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Cunning and Cleverness
STELLA: I should have been a Gypsy fortune teller instead of an insurance company nurse. I got a nose for trouble—can smell it 10 miles away.
Cleverness in this movie is often defined by making intuitive leaps instead of drawing direct connections. At its most extreme, it's just a feeling or instinct, as with Stella's "nose for trouble."
JEFF: I've seen bickering and family quarrels and mysterious trips at night, and knives and saws and ropes, and now since last evening, not a sign of the wife. How do you explain that?
LISA: Maybe she died.
JEFF: Where's the doctor? Where's the undertaker?
Good questions. These are the kinds of challenges that help to rule out alternative explanations, eliminating other ideas of what might have happened until the only conclusion is murder.
LISA: What's a logical explanation for a woman taking a trip with no luggage?
JEFF: That she didn't know she was going on a trip and where she was going she wouldn't need any luggage.
A lot of the dialogue in this part of the movie involves putting two and two together, watching Jeff and Lisa slowly figure out what's going on. In terms of filmmaking, it follows an important rule: show, don't tell. We see how smart Jeff and Lisa are from the way they connect the dots.
LISA: You can't ignore the wife disappearing, and the trunk, and the jewelry.
DOYLE: I checked the railroad station. Yesterday at 6:20 a.m., he bought a ticket. Ten minutes later, he put his wife on a train. Destination: Meritsville.
Doyle responds to Jeff's deductions with thorough fact-finding. Does this mean he's not as smart as they are? Doyle knows that murdering a wife is a pretty rare event, so he's probably working from a different set of assumptions. Plus, he hasn't been staring out the window for three days.
STELLA: Now, just where do you suppose he cut her up? Oh, of course! In the bathtub. That's the only place he could wash away the blood.
There are a fair number of lines like this in the film, as Jeff and his friends speculate on how Thorwald did the deed. They're weirdly admiring him in a way, commenting on Thorwald's cleverness at solving some fairly inconvenient issues (like how to get rid of a body). It makes the mystery even more irresistible to them since they're dealing with a criminal who's really thought things through.
LISA: It's just a picture of the backyard, that's all.
JEFF: I know. But there's one important change. The flowers in Thorwald's pet flower bed.
STELLA: You mean the one the dog was sniffing around?
Jeff uses his powers of observation here to note a small discrepancy in the layout of the flower bed: he's picking up on the tiniest of clues thanks to his obsessive looking and his visual skills honed as a photographer. Jeff is used to looking at photos and picking up on little details that no one else would.
JEFF: Give me the phone book, Lisa.
LISA: What for?
JEFF: Maybe I can get Thorwald out of the apartment.
Once they're sure that Thorwald is guilty, Jeff and Lisa have some leverage they can use to seal his doom. Case in point: threatening to expose him unless he leaves the apartment … which, of course, allows them to sneak in and really put those Scooby-Doo vibes to good use.
STELLA: What's she trying to do? Why doesn't she turn him in?
JEFF: Smart girl.
STELLA: Smart? She'll be arrested!
JEFF: That'll get her out of there, won't it?
In this case, cleverness means looking at the big picture. Lisa is not worried about the cops because she's sure Thorwald did it—and more importantly, she has Mrs. Thorwald's wedding ring, which should exonerate her. Five years later, a Hitchcock character uses a similar tactic to get out of trouble. In North by Northwest, Cary Grant's character is trapped at an auction with some guys who've been trying to kill him. He starts making a disruptive scene and acting like a total bozo so that the auctioneer calls the police to remove him from the room—which is exactly what he wanted, natch.
JEFF: Hello. Hello, Doyle? Tom? Tom, I think Thorwald's left. I don't see anything of … Hello.
Ah, the days before caller I.D. Thorwald nails Jeff here because Jeff assumes that Thorwald would never call him. He's been so successful so far that he forgets his quarry can be cagey, too.
THORWALD: Can you get me that ring back?
THORWALD: Tell her to bring it back!
JEFF: I can't. The police have it by now.
Jeff may be being a little too clever here. There's no reason for Thorwald to leave him alive since Jeff has procured the evidence he needs. By now, Thorwald is flipping out and loses his ability to think clearly. He should have known that by tossing Jeff out the window, the cops would be all over him. But maybe he's realized that he's been found out, and the best thing to do is to kill the guy who figured it out.
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