Reality television is, if nothing else, proof that we will always be intrigued by what goes on next door. Place a camera crew into the homes of the most stomach-knottingly uninteresting people and millions will tune in to watch them eat breakfast or phone their mothers. Whether as a benchmark for our own domestic situations, or to live vicariously through the romantic, professional or social successes of others, we continue to find reasons to poke about in the mundane affairs of complete strangers.
Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Rear Window remains the best fictional exploration of everyday voyeurism. Released 60 years ago this month, the iconic movie asks us to pull up a chair alongside Jimmy Stewart and watch the comings and goings of his New York neighbours with the same intense, shameless fascination. Indeed, in the original trailer for the film, Stewart makes a direct appeal to his audience’s more base instincts. “First I watched them just to kill time,” he says of the people occupying the building opposite. “But soon I couldn’t take my eyes off them. Just as you wouldn’t be able to.”
Moviegoers in 1954 could hardly do otherwise. The action takes place almost exclusively in the modest Greenwich Village apartment of magazine photographer LB “Jeff” Jefferies, who has been rendered immobile by two broken legs acquired in a racetrack accident. The window of his bed-sitting room looks over a courtyard which, in the middle of a suffocating, jazz-scented New York summer, is a tableau of open-windowed, uncurtained activity – all of which our bored hero surveys with a combination of amusement and disdain.
The plot centres on Jeff’s transformation from idle, almost reluctant observer to full-blown spy after what he suspects is a murder. In the crucial scene, he retrieves a long lens – his “portable keyhole” – from a sideboard and, attaching it to his camera, begins to survey the man, butchers knives and all, he thinks has killed his wife. Seen as a taught thriller, the film then sweeps towards its conclusion, pitting the photographer’s helplessness and confinement against the ruthlessness of the killer as he discovers his secret is out.
It’s the other levels, though, that make Rear Window such a revered part of Hitchcock’s canon – especially for men. Essentially, it’s one huge allegory on marriage. Most of the people Jeff spies on are in various stages of romantic disharmony, whether it’s the suspect ridding himself of his wife or the spinster desperate for companionship. Then there’s the hero himself, who is so unsure of settling down he can’t bring himself to succumb to exquisite beauty of Grace Kelly’s Lisa, and whose toe-to-thigh plastercast is a less-than-subtle allusion to marital entrapment.
“You’ve got to get me out of here,” he says during a phone call to his editor. “Six weeks sitting in a two-room apartment with nothing to do but look out the window at the neighbours. If you don’t pull me out of this swamp of boredom, I’m gonna do something drastic… like what? I’m going to get married and then I’ll never be able to go anywhere.”
Of course, there comes a time in every man’s life that it makes sense. By the end of Rear Window, even our hero has a fresh set of casts and a beaming smile for his girlfriend. Grace Kelly can do that to a man.