Voyeurism and obsession: 66 years of Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece ‘Rear Window’
“Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.“—Alfred Hitchcock
Hitchcock is no stranger to voyeurism. Many of his films conduct intellectual examinations of the process and the apotheosis of his thesis is the 1954 thriller Rear Window. There are, of course, other notable scenes like Norman Bates looking at Marion undressing in the 1960 film Psycho but those are passing allusions rather than thorough explorations. In his famous conversation with François Truffaut, Hitchcock said, “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.” Rear Window is a manifestation of Hitchcock’s hypothesis about our perversions. All of us are reduced to the status of voyeurs.
Based on the short story by American novelist Cornell Woolrich, Hitchcock introduces us to the underbelly of “civil” society through the window of L. B. ‘Jeff’ Jefferies (played by James Stewart), a photojournalist who is stuck in his two-room apartment with a broken leg and a lot of spare time. It is interesting that the focus is on an interior courtyard, not facing the main streets, because the “rear windows” become apertures that reveal the private lives of the residents. We get the feeling that we aren’t meant to be watching this but we go along with it anyway, because of Jeff’s obsessive need to look. He is used to travelling all over the world so when his body becomes static, his mind races. Jeff comes up with a taxonomy of his own: he calls the ballet dancer who lives across from him ‘Miss Torso’ and the miserable woman on the ground floor who pretends to have dinner with imaginary lovers is called ‘Miss Lonelyheart’. It’s almost as if we are moving to a new neighbourhood and Jeff is our guide. He introduces us to them one by one but we forget where to draw the line. Friendly introductions devolve into privacy violations and we ignore Stella’s (Jeff’s nurse – played by Thelma Ritter) admonition, “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”
As Jeff gets increasingly involved in the lives of his neighbours, he distances himself from his own problems. His primary romantic interest, the elite socialite Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly), does not fit Jeff’s minimalistic beliefs about life and he cannot reconcile the frugal meals he is used to having with the lobster dinners she orders for him. This recurring conflict becomes too problematic for them to confront so they project their anxieties on Jeff’s neighbours, focusing on the dysfunctional relationship of a jewellery salesman and his sick wife instead of their own. Hitchcock presents a very fragmented view of society: people separated by walls, confined to the tiny units of space they occupy. The totality of this ominous microcosm is almost absolute except for the narrow passageway between two adjacent buildings that leads to the main street, giving us a glimpse of the outside world. Reality always finds its way in.
Hitchcock often said, “I enjoy playing the audience like a piano,” (he actually makes a cameo in the pianist’s room) and that’s exactly what he does in Rear Window. For the entirety of the film, except for a couple of scenes, the camera never leaves Jeff’s room. A multi-layered voyeuristic phenomenon is taking place and we, the audience, are a part of it. We see what Jeff sees, alternatively through his own eyes, a pair of binoculars and a long-focus lens. It is easy to criticize his scopophilic desires but we indulge in too, we see Jeff through Hitchcock’s camera. With the use of masterful editing, impeccable sound design and purposeful composition, Alfred Hitchcock achieves a tension of a palpable quality, the kind he is famous for. The audience devours the suspicious snippets which depict the salesman, Lars Thorwald, participating in suspicious activities like going out at night, making long-distance phone calls and wrapping blades in a newspaper. However, to ensure that all actions are shrouded in ambiguity, Hitchcock introduces an antithetical element to this environment of manic obsession: Lieutenant Doyle (played by Wendell Corey). He is the voice of reason who scolds Jeff, saying, “That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there.” We start questioning everything as well, unsure of what’s true and what we/Jeff want(s) to be true.
The “MacGuffin” in Rear Window is Mrs. Thorwald herself. Jeff draws both Lisa and Stella into his obsessive pursuit of her corpse (because he firmly believes Mr. Thorwald cut her up) but this just complicates things further. Contrary to Jeff’s expectations of Lisa, she transforms from a voyeur into a vigilante. In her expensive dress, she climbs into Thorwald’s apartment to investigate and is subsequently caught by Thorwald himself. He assaults her and this is the moment when the perversion of voyeurism is shattered. Jeff can’t bear to watch and he looks away, for the first time. The police arrive and take her away in time but what follows is a classic example of a psychologically unnerving scene. The camera closes in on Jeff’s face while he tries to peer into Thorwald’s room, revealing his own anxieties. Footsteps are heard, the door creaks open and Thorwald emerges from the darkness, which is briefly illuminated by camera flashes. Fantasy drips into reality and the attractive idea of a distant danger becomes a real threat. Although all our expectations are met: the murder was real and Jeff comes out of the encounter alive, Hitchcock still manages to surprise and engage us with his compelling visual narrative.
Rear Window is a film that can be watched again and again without any danger of its magic being diminished. Hitchcock gives us all the facts and shows us everything but he still manages to keep the audience on the edge of their seats, 66 years later.