Quarantine. Lockdown. Shelter in place.
No one would have guessed such dystopian, sci-fi concepts would become a reality for the last three months of our lives.
L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies could empathize.
He broke his leg and has been wheelchair-ridden in his small, quaint New York City apartment for six weeks. The once renowned freelance photojournalist had the world in his hands, but now his world consists of an itchy cast, a daily visit from the physical therapy nurse, and the evening appearances of his high society fiancée, Lisa.
Through a dreamy POV shot, Lisa first emerges like an angel to sleepy eyes. She is beautiful, generous, patient, and perfect – almost too perfect. Yet, for most imperfect men, a woman who is too perfect is perfect. Jeff is merely stubborn, basking most likely in self-pity from being confined to a chair for six weeks and converting back to old ways of self-will. He doesn’t realize what he has right in front of him, so he looks through his rear apartment window for curious pleasure, and, perhaps, some answers.
Panning left to right, Jeff sees a newlywed couple just arriving for their honeymoon (quick to put the shades down); a professional dancer tenant, who practices her pirouettes in the living room; a couple who lowers their dog in a basket to do his business in the downstairs garden; “Miss Lonelyhearts,” who talks to imaginary lovers at the dinner table; a couple who bickers as the wife stays in bed all day and causes obvious frustration in the husband; and a struggling composer, banging away at the piano.
It’s the bickering couple that becomes Jeff’s primary focus when the wife is no longer seen the next morning. A scream was heard the night before, and a large saw, a gigantic suitcase, and new hole in the garden start to pop up. Jeff begins to suspect a murder has taken place.
Innocent gazing out the window becomes an obsessive hobby, and in no time, the nurse and Lily share the same fascination (and binoculars).
A premise like this must have been pure gold for the likes of legendary director, Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is all about perspective – objective and subjective. There are times when his camera is the viewpoint of Jeff, telling a simple story of simple observations. But there is a transition in the middle of the movie where Hitchcock lets us – the audience – in on a secret while Jeff is sleeping, and the simple story becomes a moral conflict between interpreting what was witnessed, what should be disclosed, and what invades privacy. In fact, the genius of this change in perspective is that we aren’t 100% sure of what we’ve seen either!
Jimmy Stewart is impeccable as the much older but not much wiser Jeff, and his pride is tempered wonderfully by Grace Kelly as Lisa. A dull, self-isolated life can lead to the doldrums, and all Jeff and Lisa need is a little excitement to help them look outside themselves. “Outside” becomes a literal and metaphorical adventure.
The Hitchcockian irony is that Jeff cannot escape what little self-worth he has in his lonely confinement because even outside his window, he sees reflections of himself. Hitchcock then turns the table on us as we reflect on the moral code of voyeurism and observation interpretation.
Thankfully, today, we have way more distractions to keep us entertained than Jeff did in 1954. But, with any unexpected quarantine, lockdown, or shelter in place, there is the likelihood of boredom and despair. And, there is always a window.