Continuing our Hitchcock’s Women series, Rebecca McCallum concludes her two-part analysis of Lisa Fremont in Rear Window.
An Expert in the Field: Sleuthing About
A pivotal moment in the film occurs when Lisa spots Thorwald – the neighbour who Jeff suspects of murdering his wife – tying up a suitcase with rope and for the first time she finds that she cannot refrain from looking. Ultimately, it is the invasion of someone else’s privacy that brings Lisa and Jeff together (a welcome distraction perhaps from their own troublesome relationship). Conversely this will also help Jeff to recognise that he has underestimated her. Soon Lisa finds herself sleuthing and (crucially) performing tasks that Jeff cannot, such as going outside of the apartment and gathering information. She is excited to be a part of this, a reflection of her earlier comment ‘I don’t care what you do, I just want to be a part of it’. Clearly thrilled to be involved in this activity, Lisa asks eagerly what her next assignment is.
Arriving at Jeff’s apartment once more after sundown, Lisa comes prepared dressed in a green suit. She provides him with information and insights that he could never possibly be aware of in relation to the missing Mrs Thorwald’s handbag and jewellery. This inside knowledge is thanks to her expertise in the field of fashion, an interest Jeff previously refused to take seriously. When she tells him ‘we’ll agree we saw a woman, but it was not Mrs Thorwald’, this brings a smile to his face – as though she were turning him on – and he asks her keenly to ‘come here.’ From here on in he no longer dismisses her knowledge or attempts to take her down: now that she is playing his game and has proven herself valuable, she has his full attention. Whether the ignition of his passion can be attributed to Lisa directly or due to her involvement in feeding his obsession, is a matter for debate.
Continuing with her forward approach as an empowered woman who enjoys being in control, it is Lisa (not Jeff) who decides to stay overnight. However, when she pulls out her Mark Cross overnight case to reveal a pink satin nightgown and slippers, it is clear she still has intimacy (as well as trading her feminine intuition) at the forefront of her mind. Any plans for sexual activity however are promptly cut short by screams from the courtyard following the murder of a neighbourhood dog. Until Jeff’s focus switches from the outside world to the one within his own apartment, their physical relationship will never be allowed to blossom.
The directness and confidence of Lisa can also be seen in her apt handling of detective (and war buddy of Jeff’s) Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), a man whom she meets without fear or intimidation. Offering him a brandy she declares resolutely ‘we think Thorwald’s guilty’. In response, Tom calls her female intuition ‘a fairy tale’ but Lisa stands her ground once more and refuses to be quashed by him. By the end of this scene, Lisa and Jeff become united, almost acting as one unit as they turn away from Tom to look out of the window. However, any sign of true growth in their relationship is stunted by the fact that their gaze is fixed firmly away from one another. With Detective Doyle gone, Lisa and Jeff watch Miss Lonely Hearts as they discuss ‘rear window ethics.’ It is Lisa however who provides the most intelligent and reflective insights, remarking upon how awful it is of them to be disappointed at the possibility that a murder has not taken place.
As events continue to unfold in a new direction, indicating that they may have been right about the murder all along, Lisa becomes bolder and more courageous, suggesting that they dig up the flowerbeds for evidence. Jeff expresses caution about her doing this, advising that this is too great of a risk. In doing so he is not allowing her to be the adventurous woman he has previously claimed he desired; in essence it seems no matter what she does Lisa just cannot win. Instead she is promptly sent out with a letter to deliver, a task she completes with poise and ease. When she returns from her ‘assignment’ she is reeling from the thrill once more and is almost breathless. Seeing this, Jeff grins at her, bursting with a perverse kind of sexual excitement; without her it would be impossible for him to have this experience.
When Lisa (accompanied by a returning Stella) eventually gets to work on discovering what is under the flowerbed she takes the ante up one step further when she spots Thorwald leaving and seizes the opportunity to climb up into his apartment, all while wearing her beautiful floral print dress. When she climbs the ladder she is brave, spontaneous and is aiming to show Jeff what she can do and – most importantly – that she can do it while embodying her own identity. When Thorwald unexpectedly returns before she can leave the apartment, Lisa is forced to confront him while she calls across the courtyard to Jeff who, unable to rescue her, is rendered a useless spectator.
The Male Damsel and the Art of Compromise
As Jeff is left alone in the apartment he is approached and attacked by Thorwald before he eventually falls from the window – an apt punishment for his persistent voyeurism and invasion into the private lives of others. Lisa arrives on the scene and in a gesture that is maternal rather than romantic she takes Jeff into her lap, holding his face tenderly. He becomes the rescued and the saved and – lying in her arms in an inversion of the typical Hollywood hero/victim dynamic – he represents a quivering male damsel.
In the final scene the reading on the thermometer in the apartment is notably neither unbearably hot (ninety degrees as in the beginning of the film) or unwelcomingly cold (eighty degrees, as it lowered to when conflict arose between Lisa and Jeff), but just right at seventy degrees, a suggestion of an equilibrium being reached in their relationship. Now with both legs in casts and more immobile than ever Jeff is sleeping but – crucially – he faces away from the window. This cocooning of both legs gestures towards notions of change and metamorphosis. However, his first opportunity for rebirth and growth has been unsuccessful and, now finding himself in two casts rather than one, this suggests that in fact more change is needed.
