Physical and Emotional Immobility: Parallel Characteristics in ‘Rear Window’
In Alfred Hitchcock’s enthralling film, Rear Window, set in Manhattan, New York in the 1950s, Hitchcock draws attention to the way physical immobility is simply an echo of emotional immobility as represented by the protagonist, L.B. Jefferies. Jeff’s confinement to his wheelchair in his apartment initially reflects his emotional confinement to the events happening around him. He is thought to be trapped by his attitudes and values such as his outlook on marriage and commitment to Lisa, but his character seems to progress as the film goes on. Jeff experiences a drastic change as he learns to adjust to Lisa’s ‘new’ behaviour and willingness to change herself for him to prove her faithfulness to him.
In the beginning of the film, Jeff is confined in his apartment to his wheelchair. He is physically immobilised because of his job as a freelance photo journalist. As a result of this, Jeff finds liberation in looking out of his apartment’s rear window, a technique used by Hitchcock as a subtext to the audience that he is shifting his gaze from troubles he is currently experiencing, such as the constant nagging from those around him about marriage, to the issues of his neighbours.
Jeff’s inability to grow emotionally and to have a meaningful relationship with Lisa is a form of his emotionally immobility. It is originally linked to his physical immobility as he is also ‘trapped’ in his thoughts as he is trapped in his cocoon. Jeff feels as though he isn’t ready to commit to such a devoted lifestyle and stays distant from everyone, as shown by his little knowledge of his neighbours and their names. He is emotionally detached and not introspective as he does not learn from his experiences but rather learns from others. For example, he forms his opinion on marriage by looking at the newlywed couple whose relationship takes a turn for the worst because of the nagging wife and stressed out husband. Jeff implicates this on his life and assumes all marriages are like this, entrapping him in the idea that commitment to a relationship is bad. This is also evident when Stella and Lisa continue to pester him about marriage and the conversation between him and his publisher on the phone in which Jeff promises that if he doesn’t leave his ‘swamp of boredom’ he will “do something drastic like get married”, a negative connotation of marriage in Jeff’s mind. Jeff fails to look beyond the surface when it comes to Lisa. He judges her on her outward appearance and therefore thinks she is ‘too perfect’ for him. Because of these quick judgements, Jeff is unable to emotionally develop and is therefore, emotionally immobilised.
The audience begins to see a shift when Jeff starts becoming connected to Lisa when she takes the risks for him. Her devotion to Jeff brings about admiration from Jeff as he did not expect this to come from her. He begins to fret for her and even stands up for her in front of Doyle when she chooses to stay the night, warning him to be careful about what he says. Tis protective nature is encouraged by Lisa’s physical movements such as checking out the garden bed and climbing into the apartment. It is an unexpected surprise for Jeff as their entities begin to mesh in order to solve the crime of the Thorwald’s. She becomes his ally even though originally, she had attempted to discourage him from doing such acts and being a ‘peeping tom’. Hitchcock uses several camera angles such as a close up of Jeff’s face to attest to his devotion and pride in Lisa’s initiatives. Adding to this, towards the end of the film, the director also pans the camera on to the thermometer, an attempt to show the audience that the temperature has decreased, symbolising the past tension in the room has simmered down as Jeff is now sleeping peacefully with Lisa on his side, unusually dressed in casual clothes, happily flicking through her magazine. This change over time suggests that Jeff is content and comfortable with her being his life now and shows the audience that he has made a significant progress emotionally in his relationship with Lisa.
Rear Window demonstrates the ease with which individuals can be deceived by their own judgement. Ironically, Jeff is clearly ‘more’ physically immobile, now having both his legs in casts, however the change in his emotional state is different as he is seen to be less emotionally immobile and more open minded. Hitchcock initially leads the audience, through the eyes of Jeff, towards the struggle of his physical entrapment that had represented an outward manifestation of his state of mind but not for the whole duration of the film. The connection between Lisa and Jeff is stronger than he reveals in the first part of the film and Jeff emotionally matures as he comes to term with his fear of being misled somewhat into a trap. However, he is now ready to settle down with Lisa who has shown she is willing ‘to go anywhere and do anything and love it’ for Jeff, contrary to his preconceptions.
