Although AH has received more critical attention than any other filmmaker in history, relatively little of that attention has been paid to his place within the—ahem—wider tradition of Western narrative. The most significant attempt in this direction remains Lesley Brill’s The Hitchcock Romance (1988). Adapting the ideas of Northrop Frye, Brill applies Frye’s literary categories of Comedy, Romance, Tragedy, and Irony to Hitchcock’s films. He argues that although elements of—here it comes—all four “Western narrative proto-genres” can be found among the films, romance with a capital R (tales of adventure) dominate the oeuvre. Or as he puts it “ . . . by my count, about three-quarters of Hitchcock’s films have predominantly romantic tonalities and resolutions” (196).
Oddly, RW receives scant mention in Brill’s 290-page book, the author preferring other works (especially North By Northwest) to make his point. “Rear Window . . . unequivocally comic in its plot structure and only a little less so in characterization, hovers at the same time between irony and romance” (73). For Brill, RW is too much a comedy to be considered a romance. Sure, RW operates as capital-C Comedy, but that’s not the whole story either. There’s enough going on in the film to cover two proto-genres.
Let’s take a look at Brill’s own definition of the Romance formula:
The plot of romance leads to adventure, with the killing of a hyperbolically evil figure the usual penultimate action and the winning of the mate a conclusion . . . . The plot normally revolves about a quest (often thrust upon the protagonist rather than chosen) and entails perilous journeys, violent struggles, mountaintop epiphanies, disappearances and apparent deaths, and triumphant returns. (6)
All of the above pertains to RW . . . provided we assign the role of romance hero to Lisa. Yes, there’s a quest, albeit one that takes Lisa only as far as the apartment building across the courtyard. Perilous? Yep. Violent struggles? They’re in there. Mountaintop epiphanies? Well, if a second floor walk-up can be thought to stand in for a mountaintop (hey, it is an elevated place). . . . And as far as epiphanies go, there are plenty to be had in Thorwald’s apartment. (Speaking of Thorwald, he’s something of an old dragon, isn’t he, sitting in his cave-like apartment, unwilling to move off his treasure—his wife’s jewelry?). On with the list. Disappearances? Check. Apparent deaths–Jeff falling out the window counts, no? Triumphant returns? Who is more triumphant than Lisa at film’s end, having seen her quest through and thereby winning herself a mate?
Once Lisa’s status as First Action Heroine is granted, it’s easy to see other elements of Romance in the mix. Jeff starts to take on some of the qualities of The Fisher King, and not only to the extent that he is responsible for sending Lisa on her quest. (Something of his patriarchal role in the community is established early in the film. Although speaking sarcastically, Stella, imagining Jeff in court responding to a hypothetical peeping tom charge, has him say: “Judge, it was only a bit of innocent fun. I love my neighbors like a father.”) In fact, Jeff has been wounded, and that wound is indicative of a more general malaise in and around the—heh, heh—courtyard. That malaise is not impotence, rather sterility. Acquired in the reckless pursuit of an exciting photograph, Jeff’s wound is a badge of his craft, and, as we have seen, this craft (and its attendant lifestyle) takes precedence over marriage and children. But Lisa quest changes all that and the change is cosmic.
Capital-R romance is, according to Frye, the genre associated with summer. Comedy, essentially a fertility rite, is a spring-time pursuit (tragedy is tied to fall, of course, irony to winter). At the beginning of RW the temperature on the thermometer in Jeff’s room reads a sweltering 94 degrees; at film’s end, everyone is enjoying life in the more comfortable 70s. The Fisher King’s leg has not been healed; in fact, a second wound has been acquired. But this wound has been acquired honorably, and with Lisa’s ministrations, it, and the original fracture, will mend.