Film: Rear Window
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Writers: John Michael Hayes (screenplay), Cornell Woolrich (short story)
Primary Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr
US Release Date: 1 September 1954
Cinema and Voyeurism
Rear Window is a film with an overt interest in cinema and the act of looking, and such interests are inextricably linked with Hitchcock’s careful, calculated use of montage.
In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Truffaut asks Hitchcock about what attracted him to the Woolrich story that Rear Window is an adaptation of. Hitchcock’s response: “It was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea” (Truffaut).
Hitchcock then goes on to briefly discuss how Rear Window continually uses and relies on the Kuleshov effect. In his review of Rear Window, Roger Ebert also observes that “‘Rear Window’ (1954) is like a feature-length demonstration of [the Kuleshov effect], in which the shots assembled in Jeff’s mind add up to murder.”
Throughout Rear Window, Hitchcock carefully considers the relationship between successive shots and deliberately relies on montage to make meaning. He was known for drawing out shots in advance and for planning out the composition of each image ahead of time. The order in which images in his films appear and what those images contain is no accident; Hitchcock’s viewers see what they see when they do for a reason.
In mentioning the Kuleshov effect, Hitchcock also highlights the importance of what is being looked at in Rear Window. Describing the way that voyeurism works in the film, he says: “…Let’s take a close-up of Stewart looking out of the window at a little dog that’s being lowered in a basket. Back to Stewart, who has a kindly smile. But if in the place of the little dog you show a half-naked girl exercising in front of her open window, and you go back to a smiling Stewart again, this time he’s seen as a dirty old man!” (Truffaut)
For Hitchcock, the way viewers understand an act of voyeurism depends heavily on its object. Consequently, it is primarily through montage, that viewers come to know L.B. Jeffries (as well as the murder and violence that he imagines).
With its pervasive interest in cinema and the act of looking, Rear Window is an incredibly self-reflexive film. The film is deeply interested in voyeurism, objectification, and castration, all of which connect back to an over-arching concern with film-viewing. As Ebert notes, “Rarely has any film so boldly presented its methods in plain view. Jeff sits in his wheelchair, holding a camera with a telephoto lens, and looks first here and then there, like a movie camera would. What he sees, we see. What conclusions he draws, we draw—all without words, because the pictures add up to a montage of suspicion.”
Hitchcock doesn’t hide his methods in Rear Window. He places audience voyeurism at the film’s forefront. He wants viewers to know that the movie is about them.
It’s also worth noting that Hitchcock regards viewers as voyeurs by nature. In an interview with Truffaut he says, “I’ll bet you that nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing for bed, or even a man puttering around in his room, will stay and look; no one turns away and says, ‘It’s none of my business.’ They could pull down their blinds, but they never do; they stand there and look out” (Truffaut).
Jeff is a Peeping Tom. But Rear Window presents viewers with the unsettling idea that they shouldn’t be too quick to judge him for that. Those who watch movies are voyeurs also. Audiences seek out and are entertained by opportunities to look. If Jeff is in the wrong, anyone watching the film might be also. As Laura Mulvey argues in her often-read “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” movies fulfill the audience’s voyeuristic desires, and “There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure.”
Voyeurism and Violence
One of the primary functions of Rear Window’s narrative is to link pleasurable looking with murder and violence. The more Jeff looks out the window, the more he wants to continue doing so. The more Jeff looks out the window, the more violence he enacts and imagines.
When Jeff’s nurse Stella refers to his camera as a “portable keyhole,” she calls attention the fact that cameras and looking are both tools for violation and for violating privacy. According to Rear Window, the film camera and the eye seek out opportunities to enter spaces and to take in objects that don’t belong to them. In presenting a movie, the camera grants viewers access to the sort of “hermetically sealed” “private world” mentioned in Mulvey, allowing them to trespass into the lives of the characters. Even if people are naturally voyeuristic (as Hitchcock thinks they are), the acts of looking that film audiences engage in are not neutral or inert. They are transgressive. They are violent.
“Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” notes the connection between voyeurism and sadism, which goes hand-in-hand with Jeff’s desire for murder. In her essay, Mulvey writes that where “fetishistic scopophilia, builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself,” “voyeurism…has associations with sadism: pleasure lies in ascertaining guilt…asserting control and subjugating the guilty person through punishment or forgiveness.” In Rear Window, Jeff’s looking leads him to imagine murder, and he is overcome with desire to be proven right and to see Thorwald punished.
In effect, sadistic voyeurism is precisely what drives Rear Window. Lisa’s presence gives Jeff the option to turn his gaze to her. He could look at her, objectify her sexually, and take pleasure in the act. He would face no danger in doing so. But he would rather look out the window and imagine a murder instead.
Even if looking brings audiences pleasure (and both Hitchcock and Mulvey would say that it does), it remains harmful and violent all the same. In Rear Window, gazing violates its object, but the one who does the looking also takes a risk. Jeff’s desire for murder puts both him and Lisa in harm’s way. Though he is warned by Stella not look, he does so anyway. The potential consequences are real, but they are not enough to deter him. And so, Hitchcock punishes viewers for looking.
