Rear Window and the Case of the Swirling Snifters

One of part of [Rear Window] that always makes me giggle is when Jeff, Lisa and Doyle are all hanging around and warming their brandy throughout the entire scene. It cracks me up every time. The visual of the three of them swirling and swirling and swirling for some reason just strikes me as funny. Am I the only one who thinks this or have I watched this film one too many times?” -- Prairiegirl

Alfred Hitchcock was not one to leave a good entendre undoubled. From Rope’s campy gay undertones to Mrs. Danvers’ not-so-subtle lesbian love for Rebecca DeWinter, his movies are literally (and metaphorically!) stuffed with sexy kinks and high jinx. For instance, in this scene from Easy Virtue (1928), over-eager suitor John Whittaker (Robin Irvine) works a martini shaker a tad too vigorously, in a motion that unmistakably parodies masturbation as he watches Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans) pose for her make-up artist.
This was just a warm-up for later, when he, er, pops the question.

And so, in Rear Window,when Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) steps out of L. B. Jefferies’ kitchen nursing (heh heh heh) pair of brandy of brandy snifters, detective Lieutenant Doyle (Wendell Corey) can be forgiven for sniffing out (hehehe) double trouble (snerk!).

Think such theorizing is merely a product of the Hitchcock Geek's dirty mind? Well! I'll have you know that I know better people than you in Pittsboig! Matter of fact, Hitch himself envisioned the scene as an elaborate sex joke. In this interview transcript that he graciously shared with me, Hitchcock author Steven DeRosa (Writing with Hitchcock) asks Rear Window screenwriter John Michael Hayes about the loopy humor in this scene and I suspect that even Steven was surprised by the answer he got:
SLD:   In that scene with Jeff, Lisa and Doyle, when they're swirling the brandy snifters.  I was wondering where that came from.
JMH:  That was a Hitchcock suggestion.  It was to emphasize her breasts.
SLD:   It's just so funny.
JMH:  And it was sort of, you know, to make fun of her chest as she swirled these things around.  That was, I wasn't really too taken with it at first, because I thought it was a little, what do you say? Not cheap, but a little raw, a little gross for a sophisticated woman to be suggestive like this. But that was Hitch's thing.  And that's the kind of humor he had.
SLD:   Yeah, I remember that shot now when she's walking out, out of the kitchen. But then throughout the rest of the whole scene, as the three of them are talking, you just have these three snifters swirling in the air.
JMH:  Yeah.  All swirling in that air. I don't know. That was Hitch's directorial touch. And I'm not running away from it, but that was his idea, and I'll tell you that. Because I never thought of it, as a suggestive gesture. I still don't think it does much for Grace Kelly's character. But it was amusing and it was something, and it made the scene more interesting than just, you know, just walking out and handing somebody some brandy, and they were all sort of nervous and tense and they were swirling the brandy around.
Nervous? Tense? Of course! If you ask me, there was even more to the tension than just Grace Kelly’s ta-tas (not that that wasn’t excuse enough). Those warming brandy snifters added heat to a scene already steamy enough to fog up L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies' (James Stewart’s) studio window. Lisa Fremont (Kelly) had just arrived at his apartment and announced that she would be staying overnight. While Jeff’s landlord might not have cared, censors in 1954—the same censors who insisted that married couples sleep in separate beds—would have nixed the sexual implications that would logically follow. (That's why his plaster cast reached up to his belly button, satisfying the board that all skin below his waist was derma non grata.) What followed in the dialogue amounts to a careful tango between the Hollywood code and the obvious outcome of a night with Grace Kelly.

But to fully appreciate the fun Hitch had with the brandy snifters, we need to back up a bit. Though voyeurism and murder are the overt story elements in the film, Rear Window is really the story of two people who just can't seem to get their lives in sync in the love department. Lisa’s first two piping-hot entrances into Jeff’s apartment speak volumes for their difficulties. First, there is her ravishing initial entrance, where she arrives shrouded in darkness, like an apparition or a midsummer night's dream fever, to awaken sleeping Jeff with a kiss. (See also: “Sleeping Beauty.” In fact, Rear Window is an inversion of the fairy tale, with the Princess risking life and limb to claim her knight.)