The Dilemma of Prying
Hitchcock’s classic thriller ‘Rear Window’ demonstrates the perception that people should look into themselves to solve an issue, instead of focusing attention on others. For example, as Jeff becomes more involved with spying on others, he crosses the boundaries of what is morally acceptable. Jeff’s deliberate desire to delve into the lives of his neighbors is a ploy to distract himself from his impending commitment to Lisa. Furthermore, Hitchcock’s techniques of cinematography positions the viewer to share the protagonist’s’ perspective.
Hitchcock uses the protagonist Jeff to portray the ethical dilemma of voyeurism and its serious consequences. This is first foreshadowed by Stella, as she warns Jeff he is becoming a “race of Peeping Toms”. Her critical analysis lays first impressions of Jeff to the viewers. Through the specially crafted scene, Hitchcock explicitly demonstrates that although Jeff is physically restrained, his attention is clearly elsewhere, outside his apartment. For example, in the introduction scene, the audience is shown Jeff’s disorganized apartment and his professional photojournalist equipment, cuing into his later use of the long focus lens. This idea is further supported by the mise-en-scene, that Jeff is always on the right side of the scene which is closer to his windows, showing his endless curiosity and desire to explore the outside world. However, Jeff’s recreation does not come without a price, where his own moral judgement is constantly being questioned. This is first demonstrated as Jeff admits and questions himself “if it’s ethical to watch…” Through Jeff’s dilemma, Hitchcock challenges the viewers of what is right or wrong, that if there is no murder, Jeff would be considered an unethical stalker. On the other hand, if murder is disclosed and Thorwald is sent to jail, then Jeff’s unethical ‘monitoring’ action will be forgiven or even honoured. In addition, the climactic scene where Jeff almost gets himself killed by Thorwald, and as a result, suffers two broken legs. Questioning the readers about the values between risking themselves for the better good or ignorance of immoral behaviour. Hitchcock poses the question challenging the morality of voyeurism and it’s overall benefit to the community.
The protagonist Jeff deliberately ignores his close surroundings to avoid introspection. Throughout the film, Jeff is endlessly observing out of his window to the detriment of people that are actually communicating with him inside his apartment. He is first warned by Stella, that he should “get outside… and look in for a change” which is Stella’s suggestion to Jeff to settle down and marry his ideal fit, Lisa. However, Jeff instantly dismisses the idea, using “too perfect” as his excuse to reject Lisa, showing his enthusiasm to the outside world, instead of his more important life commitment. Furthermore, when Lisa is initially mentioned, Jeff turns his attention to his neighbors, especially Mr Thorwald’s nagging wife, which reflects inwardly Jeff’s fear of what might become of their relationship. The Thorwalds’ marriage further confirms his belief that marriage is a negative option, resulting in a containment and the end of his career. Moreover, unlike a typical male, when Jeff is being seduced by Lisa, his attention remains on the mystery of Anna Thorwald’s disappearance. Jeff’s dismissive behavior, confirms to the audience that Jeff is purposely refuting Lisa, choosing to obsess over his neighbors rather than his girlfriend. Nonetheless, as soon as Lisa accepts his suspicion of murder, Jeff can no longer use voyeurism as an excuse to ignore Lisa; instead, he acknowledges her accompany and become relies on Lisa to gain extra information about the case. As the suspense continues, Lisa’s uses her “feminine intuition” to work along with Jeff and in an attempt to convince detective Doyle. Therefore, Hitchcock clearly suggests that, as Lisa shares Jeff’s curiosity and the firm ambition to proof the murder, Jeff has no choice but to accept her as he urgently needs her support.
Hitchcock carefully crafts the scenes to position the viewers to share the concerns of the main protagonists. The film starts with the credits scene, where the neighborhood and Jeff are slowly being revealed. Hitchcock intentionally positions the camera as if it is monitoring Jeff “like a bug under a glass”, this positions the viewers to perform the exact same action as Jeff. Additionally, the special panning effect and the diversely interesting neighbors, this quickly immerses the viewers to form a similar judgement as Jeff, who firmly believes that Thorwald is guilty. Furthermore, Hitchcock’s short scene of Mr Thorwald leaving the apartment with an unknown woman gives critical information only to the viewers. The suspense is further elevated, with information from Doyle, suggesting that ”Thorwald is no more a murderer than [him]”. Viewers are swayed to share Jeff’s confusion, as the evidence is presented. Most importantly, at this point, the viewers are unknowingly repeating Jeff’s action, which is voyeuring on others and becoming concerned about other people’s business. Hitchcock uses this method to sarcastically reflect on the 1950s American society, where some individuals accused others of being communist sympathisers. Therefore, Hitchcock evokes the same issues that the protagonists in the film experience to the audience and forces them to consider more about their own lives instead of always focusing on what others are doing.