Lisa (who is also shown facing away from the courtyard) reclines in an uncharacteristically casual outfit. She reads a book entitled Beyond the Himalayas but – with a glance in Jeff’s direction – she soon swaps this for a copy of fashion magazine Harper’s Bizarre. While Lisa has made compromises that she continues to read her beloved magazine shows that she has not sacrificed her enthusiasm for fashion which makes up part of her authentic self. However given that she feels the need to conceal this and enjoy reading it in secret points towards the disturbing fact that this part of her cannot be expressed openly.
A Journey Told Through Costume
The way in which Hitchcock’s women are dressed act as a subtle communication tool to convey the themes, emotions and dynamics going on within his films. As Rear Window takes place in one location, it is not surprising that the director chose to utilise costume to its fullest potential. Lisa’s costumes act as markers for the journey her character undertakes and as reflections of her mood during each juncture of the film. Tonally, Lisa’s clothes tell a story as she begins with a monochrome dress before moving to black (signifying a loss of love and of course, murder) and then to lighter, pastel, highly romantic and feminised colours. In terms of the garments themselves, it has been argued that by beginning in a high fashion dress and ending in capri pants and a blouse, Lisa is defeminised. However, the lighter tones of the fabrics and the floral print of the white and orange dress seem to point more closely towards the suggestion of a balance between the masculine and feminine being achieved. Not only does this reflect the comfortable temperature of the room, but also the potential establishment of harmony in Jeff and Lisa’s relationship.
Lisa’s first costume makes an explosive impression (like Lisa herself) as the layered white skirt of her high fashion dress seems to fill the room in which she is hardly able to turn about in. Jeff asks her ‘Is this the same Lisa Fremont who never wears the same dress twice?’ to which she replies ‘Only because it’s expected of her’, suggesting that she is juggling the expectations imposed on her by others rather than being compelled to do so herself. In what is perhaps Grace Kelly’s most memorable gown, she floats like an angel, gliding around the apartment in a silhouette that demands attention. The v-neck shape of the dress frames her face strikingly in the close up and the vine-like detail which cascades down from the skirt reflect the branches nestling by the window where she talks to Jeff. Her second dress is more structured and fitted, unlike the flowing gown of her first appearance, speaking to how after her falling out with Jeff she now feels more restricted, and her mood is not as free flowing due to their earlier conflict.
Once Lisa becomes fascinated by the goings on in the courtyard and committed to Jeff’s sleuth operation, she is seen wearing a green suit, illustrative of her business mode and becoming both practical and focused on the work at hand. However this combination still has touches of the quintessential Lisa to it with lavish jewellery and an eye-catching backless top. When she makes her outfit change from the suit into the romantic, pink satin nightdress Jeff looks up at her in a shot that foreshadows his erectile gaze at Judy Barton as Madeline in Vertigo nine years later. She is angelic and feminine once more, floating in pink like a demure and statuesque goddess.
The final dress she wears is long, pastel in colour and contains a repeated floral print. This design links her to nature, to flowers and specifically to the flowerbeds which are dug up. In contrast with the weeping and descending vines on Lisa’s first dress, the fresh and fully formed blooms on this piece also suggest a sense of renewal and hope for her relationship with Jeff. The dress is highly feminine, maternal even, in appearance. However this seemingly feminine attire does not prevent Lisa from successfully breaking into Thorwald’s apartment and in doing so she shows that her outfits (an important expression of herself) do not hinder her in any way. The final outfit is arguably the most dramatic change for Lisa, where she sits in loafers, a red blouse and capri pants. While still looking slick and elegant, this costume signifies a definite change in her character and points towards the significant compromise that she has made.
Hitchcock often weaves a masterful spell of mystery around his female characters and Lisa is no exception. In the build up to her entrance, we hear of how Jeff’s love interest is ‘too perfect’, a notion that seems bewildering and impossible to fathom. Once we see the couple together, it soon becomes apparent that while Lisa tries to bring love and light into his life all he can do in response is mock her and shower her with pessimism, casting misjudgements upon her character. While Jeff is focused on what is going on in the neighbourhood, Lisa fights for his attention and to save their relationship. Notably, it is only when she begins to partake in his voyeurism and speculations that he shows any interest in her. Lisa places her own desires on hold to endorse his obsession and even puts herself at risk because she loves Jeff and wants to be a part of his life. Time and again she proves herself adept at handling men – or ‘juggling wolves’ as she calls it – including Jeff, Detective Doyle and ultimately Thorwald. Whilst Jeff underestimates her for much of the film she continually proves that she can undertake any assignment given and without her Jeff would a) never have solved the case and b) may have ended up a murder victim himself. The story of Lisa in Rear Window is not a typical tale of an ordinary woman needing to become extraordinary, but of an extraordinary woman becoming a hero.
Rebecca will return soon with another deep-dive as part of our ongoing HITCHCOCK’S WOMEN series.