But after this hot and heavy screen moment, Jeff and Lisa get down to the real business of their relationship: arguing about his failure to commit.
In their next scene together, Lisa wears a sultry, jet black dress. Again, though she throws herself at Jeff, he barely acknowledges her as he mulls over the question of “why a man would leave his apartment three times in the middle of the night.”

Her sex appeal can’t compete with his interest in solving the mystery on the other side of the courtyard.

Still, it’s during this scene that Lisa is finally convinced that Jeff’s suspicions are founded in truth. Logically, then, in their next scene together—and though the shooting script called for “another extravagantly beautiful dress”—Lisa shows up at his home dressed in a no-nonsense green suit and with her hair tucked primly under a pill box cap. The only indulgence in her attire this time is a gaudy pearl bracelet rattling around on her forearm, a reminder of her expert taste in jewelry—a bit of knowledge on which her credibility hangs in this scene.

Without even a hello kiss and ready to prove she can live out of a suitcase just as well as Jeff can, Lisa's poised to catch a thief, er, murderer.
For the first time in the movie, they are in harmony, which at the moment involves 50 percent amateur sleuthing and 50 percent foreplay as Jeff invites her into his lap to neck a little—and discuss the case. In return, she offers to trade, not sex, but her feminine intuition, for a bed for the night. 

When Lisa announces that she’s going to “slip into something comfortable,” she takes off her jacket to reveal a sleeveless, backless top that’s all business in the front and a party in the back, setting the mood for the sexual innuendo to follow. The moment is a perfectly-planned exhibit of Hitch's description of Kelly as a “snow-covered volcano.” However, the scene that made it to the final cut departs significantly from the shooting script. Here’s how the script goes:

           You mean -- like [slip into] the kitchen? And
           make us some coffee?

           Exactly what I had in mind -- along
           with some brandy.

In the film, however, the lines are swapped. Lisa says what Jeff was supposed to say and vice versa:

            Why don’t I slip slip into something
            more comfortable?

            By all means.

           I mean the kitchen to make us
           some coffee.

            With some brandy too, huh?

Thus, it’s Lisa’s idea to prepare for a sober night of detective work by brewing a pot of coffee, while Jeff, feeling amorous, asks for a dollop of brandy. By changing those line readings on the set, Hitch (or, perhaps, Hayes) brought their maturing relationship into deeper relief. Their roles are now effectively reversed (Jeff even briefly waffles about whether or not Thorwald is guilty) and that situation will sharpen when Lisa puts her life on the line. 

The voyeur becomes the voyee.
“What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.” So says the insurance company nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), earlier in the film. That outside look into Jeff’s home is provided by Doyle, who now lets himself in. Though the movie takes place primarily from Jeff's perspective, for the moment we are brought inside Doyle’s head. Through the use of subjective action/reaction shots framed from his perspective, we join him in his voyeuristic inspection of Jeff’s apartment.

Introducing the scene, Doyle enters the apartment, only to stop short when he hears Lisa, who, almost as if prompted by him, begins humming the tune being composed across the way. Her haunting, theremin-like vocalese wafting in from the kitchen aurally parallels the sight of her ghostly shadow winding about on the ceiling. (See also: the dreamlike scenes of the flitting Merry Widow Waltzers in Shadow of a Doubt.) It echoes our first shadowy encounter with her.
 Doyle's first sighting of Lisa is not with the woman herself, but, rather, with her feminine mystique.
Doyle then looks down to see her Mark Cross overnight bag lying open on the table, an explosion of pink femininity in Jeff’s platonic man-cave. A stonefaced detective lifted straight from the pages of Dashiell Hammett (except for the fact that he has settled down to what I guess to be a lackluster marriage), we're left to rely entirely on the Kuleshovian editing to tell us that he is doing the math in head.