In conclusion, Hitchcock uses the character of Jeff, to explain the moral dilemma that arises from prying upon others. Additionally, as the film progresses, characters become more and more acceptable to each other and begin to perform actions that they initially considered unethical. Furthermore, Hitchcock positions the audience to share Jeff’s perspective, by involving them through the suspense of the film, challenging the audience to consider redirecting their attention towards their own lives.
‘Rear Window’ as a Snapshot of Its Era
Directed by the master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, Rear Window is a striking portrayal of the social and political issues facing citizens of the time. Set in Greenwich Village of 1954, Rear Window displays a dense apartment block, a microcosm of New York City, where the audience is confined down to the space of one window, seen through the eyes of protagonist, J.B Jefferies. Throughout his film, Hitchcock makes reference to the different gender roles, isolation, privacy and voyeuristic tendencies that are highly present in the post-war society, both inviting and challenging these views through his directorial intent. As the audience comes to learn, these views are displayed by Hitchcock in the film as support of the historical context, as well as a way of defying the behavioural norms of the time period.
Displayed in Rear Window, Hitchcock makes reference to the gender roles that are made standard in the 1950s American society. The post-war community of 1954 objectifies women and belittles their abilities in order to make themselves more comfortable with what they have to offer. As shown by Hitchcock, many of the women depicted in the film are materialized by what can only be seen through a glass lens. Lisa is presented as a woman whose career depends heavily on her femininity and ability to be present as ‘too perfect’ to others. Whereas Ms. Lonelyhearts is shown as a woman who doesn’t fit into society well as she is not normalised into a category of either married or divorced. Hitchcock uses Ms. Torso as a way of representing what many men believed women to be in 1950s society. Placed directly across from Jeff’s apartment, Hitchcock cleverly displays Ms Torso as someone whom Jeff cannot ignore and must have an opinion about, resulting in him to suggest she is a ‘queen bee’ with her ‘pick of the drones’. Through the women portrayed in the film as their own externalised image, Hitchcock is able to use these characters as a way of replicating the gender norms of women in the 1954 American society.
As well as gender norms, Hitchcock successfully presents the idea of isolation being mirrored to fit that of the 1950s American society. There is a sense of physical isolation that is shown through the setting of the apartment block in the film. Hitchcock uses the setting as a prison-like confinement where people are in view of each other, with only a small look into the outside world through the alley-way on the side. The inclusion of this allows the viewer to believe that they are part of the apartment complex, inviting them into the situation and suspense. Isolation is also shown through the arrangement of the complex windows by Hitchcock. Although married, Mr and Mrs Thorwald are nearly always seen in separate rooms with separate windows. Hitchcock uses this constant division of people in relationships to array an awareness that some couples are not tightly bonded in marriage. The songwriter is also portrayed as isolated in his apartment despite having multiple parties over the course of the film. With the use of a long shot to show the image from Jeff’s perspective, the viewer is able to see that the songwriter is not happy while being surrounded by many people that one might assume are his friends. This suggests again that someone can feel isolated while being in a relationship. Through these, Hitchcock proposes that isolation can be present in many forms, both physically and mentally, in the post-war society.
The idea that privacy is sacred and voyeurism is existent is widely explored through the film. Hitchcock utilises the paranoia of the McCarthy era to display the non-consensual, ‘diseased’ watching that takes place constantly in Jeff’s apartment, and the disapproval that some characters have towards it. Jeff’s profession as a photographer legitimises the voyeurism that takes place, and therefore, can make him feel somewhat invincible that he can’t be caught in his act of watching and making ‘wild opinions’ behind his binoculars. Like in the 50’s society, the watching is then disapproved by the inclusion of Thorwald breaking the 4th wall of the film and entering Jeff’s apartment. The high camera angle of this scene between Thorwald and Jefferies suggests that their roles of power have been reversed by Hitchcock as Jeff is seen as vulnerable and weak and Thorwald is now superior to him at this moment. The ethics of watching are again specified by Hitchcock in the ending scene where Jeff is left with two broken legs as a result of his actions, leaving his viewers to think if watching others is ultimately worth it. Through this, the viewers are able to see the beliefs on privacy and voyeurism of the 1950s society echoed through the film.
