Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) continues to be a rich source for film theorists. The most visible vein, of the film being about the experience of film viewing, has been largely mined out, but the nearby lode of gender relations can and has been reworked several times. For example, Elise Lemire provides “historical specificity of gender dynamics” in re-interpreting Tania Modleski’s well known “difference feminist” re-interpretation of Laura Mulvey’s classic psychoanalytical interpretation (Lemire 64). An alternate to this top down analysis is the examination of specific elements and the roles they play. For example, Sarah Street’s “The Dresses Had Told Me: Fashion and Femininity in Rear Window” (Belton 91-109), considers the multiple roles of the costume props in Rear Window.
This paper follows the latter path, examining the roles and significance of two related sets of props, the cameras and the magazines, and the photojournalism occupation that connects them. These three items develop narrative and establish character for Jefferies, and comment on authorship and gender issues. Lisa’s association with these props is also considered, and as her employment is in some ways similar to Jefferies’, it is discussed.
The post credit opening sequence includes a pan of Jefferies (James Stewart), his broken leg, photographs he has presumably taken, a damaged camera, a large negative of a woman’s face, and a stack of magazines with the matching positive photograph on the cover. This introduces Jefferies, his injury, his occupation as a photojournalist, and the cause of his injury, getting too close when photographing a race car crash. The occupation and cause of injury are confirmed in subsequent dialogue. The magazine’s name is hidden by casually placed negatives, but the full photo cover, minimal text, and distinctive red band across the bottom clearly identify this as the well known weekly Life magazine. Where the date would normally appear, the text “Paris Fashions” is printed, in the same colour and type face. Life had refused permission for their name to be used in the film (Belton 19), but in mimicking the cover design and making no attempt to create a fictional magazine, Hitchcock is identifying the magazine as Life to the extent that he can. A possible reason for this will be discussed later.
The damaged camera, and a similar camera used with a flash in an attempt to ward off Thorwald’s attack, appear to be Graflex Speed Graphic cameras, sometimes referred to as press cameras. As the name implies, these cameras were mainstays of photojournalism until the 1960s, cumbersome but preferred for their large negatives which allowed extensive cropping and enlargement without loss of detail. Similar designs, now known as large format cameras, are still used for some professional photography. The damaged camera functions as one of many indicators of Jefferies’ impotence or injury, and the unsuccessful use of the second camera against Thorwald at the end of the film reinforces the suggestion that Jefferies cannot hide behind his profession.
The camera playing the most prominent role is the one with the telephoto lens that Jefferies uses to watch his neighbours through most of the film. Camera buffs in an internet discussion forum have identified the camera as an Exakta version 1 VX (aka Varex), equipped with a 400 mm Kilfitt lens. The camera name is covered in the film, possibly due to the East German origin of the camera and the political sensitivities of the time. Internet discussions also include some speculation about whether or not Jefferies is holding the camera appropriately, but with no consensus among the few in a position to know, no significance can be attached to this (Rear Window). More significant than the camera brand is the type: 35 mm single lens reflex (SLR).
Known as miniature cameras in the 1950s, 35 mm film cameras are of two basic types. The now common SLR uses a mirror and a distinctive five sided prism mounted on the top of the camera to direct light that comes through the lens to a viewfinder at eye level. The significant benefit of this design is that the viewfinder shows exactly what is coming through the lens. This avoids parallax distortion from a separate viewfinder, and allows precise framing with lenses of different lengths. Thus if a telephoto lens is used, as in Rear Window, the viewfinder image is appropriately enlarged. A serious drawback for some photographers is that when a picture is taken, the mirror lifts up to allow light through the shutter and on to the film, so the moment actually captured is not seen in the viewfinder. An alternate design using a separate eye level viewfinder is more common in less expensive cameras, but it is also the design of the Leica M series cameras, long the camera of choice for leading photojournalists including Alfred Eisenstaedt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Robert Capa (Lane). The primary advantages of this design are smaller size, simpler lenses, and less noise and faster action in use, due to the lack of the mirror, prism, and related mechanics.
