights, Stewart realizing it is Thorwald, the slow clacking of footsteps approaching the apartment door, Stewart realizing he can’t get to the door to lock it, and the subsequent confrontation, “What do you want from me?” in that breathy and exasperated voice, the awesome editing of the flash bulbs in Thorwald’s vision, the tussle to throw Stewart out the window, and the fall that followed, anyone would be impressed by it. Its Hitchcock. But they wouldn’t feel a whole lot. They’d give you a, “that’s cool,” and then go about their business. But as the culmination of the story, placed firmly at the end of all the narrative and all the build and all the connections you made to the characters along the way, it is tense and sends your mind and heart racing. It’s a scene based on a small premise that has a big reaction.

But as powerful as the emotions are from the storytelling, the scene has aged even better over time. Connecting to those emotions, like Stewart’s fear of Thorwald invading his life, is as easier than ever before. We may no longer be peeping toms in the way Stella meant it, peering out our windows into the homes and lives of those we find more interesting, but following other’s lives is a bit of a specialty of ours. We often live vicariously through those living a different life as we sit in isolation. And the thought that our isolation could be permeated, that that which I watch from afar can kick in my door and wrestle me out of my solitude and into the world, can be terrifying. When Thorwald is no longer outside the rear window, observed from a safe distance, when you see his size (expertly shot at an upwards angle) in comparison to Stewart sitting in his wheelchair and feel his presence and anger at Stewart’s meddling from afar, that’s a visceral movie-watching moment. But when coupled with our own experience at meddling from afar, when we understand how terrifying it is to have what we used to observe be in the room with us… that is unforgettable.

As we sit in isolation, forced or self-inflicted, we can relate to the terror in Rear Window. But it serves as a reminder as well. We can’t isolate ourselves from life without it eventually finding its way in. And it’s often better to have Grace Kelly by your side when it does. Actually, it’s always better to have Grace Kelly by your side…

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6 thoughts on “A Race of Peeping Toms [Rear Window]

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