When he lights his cigarette, it seems to cue the neighboring composer to strike up a boogie-woogie on the piano. The sound distracts him from his first train of thought, and it has the same effect on him that it does on Lisa, drawing him toward the window to find the source of the music. In Rear Window, music exerts an almost metaphysical power; even the world-weary police dick can't resist its tug.
We see (from Doyle's perspective) a raucous party at the composer’s apartment and, next, the Thorwalds’ apartment, plunged into darkness. This pair of shots works on at least three levels. 

First, it shows us that he has identified where the music is coming from. Secondly, it is a reminder that the swinging, cocktail-soaked world of single life is not something that Doyle (and Jeff) can be a part of if they want to be married; the best they can do is stand outside and look in. Finally, its chaotic camaraderie serves as a neat counterpoint to the Thorwald home's morgue-like interior.

(Also, look closely at the party and you'll see one of the female partygoers snaking her way through the crowd with a pair of whiskey cocktails hoisted aloft to hand to one of the guests, a pre-echo of Lisa's brandy service. You'll also see an elderly woman nearly passed out drunk on her feet, dressed in a white suit and a lavender scarf—Hitchcockian colors of death (see, for example, the funeral wreath in Topaz) and, perhaps, a nod to dead Mrs. Thorwald.)

The camera pulls back and down, giving us a powerful low-angle view of Doyle, from Jeff’s viewpoint—that is, we watch Jeff watching Doyle. All eyes are on the Lieutenant Detective and the news he is about to share. His mysterious silence and the grave look on his face indicate that he has something portentous to reveal. Grandstanding, he relishes his moment of power by withholding his Big News.

                      What else have you got on this guy

                      Enough to scare me that you wouldn't
                      get here in time, and we'd lose him.

                      You think he's getting out of here?

                      Everything he owns is laid out on
                      the bedroom, waiting to be packed.

As we shall soon see, Doyle's conspiratorial tone is just a case of Hitchcock leading us up the garden path. First, though, Lisa emerges from the kitchen, cupping in her hands those two mammarian snifters, a hint that Jeff himself has some bedroom business of his own “waiting to be packed.” Winking double entendres like that permeate this scene, in which the dialogue counterpoints the visuals.

From here out, the scene actually has two story lines: (1) Jeff and Lisa's argument with Doyle regarding whether or not Lars Thorwald is guilty of murder and (2) Doyle’s mostly unspoken interest in Jeff and Lisa’s appearance of sexual impropriety (along with Doyle’s quite obvious excitement at seeing Lisa). The snifters tie the scene together as a visual analog to the dramatic tension while also reinforcing the impression that illicit sex is afoot. Specifically, there’s a hint of masturbation—particularly on the part of Doyle, who clearly gets off (cough cough) on the opportunity to make his old war buddy, Jeff, “look foolish.”
Those twirling cocktails thus play a role comparable to that of the ticking clockwork of the metronome in Rope that Rupert Cadell (James Stewart, six years earlier) uses to ratchet up Phillip's (Farley Granger's) anxiety during the interrogation sequence. Their circular pattern echoes Lisa's twisting shadow on the ceiling seconds earlier. It riffs on Hitch's earlier cameo, where he is glimpsed winding up the spring steel belly of the clock on the composer's mantle, an analogue to his role as this film's ringmaster of dramatic tension. It may even reference the spiral unspooling of the film itself as it relinquishes its story, one shuttering click at a time. Think I'm overdoing the associations? Go rent Hitch's silent masterpiece The Ring (1927) and make up your own mind.

The brandy is also a sexual innuendo, a libation whirling hypnotically as a prelude to sex: Doyle feels an erotic tug in Lisa’s direction, while she and Jeff, in their opposition to Doyle’s indifference, come together (relationally, that is!), their palms and fingers warming more than their brandy. It’s a masturbatory ménage à trois.

It's also a celebration. Following Lisa’s insistence that no woman would leave for a trip without taking her jewelry with her, Jeff and Lisa believe that they’ve got conclusive evidence of a murder and they toast their cleverness with Doyle, who, noncommittal, lets them talk.