Jefferies use of a 35 mm SLR allows him a closer view, using the telephoto lens, but the binoculars he briefly used probably had a clearer and larger view. The telephoto lens is visually more impressive than the binoculars, but not necessarily more powerful. Camera apertures require large image widths compared to human eyes, so telephoto lenses must be considerably larger than binoculars to achieve the same magnification. Long lenses are also difficult to focus, distort the relationship between objects, and require a lot of light. Hitchcock could not help but be aware of this, due to the technical challenges of filming Jefferies’ point of view shots when he is looking through the telephoto lens (Curtis 34-36). After some experimentation, the crew developed a camera set up that provided clear though improbable images, by using a less powerful lens and moving the camera closer to the action being filmed. The reality of the telephoto lens point of view shots is further distorted by the use of an iris that softens and rounds the corners of the image, to indicate that point of view. Viewfinder images always have crisp edges. The incorrectly distorted image may have been a concession to Hollywood style, but what were the reasons for using the camera and telephoto lens in place of binoculars?
First, the camera serves a constant reminder of Jefferies occupation, which serves in turn to stress the importance of the occupation to the character. Second, Hitchcock delighted in showcasing new technologies, and 35 mm SLRs were a relatively new technology in the early 1950s. The third and perhaps most obvious reason is that Hitchcock, like so many reviewers, saw the massive lens as a phallic symbol. That Jefferies uses a camera for spying but never acts to gather evidence by taking a picture can be seen as another illustration of his wounded state. A few weeks earlier he was able to take innocuous picture of flowers in the courtyard, which emphasizes his failure when watching Thorwald.
While Jefferies wields cameras, Lisa (Grace Kelly) is an object for the camera. When she enters his apartment for the first time, she turns on three lights, one for each name. She wants to be seen, and in turning on three lights she sets up a standard portrait studio lighting arrangement (Discussion). Her loaned dress and dialogue suggest her job includes being a fashion model, thus an object for the camera, and when she enters Thorwald’s apartment she becomes one of the many people Jefferies has turned his camera on, and plays to him. While she may be an object for the camera, this does not imply she is subject to it. Lemire notes that Lisa is transformed into a figure of power over the course of the film, as seen in part by her ability to motivate the camera (82). Given that the film’s camera is often represented as Jefferies’ camera, this can be read as Lisa displaying power over the diegetic still camera and its wielder as well as over the film camera and to the spectators.
Jefferies occupation as photojournalist is introduced in the opening sequence, referred to in conversations between him and his employer, Lisa, and Doyle (Wendell Corey), and reinforced through the use of cameras in the narrative. However the source material, Cornell Woolrich’s short story, makes no mention of Jefferies occupation (Belton 5). To determine the significance of adding and foregrounding the occupation, some exploration of the occupation is necessary.
Photojournalists are photographers who take pictures that illustrate or tell a story. Though there are exceptions, the emphasis is usually on candid naturalistic images that appear to privilege truth over art, although the best photojournalists are known for artistic composition as well as timing and technical skill. Typically photojournalists work for or sell to magazines and newspapers. The profession began with little respect, as early news photographers were often illiterate, and tolerated as a necessary evil to keep up with competition (Edom 26-27). Films of the 1920s and 30s reflected this low status, with photojournalists often “comic relief characters, drunkards, hoodlums or a combination of the three” (McDaniel 13). The development of wire services for transmitting pictures, better cameras, the establishment of Life and Look magazines in 1936 and 1937 respectively, use of documentary photography by the American Farm Security Administration starting in 1935, and a demand for coverage of the events of World War Two all contributed to the growth of the profession (Edom 27-36).
