Though I’m loath to admit it, I am as prey to listicle lusts as the average man; love to rank things and throw out superlatives like “And the greatest X is…” My father raised me to acknowledge, “There’s no accounting for taste.” And while I cannot escape the truth of that statement, I also cannot escape these sorting urges. So why run from it? And since I occasionally miss the lit-analysis of my time as an English Lit BA, please, allow me this brief indulgence as I reveal the most profound cinematic exploration of love in history, from which we can all learn a thing or two:
Yeah, Hitchcock’s Rear Window; the one with Jimmy Stewart, a broken leg, a bit of cooped-up voyeurism, and a domestic murder uncovered. I know, not what you’d expect, eh? But despite that cynical summary, the movie actually offers—unlike any other—a comprehensive, pragmatic, even hopeful guide to the vagaries of love.
For, despite all claims that voyeurism is at the heart of the movie, that voyeurism is merely a tool to reveal the true heart of the movie: love. To start: each apartment tells a different love story. Ms. Torso’s expectation-and-genre-defying love for a small, loser soldier, despite having her pick of the “wolves.” Ms. Lonely-Heart’s tragic-then-redemptive journey from loneliness through date-rape to narrowly-avoided suicide into the studio apartment and arms of the popular but just-as-alone songwriter whose songs of love-longed-for filled the hot nights. And there’s more: beloved dogs killed and replaced, newlyweds losing the initial spark, and both artists that pair their work with love and those that forgo love. All stories interesting in their own right, and, taken together, wholly-superior to any trite romantic nonsense Hollywood typically offers.
But the central thread around which the movie revolves is the romance between L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) and Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) and the parallel (yes, parallel) relationship between the Thorwalds. Lisa and Jefferies are the opposites of “opposites attract.” The first we see of Lisa is a photograph by Jefferies, which, tellingly, is in negative. Jefferies is so obsessed with their bipolarity that he spends much of the movie arguing that they don’t work, fighting tooth and nail against love like the rational professional society demands. In his words: “She’s too perfect, she’s too talented, she’s too beautiful, she’s too sophisticated, she’s too everything but what I want.” The thrust of his arguments? She wouldn’t last a day in his world of globe-trotting and photojournalism, and he wouldn’t last a day in her world of high-society and fashion.
But Stella, his nurse, provides the key to the whole movie in the first scene: “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”
Later, Jefferies, in a moment of cynicism, suggests that the gorgeous Ms. Torso’s apartment, at the time full of men, must resemble Lisa’s own. Lisa then argues that Ms. Torso doesn’t love any of the men in her apartment. Asked how she can tell, Lisa responds, “You said it resembled my apartment, didn’t you?” And as we find out at the end of the movie, Ms. Torso didn’t care for any of the “wolves” in her apartment, but loved a man that seemed her polar opposite, which echoes the relationship Lisa, supposedly Ms. Torso’s counterpart, has with Jefferies, her polar opposite. This suggests that the apartments around them are indeed windows into their own lives, each apartment with its own story and morals for the two struggling lovers.
And nowhere is their relationship reflected more completely than in the Thorwalds’ apartment. Consider: Thorwald travels constantly for his job (travelling salesman); his wife stays at home, unable to follow him (bedridden); and she constantly nags and demands more from him than he can give. This is exactly Jefferies’ vision of what his life would be like with Lisa: he travelling all the time, her unable to follow, him being unable to meet her high expectations of him.
But here is where some of the most ingenious writing ever takes wing: for despite Jefferies belief that he is Lars Thorwald and Lisa Mrs. Thorwald, the movie plays out the opposite. Jefferies is bed-ridden and Lisa leaves the apartment on dangerous adventures (“You’re taking all the chances!” “You should’ve seen her!” or “I’m proud of you!”). And Jefferies is the one that nags, nags about how their relationship will never work, complains about her grand romantic gestures (“Lisa, it’s perfect.” [without enthusiasm] “As always.”), complains that she’s taking too many risks. The movie flips their relationship and in so doing demonstrates that people are adaptable, when willing, to try new things, to sacrifice their comfort for another’s, to put themselves in another’s shoes, to meet other’s halfway. The opposite of the Thorwalds’ apartment, where none of the above occur, which leads to tragedy. But, by god, Lisa and Jefferies get it right, their love survives, is strengthened by their shared experience, but without either having to sacrifice their uniqueness, their lifestyle for the other.
There are practical applications to this moral, but, profoundly, the movie doesn’t argue that this is the secret to love. In fact, the movie makes no claims to universal expressions of love and marriage. It argues that every relationship is unique (for no two apartments, no two loves, are the same.) And what’s more, we can learn from all variations on love. Voyeurism, in the long run, is not evil, because through voyeurism we see ourselves reflected in the vast tapestry of lives around us. And with that newfound self-knowledge, we are better-equipped to handle whatever life and love throw at us.
So don’t be afraid to to listen in on your neighbors and peers; to people-watch in the coffee-shop; to lurk on social media; to be an active witness to life around you. This is a truism for both people and business. For this represents our best chance at learning how best to survive and thrive.
P.S. Also, as further defense of this movie as the greatest love story ever told, can we talk about the kiss?
Because holy cow that kiss…