Rebecca McCallum continues her series of deep dives into the leading ladies in the films of Alfred Hitchcock.
On the surface, Rear Window (based on short story It Had to be Murder by Cornell Woolrich) appears to be a light-hearted tale of crime and mystery mixed with a frothy and charming romance. However, underneath lurks a subtly disturbing exploration of the complexity of our relationships with others and with the self.
In Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), Hitchcock gifts us with a rarity for 1954- a female hero. Strong-willed and utterly captivating, Lisa may have a successful career in fashion, but her glamourous exterior does not mean she should be underestimated as a creative and independent force. While Lisa is an autonomous woman with her own objectives and desires, it is immediately clear that she is also a romantic and sexual being who is totally devoted to Jeff, (James Stewart)-a photographer whose leg is cast in plaster following a work-related incident. Unfortunately for Lisa, rather than paying attention to the woman stood before him, Jeff becomes preoccupied with observing the affairs of his neighbours from his window. Labelling her as a Park Avenue fashionista in the first segment of the film, Jeff wholly underestimates her. After her interest is piqued one night, Lisa becomes the most integral part of Jeff’s investigations and proves that she triumphs where Jeff (who, in the end is left more helpless than ever), cannot. A physical struggle might be happening across the courtyard, but on this side of the window within Jeff’s apartment an emotional tryst is taking place as Lisa finds herself trying to obtain an unreciprocated love.
Anticipating the (too perfect) Perfect Woman
In true Hitchcockian style, there is a dramatic build up to the entrance of Lisa as the director attempts to coax us into forming an opinion about her character even before we have met her. We first see her in a photograph frame in Jeff’s apartment, her image appearing like a film negative or x-ray, totally drained of colour. Beside this are a stack of magazines which also display her face, but this likeness is in full colour, signifying the uplifting spirit and mesmerising presence of Lisa that we will soon be greeted with. Hitchcock manages to tease us masterfully within seconds as we are left unsure as to what to expect and which version of Lisa we will see. We are also in danger of making up our minds too soon and pre-judging a woman because she belongs to a high maintenance and glamorous world that is markedly different when compared to the humble life of Jeff.
The ambiguity concerning Lisa’s character is also upheld by the conversation that takes place between Jeff and Stella (Thelma Ritter), a nurse sent by the insurance company to tend to his injury. We first hear mention of Lisa’s name from Jeff who immediately associates her with negativity: ‘there’s going to be trouble’ he warns, advising that Lisa is ‘not the girl for me’. He describes her as ‘too talented, too perfect, too sophisticated’, thus adding to our anticipation of a woman who, by all accounts, sounds ideal. ‘If she was only ordinary’ he bemoans. For Jeff it appears that paradoxically perfection is unacceptable and perhaps more truthfully, intimidating. Lisa herself will counterargue this point later, picking up on the theme of all humans being the same when she remarks upon how ‘we all eat, talk, drink, laugh, wear clothes.’ While her outlook is open minded and non-judgemental, Jeff persists in pulling away from commitment towards her and seems compelled to make her feel as though she does not fit in. What is possibly closer to the truth is that it is Jeff (not Lisa) who ultimately cannot find a place for himself, especially now that he is unable to work and is confined to a wheelchair. By contrast, Lisa is an independent woman who earns her own money, acting as an perceived threat to emasculate Jeff.
Jeff comments upon how Lisa’s interests are narrowed down to: ‘the latest scandal, a new dress and lobster dinner.’ However, this is a reductive description that seeks to undermine her potential and capacity both in the personal and professional realms of her life. In actual fact, Jeff fails to note that what she is interested in more than anything else, is him. Jeff may or may not realise it but he in fact projects his narrow-minded views onto her to fit his own narrative. By insisting that she cannot provide him with what he wants, he also stoops to categorizing and stereotyping Lisa. What he needs is ‘a woman who will go anywhere, do anything’ and ironically this is exactly what she proves herself to be by the end of the film.
Lisa’s first entrance takes place at night, a time of day that Hitchcock associates her closely with as we see her on all occasions (except once) out of daylight. By linking her arrivals with night this creates a perfectly alluring mixture of romance and danger while also highlighting how full Lisa’s days are in comparison to Jeff’s. Immediately before her appearance we see an orange sky accompanied by the sound of operatic singing in the background, all working in harmony to provide a highly romantic build up. Jeff is seen sleeping as Lisa approaches and she fills the screen as though she were entering into his dreams. By descending towards him this also creates the impression that she is moving ever closer to the viewer, intoxicating us as she does so. Angelic and feminine, her shadow covers Jeff’s face and for this moment at least he is fixed on her, most notably because he is facing away from the window.
Although she needs no introduction, Lisa curates her own presentation with her trademark elegance and wry humour. She moves across the room reciting her three names (Lisa, Carol and Fremont), turning on a different lamp as she does so, as though to illuminate herself. We see her turn on lights in the apartment on multiple occasions, pointing towards an association of her character not only with night but importantly, with light. She brings light into the darkness, into Jeff’s life and into the audience’s experience. Her first words to Jeff are an enquiry into his health, his appetite and finally his love life, indicating that she is all things to him and cares deeply about all aspects of his life. In a reversal of the male showering his love interest with gifts, Lisa romances Jeff by purchasing him a new cigarette case and a pre-ordered dinner from upmarket restaurant 21, marking her status as a provider and therefore financially independent.