The origin of the terms photojournalist and photojournalism is uncertain, but dates from between 1942 and 1952 (McDaniel 9). Rear Window is generally credited with establishing a new on-screen image of the newly named profession, where the photojournalist is a heroic adventurous workaholic. This image persisted for about twenty-five years (McDaniel 23, 33).
Jefferies tirade to Lisa about the demands and difficulties of the photojournalist lifestyle is echoed in the words of other photojournalists. “I have walked through the wreckages of plane crashes and smashed cars . . . knelt beside dying people in Central Africa . . . faced bullets . . . run from tear gas bombs, been chased by angry mobs . . . ridden in a dug out canoe in the sweltering jungles of South America and on dog sleds at 50°C below zero in the Canadian far north . . . ” (Spremo 7). “Photojournalists . . . are a breed apart from ordinary photographers: they are messengers and eye witnesses who often risk death . . . and may carry a public burden of shame for what they have dared to see” (Taylor 13). Perhaps life is imitating art, as these descriptions came after the film, but the careers of photojournalists during World War Two permit Jefferies description as art imitating life. Either way, Jefferies the photojournalist is established as an outsider.
Given the film’s theme of voyeurism, the lead character’s role as a “professional voyeur,” in John Belton’s words, seems appropriate (12). However, the assumption that a photojournalist is a professional voyeur is not without problems. Photographs, by their ability to capture and preserve any moment, including something unseen by the eye, such as a galloping horse with all four legs off the ground (to consider an early application), have the potential to be more voyeuristic than simply looking. At the same time, a photojournalist sees the world mediated literally or figuratively through a viewfinder, and this perspective adds distance. Eisenstaedt, in response to questions about how he felt photographing Nazi party officials, stated “Naturally, not so good, but when I have a camera in my hand I know no fear” (61). In addition, photojournalists look not out of base desire (definitions of voyeurism usually refer to sexual pleasure being seen or experienced by the voyeur), but because it is their job. The term “professional voyeur,” if not an oxymoron, is at least unfair applied to the photojournalist. Though a photojournalist is required to look, Jefferies averts his eyes on several occasions, displaying weakness again, and his SLR camera, though not used in the course of the film, hides the moment when a picture is taken. By contrast, Lisa and Stella (Thelma Ritter) demonstrate the ability to watch events that Jefferies turns away from, such as the assault on Miss Lonely Hearts (Judith Evelyn) (Lemire 82).
Donald Spoto and Steve Cohen are both credited with suggesting that the occupation of photojournalist and the entire romantic plot, not present in the original story (Belton 5), were inspired by Hitchcock’s awareness of the relationship between Ingrid Bergman and Robert Capa. As related by Belton, Bergman met Capa in Paris 1945, and fell in love. Capa accompanied Bergman to Hollywood, and photographed her for Life on the set of Notorious (1946). Hitchcock, who Spoto claims desired Bergman, noted Bergman’s passion for Capa and her desire to marry, and Capa’s fear of commitment (Belton 5). This typical account omits some pertinent details. The same biographer who provides this information also notes that Bergman was married, and conflicted about the illicit affair. Capa told Bergman he did not feel his career as a photojournalist was compatible with marriage and children, but he was not entirely honest when he told her that he was “not the marrying kind” (Whelan 244).
In 1937 Capa proposed to Gerda Pohorylles (aka Gerda Taro), a fellow photographer and close companion of several years. She turned him down, apparently fearful of losing her emotional and professional independence. She died on the job later that year, and Capa took her death very hard, drinking heavily and for a time claiming to have been married to her. Capa’s grief led him to avoid future commitments (Whelan 65-127). For Capa at least, it seems detachment came from emotional injury and was not a cause or effect of his profession. The idea that Jefferies rejects Lisa due to his profession because that is what Capa did devalues Capa’s suffering. If Jefferies was in fact based on Capa, he could be examined for a past emotional wound deeper and less gendered than the broken leg.
