Don’t (Be Afraid to) Stare: REAR WINDOW, a Film in Support of Voyeurs
4 August 2013
Rear Window, released in 1954, is considered one of Hitchcock’s greatest films. A factor in its popularity may be the fusion of strong cinematic technique and a provocative, well-structured, fully developed plot-driven narrative. The thrilling narrative was originally penned as a short story, written by Cornell Woolrich in 1942; however, this particular tale begs for a cinematic retelling, which Hitchcock clearly realized. The reason…Rear Window is all about seeing. L.B. Jefferies, the protagonist, desires to look, perhaps needs to look at others, without them knowing, all to satisfy himself. He is a voyeur and the film, in large part, is about voyeurism. This parallels cinema. Like Jefferies, moviegoers are voyeurs, and cinema is a voyeuristic experience. Much like Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a film in which a skilled filmmaker overtly comments on the intrinsic link between cinema and voyeurism. Yet, unlike other directors who have explored the same link, Hitchcock makes a bold claim in support of voyeurs and voyeurism by venerating Jefferies, Rear Window’s voyeur.
In short, Rear Window takes place over a few hot summer days in San Francisco. L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is a detective recovering from a broken leg. After six weeks in a cast, and one week left to go, Jefferies is bored and frustrated with his handicap. His girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), a beautiful blonde (naturally, this is a Hitchcock film), visits him in his apartment regularly, but seems frustrated herself with Jefferies unwillingness to take their relationship to the next level, marriage. Ignoring Lisa, Jefferies become fascinated with the apartment building across the street, the one he can see clearly through the large picture window in his apartment. More pointedly, Jeffries becomes fascinated with the apartment building’s residents. The building is occupied by a variety of tenants, but two occupants steal Jefferies attention: Mr. and Mrs. Thorwald. Mrs. Thorwald (Irene Winston) is an invalid (much like Jefferies himself) and Mr. Thorwald (Raymond Burr), a salesman, often engages in arguments with his wife. Late one night Jeffries observes Mr. Thorwald suspiciously coming and going from his apartment with a suitcase, and the next day there is no sight of Mrs. Thorwald. Immediately the detective in Jefferies takes an interest in this curious turn of events, and he quickly brings Lisa and Stella (Thelma Ritter), his nurse, in on his suspicions. As the plot progresses, Jefferies, Lisa, and Stella become more and more convinced Mr. Thorwald killed his wife, and they set out to prove it, despite police discrediting their accusations. Eventually, in the film’s climax, Mr. Thorwald catches Lisa snooping around his apartment, which forces her into police custody but inadvertently tips Mr. Thorwald off to a crippled Jefferies in the apartment building next door. Unable to move, Jefferies must defend himself from Mr. Thorwald the best way he knows how when he and Mr. Thorwald, who did, in fact, murder his wife, come face to face.
Jefferies is a voyeur because he satisfies himself by watching people who do not know they are being watched. These people are not always (in fact, not usually) engaging in sexual behavior— which is typically how some define voyeurism—however, the people are engaging in intimate behavior because they are under the impression they are acting in private; Jefferies neighbors in the apartment building next door do not know he is watches them through their windows with his zoomed in camera and binoculars.
Moreover, Jefferies does not want to be seen. When he and Stella watch Mr. Thorwald, shortly after his wife disappears, Mr. Thorwald looks up and Jeffries immediately wheels himself away from the window, insisting Stella hide from Mr. Thorwald’s eye line as well. Jefferies verbalizes that he does not want to be seen by Mr. Thorwald, but he never takes his eyes off Mr. Thorwald, continuing to watch the man voyeuristically.
In short, Jefferies is a fictional representation of a moviegoer. Jefferies watches strangers intimate moments, not wanting to be seen back, and derives pleasure from it. This is what moviegoers do each time they view a film. Moviegoers flock to simulated reality, watching an artificial world of intimate moments and simulated privacy because they derive pleasure from it. Seemingly creepy but true.
Occasionally, a film director will break the fourth wall, suggesting the characters in the film can see the audience who is watching them. The break of the fourth wall confronts voyeurism, and that is not usually a comfortable feeling for a moviegoer. In fact, Hitchcock breaks the fourth wall repeatedly in Rear Window, and in the film’s climax he does that to generate tension and fear. As Mr. Thorwald discovers Jeffries presence as voyeur and subsequently enters Jeffries’ apartment, the killer looks right at the camera, a terrifying experience for viewers. Hitchcock breaks his voyeuristic audience’s gaze intentionally to make them feel as uncomfortable as Jefferies has when Mr. Thorwald almost looks at him and Stella. Thus, when looking at Hitchcock’s representation of voyeurism and experimentation with the fourth wall In Rear Window, interfering with voyeurism or stopping a voyeur in the act is horrifying. Put another way, the voyeurism is not horrifying, but interfering with or violating that act of looking for pleasure is terrifying.
Taking this point further, and continuing to read Rear Window on this pro-voyeuristic slant, Hitchcock not only argues interfering with voyeurism is terrifying, but also that voyeurs should be celebrated and not shunned. Rear Window glorifies Jefferies despite his obsession with intrusively watching others’ intimate moments. When thought through, Jefferies is a creep; he should not be nosily stalking his neighbors without their knowledge or consent. It is odd, invasive, and scary. However, Jefferies solves a murder that he could only have discovered through watching his neighbors each day. He saves the day and is idolized; the voyeur is the hero. Thus, moviegoers can blissfully enjoy Rear Window because they, like Jefferies, are voyeurs, and, according to Rear Window, voyeurs are revered.
So many have discussed how Rear Window is about voyeurism, and it is. But, there is so much more to it. It is not that Rear Window is about voyeurism; it is that voyeurism and voyeurs are subtly promoted and praised in Rear Window. Therefore, like Jefferies who stares through his lens each day, moviegoers who stare through a camera’s lens at strangers in intimate moments (although simulated in narrative cinema) are not surreptitious and may, in fact, be valiant.