Despite Hitchcock portraying the views of society in his film, he also alludes against them, challenging the beliefs of many. Through the included idealisation of gender roles, Hitchcock also makes reference to challenge these social norms, particularly those of Jeff and Lisa. Jeff is emasculated and powerless as a result of his injury in comparison to Lisa being a strong, financially independent woman. Hitchcock shows this gender imbalance through including Lisa as the dominant frame in the picture, suggesting that not all women are required to be stay at home wives, tending to their partner like the media of 1950 has implied. Hitchcock also challenges the idea that all living must occur in a suburban home, rather than a city. Through having the film occur in an apartment block in New York with married couples and families living in the complex, Hitchcock breaks the stereotype of the American dream living idea that was highly desired across many Americans during that time. He also challenges what was expected of males during this time. Through the songwriter being trapped with his creativity, Jeff being physically trapped in his cast, and Lars being emotionally trapped in his marriage, Hitchcock suggests that not all men are obligated to be physically and emotionally strong, again refusing to obey the norms of American society. These inclusions allow Hitchcock to challenge what was regularly prescribed as the only way of living in the 1954 community.
Through Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock provides his commentary on what was believed to be requirements of 1950s American society, both enforcing and challenging these ideas throughout his film. Despite supporting some of the evidence of gender norms, isolation, privacy and voyeurism of the time, he is also alludes to how these concepts can be defied, including idealistic living and role of men and women in society. These ideas presented by Hitchcock allow him to give his perception in regards to the time period of 1954.
Gender Roles and Household Pressures in ‘Rear Window’
Alfred Hitchcock uses his classic mystery Rear Window to convey his opinion and view on the societal expectations of the roles of women and men. He illustrates the negativity of if women are in position, which it uncomforts men and pressures them to escape. Additionally, the film expresses a stereotype that men believe women are interested in money, status or success, while women are only interested in true love. As a result, males in the film are unwilling to proceed further in their relationships, until the desired women force them to form a commitment.
Hitchcock’s protagonist L.B Jefferies to highlight his perspective on the stereotypical 1950s marriage. Right at the beginning of the film, Jefferies claims that his “drastic” move is to “get married”, and his argument about the troublematic Lisa Fremont, while Stella suggests that she is “loaded to her fingertips with love for [Jefferies]”. These speak directly to the issue about men and women relationships at the time, which men are the ones in positions and they do not accept the opinions of women. However, as Jefferies’ girlfriend Lisa Fremont breaks this conventional expectation, their relationship is soon is tension. The businesswomen Lisa, attempts to spoil Jefferies with a luxurious lifestyle with her own “hard earn” money, this positions Jefferies to feel uncomfortable as he is losing power in the relationship. Jefferies suggests that Lisa is “not meant” for his photojournalist type of job, and yet, when Lisa attempts to break the relationship, Jefferies still want to retain her. Indicating that Jefferies does not want Lisa to accompany him on his when he travels, yet he desires a woman at home to serve him upon his returns.
On the other hand, the antagonist Lars Thorwald is the opposite to Jefferies as he has to serve his wife, yet similar to the female appears to have had more power. Lisa demonstrates her power, as she refuses to accept Jefferies’ suggestions and criticisms about her. Likewise, Lars does all the work for the family and never received a single praise from Anna. Additionally, while Lisa is preparing their dinner, in the opposite Lars apartment, this scene is mirrored, but the man is serving his nicely prepared meal for Anna Thorwald. Similarly to Jefferies not appreciating Lisa’s work, Anna simply ignores Lars’ kiss and throw away his flowers; instead she is more interested in the content of the dishes. Revealing the unhappy marriage between the Thorwalds, which is due to Anna’s pressure on Lars, which he is working almost like a slave for Anna. This inequality and the societal values of genders destabilizes their relationship, resulting in Lars betraying Anna and seeking for another long-distanced lady-friend even at his white hair old age. Therefore, through the two extremes of Jefferies and Lars Thorwald, Hitchcock illustrates that if the duty of husband and wife is unfairly distributed, unpleasantness will build up and it could even lead to murder.