Some photojournalists do have problems forming or maintaining human connections. Bradley Arden and Kevin Carter committed suicide, apparently from the burden of witnessing catastrophe and war (Taylor 13-14). Henri Cartier-Bresson divorced his first wife, and remarried a much younger woman in his early 60s after essentially giving up photojournalism. Bert Hardy, a leading English photojournalist, also divorced and remarried. On the other hand, Boris Spremo, though he occasionally wondered why he went into dangerous situations with a wife and four children, simply reminded himself that he was doing his job (Young 11).
Photojournalists are not exclusively male, despite Jefferies’ and the film’s implicitly gendered description of the work. In addition to Capa’s lost love Gerda, Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White were respected photojournalists, and Bourke-White, who supplied the cover photo for the premiere issue of Life, was a war correspondent in World War Two. She also covered conflicts in Africa, India and Korea. Before the bulk of her traveling she was in two short marriages.
If photojournalists are “a breed apart,” is that because of their career, or do they choose the career because it suits their personality? Jefferies claims he avoids domestic commitment because he is a photojournalist. However, he does have an interest in Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), Miss Lonely Hearts, and the newlyweds, and fears the loss of Lisa, all of which suggests he is in some degree attracted to domestic commitment. Photojournalism may be a rationalization to cover a fear of trying to commit and failing, and an excuse to support a surface declaration of independence. Lemire notes that a rejection of domestic commitment is not necessarily a sign of latent homosexuality, but reflected the times, specifically the arrival of Playboy magazine, which validated the heterosexuality of single men (73-74). The original story had a male day servant character (Belton 5), and his replacement by the happily married Stella suggests Hitchcock did not want to overplay the suggestion of homosexuality as a reason for avoiding domestic commitment.
Lisa suggests that Jefferies could continue photography, but “leave the magazine,” “come home” and do fashion photography or portraits. He sarcastically rejects this idea. Given the careers of other photojournalists, was Lisa’s suggestion a practical one?
Capa remained largely a war photographer for his career, but became more of an international businessman when he co-founded Magnum, an agency for photographers. His early death in the field, coincidentally in 1954, served as a reminder of the dangerous realities of photojournalism. Cartier-Bresson, another Magnum co-founder, was a war photographer in his early career, but did commercial work, including shoots for the fashion magazines Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Later he chose to concentrate on landscapes and portraits. Hardy was famous for his war photographs, but later turned down a position with Life in order to work in advertising. Eisenstaedt’s interest in photography developed while he was unable to walk, recuperating from leg injuries he suffered as a German soldier in the World War One (an uncanny coincidence). Although he did some war coverage, the general focus of his work was candid images of people of all types, including politicians and movie stars. “I also did less serious pictures, including a story of women’s underwear in a department store for Life. You learn something from every picture you take” (Eisenstaedt 68). There were a variety of paths for photojournalists, and Lisa’s suggestion appears to be reasonable. Jefferies is choosing to be an outsider, and using photojournalism as an excuse. Most damming to Jefferies’ excuse is that he has already taken and sold a fashion photograph – the one framed as a negative and on the magazine cover for the “Paris Fashions” cover story.
Lisa, with her high social status, apparent wealth, “perfection,” aggressive sexuality, and employment in a position of some power and authority, could be seen as an outsider like Jefferies. Lemire notes that female employment was not that unusual at the time, and the sexuality of women was much in the public consciousness in 1953 due to the release of Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. She also discusses a possible inspiration for Lisa, Anita Colby. Colby was top model in the 1930s, who became a successful ad salesperson at Harper’s Bazaar (linking her to Rear Window), and worked for Selznick in the 1940s (where she may have met Hitchcock). She married late in life, after apparently turning down James Stewart, among others (Lemire 70-73). Colby, however, was clearly an exceptional achiever, and even if Lisa was not patterned after Colby, Lisa’s clothing and behaviour set her apart from Stella, Miss Torso, Miss Lonely Hearts, and the other women visible from Jefferies’ window. Lisa, with her catered meal from “21” and her busy day at work, is clearly no more interested in the domestic life than Jefferies, which raises the question of why she wishes to settle down. Particularly if Colby is considered the model for Lisa, Rear Window can be read as a male fantasy that promises beautiful and persistent successful women to weak or wounded men (such as the rejected James Stewart) who could not have those women in reality. Marriage is perhaps not “the castration of the male” (Wood 223) but the saving of the male, and feared out of old wounds, not lack of desire to commit.
