I think that if I had to pick my most favorite Hitchcock movie, it would be Rear Window. I would even go so far as to say that it’s his best film. It’s not convoluted like North by Northwest, boring like The Man Who Knew Too Much or hit and miss like The Birds. It’s perfect. But there’s another reason why I love the movie. It had one of the most insightful commentaries on American life, one that often gets lost on viewers.
City Life and Alienation
Many people think that Rear Window is simply about voyeurism. Though voyeurism plays a large part in the movie, that’s not what the film is only just about. It was about a large problem that was beginning to become more evident in 1950s America, something that many sociologists had begun worrying about at least two decades before.
What was this problem? In the late 19th to early 20th century, there was suddenly a massive shift in population from small towns to major cities. On the surface, population booms were a positive thing. Cities became huge centers of creativity, opportunity and industry. Plus, for many people, they were an escape from the downside of small town life. If someone was the Odd Man Out or had a damaged reputation, he or she could always run to the Big City and find others like themselves or get a fresh start.
In spite of some of the obvious advantages over small town life, there was a tremendous price to be paid living in the city, one that couldn’t be more ironic. In a small town, everyone pretty much lived in self contained little islands. Houses were yards apart and hemmed in by fences, and there weren’t nearly as many people around to strike up friendships and romances with as in a major city.
Yet small towns were more community-oriented. Because populations were so small and people hardly ever moved, everyone was on familiar terms with everyone else from cradle til grave. You knew who all your neighbors were and might’ve even been on a first name basis with the local mailman, doctor, waitress at the local diner, police officer and other people who served your town.
In addition, activities and social rituals in small towns were heavily geared towards building and sustaining community. There were church services, dances, parades, community picnics and other types of social events that were designed to get everyone to interact with each other on a regular basis. It was also normal for neighbors to either invite each other over for dinner, borrow things from each other or offer passersby some lemonade or a piece of pie.
In a large city like New York or Chicago, you may have been living on a street populated by more people than in a small town. And, chances are, you were living in an apartment building in which hundreds of other people lived, with nothing more than a wall and ceiling separating you from your next door neighbor. However, the irony is that you were probably even more isolated from the neighbors down the hall than you were living in a small town where your neighbors were separated from you by several yards of lawn and fencing.
The reason why is that city life is not conducive to community life. For one, you’re a drop in a bucket in a sea humanity, just another face in the crowd. So, people are less inclined to get to know you, even neighbors who live just a few feet away from you. In addition, because so many people in the city come from wildly different backgrounds and live wildly different lives, neighbors will also be less inclined to get to know you if they feel your values don’t mesh with theirs or if your schedule makes it too inconvenient for the both of you to strike up a friendship.
Making matters worse is that city life is transient. People move in and out constantly. Because of this, there’s less of an incentive for anyone to really get to know who you are since odds are, you will be moving out in a few years, anyway. So, at best you’re a mild acquaintance and are just given a quick hello when passing someone by; at worst, “that guy who just moved in to 222” or “that girl in apartment 143”, who is then forgotten as soon as you close the door.
Lastly, city living is all about keeping to yourself and minding your own business. The unwritten rule is to not get too familiar with anyone. Otherwise, you’re being too forward, too nosy, prying into their affairs.
Sociologists, in studying how city life differed from small town life, realized that community was being broken down by city life and that as a result, this was causing people to become lonely, disconnected and alienated in a way they had never been before. It was also causing people to become less compassionate and considerate towards each other, if not callous.
It’s this issue, besides voyeurism, that was also at the heart of Rear Window. The incident that first explores it is the murder of Mrs. Thorwald. Chillingly, when she screams just before being murdered, tenants hear her but no one cares to investigate the noise. Later, when Thorwald keeps going back and forth across the street with a suitcase in the dead of night, no one notices him. A day or two goes by after Mrs. Thorwald is killed, and no one notices that she’s disappeared, even though she’s surrounded by tenants day and night.
Later, Thorwald is able to fool neighbors into thinking his mistress is his wife. The reason why is that people have interacted so little with the Thorwalds that they’re not even able to realize that a healthy woman accompanying Thorwald out the door is not the helpless invalid who’s been holed up in bed for weeks.