Finally, in Hitchcock's world, brandy is often a symbol of sophistication (see Tony Wendice's special occasion drink in Dial M for Murder). Here, it exposes the class distinction between Doyle and Jeff and Lisa. While the latter two capably partake of their drinks and Jeff especially appears to enjoy mulling his around in the glass, Doyle drinks his straight down and shows that he can't handle his liquor as well as the other two can. This is important, as it reveals that Jeff's tastes have evolved in the years since he and Doyle served together in the war, leaving Doyle behind in that area. Their handling of the brandy is an apt metaphor for the contrast between Jeff's attunement to the subtleties of his neighbors' behavior and Doyle's social myopia.

But getting back to Lisa's hubba-hubba entrance with those two brandies! This is Doyle’s first look at Jeff’s girlfriend and, unable to take his eyes off her, his lust at first sight stops just short of a wolf-whistle. Meanwhile, Jeff stares intently at Doyle. As the script directs, “he seems to be trying to penetrate Doyle's mind.” The almost telepathic focus ostensibly has to do with the Thorwald case, but it also leads Jeff to pick up on Doyle’s worldly-wise judgment of Lisa’s sleepover. Thus, in response to Lisa's assertion, Doyle looks down at Lisa’s overnight bag billowing over with her sleepover goodies—a perfect counterpoint to Thorwald’s sinister suitcase. Though his face remains fixed, the editing tells us what he’s thinking: “Thorwald’s not the only guilty person around here.” But before he can get a word out, Jeff cuts him off with a pointed “Careful, Tom.”

We (and Jeff) have been waiting anxiously to hear about what his sleuthing has dug up on the disappearance of Mrs. Thorwald and the camera moves back, as if to courteously give him space.

After taking a phone call that further delays his Big Reveal, the next shot is a fairly long take. Clocking in at one minute and six seconds, it may not match the eight-minute marathons in Rope and Under Capricorn, but it's still a gem of stage blocking and camera work. As Doyle hangs up the phone, Lisa steps into the room, placing Doyle between her and Jeff. Doyle listens impassively, whipping his head back and forth between the two as they regale him with the details of Jeff's “research” and Lisa's intuition, those orbs of brandy going non-stop.

In one long take, with sex in the air, the three stand in almost claustrophobic proximity, swirling their brandy about in those balloonish snifters, in rhythm to the boogie-woogie drifting in from outside. Jeff and Lisa are aroused by their cleverness and sexual attraction, while Doyle is aroused because he thinks he can trump their circumstantial evidence—and, of course, he's turned on by Lisa. The three couldn't be more full of themselves and though the scene is quite masturbatory, most viewers won't allow themselves to “go there.” Unable to put their finger on it, as it were, they can't help but giggle. Here's how the long take goes, which closely followed the shooting script:

Jeff, aren't you going to tell him
about the jewelry?

Doyle looks suddenly interested. He asks tersely:


He has his wife's jewelry hidden in
among his clothes over there.

You sure it belongs to his wife?

He turns his head to Lisa, who answers.

It was in her favorite handbag --
And, Mr. Doyle, that can lead to
only one conclusion.


His head snaps back to Jeff, who answers:

That wasn't Mrs. Thorwald who left
with him yesterday morning?

You figured that out, huh?

His head moves back to Lisa as she answers with a touch of
pride in her voice.

It's just that women don't leave
jewelry behind when they go on a

Before Doyle can comment, Jeff asks impatiently:

Come on, Tom -- you don't really
need any of this information, do

Bringing their cozy little three-way to an abrupt halt, Doyle steps out of the circle, walks over to the desk and puts his glass down and says, “As a matter of fact, I don't.”

Again, as if perfectly timed, the boogie-woogie comes to a halt, ending the celebratory mood and creating an air of suspenseful expectation. Doyle walks into the deep foreground, his sweaty face filling the frame (just as Detective Arbogast's does when he walks into the Loomis Hardware store in Psycho) and drops his bomb. He speaks to the now-auspiciously quiet window and declares flatly: 

“Lars Thorwald is no more a murderer than I am.” 