The film indicates that men believe that women desire materialistic satisfaction, while in reality women only want true love. In Jefferies’ eye, Miss Torso is a “queen bee” who can choose whatever men to satisfy her strong sexual appetite, and to extract benefits from those male “drone”. However, as an experienced woman, Lisa, she indicates that Miss Torso is “doing women’s hardest job, Juggling wolves”. This immediately changes the moral issue from Miss Torso to her suitors, which from Lisa’s perspective Miss Torso is a respectable woman who needs work hard and protects herself in the 1950s male dominating world. The film eventually uncovers that Miss Torso is indeed a married woman, and her excitement of seeing Stanley suggests that her love is always on him, despite he seems more attracted by the “icebox”. Additionally, as Jefferies suggests that she “belongs to the rarefied atmosphere”, he is threatened which that could not provide any physical items that he thinks can please her. In addition, Lisa can simply wear and sell a dozen of “stock exchange” worth of cloth to his messy apartment for a night, further disconcerts Jefferies, which leads to him ruining the night and their late-night fight. However, Lisa’s money wasting actions actually suggests that she is truly in love with Jefferies, and totally accepts him and willing to change to adapt to what Jefferies wants as she claims that she “just like to be part of it. As the film progresses, she changes and becoming what Jefferies desires, as she first brings the compact suitcase, and later courageously breaking into Thorwald’s apartment. Therefore, the film demonstrates that the male’s perspective on women is usually incorrect as women only desire their unconditional love, not the pleasured love.
Rear Window indicates that it is not necessarily that women are required to serve men in the family. However, if the roles are inverted in a highly traditional setting, an unexpected breakdown is likely to happen. Some such as Jefferies can make it through and come to a good end; some such as Lars Thorwald ended up arrested for murder. Ironically, while most women in the film desire a marriage, men try to repel and avoid the responsibilities and promises to be made.
A Critique of Escapism in “It Had to Be Murder” and “Rear Window”
Both “It Had to Be Murder”, written by Cornell Woolrich, and Rear Window, the film directed by Alfred Hitchcock based on the book, tell a strange tale of a nosy protagonist in a story about the occasionally blurred line between fantasy and reality. The protagonists’ lives appear to revolve around voyeuristic behaviors that seem to make up the majority of their personalities as they seek to immerse themselves in the lives of their neighbors, observing the individual inhabitants and noting their activities. Both Woolrich and Hitchcock use the voyeurism of the protagonist to criticize society for their eagerness to accept a false reality.
“I didn’t know their names.” This statement immediately introduces the protagonist of “It Had to Be Murder” with a hook that draws reads in from the start. The first person voice that the story is written in is perfect for luring readers deeper into the mind of the solitary Hal Jefferies, a man with apparently no purpose in life, other than to invade the privacy of his neighbors with his gaze. The transitions from scene to scene are vague and littered with Jefferies’ personal thoughts and feelings, in a form akin to stream of consciousness. Rear Window is filmed in a manner similar to what could be described as the cinematic universe’s version of a first person voice. This creates an effect much like that of the story’s, but with more “intellectual and emotional resources” (McFarlane 16) needed from the audience to bring the narrative to life, as they are forced to try to adopt the viewpoint of L.B. Jefferies. To do this, Hitchcock employs clever filmmaking that gives the audience the impression of seeing through Jefferies gaze, like when Lisa is introduced. In that scene, she appears ethereal, almost floating in front of Jefferies as he wakes up, still clearly a bit bleary from sleep.
One notable difference between “It Has to Be Murder” and Rear Window is the portrayal of the protagonist, Hal or L. B. Jefferies, and how it affects his constant observations of his neighborhood. In the short story, Jefferies is virtually alone. Boyne is the one person that he contacts with his information, though Boyne’s statement “Where’ve you been the last sixty-two years?”(Woolrich 5) implies that they have not had much, if any, contact recently. His only other ally is Sam, who he treats as more of a servant than a confidant. In contrast, the movie Jefferies has the support system of Lisa and Stella, both of whom are both invested in his well-being, but admonish his addition to voyeurism. What is interesting to note is that Lisa, a symbol of the perfection of reality, seems to be drawn into Jefferies’ world as she learns more and more about the possible murder. Her demeanor transforms as she chooses to involve herself with the narrative. She becomes more adventurous, sneaking into Thorwald’s, the murderer, apartment, and discusses more than her work or her relationship. She even changes her style, wearing jeans in the final scene. However, it is important to note that, as Jefferies sleeps, Lisa takes out one of her fashion magazines and happily begins to read it, showing that she has not completely sacrificed her identity in order to become someone who fits within the narrative that she has experienced.
