Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Cowardly Condescension of James Stewart in "Rear Window"

I've always been a big fan of James Stewart, particularly in his films by Alfred Hitchcock.  I think he was, next to Cary Grant, the cinema's most flawless actor.  Both men knew how to evoke nuance and feeling out of any scene or situation.  What I always respected about James Stewart was his ability and willingness to play unsympathetic roles that went against his admirable public image as a family man, World War II veteran and military officer, and consummate Hollywood professional.  It's a quality that most film critics and scholars, but not necessarily all movie goers, recognized because his own personal charm and real life strength-of-character often overcame and shielded the negative aspects of some of the characters he played.  It's not always obvious at first viewing how flawed and unsympathetic his characters can be, and there is no more flawed a character in Stewart's oeuvre than his incapacitated-in-a-wheel-chair-due-to-a-broken-leg news photographer L.B. "Jeff" Jeffries in Hitchcock's "Rear Window" (1954).

It's only been in recent years that I've started to understand the extent of how cruel and condescending Stewart's Jeff is to Grace Kelly's socialite Lisa Fremont in the movie.  I used to believe that the character development scenes between Jeff and Lisa were just a distraction from the central plot of Jeff believing his neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has murdered his wife.  But I now believe that it's the murder plot that is the true distraction in the film, and that Hitchcock is much more interested in the dynamics of the Jeff/Lisa relationship than he is with the Thorwald murder storyline.  This is because Hitchcock takes a very relaxed, measured approach throughout the whole movie regarding the murder plot.  He is willing to let it take its time to develop in the background while he spends more time developing the Jeff/Lisa scenes.  Another director would have dispensed with the relationship aspects of the movie entirely and simply focused on the storyline of Jeff spying on his neighbor in order to gather enough evidence that he has committed a homicide.

The Jeff/Lisa scenes are fascinating because of Jeff's resistance to making a sincere commitment to a woman he appears to love.  He is a globe-trotting news magazine photographer who takes a lot of false pride in telling Lisa how his existence is purportedly more realistic and substantial than hers because of the unglamorous and rugged locales and dangerous experiences he has had during his career.  He is condescending to Lisa and makes a mockery of her New York socialite background and fashion-industry career, alleging that her background makes her too frivolous to be prepared to accompany Jeff on his photojournalist assignments that he intends to resume once the cast is off his leg.  What's interesting about their characters is the contrasting degrees to which they are willing to make personal sacrifices in order to allow the relationship to flourish.  Even though Lisa hopes Jeff will take a comparatively cushy photography position that will allow him to stay in New York City, she is still willing to consider giving up her luxurious lifestyle and career and accompany Jeff to wherever his career takes him.  At one point Lisa says "It doesn't make sense.  What's so different about it here from over there, or any place you go, that one person couldn't live in both places just as easily?...It's ridiculous to say that it can only be done by a special private little group of annointed people...I can't fit in here, you can't fit in there.  According to you people should be born, live and die on the same spot!"  What's touching about Lisa is that she loves Jeff to such a degree she's willing to give up her creature comforts just to be with him.  If anything, Lisa might have made herself too available to Jeff for him to take seriously, as (unfortunately) no attractive man wants someone they can get easily, even if she is as beautiful and charming as Grace Kelly.  Men are usually interested in the pursuing the next challenge or mystery, rather than settling for what's safe and accessible.  I believe that Jeff thinks that a life with Lisa will be too predictable and mundane and will hold no challenges or surprises for him.  At the very least, Lisa's intentions in the relationship are much more honest and pure than Jeff's.  Grace Kelly does an exemplary job of portraying Lisa's sincere love for Jeff and commitment to their relationship.  She makes Lisa much more substantial, dynamic, and adventurous than Jeff gives her credit for. 

On the other hand, Jeff won't consider taking a cushy job locally, nor is he willing to entertain the notion of allowing Lisa to accompany him wherever his career takes him.  He makes every excuse in the world for why he won't stay in New York, and why she can't accompany him wherever he goes, that I start to wonder if his feelings for her as sincere as hers are for him.  He responds to Lisa's complaints by saying, "Did you ever eat fish heads and rice?...Well, you might have to if you went with me.  Did you ever try to keep warm in a C-54 at fifteen thousand feet twenty degrees below zero?...Did you ever get shot at, did you ever get run over, did you ever get sandbagged at night, because somebody got unfavorable publicity from your camera?...Those high heels, they'll be great in the jungle.  And the nylons and and those six-ounce lingerie...Well, they'll make a big hit in Finland--just before you freeze to death...Lisa, in this job you carry one suitcase, your home is the available transportation.  You don't sleep very much, you bathe less, and sometimes the food that you eat is made from things that you couldn't even look at when they're alive!...You just have to face it Lisa you're not meant for that kind of a life, few people are!"  Jeff makes every excuse in the world for why their relationship won't work, which leads me to suspect that he already rehearsed that speech in his mind countless times because he didn't have the guts to come clean and simply say that he doesn't love or want her as much as she loves and wants him.  I always found Jeff's speech rather pompous because he delivers it with a condescending air of superiority.  Jeff's existence is no more substantive or grounded in reality than Lisa's.  The irony to that is, even though it is rugged and less glamorous than Lisa's, Jeff still enjoys a privileged lifestyle and career that would be considered foreign to most of his neighbors.  Whether he realizes it or not, he propensity to look down on Lisa's elegant and glamorous lifestyle prevents him from realizing his own shortcomings as well as Lisa's virtues.

