Rear Window (1954)—What Limits You Is What Empowers You

[I am writing about 100 films of the 20th century. Learn more about this project.]

Jesus said to love your neighbor. He went on to explain who your neighbor is. A neighbor, he said to a critic who was looking for a loophole, need not be someone you have known or seen. Your neighbor might just as well be a stranger from far away. The teaching still applies to us today, of course. But today, I wonder if there isn’t an extent to which we need the opposite message. Who is my neighbor? What if he is, well … my neighbor?

To be a believer in Jesus Christ is to have been chosen. We can succumb to exalting ourselves over this, as in: He chose ME. But that exalting places the emphasis in the wrong place. The truth is, He CHOSE me, because I could not have chosen for myself. The Lord renewed my mind; he gave me eyes to see. He called me out of darkness because I couldn't find the way.

As a direct result of exalting ourselves over the fact of having faith, we overcomplicate the question of what the purpose of our redeemed lives should be. We seek exalted missions for these presumably exalted selves. But what if God is giving simple assignments? What if the creator of the universe, the creator of your purpose and mine, has arranged the universe so that we are near to the purposes he has for us? What I am suggesting here is that the purpose you have the means and opportunity to fulfill right now, quite possibly the one you are already fulfilling, might be the work or the role God has in mind for you in advancing his kingdom. And I am further suggesting that the people near you right now—your neighbors, maybe—are the people God has given you to serve.

The movie Rear Window is about a man who discovers something like this. He discovers his neighbors, both literally and in a sense near to what Jesus meant. L. B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a photojournalist accustomed to traveling the world, but a broken leg in a rigid plaster cast has trapped him in a wheelchair and in his small apartment. To pass the time, he watches his neighbors out the window that faces a courtyard into which many other neighbors’ windows open. And through one of these windows, he believes he sees a crime. The plot and drama of the movie turn on this.

But more broadly, Jefferies sees people. He comes to know them, comes to love them, comes to care about them. And in the case of that one scene in one of those apartments, he becomes personally involved and sees something he can do.

It is not hard to discern the message in all of this. Stewart’s portrayal of the adventurer suffering and bored because of the injury that traps him in a chair gives me an image I can summon the next time I am afflicted, the next time I feel I am stifled because of a development that keeps me from progressing the way I would choose. When I am halted in this way, brought down by circumstance or setback, I can wait, as this character waited. I can watch. I can ask what—or whom—the Lord has for me to see.

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A few other observations about this film. I have been watching movies and writing this series of posts to infer what the 20th century was all about. This movie dispels two assumptions I might have made about the people of that century who lived before me:

1. I thought the phenomenon of not knowing the people who live in close proximity to us is a modern strangeness, something we have come to only recently. However, this movie accepts that state of affairs as a situation that all of the audience would have known well. One of the characters at one point (railing to the community about her dead dog, the cause of death she suspects one of her neighbors of knowing) delivers an impassioned speech about the selfishness of people not caring whom they live near. This speech would have fallen flat unless theatergoers then were as guilty as I am of living close to people and knowing little about them.

2. I might have been tempted to think that the practice and awareness of Christian faith were more common and more public in the past. But no, when the verse about “love your neighbor” is mentioned in this movie, it is not as a biblical verse. Female lead character Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) says, “Wasn’t there an old saying about ‘love thy neighbor’?” Of course, to me and to others who feel as I do, this verse amounts to more than an old saying; it is a teaching of the incarnate God. But I think this line delivered by Kelly’s character hints at how there were more churchgoers in the past, which is something apart from there being more lives renewed by faith. Her “old saying” line reveals scripture having been taught as literature, blending in with other books taught to this character as a schoolgirl. The instruction stuck with her sufficiently that it was recalled to mind, but it had no impact on her except as a curiosity that seemed to fit the occasion. Since the movie did not aim to make any point about faith or scripture, this detail from the character strikes me as credible. In the past, there was a larger share of the populace who had heard scripture and more who had attended church, but then as now, the Lord was choosing for faith those whom he would choose.

And one more observation that seems worth making about Rear Window:

3. The premise of the story could never work today. It could not have worked just a couple of decades after the film premiered. The reason is air conditioning, which would soon become commonplace. In the heat of the summer, people would no longer open their windows. Today, we speak of the problem of technology isolating us, but we tend to have in mind the technology in our pockets. Technology having this effect is actually a much older problem than our electronics. In incremental steps, it has been sealing us off. Beginning with control over our personal climates and the way that this removed us from our windowsills and porches, the advance of technology has steadily been taking us away from one another.