As many have noted, Jeff can easily be read as a stand-in for the film’s viewers. Thus, any suffering that Jeff experience as a result of looking can be seen as Hitchcock’s way of punishing and reprimanding his audiences. By the end of the film, the director turns viewer identification with Jeff against them. In doing so, he uses the narcissistic side of their gaze (see Mulvey) to achieve his own ends.
Importantly, Jeff desires murder regardless of what it means for Mrs. Thorwald. All he wants is to be right about Thorwald. If Mrs. Thorwald were to turn up alive and unharmed, he wouldn’t be relieved, he’d be disappointed. She doesn’t matter to him; but his voyeurism, violence, and being correct do.
In Hitchcock/Truffaut, Truffaut says to Hitchcock, “At the end of Rear Window, when the killer comes into Stewart’s room, he says to him, ‘What do you want of me?’ And Stewart doesn’t answer because, in fact, his actions are unjustified; they’re motivated by sheer curiosity.” To this, Hitchcock replies, “That’s right, and he deserves what’s happening to him!” All Jeff does in the film is sit and look, but that’s more than enough to warrant his suffering.
Voyeurism, Violence, and Desire
Rear Window repeatedly indicates that viewers prefer a voyeuristic gaze. For instance, Jeff would rather watch a woman he doesn’t know (Miss Torso) prepare dinner from afar than pay attention to the beautiful Lisa doing virtually the same thing right there in his own apartment. The excitement and satisfaction he takes from voyeurism is more appealing than the stunning woman right in front of him.
And, as Mulvey notes, Lisa becomes more desirable to Jeff after she is an object of his voyeurism. Jeff pays more attention to Lisa and focuses on her much more intently during her run-in with Thorwald than he does at any other time in the film. Whenever she, Stella, or Doyle are actually in the apartment, Jeff’s attention is divided. Even as they talk to him, he remains preoccupied with the enticing possibilities through the window.
The relationship between voyeurism, violence, and desire becomes clearer when one considers some of what is not seen in the film.
Just like the images framed by the camera, the windows that Jeff looks through inevitably render something unseeable. Something always falls beyond the edges of the frame, limiting his view. At the same time, Jeff is even more excited by what he doesn’t seen than by what he does he. When the shades are drawn he (the voyeur) imagines one of two things: murder or sex. Jeff doesn’t see Mrs. Thorwald killed, but he doesn’t see her leave either. Still, his conclusion is that she has been murdered. Similarly, when the newlyweds cover their window, Jeff and the film’s audiences automatically assume they are having sex, though they never see that happen.
Murder and sex are two things that one doesn’t do in front of an open window. They are also two things both film viewers and voyeurs often think about and love to see.
Additionally, by depriving viewers of certain images, Hitchcock simultaneously exposes the desires of his viewers. In a number of the director’s films (including Blackmail, Sabotage, and Frenzy), he deliberately denies viewers images of murders they know are being committed. At the last second, he’ll cut away, or he’ll place the act of violence just beyond the limits of the frame. In doing so, he preys on the voyeuristic audience’s desires to see such acts. If a person feels let down when they aren’t shown a murder, what does that say about them and what they enjoy?
Hitchcock also heightens the intensity of such violent acts by forcing viewers to construct them in their own minds. And as the entire plot of Rear Window attests, what they imagine is bound to be just as—if not more—horrible than the truth.
Watch Rear Window on Amazon
Psycho and Rear Window
With Rear Window, Hitchcock establishes strong connections between voyeurism, violence, and desire. In Psycho, he takes those connections a steps further. When the voyeur (an amalgam of Norman Bates and the film’s viewers) violently kills the objectified Marion Crane, Hitchcock urges viewers to consider how such a horrible thing could ever happen. The answer: by indulging the desire to look.
Psycho’s opening shot reinforces its ties to Rear Window. In Psycho’s first shot, the camera flies down from the sky and into the partially open window of a hotel room—a hotel room where Marion crane is in her underwear and has likely just had sex with a man she isn’t married to. This shot—which establishes Psycho’s viewers as objectifying Peeping Toms from the onset—harkens back to the one that begins Rear Window. The opening credits go by in front of a window. As they do, the shades behind them rise gradually. When the credits are over, the camera moves toward the window, positioning viewers so that they can look out into the courtyard beyond.
To watch Rear Window is to become a voyeur. To become a voyeur is to experience pleasure and to suffer the consequences.
Until Next Time
For anyone who doesn’t know, I’m currently a graduate student (which is a whole thing). As such, I was recently charged with giving a presentation on Rear Window in the context of a film theory course. The post above is essentially a reworked, condensed version of that.
As always, questions and comments are welcome.
Ebert, Roger. “Great Movie: Rear Window.” Rev. of Rear Window. Roger Ebert. Feb 2000. Web. 12 Sept. 2016
Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” The Film Theory Reader. Ed. Marc Furstenau. New York: Routledge, 2010. 200-208. Print.
Truffaut, François. Hitchcock/Truffaut. Revised Edition. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983. Print.