What's ironic about Jeff's speech is the fact that, in both the movie with regards to the murder plot, as well as in his photojournalist career, Jeff remains a passive voyeur at all times.  Jeff's speech makes his career sound impressive and exciting, but take a close look at what he says:  at no times does he ever indicate he takes a proactive, as opposed to reactive, role when he is taking pictures of scenes of turmoil.  Things might be in a state of flux around him, but he takes no active role in it, and one could argue that he is the classic example of a passive/aggressive personality.  He relies at all times on Lisa, his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), and his police detective friend Doyle (Wendell Corey) in order to investigate his neighbor Thorwald, and ends up bickering with each of them at some point or another.  Jeff is actually a cowardly wimp and creep who is unable to find anything constructive to do during his convalescence than spy on his neighbors, ogle the shapely dancer Miss Torso from across the courtyard, and vicariously watch the young newlywed couple who moved in next door make love.  Rather than using his time to build his relationship with Lisa, which would require him to take a stand and make decisions about his life, he distracts himself by being far too concerned with what's going on with his neighbors.  His interest in the murder plot has nothing to do with having any sense of justice or concern for the alleged murder victim, but is merely a vehicle to enliven his empty existence.  Whichever way you look at it, Jeff is hardly an admirable individual.  James Stewart deserves his commendations for his willingness to play Jeff honestly, and with foibles, as most movie stars with a squeaky-clean image would probably be averse to allowing their personas to be tarnished in any way.

Later in the film, when Lisa climbs up the fire escape, sneaks into Thorwald's apartment to look for evidence, finds it, and is caught by Thorwald, all Jeff can do is sit helplessly and watch as Lisa is assaulted.  Rather than being assertive by going to his window and yelling out at Thorwald across the courtyard, which might be enough to startle and scare Thorwald so that Lisa can make a break for it, he just sits in his wheelchair and helplessly wimpers.  Broken leg or not, that is probably, at the very least, what any of us would do if we were watching someone we cared about being assaulted.  The only thing Jeff does to help Lisa is to call the police to rescue her where, again, he is leaving it up to another party to take care of things he should be doing himself.  In fact, Jeff gets the most upset during this sequence when Lisa calls out the window for Jeff to come help her.  From his almost-embarrassed reaction, Jeff seems more unnerved that his voyeuristic presence has been exposed to Thorwald than he is about watching his own girlfriend being assaulted.  If I were Lisa, I'd be upset that all my boyfriend did was sit quietly in the background and let the police get her out of that jam.

The sequence at the end not only proves what a sham Jeff is about being such a worldly adventurer, but also what an adventurous and daring individual Lisa truly is, when given the opportunity.  Lisa, along with Stella, is the one who courageously digs up the Thorwald's flower patch to see what he might have buried in it; who climbs up the fire escape into Thorwald's apartment (while wearing a gorgeous Edith Head gown!) to search for his wife's wedding ring; and who has the presence of mind to slip the wedding ring on her finger right before Thorwald assaults her so that she can bring it to the police station later, after she's been arrested for breaking and entering, and show it to the authorities to prove that Mrs. Thorwald was murdered.  One of my favorite moments in "Rear Window" occurs a bit earlier after Lisa excitedly returns to Jeff's apartment after she has sneaked across to Thorwald's apartment and slipped an accusatory note under his door to provoke a guilty reaction from him.  When Lisa runs in breathlessly exhilarated by what she has done ("Wasn't that close?!  Well, what was his reaction?!  I mean, when he looked at the note?!"), Hitchcock briefly cuts to a silent close-up of Jeff smiling because of Lisa's excitement.  Jeff looks admiringly at Lisa as if he has seen her for the first time in his life because he now realizes how truly special she is.  I've always loved that reaction because Stewart and Hitchcock perfectly capture the kind of moment when a man unexpectedly realizes how much he truly loves someone he has taken for granted.  I think, by that moment, Jeff is ready for a real commitment to Lisa because he knows she can handle any environment or challenges that awaits them.  She is not as predictable, safe, or mundane as he assumed, but someone who has the ability to challenge him and keep him on his toes because she's got an air of adventure and mystery he never realized before.  But I do not believe for a second that Jeff's epiphany is due to any inherent change in Lisa's personality.  Her sense of daring and adventure were always there.  Her choice of Jeff, someone not from her social strata, as her romantic partner shows her already-established willingness and ability to think outside of the box.  He was just too busy wrapped up in himself and spying on the neighbors to have noticed.

However, I'm still not sure that Jeff is worthy of Lisa because of the way he passively sat back and didn't do enough when Lisa was assaulted by Thorwald.  She might have daring and initiative, but he doesn't.  He is the sort of man who would not have enough backbone to take care of Lisa, or anyone else around him for that matter, when the going gets tough.  That's why I'm glad at the end of the film--after the murder has been solved, Jeff is sleeping contentedly with his two legs in a cast, and Lisa is sitting nearby wearing jeans and reading a book about foreign travel entitled "Beyond the High Himalayas"--she notices he is asleep, puts away the foreign travel book, and pulls out her Harper's Bazaar fashion magazine.  Even though she's modified her appearance and interests for the good of their relationship, she is still true to herself.  She would never completely lose her identity for Jeff.  At some point, if she ever decides that Jeff is not right for her, we know she has the will and strength to not be ruined by him and to still be ready for anyone worthy who comes along. 

1 comment:

  1. I found your essay after watching the movie again the other day on TCM. Far from making me question the balance of the movie, your thoughts make me like the movie even more. That's not an vote for male chauvinism, but a vote for characters that aren't easy to peg. And your essay puts this character firmly among the many dark parts Stewart was sinking his teeth into during the late 40s and into the 50s - most notably the Anthony Mann westerns. I'd failed all this time to place this movie amongst those for the very reasons you address at the beginning - that Stewart is just too stinking charming and likable to notice all the condescension right away. Nice post! (Anything that infuses a movie you've seen a dozen times with freshness deserves praise.)


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