“Rear Window” – Turning Viewer into Voyeur

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Rear-Window-PosterMaster director Alfred Hitchcock thrilled audiences for decades with films that ranged from mind-boggling masterpieces to experimental small films. But no matter the story being told, Hitchcock’s ability to pull audiences into anxiety-inducing narratives led to some of cinema’s touchstone works. And no film of his so directly throws the audience into the plight of its lead character as his 1954 mystery thriller Rear Window.

But Rear Window doesn’t just set out to thrill its viewers; it works to turn them into voyeurs akin to their protagonist. Through Hitchcock’s mastery of perspective and world building, each audience member is turned into an active yet helpless participant in this story of obsession. The result is an experience that both chills and critiques those watching.

Telling the story of L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (James Stewart), a professional photography whose broken leg has left him cooped up in his apartment during a sweltering New York summer, Hitchcock’s Rear Window focuses primarily on two elements: the battle of the sexes and the ethics of voyeurism. L.B.’s problem is that he is criminally bored and with this being the 1950’s, there’s little to distract him. So he finds himself spying on the people who live in the apartment complex in view from his apartment window, taking in their lives bit by bit until he begins to suspect a murder has occurred across the courtyard from him. His growing obsession concerning the truth pulls in his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), and anyone else willing to give his wild theories a listen.

But Hitchcock isn’t only concerned with telling Jeff’s story; he’s interested in making audience members participate in the same voyeurism as Jeff. After all, isn’t film a form of voyeurism itself, even if the events are fictional? But Hitchcock takes things a step further than simply watching a narrative unfold. He films Rear Window with a probing eye, one that belongs to a person actively interested in the lives of others. From the outset, the camera itself moves like an inquisitive visitor, scouring the photos and papers in Jefferies’ apartment for any clues as to the life of the man who is our sudden company. Once the examination has finish, the camera’s eye turns toward what is happening outside.

Rear-Window-film-analysisCrucially, Hitchcock makes the bold decision to keep his camera planted in Jeff’s apartment for the entirety of Rear Window. Throughout its runtime, there are incredibly few instances where the camera is actually stationed outside of the apartment. Most notable of which is the introductory scene where we see the many different apartments and their unique tenants, which helps provide the lay of the land for the film to come. Even then, everything is shot from the perspective of Jeff’s apartment, the only difference is that the camera is closer than it would be otherwise.

For the rest of the film, nearly everything we see as the audience is exactly what Jeff sees, including never being zoomed in closer to the action happening outside than what would typically be possible with the human eye. The closet shots only occur when Jeff uses his telephoto lens, its limited sight reflected in the darkness encroaching around the frame whenever it is used. Whether it is observing the sexual politics at play in a party or anxiously watching as Lisa snoops inside Mr. Thorwald’s apartment, we can only see what Jeff sees. The closest shots are saved for what transpires inside Jeff’s apartment, including his reactions to exterior events and his relationship with Lisa. That limited range of sight is both engrossing and anxiety-inducing, as we feel just as limited in our powers as the broken-legged hero. Then again, no viewer has true power over a film that he or she is watching. It is only that Hitchcock chooses to make us feel our own helplessness through participatory voyeurism.

Only two moments are seen by the audience alone: the film’s intro and a crucial late night moment. After Jeff nods off after a long night of snooping, the camera pans to the apartment of Thorwald (the suspected murderer), giving us a brief glimpse of the man leaving late at night. This gives the audience a single bit of information to lord over our compatriots in voyeurism, but nothing more. However, that one key fact only serves to create greater anxiety in audiences and an enduring feeling of helplessness. Given greater information than our partners in crime watching yet unable to convey it can feel excruciating, but that is exactly what Hitchcock wants.

Just as important, Hitchcock went to incredible lengths to create a vibrant little world for this mystery to play out. The entirety of Rear Window is dedicated to crafting its small world, with its opening credits playing over the curtains lifting in the windows of Jefferies’ apartment before establishing the courtyard and its people. During the development of Rear Window, Hitchcock had the courtyard stage built in full inside one of Paramount Studios’ massive sets. By doing so, the director had full control over both the lighting and sounds that infused the apartment set, as the stage could transition from day to evening to nighttime with ease to suit the scene at hand. In addition, natural sounds and music played in the background live, making the soundstage feel far more alive.

Once the audience has been thoroughly ensnared by Hitchcock and the mystery at hand, the film works to critique the choices of its hero and our all-too-willing participation in his snooping. Yes, Jeff’s quest to catch a murderer is commendable, but are his actions morally upright? Is he actually after the truth because of an obligation to justice or is he simply obsessed with the tiny world he cannot escape?

rear-window-hitchcock-voyeurismIt’s the one-two punch of Thorwald’s attack on Lisa inside his apartment and his confrontation with Jeff that cement our hero’s own lack of agency, and the impotence of voyeurism in general. With a broken leg cocooned in a massive cast, Jeff has just about as much power in both of these cases as an audience member watching from the theater. He’s only barely able to get the police to arrive in time to save Lisa and once Thorwald sees Jeff from across the courtyard (staring directly into the camera and therefore at us, as well), the movie becomes truly terrifying. Nowhere to run, unable to hide, Jeff is at the mercy of his suddenly aware target.

Once Thorwald has entered Jeff’s darkened apartment, he takes a moment to criticize the invalid photographer, telling him that he only wanted to be left alone. With his face shrouded in darkness, the remarks feel as directed toward the audience as they do toward Jeff. While it’s obvious that Thorwald is a dangerous man (and the truth concerning what he did to his wife is all but assured), the audience is made to feel culpable in the morally ambiguous nature of Jeff’s voyeuristic pursuit. You have chosen to take this journey and must now answer for your decision. With the danger no longer at a safe distance, the immediacy and reality of the situation becomes all too apparent to Jefferies and the audience.

While the morality of it all adds layers to Hitchcock’s mystery, Hitchcock makes Rear Window incredibly fun and engaging from start to finish. The hero and the audience may be morally compromised, but the lure of spying on the lives of others and the thrill of unwanted discovery pushes past our moral quandaries. We come to accept that we’ve enjoyed what has just happened, even if we may feel shame concerning why we’ve loved it so much. It’s what keeps us coming back to Rear Window, and cinema as a whole, again and again.

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One thought on ““Rear Window” – Turning Viewer into Voyeur

  1. Pingback: 10 Great Horror Scenes in Non-Horror Movies – Crisis on Infinite Thoughts

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