Media. Cultural Studies. Writing.

It Takes the Village

Category : film, history, hitchcock, intertextuality, urban studies · by Mar 9th, 2013


The following are my remarks presented to the Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference on the panel “Landscapes and Soundscapes of Film Noir” on Saturday March 9 2013. The annotation (((*))) marks a point at which you should advance the accompanying visual presentation, which can be viewed here:

Text after the jump.

Michael D. Dwyer
SCMS 2013 – March 9, 2013
Urban Landscapes and Soundscapes of Film Noir

“It Takes the Village: The Neighborhood Outside Hitchcock’s Rear Window

(((*)))I first want to thank my colleagues on the panel, and thank you all from making it out to our session this morning. Some background on this paper. This paper had its genesis in the first film class I ever took, a grad seminar in Syracuse in 2005. I picked at it a few times after that, but eventually set it aside. I’ve always loved the idea of this paper, though, so I’m coming back to it now and looking for new directions and possibilities within it.

First things first: Does a study of Rear Window really belong on a panel on film noir? This, like all questions regarding categorization, is a tricky question to answer. (((*))) It is one that James Naremore, for example, wrangled with in the appropriately-named “Hitchcock on the margins of noir.” The film certainly does differ from the body of films we comfortably refer to as “noir.” Nonetheless, Rear Window is a film that shares many characteristics with noir–(((*)))it is based on a story by pulp novelist Cornell Woolrich, first appearing in Dime Detective in February 1942, (((*))) it involves a war-veteran “detective” of ambiguous morality unraveling a complex criminal mystery, and finally, (((*))) it depicts the seedy underbelly of the urban metropolis. It is this last characteristic of Rear Window that I am most interested in—the way that the film (and particularly our response to the film) reflects our understanding of urban community in the United States.

Focusing on the city has not been, as we all well know, the dominant way we talk about Rear Window. We’re much more accustomed to thinking about the process of looking in Rear Window, not what is being looked at. (((*))) Stella, the insurance company nurse cum- homespun philosopher levies a critique in the opening sequence of the film against this act of window-gazing: “We’ve become a race of peeping toms,” Stella reflects; “what people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.” In the same vein, some of film studies most important works of scholarship have considered Rear Window in terms of voyeurism and spectatorship. (((*))) This is how Robin Wood approached the film, and it also was a key text for (((*))) Laura Mulvey’s landmark essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Spectatorship was the key concept to(((*))) Robert Stam and Roberta Pearson’s writing on the film. Beyond that, Rear Window is the go-to example for thinking through a particular strain of film theory, even when it is not invoked by name. (((*))) Speaking personally, I desperately clung to Rear Window when I first read Christian Metz for the first time.

This has been the dominant approach to the film for quite some time: (((*))) As early as 1962, Francois Truffaut was already getting into fights with reporters, telling them things like (((*))) Rear Window is not about Greenwich Village, it is a film about cinema, and I DO know cinema.” (Truffaut 11). Far be it from me to fight with Truffaut, but I am here today to say that we need not choose between Rear Window being about cinema or the Village. It can be both.

Clearly, theorizing spectatorship has been a substantiated and fruitful approach to the film, and has provided some of the foundational texts in film studies as a discipline. However, we do ourselves a disservice to view these as singular readings of Hitchcock’s tremendous film. In so doing, we miss the specific conditions of watching within Hitchcock’s Rear Window. As (((*))) Pamela Robertson Wojcik writes in her exemplary book The Apartment Plot: “If, then, Rear Window is an exemplary Hitchcock film, or an outstanding film about spectatorship, it also participates in the broader cultural history of imagining the urban. It speaks from a particular historical moment in which the meanings of urban living were being renovated or renewed.” (86-87). The film is the story of a murder, yes, but it is also the story of a neighborhood, and the way that we respond to it can tell us much about how we understand urban living.

We know Rear Window is about a neighborhood because it explicitly tells us so. The original Cornell Woolrich story, “It Had to Be Murder,” does not identify itself as happening in any particular neighborhood, or any particular city. Rear Window, on the other hand, specifically and persistently identifies itself as located in Greenwich Village in New York City. Production records indicate that the film’s set is a recreation of the courtyard at (((*))) 125 Christopher St in the West Village (though, for Code reasons, that address is fictionalized as 125 West Ninth St, an address that does not exist). (((*))) The Sixth Precinct of the NYPD, who respond to Jefferies’ call for help, is just across the street from this address. (((*))) The Albert Hotel, where Jefferies directs Thorwald to meet him (giving Lisa time to enter his apartment) is at 23 East Tenth Street. The Final White Script describes a shot with “an impression of Sixth Avenue behind Lisa at the phone.” If I had more time today I would make the argument that the film’s fictional courtyard actually exists closer to 6th Ave than 10th(((*))) , but suffice it to say that the film was clearly and explicitly located in Greenwich Village, and communicated that location to audiences at every turn. Even the phone numbers in the film are at Village extensions. Doesn’t it seem significant, then, that Rear Window occurs precisely in the time and space of one of the most significant battles over urban space in postwar America? It would seem to matter, then, that Jane Jacobs, one of the key figures of American urbanism, lived right around the corner, at 555 Hudson Street.(((*))) Through her activism in Greenwich Village (that was happening contemporaneously to Rear Window), Jacobs offered urban planners a new vision of “the meaning of the word neighbor.”

(((*))) Jacobs’ seminal 1961 manifesto of “new urbanism,” The Death and Life of Great American Cities advocates a resistance to the “urban renewal” that would result in the destruction of community, which threatens the safety of its citizens. Jacobs argues that vibrant communities like the Village benefit from having “eyes on the street”–(((*)))

There must be eyes on the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.”