Lisa is associated with Harper’s Bazaar magazine, through her mention of meeting the magazine’s staff in the course of her day, and her picking up that magazine at the end of the film. Though Harper’s is a fashion magazine, her interest is not necessarily in looking at the fashions. As Lemire notes, she may be referring to the magazine for professional, not personal reasons (87). Personal or professional, Lisa’s final act is still a reassertion of herself and her desires.
The fashion magazine industry was not immune to postwar gender transitions and challenges. Consider some text excerpts from Karen Lehrman’s illustrated review of fashion photography:
“What made Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue emblems of visual sophistication during the ’40s and ’50s was their visionary art directors, . . . [who] used only exceptional photographers and then set their photographs off to maximum effect with a generous use of white space. Their goal was to turn the fashion magazine into a luscious exotic escape.
. . .
“Photographers in the past tended to use models who seemed confident, intelligent, and sophisticated. Lisa Fonssagrives, [Irving] Penn’s wife, model, and muse, epitomized a woman of great strength and dignity. You didn’t just want to wear her clothes; you wanted to be her.
Confident, intelligent, sophisticated, strong, and dignified also applies to Lisa, but this description, and the notion of escape, suggests the fashion magazine was for women a relief from the same nagging spouse and labour saving appliances lifestyle that Jefferies fears. Harper’s, and by association Lisa, is strongly feminine, but decidedly not domestic.
Jefferies apparent employer, Life magazine, aimed to be an icon of domesticity, though it did not always succeed. Erika Doss and Wendy Kozol have determined that Life was primarily selling white middle class values, including traditional gender roles, and all the modern consumer products needed to support a home, including the home itself. (Doss 12; Kozol 37-41). The cover of the first issue of 1953 (January 5) shows a happy family posed in the front window of their $15,000 suburban dream house. The father wears a suit and stands, holding a little girl, while the mother kneels beside and below with two more youngsters (comparison of this image to promotional posters for Rear Window is a paper in itself). In the war years, the audience for the domestic image included overseas soldiers, who were given “pinups, wives, and mothers – to represent the heterosexual promise awaiting men at home” (Kozol 61). Miss Torso turns out to be the fulfillment of such a promise, and her mate is another representation of an unlikely man attaining a desirable woman.
Life’s inconsistent promotion of domesticity reflected tensions of the time. Considering only the cover images from 1953, two other issues promote family, two represent the military, eight show geographical drawings, nine represent politics, and thirty are concerned with fashion, celebrities, or ordinary pretty young women. This largest group includes three covers featuring attractive coeds and one unfortunate cover showing two pubescent girls playing at the beach in swimsuits under the headline “Kinsey Report on Women” (August 24). Fashion covers, such as “How to Wear Stoles” (March 9) and “Canasta Pajamas” (December 21), are consistent with the escape from domesticity promised by the fashion magazines.
Rickie Solinger notes a “repeated exposure of prostitutes” in 1953, and claims a weekly display of female “figures of resistance”, “the babe, the whore, and the showgirl – positioned against the housewife, the lady mayor, and the coed” made the magazine a forum for redefining women in the 1950s (215). Solinger also claims Life’s fascination with the female body was born out of the same cultural forces that led to the creation and acceptance of Playboy and gender exposé in general. He notes “the postwar public consisted of men and women willing, even eager, to behave voyeuristically without feeling guilty” because “exposure and exposé” helped both reinforce gender roles and standards of decency (205). “A nation of peeping toms,” as Stella says.
