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Rear Window (1954): Ethics of a Voyeur

“Hitchcock reminds us of the fantastical unknown that happens constantly around us behind closed doors and shuttered windows, things we will never know unless the windows are opened.”

Alfred Hitchcock is the master of suspense, thrill and intensely intricate filmmaking, his 1954 expedition into the mind of a voyeur, “Rear Window” is no exception. A film shot entirely in an apartment complex built on a set, interwoven with camera tracks, it is a self contained narrative bursting with mystery, intrigue and ethical debate, and throughout we’re provoked to ask ourselves where does our role as suburban onlookers intersect with our moral requirement to act on the crime scene. 

Let’s set the scene: it’s a hot summer in Greenwich Village, New York City, so hot in fact that all the neighbours in the courtyard of the apartment block have their windows wide open, like fish tanks in an aquarium. We are told this story through the open window of LB Jeffries (Jeff), a celebrity photographer bound to a wheelchair after an accident. For Jeff (played by James Stewart), despite being paralysed, sitting him before a courtyard full of open windows into people’s lives is like throwing steak in front of a wolf; the photographer’s selection box if you like. Each window reveals a completely different scene, a dancer twirling as she completes her daily routine, a lonely woman who likes to entertain imaginary gentlemen with dinner, a newly married couple, a couple who are so affected by the heat that they sleep on the balcony, a practising musician, and an accountant who lives with his pestering, bedridden wife. Within the diegesis of Rear Window, Hitchcock takes his personal fascinations with voyeurism shown through films like Psycho, Shadow of a Doubt and Vertigo, and uses it as a device to explore human nature when left between four walls, and how it differs in appearance from the outside.

However, Jeff’s role in the neighbourhood quickly turns from Peeping Tom, to Conspiracy Theorist, to Murder Mystery Sleuth, as one day he spots the wife missing from the accountant (Mr Thorvald)’s apartment, and a series of suspicious behaviours point his intuition towards her being murdered. I say Conspiracy Theorist here because the people in Jeff’s life at this point, his witty therapist Stella (Thelma Ritter), his socialite girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and the detective Doyle (Wendell Corey) completely undermine his theory, after all he sits in front of the window day after day spying on his neighbours, he’s bound to see something out of context that looks mysterious. Yet after some insight and time spent with Jeff in front of the infamous rear window, Stella and Lisa jump on board and together they come up with ways to frame Thorvald for the suspected murder of his troublesome wife.

All-in-all it is a film about obsession, intention and reaction, meticulously compiled into a brilliantly methodic montage, really touching all the bases of Hitchcock’s trademark obsessions, from psychological thrills, to flawed masculinity, to the idea of the falsely-accused man, lingering ambiguously in the shadows. Something I read on a Roger Ebert page that I thought was really interesting is the theory that Rear Window in itself is a montage demonstrating Russian director Lev Kuleshov’s technique of connecting two shots together in a way that creates meaning. For example, if you are shown a shot of an expressionless man and follow it with a shot of food, you would assume that he is hungry. If you used the same shot but replaced the food with a dead child you would assume he is sad, then go on to presume that the man had a connection to the child, etc. Hitchcock was famous for his use of the Kuleshov Effect to explore human psychology, the sequences of action followed by a cut to James Stewart’s neutral face peering through the window each time suggests a lot of meaning without explanation. The shot of the dancer and the cut back to JS makes us assume he is fascinated by her; with the lonely woman he feels sorry for her; with Thorvald, we see his suspicion early on in the film just in Hitchcock’s choice of shot order.

Then we get to Lisa, Jeff’s suave, elegant girlfriend swooping in from time to time in her lavish dresses and amorous interactions towards Jeff. Kelly shines in her second initiation into Hitchcock’s canon of cool blonde heroines, the likes of which including Tippi Hedren, Vera Miles and Kim Novak, after starring in Dial M For Murder earlier in the same year. Yet Hitchcock’s heroines were consistently written not as merely ornaments but as complex enigmas, or even threats to the man’s psychological fragility. Rear Window showcases Kelly’s incredible breadth of ability, from her glowing grand entrances into Jeff’s apartment to her raw displays of hurt and insecurity, we see her stifled internal battle with the rear window over Jeff’s affection, and Jeff’s puzzlement over Lisa’s flighty displays of obsession. Between each steamy exchange and passionate kiss, Jeff is consistent in keeping Lisa at arms length out of fear of her being out of her comfort zone marrying a man whose profession physically puts him in precarious circumstances, hence the hefty leg cast. But perhaps the main subtextual reason for the distance between them, suggested again by Roger Ebert, is Jeff’s feeble grip on his masculinity, and his fear of impotence signified by his leg injury, thus drawing an explicit comparison between Jeff and Scottie, Stewart’s character in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Both men feel debilitated by their condition and depraved masculinity, yet Barbara Bel Geddes’ character sympathises with Scottie’s vertigo, just as Lisa, who is very much the brains behind the operation to frame Thorvald, nurses Jeff’s injury and climbs up the walls of Thorvald’s apartment into her inevitable doom for him, eventually nurturing his obsession with the murder mystery rather than suppressing it.

One of my favourite things about Rear Window is how Hitchcock manages to keep the diegesis, with the exception of a couple of shots, completely from within or just outside of Jeff’s window, making even us the spectators feel trapped and thus compelled to look outward and watch the world around us, even when we know we shouldn’t. The level of mastery implemented into each and every shot constructs a whole new fantasy universe within the apartment complex, conceived from Hitchcock’s dream world, and in creating Rear Window he has allowed us to come inside and explore the open windows, like a dolls house, in turn question our own voyeuristic behaviours. About halfway through the film Lisa and Jeff discuss the ethics behind Jeff’s preoccupation with voyeurism. Despite the film’s conclusion of good triumphing evil, the significance of Jeff’s character is not that he is a warrior of community service or a pursuer of good; his entire persona is based around the fact that he likes to look at things. He observes anything he can and invests himself fully within it behind the barrier of the window, raising more contemporary issues and moral debates about how exemplary Stewart’s characteriser is nowadays. Most of us consider our privacy a sacred right, yet perhaps people like Jeff threaten that right and pose more danger than service, even if he does solve a murder every now and then. Nevertheless, throughout the film Hitchcock reminds us of the fantastical unknown that happens constantly around us behind closed doors and shuttered windows, things we will never know unless the windows are opened – and in which case whether we are obliged to stay ignorant or take the bait of looking in. Either way, Rear Window is a timeless film that elevated classical cinema to a point way ahead of its time – exactly the touch we can expect from Hitchcock’s auteurism.

Score: 8/10

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