Clearly, Jacobs is not advocating the same kind of watching that Truffaut, Wood, or Mulvey usually describe when discussing Rear Window. For all the valuable scholarship that has pathologized and scrutinized Jefferies window-watching, it is also possible to re-frame this practice as one that is both foundational and necessary to urban living. After all, if Jefferies had not been watching out his window, had Jefferies not cared about the scream he heard in the night, a murder would have gone unpunished. That’s would be a bad thing, right?

Eyes on the Courtyard

If, as I am arguing, that Rear Window dramatizes the “eyes on the street” that Jane Jacobs celebrates in her landmark work on the function of urban neighborhoods, and if Rear Window also locates itself just a few blocks from the same city streets that Jacobs championed as well-functioning city communities … why does it take Jeffries catastrophic injury to stop the murder? After all, Greenwich Village is one of the only neighborhoods in the city, and indeed the country, that was able to resist the compulsory “urban renewal” processes initiated by the likes of Robert Moses. (((*))) And why do so many crimes or near-crimes go uninterfered with in Rear Window‘s neighborhood? Bear in mind: Thorwald murders his wife(((*))) , chops her up and buries an unidentified part of her body in the back yard(((*))) , then later digs it up again. Miss Lonelyhearts suffers an attempted sexual assault(((*))) and then nearly attempts suicide(((*))). Lisa climbs up a fire escape and breaks into Thorwald’s apartment(((*))) , steals his wife’s wedding ring, (((*))) then is attacked when he returns home. To top it all off, Thorwald strangles a dog with his bare hands, AND THEN LEAVES THE CORPSE IN THE COURTYARD FOR HIS OWNER TO FIND(((*))) , then tosses Jeffries out a window(((*))) . Bear in mind, this all happens in plain view. What is going on here?(((*)))

This is where I break from Wojcik’s take on Rear Window. She argues that Jefferies courtyard essentially serves as a street in the film. But as Jacobs explicitly argues, a courtyard is definitively not a street. (((*))) Jacobs insists that it is futile to abandon the street and attempting to make some other features of a locality, say interior courtyards…safe instead” (35-6). Why? Because the courtyard has no clear boundaries between public and private space. Streets provide clear demarcation between the sidewalk and the living room—this is not so in the courtyard. Streets are for residents as well as strangers–there is no pedestrian traffic in Rear Window‘s courtyard, because there is no secondary exit. We hear street traffic and children playing beyond the courtyard, see strangers passing by and deliveries being made, but almost none of the casual sidewalk contact the Jacobs describes as crucial for the building of public trust. The courtyard, which appears at first to be an open and communal space, is actually a cul-de-sac divided by fences, walls, ladders and stairs.

Before the film’s detective plot is mobilized fully, the dog is the only character that is able to traverse the recognized boundaries of property, and he is killed for his trespasses (when she crosses over the same boundaries, Lisa is nearly killed, herself). I am not certain that I am the kind of person that proclaims this or that to be “the most important scene in the film,” but I can tell you that whenever I watch Rear Window, this is the scene that resonates with me. (((*)))

The Siffleuse (as she’s listed in the script—a professional whistler!) chastises the community, saying “you don’t know the meaning of the word neighbor. …neighbors care if anybody lives or dies.” Wojcik argues that the neighbors do, in fact, care, but I am less convinced. To me, the succession of shots following the Siffleuse’s outburst speaks volumes. The bathing beauties go inside their apartment. The newlyweds draw their shades. The sculptress turns down her hearing aid, and heads back to her room. The last of the songwriter’s guest turns back to the party, muttering “Come on, it’s only a dog.” Slowly, silently, everyone turns away.

It is clear that Detective Doyle’s description of Thorwald, “Kept to himself, and none of the neighbors got close to him, or his wife” could be said of anyone in the neighborhood. Even when the neighbors do become conscious of one another in the course of the film it is in a distant mistrusting way that only accentuates their isolation from one another. The sculptress advises Thorwald on his gardening and is insulted, the composer is irritated with Miss Torso’s loud music, and the Siffleuse accuses her neighbors of murdering her dog. With the notable exception of the Sculptress’ greeting of the bird owner, the neighbors seem incapable of any interaction at all. And recall that Thorwald nearly gets away with murder, because none of his neighbors, not even the building super, recognize that the woman he takes to the train station is NOT his wife.

This is not necessarily a flaw in their personalities. The conditions of courtyard life do not cultivate the kinds of interactions that make a city neighborhood tick. The courtyard requires them to interact in private spaces, or in none at all. As Jacobs describes it, (((*))) “In city areas that lack a natural and casual public life, it is common for residents to isolate themselves from each other to a fantastic degree. …. Better to stay thoroughly distant. As a practical result, the ordinary public jobs…or which people must take a little personal initiative, or those for which they must band together in limited common purposes, go undone. The abysses this opens up can be almost unbelievable.”

In Film Noir and the Spaces of Modernity, Edward Dimendberg asks “How could film noir illuminate the late-modern spaces of the 1940s and 1950s to which it provided unique access? What lessons might its spatial representations offer in the present?” (3). (((*))) At a time when the urban geography of the United States is undergoing rapid destruction and reconstruction, with semi-public and faux-public spaces like Zuccoti Park proliferating while the spaces of genuine neighborhood contact are reduced, we must ask ourselves what kind of social responsibilities we have toward one another, and what kind of civic policies and political advocacy might help us fulfill them better.

I thank for your attention, and look forward to questions, either in the Q&A or via the Internet.


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