Rear Window (1954): Murder as Fantasy, Sex as Violence

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window is not about whether or not Thorwald murdered his wife. That is actually a subtext. Rather, the film concerns the relationship between the protagonish L.B. Jeffries (Jeff) and his socialite girlfriend Lisa. This is the primary concern of the film. It begins with concerns about this relationship and it ends with them unresolved. But in between, it stages a fantasy for the sake of illustrating the tensions that perturb that relationship.

Lisa is a 300 pound gorilla, dominating unhelpfully her besieged beau. He prefers to photograph objects–that is, keep them at a distance for the sake of his dominion over them. The lesson of this film is, objects are ours to the degree that they remain within our gaze and at a distance. Whenver this distance is not respected, people get fucked up. Hence, Jeff’s poor broken leg. Hence, Lisa’s encounter with Thorwald. Hence, Thorwald’s encounter with Jeff.

When bodies encounter one another, bodies which are not reduced to images, they have a violent damaging impact. Nothing passes without suffering in exchange.

Lisa and Jeff believe they spy a murder across the courtyard

Jeff fears these encounters of bodies. He knows that marriage is the institution that sanctifies the act of body encounters. Otherwise, these encounters are forbidden by cultural, religious, even zoning laws (Jeff must inform his landlord if he is going to have a visitor overnight). He fears losing his freedom, signified by the possibility of encounters in strange lands and the multiplicity of choices which his rear window/television offers him. With marriage, he can no longer remain a “window shopper,” as Stella (his nurse) scornfully calls him. And he opens himself up to the violence that Lisa poses.

She wants marriage, but perhaps as much she wants sex. One night when they are enjoying each other’s company, and she is sitting on his lap and his hard cast, he says that he has a problem. And she says that she has a problem. He asks her why a salesman would leave and come back many times the same night. Because he likes the way his wife welcomes him home. Why would he spend the entire day at home? He wants to do “home work.” Why hasn’t he gone into his wife’s bedroom all day? I wouldn’t dare answer that.

Anything to get his attention, but everything fails, because Jeff is not interested in sex. It draws a suspicion which, to Lisa, is “something to frightful to utter.”

Yet there is a unique and fascinating symmetry here: Jeff fears sex and he fears marriage. As a palliative, he spies a murder out his window, dramatizing one resolution of the torture promised by marriage. His investigation of this murder is a vicarious enjoyment of the deed itself. Yet his investigation is also horror at the deed, just like his horror of sexuality. Thorwald’s wife had, presumably, chosen not to “give it up,” and for this reason, her husband murdered her. Would Lisa also murder him, this similarly ill and infirmed individual in the power of a pushy and demanding member of the opposite sex?

And if Jeff’s motivation for his murder fantasy is the terrorizing anticipation of sexuality, then what becomes Lisa’s motivation for her murder fantasy? Eventually she overcomes her initial disgust at this act of voyeurism and accepts the murder fantasy as her own. But Lisa too is troubled by the failure of her efforts to attract his attention. She is in love with a man that does not want her. Just as Thorwald is in a relationship with a woman that does not want him. His murder of his wife is an imaginative response to the immediate tension of her not-yet-domestic relationship.

But the fantasies of Jeff and Lisa–the collision that their bodies anticipate, just like the one that Stella used to describe, metaphorically we hope, how she met her husband (two taxis running into one another)–do not remain fantasies. Each gets a chance to submit the other to violence. First, Lisa climbs into Thorwald’s apartment to recover the wedding ring, the evidence of the murder. Jeff can call her out at any time by ringing the phone, but he does not do so, unwittingly, until Thorwald returns and finds Lisa and … turns the lights out …. The police intervene, thankfully.

They were called by Jeff on the tip that a woman was being beaten in an apartment. This hadn’t happened yet: Jeff had imagined it. But when the police arrive and Lisa has on her finger the wedding ring which will prove that Thorwald’s wife is not out of town but in fact dead. She does not tell the police. Instead, she shows the ring to Jeff, across the courtyard, in a gesture that also is revealed to Thorwald. She had shown Thorwald where Jeff was, and then she went quietly with the police. Leaving Thorwald there, alone. Thorwald goes to Jeff’s apartment. The lights, anticipating him, are already out.

Sexuality: violence. The invisible, yet the desire driving this entire drama. Sex takes place behind the shades of the newlyweds’ windows. There, he is being submitted to her insatiable appetite. Murder takes place in the dark of the Thorwalds’ apartment. No one sees it, but it is what everyone is looking for.

And after Thorwald has been blinded (the only weapon that Jeff wields–the capacity to blind others, to disrupt the gaze), Jeff managed to put off the violence for only a few minutes and it didn’t save him the trouble of another broken leg. He reenters his cocoon. And while he sleeps in his wheelchair, at a safe distance from the bed. Lisa lies there, in jeans (having visibly assumed the guise of masculinity), reading a book of encounters in strange lands (the himalayas–there’s a phonetic joke there). When she notices he is asleep, she pulls out her copy of Vogue. It was all an image.


For more hard hitting film analyses, see what I have to say about Yasujiro Ozu’s famous film Good Morning (1959).