The fact that neighbors couldn’t give a rat’s ass about what anyone is doing is why Thorwald is able to move around with such brashness, a brashness that has Lisa doubting Jeff in the beginning that he killed his wife. She argues that Thorwald couldn’t have committed murder because a murderer wouldn’t parade his guilt in front of an open window or out in the open. Normally, she’d be right. But, as Rear Window is trying to point out, Thorwald is so brazen because he’s confident in knowing that in a city as big as New York where people don’t pay attention to each other, no one’s going to take notice of his suspicious behavior or notice that his wife has gone missing.
The second incident that explores city life and how it leads to alienation is the plight of Miss Lonely Hearts. Here is a woman in which there are two sociable people in her neighborhood who are throwing wild parties every other day (Miss Torso and the Struggling Songwriter). Yet she is lonely as hell, in spite of huge social gatherings happening just a few doors away.
She could’ve made friends with either Miss Torso or the Struggling Songwriter and got in their social graces somehow. But instead, she decides to take her chances alleviating her loneliness by picking up a random sleaze bucket across the street from her house. The reason why is that like so many other people in the city, she’s completely oblivious to who her neighbors are and doesn’t even consider the possibility that she could just alleviate her loneliness by striking up a friendship with them. According to city logic, the last people you would ever go to for friendship or companionship are your neighbors; you would have better luck going on the prowl.
After the random hookup tries to rape her, Miss Lonely Hearts becomes despondent and decides to kill herself, just as a bustling party is being held at the Struggling Songwriter’s apartment. It’s not until she hears the song that the Struggling Songwriter has finally completed when she suddenly becomes aware of his presence and it dawns on her that there’s a neighbor she could strike up a friendship or romance with. When the excitement of Thorwald’s capture brings the neighbors together and breaks the ice that normally exists between them, she is finally able to befriend the Struggling Songwriter.
The last incident that Rear Window uses to explore city life and its corrosive effect on community is the killing of the little dog owned by Fire Escape Lady. Fire Escape Lady just doesn’t rebuke the murderer, she attacks her neighbors in general, calling them out for their lack of empathy and friendliness. She even goes so far as to suggest that the reason why her dog was killed was that he annoyed someone by being too friendly, a cardinal sin in a city where you’re not supposed to get to know or care about your neighbors:
“Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog? You don’t know the meaning of the word, neighbor. Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies. But none of you do. I couldn’t imagine any of you being so low as to kill a little helpless, friendly dog, the only thing in this whole neighborhood that liked anybody. Did you kill him because he liked you, just because he liked you?”
Fittingly, one of the guests at the Struggling Songwriter’s party proves her point about the callousness of city residents. He indifferently urges the other guests to rejoin the party with the dismissive comment, “Let’s go back inside. It’s just a little dog.”
These three incidents aren’t the only thing that Rear Window uses to explore the downsides of city life. Even the movie’s voyeuristic theme was in service of the movie’s theme of city life and alienation. Normally, we see people at eye level and close up. When we see the apartment buildings through Jeff’s spying eyes, we see all of the inhabitants from a distance, and the entire scene has the appearance of a human ant farm.
It’s this interesting perspective that allows us to see how in the city, people are crammed into these spaces in which they’re living side by side and stacked on top of each other like ants, yet couldn’t be more oblivious or indifferent to what their fellow neighbors were doing or feeling.
Rear Window, Brilliant and Underrated
Some people do not like Rear Window, and I get that. It’s a very slow film lacking any real action or suspense until the very end, and it can feel claustrophobic. Plus, I think you have to be interested in voyeurism to get a kick out of viewing the apartment building from Jeff’s perspective. If you’re the type of person who finds spying on people boring (because of how humdrum every day life is), you’ll probably find most of the film as interesting as watching your next door neighbors cook dinner or plunge the toilet.
But I personally have always gotten a kick out of the movie, and I think it’s gotten better over repeated viewings, especially when taking its social commentary about city life to heart.
I recently rewatched Rear Window and absolutely loved it. Your description of a human ant farm is perfect — and as much as I thought it would drive me crazy to live in such a place, I also found it fascinating and didn’t want it to end. I couldn’t get enough of the little glimpses of human drama going on in the apartments. I never thought of myself as a voyeur, but I thought the showcasing of all these different lives stacked on top of each other was enchanting. I guess I must have a streak of the voyeur in me!