The poster for Rear Window (1954) could not be a better representation of this film's dynamics of watching — or, indeed, of the dynamics of the male gaze in cinema. J. B. "Jeff" Jeffries' (James Stewart) view of the apartments and courtyard provide him with the ultimate adult male 'Choose Your Own Adventure' vista: exposed female bodies and their vulnerabilities and real men using various methods to handle their relationships with women. Jeff can ogle, approve, chuckle, or sit in judgment. No matter, these lives on display bring him pleasure of various sorts but none of the mess. It is a virtual reality.
More accurately, it's voyeurism. As Jeff watches, his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (the impossibly perfect — and beautiful — Grace Kelly), his visiting home-care provider Stella (Thelma Ritter), and his friend Det. Doyle (Wendell Corey) watch him and, at first, sit in judgment. They are the audience. We agree with them that voyeurism is childish at best, at worst a violation of the privacy of the person(s) watched, the very privacy we insist on preserving for ourselves when in our homes.
Even as we agree, we must confess that we are all guilty of indulging in it, if only fleetingly, more often than we care to admit. In fact, it occurs to me that our collective acculturation to the experience of being invisible to the people we see in films and on television, media's framed quality so strongly evocative of actual windows, makes us perhaps more prone to voyeurism. Or at least more desensitized and thus less self-conscious as we engage in it than we once might have been. (The mere existence of shows like Jerry Springer simultaneously cater to our inclination toward voyeurism and force us to face the reality of our enjoyment in watching the private. In essence, they are the definition of 'guilty pleasure'.) Even Rear Window's main title sequence, with the slowly rising window shades in Jeff's apartment resembling old movie theatres with their drapes that would part or rise when the feature began, suggests that connection.
So, even our representatives in the film succumb to the allure of the view from Jeff's apartment — and remember, they are we. As those of us whose gazes have lingered for more than a few seconds at an open window know the next tendency is to begin to imagine, or construct, narratives for the occupants based on what we see (or don't see) in that space. We become what we imagine detectives to be and in that sense, Rear Window becomes a detective story. However, it's an odd one for a couple of reasons. The typical detective story begins with evidence of a crime; Rear Window actually ends with producing that evidence. What we have prior to that moment is speculation, a testing of a storyline. And that speculation leads us into fairly racy territory for 1954.
We viewers get some early practice at storyline construction as the camera returns from Jeff's view of the courtyard to pan over Jeff's plaster-encased leg, a smashed large-format camera, a photo of a spectacular racecar crash, to photos of A-bomb explosions and brutal street violence, more cameras, and finally a displayed negative of a young woman whose picture also appears on the cover of a magazine. From this we learn Jeff's basic biography and guess how he ended up in the cast, bit we can also make some guesses as to his temperament and, if we think for a bit about the strangeness of displaying a film negative, some insight into his relationship with the woman in the picture — deliberately not yet developed but (he hopes) under his control. Which is fitting when you compare the negative to her entrance as she introduces her first, middle, and last name as she turns on each lamp in the room as if she is developing herself through exposure to the light.
The other odd thing about this particular detective story is that while typical detective stories are clear as to which narrative we're supposed to follow, the poster indicates that the stories of the other tenants will compete for his, and our, attention. The film's initial pan of the other apartment windows is telling in that the apartment that will come to command most of our attention appears to be empty. It is only after the film is well underway that Jeff's attention will shift perceptibly more toward the Thorwalds' apartment.
But back to needing a crime to lend credence to our speculation that a crime has been committed… "That's what we're all thinking," Stella says to justify her speculating aloud that Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) is scrubbing his bathroom walls because he dismembered his wife's body after having murdered her, assuming of course, a murder has indeed taken place. This being a Hitchcock film, one has. Our protagonists just don't know yet, seeing as they don't know they're characters in a Hitchcock film. So paradoxically, it is through speculation on dismemberment the narrative of Thorwald's crime is in part constructed.
What makes Jeff and Lisa want to test their hypothesis that Thorwald has murdered his wife is when Lisa says if Mrs. Thorwald has indeed just left town for a few days, she would have taken her wedding ring. That leads to the other thing we're all thinking about as we watch this film: sex, as ably represented in the lobby poster by Miss Torso's reflection in the binocular lens. In the film's most erotically charged scene, Lisa comes over to Jeff's apartment with a small overnight case and the intention, as she says, of staying the night with him (at a time when "nice" unmarried people were not supposed to let members of the opposite sex do so making way for the introduction of the forbidden). The release of that tension is delayed when Doyle arrives to inform Jeff that Thorwald appears not to be guilty of murder. Doyle leaves after having berated Jeff for his voyeurism as well as the overnight case and what it signifies. Then Lisa heightens the sexual tension further (and expands on the cinema-as-voyeurism analogy) by drawing Jeff's shades and announcing, "Show's over for tonight." She shows Jeff the sheer gown she's brought along and saying, "Preview of coming attractions." It's in this moment, Rear Window (or at least Lisa) heads in a direction most erotic thrillers do not. In that genre, there's a very clear and often bloody nexus between the erotic and the violent; here, our protagonists seek to keep the lines from intersecting while the nexus occurs offstage when Thorwald murdered his wife because he's become involved with another woman. If not for Jeff and Lisa's butting into the Thorwalds' narrative, like characters from a novel suddenly and anachronistically showing up in another novel, their speculations would have remained attempts to explain with nothing to confirm those explanations.
While that narrative achieves closure, there remains the matter of that displayed negative of Lisa on Jeff's desk. What will develop from that? Let's consider the film's final scene: Jeff, both his legs now in full casts, is asleep in his wheelchair, and Lisa is reclining on a divan reading a book called Beyond the High Himalayas, a book which appears to exist. The title is evocative of the life of high adventure Jeff lives for and which he earlier argued Lisa isn't suited for. When she sees he is asleep, she puts the book down and picks up a copy of Bazaar — a magazine that, despite the title's evocation of exotic realms, takes as its subject the very life that Lisa has thrived in. What can we make of this scene? Is Jeff and Lisa's relationship still at the stage it was when the film opens? Lisa is not wearing a wedding or engagement ring, so has Jeff come to terms with who Lisa is? Or is she hiding her longing for her former life? Such is the paradox — and the pleasure — of meta-narratives; even as they are at pains to investigate and expose the dynamics of narrative itself, portions of their own narratives remain tantalizingly, fascinatingly, pleasurably open.