Life’s fascination with the female body and exposé predates postwar issues. Eisenstaedt’s “Women’s Underwear in a Department Store” story appeared in 1937 (Eisenstaedt 68). That same year, Life reproduced three pictures from “A Day in the Life of A Coed”, a photo essay that had caused a minor scandal when it appeared in a college paper. One of the pictures is a side view of the young female student “taking her brisk morning shower.” She is nude and shown from the hip up, back arched and with her arm raised to maximize display. Life invites readers to closely examine the image by noting that the student claims the close fitting swimsuit she wore in the shower was removed by retouching (March 22, 1937, rpt. in MacDougall 26).
Editorial direction and tensions spilled over into the attachment of narratives to photos, much to the dismay of several photojournalists. Capa and Cartier-Bresson left Life in 1947, seeking more control of their images. Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams worked together to photograph small towns in Utah in 1953, but Adams later complained that “The Mormon story turned out very sour indeed; a very inadequate presentation which did no good to the Mormons, to photography, and to either of us” (qtd. in Doss 17). Kozol gives the example of an essay on postwar labour readjustment did not include statistics on unemployment, and described photos of two unemployed and worried looking veterans as prosperous individuals, “shopping for jobs, seeing what is available”. The result is a simplified and shallow analysis of a complex and broad social issue (46).
Accusations of shallowness, sexism, and voyeurism were not new to Life. A 1941 New Yorker article parodied the regular feature “Life Goes to A Party” with “Life Goes to the Collapse of Western Civilization.” The mock essay, with drawings instead of photos, features the well endowed Babs and Meenie in candidly revealing outfits and poses as they join a bread riot “for a lark”, ride with refugees, and carry a tub of inflated money to buy cosmetics. One image shows them “photographed” from behind, watching the burning of Manhattan, in skirts rendered transparent when the “alert staff photographer” takes advantage of the lighting to play “a sly trick” (Maloney). An early 50s cartoon shows three journalists, including a photographer, barging into the bedroom of a newlywed couple as the couple prepare for bed. The caption reads, “But we’re from Life!” (Cobean).
Why was Jefferies, dedicated to hard news and action photography, taking pictures for this magazine, and so keen to stay with it? One possibility that must be acknowledged is that Hitchcock deemed being a staff photographer for Life as nothing more than a suitable occupation for a photojournalist, despite the fact that Capa, possibly a model for Jeffries, and other leading photographers, had left the magazine. However, the subtleties of gender relations in Hitchcock’s films make it difficult to accept that he did not see the gender tensions in Life. The promotion of domesticity, the attention to the female body, the editorial investment in fashion and social matters, and the conflict between the narrative in the photos and the narratives accompanying the photos were too obvious to be overlooked by such a careful composer of images. The alternative then is that Hitchcock deliberately made Jefferies a Life magazine employee, and put the magazine into the film to the extent he legally could, with a fashion cover, to associate Rear Window and Jefferies with the tensions and issues explored in the magazine’s pages.
The cameras shown represent technological transition, in support of a theme of transition, and Life and Harper’s respectively represent unstable representation and non-traditional representation of gender roles. Jefferies and Lisa are both defined as outsiders by their occupations and the associated lifestyles, and both reject domesticity. Against a backdrop of ordinary couples, including some coming together (Miss Lonely Hearts and the song writer) and some coming apart (the Thorwald’s), Jefferies discovers that Lisa can be adventurous, and he cannot hide behind his cameras. It may be going too far to say that she rescues him from his unstable “life,” but he is wounded, perhaps emotionally more than physically, and despite his bluster, the “Paris Fashions” cover he photographed suggests he can change to keep up with her. While acknowledging gender transitions, Rear Window still provides reinforcement of some aspects of traditional gender roles, by showing that the strong independent woman desires the wounded man.
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Copyright © by Tim Covell, 2007, All Rights Reserved.