Most importantly, these two works both are pointing out their perspective audiences and accusing them of being a form of voyeur. The acts of reading and watching a movies both provide an intimate connection between the characters and those invested in the storyline, without them having a real connection besides the fascinations the consumers have with engrossing themselves in another reality. This is form of escapism, similar to Jefferies with his constant observations of people he never seems to interact with, used as a substitute for the dullness of reality. What both Hitchcock and Woolrich are telling their respective audiences is that they themselves are voyeurs, wasting their time with what could potentially be an interesting story, but ultimately has not effect on their lives. Like in Rear Window, they could be in a relationship with a perfect woman like Lisa but are ignoring her in favor of immersing themselves in what they see as a more exciting reality than their own.
It seems to be no coincidence that these works were done when they were. The original text was written in 1942, just after the Great Depression had ended and World War II had begun. Both eras marked important moments in entertainment history. The 1930s was when movies became a popular pastime as people yearned to escape the harsh realities of unemployment, starvation, homelessness, or even just the helpless feeling that life would never return to the glory of the Roaring 20s. A trip to the cinema provided a brief respite from the troubles of reality during the Depression, while World War II presented something entirely different: wartime propaganda. Frequently shown on posters, in newspapers, or even before a movie, wartime propaganda was used to rally support for the war effort was positive messages about patriotism or depicting the Aix Powers as little more than monsters. All of this media hid from the public the true horrors of war behind simple messages. While Woolrich could have been referencing either one of these eras as he described the immersion of a man into a life that was not his own, they both are very prominent parts of social culture at the time that involved a form of escapism from reality.
However, Rear Window was released twelve years later in a different climate to a new audience, so a new way to deliver the original message had to be developed. Brian McFarlane discusses this topic of making a film relevant to a younger audience, saying that the directors’ focus “seemed to lie primarily in how works of earlier centuries might be made to seem relevant to later generations”(17). Though the film did not come centuries after “It Had to Be Murder” was written, a slight update had to be made, so Jefferies was given a nice camera, a form of modern technology that did not exist for public consumption a decade earlier. This camera can be seen as a symbol for of new inventions that exploded out of the post-war era. One of these inventions was a widely accessible and affordable television that soon became a centerpiece of the average American home, bringing immediate entertainment to families and providing an alternative to going outside or talking with others in a similar way that Jefferies uses his camera to entertain himself. Stella even makes the comment “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change” (Hitchcock) in regards to Jefferies inclination to voyeurism and her noticing it as a trend.
The only danger in “It Had to Be Murder” and Rear Window presents itself when Jefferies begins to interact with Thorwald. This changes the balance of the early part of the story as Jefferies is forced to face the gravity of the situation that he has allowed to become his reality. Though, in this moment, all of the morally dubious voyeurism seems to have righted itself, the fact remains that Jefferies would not be in any danger if he had ignored the happenings of his neighbors. This is a notable moment because it seems to provide justification for accepting a false reality, as now Jefferies has an exciting life, though it almost comes at the cost of his life.
The point of irony in the film comes when Jefferies and Lisa believe that they may have witnessed evidence of a murder, but they only begin to doubt themselves when they watch as Miss Lonelyhearts, one of the neighbors, is attacked by one of her many suitors. Bearing witness to her heartbreak after another failed conquest, Lisa goes as far as to say, “I’m not much on rear-window ethics” (Hitchcock) even though she, like Jefferies, had been staring eagerly out the window. This great emotion about one failed relationship that neither Jefferies nor Lisa was invested in echoes the tone of the soap opera, a genre of television that rose to popularity in the 50s. This relates back to Hitchcock’s theme of demonstrating the hard of modern media on reality, as no person should act more upset about an attack than a murder- a double murder if the dog is included in the count.
“It Had to Be Murder” and Rear Window are both used by their respective creators to criticize the fantasy-addicted nature of society by comparing it to nothing more than a form of voyeurism. Though Hitchcock modernized his rendition of the tale in order to make it more relevant to his audience, it continues to carry the same massage of looking to the real world for meaning in life.