As are all such lines in a Hitchcock film, Doyle's pronouncement is a huge red flag that the Director was up to some deeper tricks. Just as their suitcases suggest a "secret sharer" relationship between the Thorwalds and the Lisa and Jeff, Doyle now implicates himself in their vortex of shared guilt by equating Thorwald's innocence of the charge of murder with his own. Here's why. As a World War II air force reconnaissance pilot, he was in fact guilty—if only communally, by virtue of his uniform—of murder. Thus, the inverse of his statement will prove to be true: Thorwald is at least as much a murderer as he is! (See also: Rupert's guilt and shame in Rope.

Using little more than their understanding of human nature, Jeff and Lisa surmised correctly that something fishy was going on in the Thorwald home, while Doyle's professional, logical methods caused him to walk right by the evidence without noticing. This, too is a recurring theme in Hitchcock. Think of Spellbound: and Constance Peterson's feminine intuition-based conviction that J.B. was innocent, while her brainiac mentor, Dr. Brulov, was no more equipped to see the truth of the situation than Doyle. The lesson Hitchcock seems to be pointing out is that logic—the supposed apex of human evolutionhas its limits because our humanity resides, not in the head, but in the heart. It is with our hearts that we will solve the problem of good and evil.

Following Doyle's pronouncement, Lisa stops swirling her brandy, its cessation of movement matching the drop in her countenance. Next:

You mean you can explain everything
that went on over there -- and is
still going on?

No! And neither can you.
That's a secret and private world
you're looking into out there. People
do a lot of things in private that
they couldn't explain in public.

(Italics added. Again with the masturbation innuendo!) Resentful of Doyle's condescending attitude, Jeff loses his temper and wheels himself over to Doyle. The three share the frame once again, Doyle loving every moment of his victory. The actors are blocked so that Doyle stands tall over Lisa and Jeff. For a visual philip that adds a suggestion of menace to the outburst of hostility, you can see a devil's mask in the background, along with one of Jeff's wartime photos, a picture of the explosion from an artillery shell in Korea. Lisa's glass remains mostly still, while Doyle's continue to rotate—the respective glasses continuing to express their owners’ interior mood.
Doyle moves away from them to take a seat and Jeff wheels in, still angry, cross-examining him. The camera repositions and in keeping with the explosiveness of their emotions, Jeff's photo of an atomic mushroom cloud sits in the background:

I found the trunk -- a half hour
after I left here.

Of course, it's normal for a man to
tie his trunk up with a heavy rope.

When the lock is broken -- yes.

What was in the trunk? A surly note
to me?

Mrs. -- Thorwald's -- clothes. --
Clean -- carefully packed -- not too
stylish -- but presentable.

Doyle begins walking over to the chair.

Didn't you take it to the crime lab?

I sent it on its merry and legal

Doyle sits down in the deep foreground, stretching back in Jeff's armchair, coolly swirling his drink.

Why -- when a woman only goes on a
simple trip, does she take everything
she owns?...
If his wife wasn't coming back --
why didn't he tell his landlord? --
I'll answer it for you -- because he
had something to hide.

(Italics added.) Doyle hesitates a moment and lets his eyes wander and we see a cut-in closeup of the
overnight case with Lisa's lingerie.

Do -- uh -- you tell your landlord

Doyle's crack further links Jeff with Lars Thorwald and Lisa with Mrs. Thorwald, by means of the secrets they keep, their respective clothes and suitcases, and the appearance of guilt. For the moment, Doyle has vindicated Thorwald and all but accused Jeff and Lisa of a (debatable) violation of 50's-era morality. The irony is that he's wrong on both counts, and his intellectual hubris will nearly cost Jeff his life. After failing to change the subject, he stands and tries to finish off his drink as if it were a straight shot of whiskey. It shoots out of the glass, spurting onto his jacket. In other words, Doyle clumsily shoots his load.


Caffeinated Joe said…
I was watching the film again just now (for like the 100th time) and just wondered about the three of them swirling the brandy. Came upon your site and read your in depth analysis. Very interesting, intriguing even.

I love this movie.
Unknown said…
I, too, wondered why in the movie all 3 are swirling their brandy constantly. Thanks for some clarification!
Joel Gunz said…
You bet! Who knew such a small moment could be so... well... pregnant with meaning! ;)