Film Fest: Urban courtyards from the Rear Window

Welcome to the yowLAB Film Festival discussion for our sixth film, Rear Window by Alfred Hitchcock. Our reviewer this month is yowLAB co-director Sarah Gelbard. Her review/synopsis is included below.


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We hope you enjoy the film and the discussion. Without further ado. . .

As is to be expected of a Hitchcock classic, the plot of Rear Window has found itself spoofed many times in pop culture. Even if you’ve never seen the film, you’ve probably seen a few dozen tributes without knowing it. The Simpson’s episode “Bart of Darkess” is an especially well recognized one, but I also of course always think of Due South’s Letting Go episode.

Without specifically considering the timing of this month’s selection, I coincidentally found myself caught in my own version of Rear Window – though admitedly far less thrilling. I’ve recently moved from Ottawa to Montreal and was initially quite thrilled that my new apartment looks out on a shared courtyard. With my movers delayed, I’ve found little to do in my empty apartment but look out the window – especially during the couple days without so much as an internet connection for distraction. And to add to the verisimilitude, I pulled a hamstring and while not confined to a wheelchair, I have been limping around the apartment.


With a clear view out onto 35 apartments across the courtyard from where I’m sitting, staring competitions with my cat have been far more entertaining. Nearly all the drapes are drawn with only the occasional blue flickering light of a TV. There hasn’t been any spark with which to let my imagination run wild, to start constructing fantasies about the lives of my neighbours.

The communal courtyard is supposed to be the cure to the inhospitable, dead, urban city block. It should create familiarity and a sense of community with your nearest neighbours. In theory. But there’s a coldness to the unobstructed view across the yard. I also suspect the concept doesn’t scale up well to accomodate the 100s of apartments and 7-12 storey buildings surrounding my particular yard. But at the same time, no one could accuse my new neighbourhood of being dead – a little slummy maybe. So what exactly is the courtyard attempting to “cure”.

I was also disappointed to discover that when the sales rep assured me that I would have access to the courtyard as a tenant, what he meant was there is a self-locking emergency exit into the courtyard but no way back in. Well of course it’s going to be a dead space if tenants can’t truly access it. The development’s desire to be inward looking instead of participating in the street life of the larger neighbourhood is pretty apparent in the fact that all street level access to the courtyard is also gated and locked. I suspect the developers were hoping for a faster turn around on the gentrifying effect.

I keep wondering how I would re-write one line from the film:

We’ve become a race of peeping Toms. What people aught to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.

We certainly still are a race of peeping Toms. Though we now achieve it through our tv’s, computers, and smartphones. Perhaps what we aught to do is get outside our digital homes and connect with the people and spaces on our block.

Care to share stories and observations about what you see out your rear window?

  1. Sarah Gelbard said:

    What I’ve seen out the window of my various apartments in Ottawa:

    #1 Centretown: I actually had a neighbour murdered next door while living here. But I didn’t see anything.
    #2 Glebe: From this basement apartment, I saw a lot of feet walking by as I cooked in the kitchen.
    #3 Nepean: I didn’t see much out the rear window of this suburban home other than squirrels. But there was an especially amusing one who liked to sunbathe spread eagle on the deck fence.
    #4 Heron Park: Regular groundhog sitings led me to unofficially adopt Georgie the groundhog as my pet. From the front window, there were regular fox and heron sitings, the occasional deer, and the impressive fall crow roosts that turned the skies black.
    #5 Centretown: Stunning view of the Museum of Nature, and George Bemi’s duo of the Police station, and Taggart Family YMCA. The window bay was a great seat from which to watch the Ottawa Race Weekend and just general comings and goings of trafic and pedestrians along Elgin St.

  2. Sarah Gelbard said:

    Given the film’s setting in Greenwich Village, I was wondering what Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on Rear Window might have been. Since I’m currently reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I’m not surprised I just came across a relevant quote to some of my observations above:

    It is futile to try to evade the issue of unsafe streets by attempting to make some other features of a locality, say interior courtyard, or sheltered play spaces, safe instead. . . Moreover, no normal person can spend his life in some artificial haven, and this includes children. Everyone must use the streets.

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