Rear Window. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount, 1954. Film.
Woolrich, Cornell. “It Had to Be Murder”. 1950. Print.
McFarlane, Brian. “Reading Film and Literature.” Review. 15-28. Print.
Rear Window and Value of Voyeurism
Auteur director Alfred Hitchcock first introduced audiences to Rear Window, a film that would go on to reach both critical and commercial success, in the mid-1950s. With this, he left them pondering a question still being debated by viewers today: ‘Is voyeurism acceptable?’. Hitchcock’s outlook on voyeurism, particularly whether he appears to endorse or condemn it, is nuanced. Instead of presenting voyeurism as thoroughly negative or positive, Hitchcock develops a variety of scenarios that show that the value of voyeurism is case-dependent.
Hitchcock supports voyeurism when undertaken in circumstances that will result in justice being served when it otherwise may not. Injured photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies, the protagonist of the film, alongside his girlfriend Lisa and nurse Stella, believe they have uncovered a crime when observing the neighbours across the apartment complex. It appears as though tenant Lars Thorwald has murdered his wife: first, his wife disappears, then he begins to act incredibly suspect. It is later revealed that the trio were correct in their suspicions – Thorwald was guilty of killing his wife. Hitchcock displays the fact that good can result from spying on others, as an innocent victim receives justice as a direct effect. When investigating Thorwald’s apartment prior to his arrest, Lisa finds herself in serious danger, startling Jeffries and increasing his awareness of the vulnerability of Lisa in general.
Jeffries develops a greater sense of understanding of the fact that Lisa is not necessarily a default part of his life when she is almost harmed by Thorwald when spying on him. Jeffries was always aware of the physical danger threatening Lisa being a part of his life, initially pleading with her to not venture to Thorwald’s apartment. However, he did not, until the moment when Lisa is almost attacked by Thorwald, truly face the possibility of living without Lisa. Upon this, he reflects on his own behaviour toward Lisa, realising his behaviours have been affecting her emotionally and may eventually drive her away. Throughout the film, it is made clear that Lisa is more invested in the relationship than Jeffries, with him rebutting Stella’s suggestion at the two wedding. In doing this, Hitchcock shows that voyeurism can allow one to grow as a person, with Jeffries adjusting his attitude towards Lisa as a result. However, Hitchcock does also indicate, by filming Lisa and the other characters in danger, that the watching of others can put others in harm’s way.
Hitchcock suggests his objection to voyeurism by showing the potential danger it can result in one being placed in. Lisa’s curiosity that arises from the observing done with Jeffries and Stella leads her to investigate Thorwald’s apartment. When Thorwald arrives home, he discovers Lisa and is enraged. Once the police have arrived and arrested Lisa, Thorwald goes over to Jeffries apartment and confronts him. Eventually, he attempts to kill Jeffries, yet police return just in time to break his fall. Stella too could have very well been placed in immediate danger had she been present in the apartment when Thorwald was, however, she was bailing out Lisa. Hitchcock makes known to the audience that the consequences of voyeurism may result in harm to those involved, and, in the most serious scenarios, has the potential to end in death. Earlier in Rear Window, Jeffries becomes very uncomfortable upon noticing Thorwald watching him, feeling as though it was not within his rights for him to do so – a negative result of someone’s act of voyeurism.
Jeffries feels as though his privacy is invaded when he realises that Thorwald is looking at him from his apartment. Hitchcock includes this to indicate that he condemns the act of spying on another as it is not fair to remove a person’s right to seclusion from those they do not wish to associate with. Jeffries is clearly highly unnerved by the experience, yet, instead of deterring him from continuing to invade Thorwald’s privacy, it actually intensifies his belief that he is guilty of the crime and that it is up to Jeffries to bring him to justice. However, this does not bode well for Jeffries, who is put at risk when Thorwald disrespects his privacy once again, entering his apartment uninvited.
Throughout Rear Window, Hitchcock ensures that the morality of voyeurism is questioned and explored, leaving his personal opinion open to interpretation. He provides arguments for both sides of the debate, indicating that the acceptability of the act depends heavily on the individual situation. The morality of the act cannot be defined by a solid answer, as it is subjective based on the circumstances in which it is being considered. This leads the audience to return to the original question the film poses: When is voyeurism acceptable, and when is it not?