Since Hitchcock was so invested in his dogs, it’s easy to see that his relationships with them inform the presence of his film dogs and sometimes give them pivotal roles to play. Others have tracked dogs featured in his films even back to his British filmmaking days. I’m going to focus on one of my favorites–Rear Window.
In the film, James Stewart plays Jeff, a photographer laid up in his apartment by a broken leg during a hot, stifling summer. His main entertainment is peering out of his window and watching his neighbors, who mostly remain unaware of his new hobby. His main visitor is Grace Kelly’s Lisa. She loves him, but he’s rejecting her. She’s wealthy and glamorous, and he imagines she is wrong for his lifestyle of travelling on the rough. He fears she will pin him down to a domestic lifestyle and that he will be bored and trapped.
One set of neighbors seems to exhibit all that he fears. They’re middle-aged and settled. Their little terrier is the ultimate sign of their domesticity. Their lives are routine even down to how they care for the dog, which they treat like a baby. Instead of taking their steps down and walking their dog and going somewhere, they lower it in a basket down to the courtyard. The dog is trained not to fear heights and patiently wait as it is lowered, and once deposited, it goes about its business not noticed much, not disturbing much.
One day the dog changes its behavior. As hunting dogs, terriers are bright and have strong-scent abilities. The dog notices something and starts digging in Lars Thorwald’s (Raymond Burr) flower bed. What has he noticed? Something he can smell? A rat or something left by a human “rat?” Hitchcock takes natural dog traits and has them acted out in a way that causes curiosity and inserts something sinister into the simple act of a dog out for a pee and messing around in a yard.
Thorwald isn’t pleased to see his garden being dug up, and he goes over to the dog and shoos him away. Again another ordinary act, but because of everything Jeff has witnessed through his window, this gesture is ambiguous. Is it a man protecting his garden, or is he hiding something in that flower bed?
Children and dogs are great at seeing past people’s facades. They sense or notice things that others are too polite to pay attention to, especially those living in the cramped quarters of the city. This little dog won’t be so lucky for his transgression into Thorwald’s privacy. When we next see the dog, this little nosy neighbor is dead.
In the above clip, the female pet owner has spotted the lifeless body of her dog below, and she screams and cries. Her noise gets the attention of all her neighbors. One-by-one they lose their self-absorption, and they stop what they are doing and turn their attention to the tragedy in the courtyard. They all partake of Jeff’s voyeurism in this moment. The spinster neighbor, Miss Lonely Hearts, is the only way to act. She approaches the dog and investigates. She says the dog was strangled to death.
This is too much for his owner. She can’t make sense of why her dog was killed, and she accuses everyone listening, “Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog? You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbor.’ Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies, but none of you do. But I couldn’t imagine any of you bein’ so low that you’d kill a little helpless, friendly dog–the only thing in this whole neighborhood who liked anybody. Did ya kill him because he liked ya? Just because he liked ya?”
Her speech is filled with the loneliness and paranoia of city living, being surrounded by strangers. She doesn’t know her neighbors, and they don’t know her. They’re all living what they hope are private lives in their tiny apartments in the big city. Anonymity is double-sided. It’s a blessing when you want it, and it’s a curse when you need to be known and seen. She doesn’t feel a sense of community after her violation, but she probably wasn’t feeling one before. Her previous contentment blinded her to the fact that she had been in a community of three that’s now shrunk to two.
The death of her dog and her speech have an effect. Miss Lonely Hearts looks like she is going to cry as she gently places the dog into its basket for one last ride. The dancer, Miss Torso, looks upset as well. It’s harder to tell if some of the other neighbors and their guests are upset or only watching the show, and if they are upset, are they bothered by the dog’s death or their neighbor’s words most? The woman’s indictment might have gone a little too far and lost her some sympathy. Cassandras are never appreciated.
When she and her husband re-enter their apartment, their neighbors go back into their abodes. Some show awkward body language and seem affected. Some of the young at the party look more amused by the outburst and want to go back to partying. One young man guides his date back into the party by saying, “Let’s go back in. Just a little dog.”
But it’s that little dog that convinces Jeff he was right to suspect something. If Thorwald had never killed the dog, Jeff would have gotten re-absorbed into his life and his personal dramas and written off previous clues as the imaginings of his bored mind. It’s the dog’s death that makes Jeff and Lisa go further in their investigations. Jeff realizes the one person who had no reaction to the outburst, who didn’t go to his windows or even put his light on was Thorwald.
Even before Jeff thinks he can prove Mrs. Thorwald’s death, he knows he can solve the murder of the dog. Hitchcock lets the dog propel the plot forward, and Hitchcock lets the dog be avenged. When the murderer is caught and status quo is reverted to, the married couple have a new dog and he can begin his basket-training. Domesticity has been resumed, even in Jeff’s apartment where it is denied, but nonetheless exists.
If you enjoyed my post, please consider donating to the For Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon. All funds raised go to the National Film Preservation Foundation to enable them to stream The White Shadow, a silent film featuring the work of a very young Alfred Hitchcock. This will allow people the world over access to a film that was long considered lost, and it helps share and preserve our international film heritage. To donate, please click on the banner below.