Now we have met her, our first informed impression of Lisa is of a woman who is plucky, fun and optimistic. Her upbeat nature and infectious energy contrasts with Jeff’s morose and irksome pessimism. With tenderness and affection she seeks to uplift him whilst also ensuring that she will remain in the minds of the viewer long after the film: ‘I’ll make this a week you’ll never forget’. When she tells him about her day, a schedule packed with meetings and rendezvous involving travelling from place-to-place, this contrasts with Jeff’s inability to move and enjoy such experiences and it is clear that her mobility inspires envy and frustration in him.
Fighting for Attention: A Tug of Love and Conflict
An immediately warm and reassuring presence, Lisa shows genuine interest and concern for Jeff’s wellbeing and his career. In return, he mocks her with sarcasm, feigning interest when she enthuses about a dress she describes to him in great detail. In response, Lisa tries to nurture his professional life, discussing opening a studio and commissions she could secure for him, but he remains cruel, dismissive, and uncompromising: ‘now, let’s stop talking nonsense’.
When Jeff makes a remark in sympathy for his neighbour Miss Lonely Hearts, he assumes Lisa has never experienced the same feelings of isolation. However, she indicates otherwise telling him ‘oh, you can see my apartment from here can you?’ Sadly, for Lisa, while Jeff is able to feel for someone who he is completely detached from (Miss Lonely Hearts), he struggles to do the same for the woman stood right in front before his eyes and who holds a deep affection for him. When next he takes to comparing her with Miss Torso his assertions about her being a man-eater are met with disdain by Lisa who is no doubt speaking from experience when she promptly assures him ‘she’s doing a woman’s hardest job, juggling wolves.’ This exchange also speaks to the repeated motif of Jeff being at ease with forming opinions of those he watches within the courtyard, while regrettably being unable to turn this analytical eye upon himself. Suddenly, Jeff’s earlier assertions about Lisa being caught up in the latest scandal feel hypocritical as we see him indulging in the same behaviour with his neighbours. He talks freely of other people’s affairs rather than focusing on his own which are in desperate need of care and attention. Trying to set the mood, Lisa remarks upon how the music drifting in from outside feels as though it was written just for them, but Jeff is intent on shooting her down: ‘no wonder he’s having so much trouble with it’.
As the romantic tone begins to shift and the pair spar after dinner, their discussions become tense and heated. Jeff tries to shock her by reciting examples of how life would be if she travelled with him on photography assignments: ‘you’re not made for that kind of life’ he tells her, once more making assumptions and applying unfair judgements. However, Lisa proves that she is more than capable of holding her own, returning his quips and arguing her point. But while she can raise her voice and be heard over Jeff’s whining retorts, there is a romanticism to her behaviour here in that she cares enough about the relationship to fight for it by questioning him. ‘You don’t think either one of us could ever change?’ she asks tentatively with hope in her eyes. This reference to change is an important one as we will see Lisa make adjustments and compromises, indulging Jeff in his new obsession to get closer to him. However, the question of whether he in turn can ever change remains unresolved, a fact supported by the casting of not one, but two legs in the final scene. She lays her cards on the table declaring ‘I’m in love with you, I don’t care what you do, I just want to be a part of it.’ As she prepares to make her first exit, his request to keep things ‘status quo’ illustrates that effectively he wants to enjoy all the advantages of a relationship without any of the commitment. In this scene, Lisa retains power as she leaves telling him firmly that she will be back tomorrow night and thus she makes it clear that while she has strong feelings for Jeff, she is willing to stand her ground, refuting his terms. After she has gone, the previously hot temperature reduces, and the bright orange sky turns to a dark, rainy and storm-filled atmosphere-reflecting the conflict of their relationship and the murder that is about to take place.
The next we time see them together (again, at night) it seems that Jeff has not undertaken any self-reflection following their previous heated exchange as Lisa’s kisses and caresses are unreciprocated. ‘What does a girl have to do to get your attention?’ she asks as she fights to be seen, to be noticed and to be acknowledged. A sensual person who enjoys physical contact, Lisa is trying to make a connection with an absent Jeff. He has already made it clear that he is not interested in a relationship that involves a long-term commitment and here he does not seem to be drawn to a physical relationship; so then, what is it exactly that he wants? Lisa whispers into his ear how ‘homework is more interesting’ but the reception is stone cold. While she tries to create an intimacy between them he asks her about saws and rope – ultimately extinguishing all passion. When eventually he turns to discussing murder, which she tells him she finds frightening, he pays no attention and does not change the subject nor attempt to soothe her. Lisa confronts him with the direct truth that his obsession is unhealthy – at this point too she is practical and logical, assuring him that murderers do not parade their crimes behind an open window. After a frustrating and unsuccessful attempt at foreplay, bewildered by his fascination with the world beyond the window she asks him ‘what is it you are looking for?’ While on the surface she is clearly asking what is it that’s diverting his attention in the immediate moment, beneath this what she is really asking is a broader question about the status of their relationship.
Rebecca will return with Part II of her analysis of Lisa in Rear Window soon.