And this is not a coincidence. “Back window” reflects the personal and social anxiety, disruption, and insecurity at the core of modern life, all of which have only increased since the mid-1950s and intensified even more during the coronavirus pandemic that kept so many of us inside, separated from and staring at the outside world through our windows.
The film’s basic narrative arc, and the other works of fiction inspired by it, are this: Someone – disturbed or somehow tormented – is trapped inside a confined space, obsessed with looking outside and witnessing an act of violence. The main character has to figure out what to do while trying to determine if what they perceived happening outside is real. That task is complicated by the character’s problems with intimate relationships and social interactions more generally.
The audience then experiences that the observer is also monitored and that the danger outside has come inside. After the invasion, a certain sense of order and calm has been restored. But in the end, there is no sure feeling of lasting safety or comfort.
In Hitchcock’s film, this is the narrative takes the form of a murder mystery that incorporates the romantic but fleeting relationship between Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) and Lisa (Grace Kelly), who gradually investigates the mystery together.
The film is a penetrating sociological study that vividly depicts what post-war sociologist David Riesman aptly called “The Lonely Crowd.” In their 1950 book with that title, Riesman and his collaborators Nathan Glazer and Reuel Denney observed how contemporary society was atomized, increasingly characterized by people living among but separated from others. From the opening scene of “Rear Window,” with panoramic views of Jefferies’ residential complex, to the many scenes that reveal what he sees through his window, the film focuses on the appropriate name. partof his neighbors, presented as divided spaces – separate units with well-marked and well-kept boundaries.
In the film, these divided living spaces diminish any sense of community and compassion. As Jefferies looks out of his window and stares into the windows – and life – on the other hand, he mocks the people he sees and makes them depersonalized names like Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyhearts who trace their actions and imagine plots for them. Hitchcock carefully designed the film set so that it resembled a selection of TV or movie screens, emphasizing that the lives of the people Jefferies observes should be seen as a matter of curiosity, not a cause for concern.
In a key moment in the film, where a dog is mysteriously killed, this cool detachment begins to collapse. The dog’s owner gives a passionate lecture in which she blames her neighbors for their lack of concern for and meaningful contact with each other while Jefferies and Lisa listen attentively.
This sequence reflected a common complaint directed at city dwellers in the 1950s – that they were largely uninhabited and too segregated and self-involved to worry about “if anyone lives or dies.” It was also an eerie premonition that heralded the extensive commentary on a far more serious event in real life 10 years later. The reported indifference of her neighbors during the sexual assault and murder of Catherine “Kitty” Genovese in 1964 in front of her apartment building in Queens came to stand as a disturbing emblem of big city life and residents’ insensitive indifference to each other – even though later evidence disproved that narrative. .
In 1954, “Rear Window” presented a strong critique of detached observation, but it also imagined a kind of committed observation of others it was beneficial, even necessary. Jefferies may seem like a mere looking Tom early in the film, but his obsessive observation ultimately helps solve a murder. In this way, the film anticipated the “eyes on the street” argument put forward in a 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” In it, author and activist Jane Jacobs argued that when everyone looked at each other, neighborhoods were kept safe and connected.
In the film, it is Lisa who takes the lead in the transition from distant to protective observation and from separation to active involvement. She leaves Jefferies’ apartment, until then just an observatory, to break into the apartment of the man suspected of killing the dog that was attacked when it accidentally came close to digging up signs of a crime. . She discovers evidence that helps uncover a homicide and catch the killer.
This vision of a resourceful and gradually empowered woman brings an incipient feminist message to the film – and challenges what Betty Friedan called “The Feminine Mystique” (1963), the widespread perception of post-war women as mere helpers for a breadwinner. To begin with, Lisa had spent much of her time on screen parading around Jefferies’ apartment in fashionable, expensive clothes and trying to convince him to give up his adventurous job as a photographer and settle into a marriage with her. But she becomes more and more homely and more outgoing and engaged in solving the murder.
Virtually through Lisa’s efforts, the film ends on a guarded happy tone. The camera pans again across the residential complex, this time showing a busy world of neighbors no longer confined to bed stalls, and Jefferies and Lisa together, no longer looking at life through a rear window.
Despite all its effectiveness in depicting mid-20th-century concerns about isolation, detachment, and separation from any real community, “Rear Window” is perhaps an even more compelling image of and fable for our time. The life exemplified in Hitchcock’s films – lonely to be seen as a substitute for real connections with others – has intensified in recent years.
Sociologist Robert Putnam mapped the worsening of bourgeois life and the rise of lonely habits in his 2000 study “Bowling Alone.” stresses that the transition from joining to divorce coincided with the installation of a monitor in almost everyone’s life: a television. This device entered the homes of Americans in an unprecedented number during the 1950s and quickly became the new window into – and in some ways, the substitute for engagement with – the lives of others.
Today we are fixated on an even more powerful and captivating digital screen, always with us and always on: our smartphone. And it is no exaggeration to say that we are even more vulnerable. In a study that updates the work of Riesman and Putnam and is crucial to understanding our time, Sherry Turkle has convincingly argued that we are now kept “Alone Together” (2011) by perpetual dependence on our smartphones.
As before, new technology promises expanded horizons and connections, but often delivers spaces with a flatter view, reduced social skills and interest in social activities, increased enthusiasm but reduced empathy, and a disturbing sense that there is, or at least should be, more to life than to see and be monitored.
We are now more like Jefferies than ever. The new versions of the “Rear Window” master story testify to its relevance and urgency today. The adaptation and updating of its narrative has also extended its reach, albeit indirectly, to new audiences. But the original retains its power and relevance. The director himself would certainly recognize and enjoy the irony that it can be eternally instructive to watch his films about the irresistible appeal and inevitable dangers of watching.