As a filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock was always acutely aware of the communal experience of moviegoing. Many of his characters are voyeurs, like Psycho's Norman Bates and, of course, L.B. Jefferies. By filmingRear Windowfrom Jeff's point of view, Hitchcock places his viewer in Jeff's voyeuristic mindset. We only know as much information as Jeff knows, and Hitchcock deftly reveals Jeff's neighbors' narratives in compact little pieces so as to keep us wanting more, therefore aligning us with Jeff's point of view. Jeff feels trapped, and he can't help but watch the world outside him; he immerses himself in the lives of others as a way to avoid his own personal problems. Similarly, the moviegoer escapes from reality when we go into the movie theater. We want Jeff to be right about Thorwald because we relish the drama, we want a satisfying ending just as much as Jeff does - it's not like we are in any danger. Critic Donald Spoto writes, "Jeff places his own life and that of others in peril precisely because he has been an observer and not a participant in life - in a way, then, this photographer is the ultimate moviegoer as well as the moviemaker."
In Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock creates a community outside Jeff's window that ends up being a microcosmic representation of the world. Everyone is contained in their tiny little spaces, rarely interacting with one another and yet, loneliness is rampant in the courtyard. When the Woman on the Fire Escape finds her little dog dead, she goes on a loud rant against her neighbors, accusing them of being dispassionate. Donald Spoto writes that in this moment, Rear Window shows "concern for the moral responsibility of those who take pictures - filmmakers included..." Indeed, Jeff's interest in the Thorwalds has very little do with his concern for Mrs. Thorwald; similar to his job, he is simply documenting something horrible but not taking any action to solve the problem. In Jeff's arguments with Doyle, he is more focused on being right about the Thorwalds than about the wellbeing of innocents. This aspect of Jeff's character comes out when Stella asks him if she can use his binoculars while Lisa is creeping around in Thorwald's apartment. Instead of staring at Thorwald, Stella quickly zeroes in on Miss Lonelyhearts and notices that she's about to take a handful of sleeping pills, after which she goads Jeff into action.
Marriage is a frequent topic of conversation during the first act of Rear Window, and this discussion forms the emotional core of the film. Jeff expresses his own opinions on marriage in a conversation with Stella at the beginning of the film. Jeff is dating Lisa, a Park Avenue princess, and Stella can't understand why Jeff won't make a commitment to her. "Every man's ready for marriage when the right girl comes along," she says. "When a man and a woman see each other and like each other, they ought to come together, wham, like a couple of taxis on Broadway, not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle." However, that's exactly what Jeff does throughout the film. Lisa's love and devotion isn't enough for him; his stubbornness keeps him emotionally distant from her, just as his camera keeps his neighbors at arm's length. He overanalyzes their relationship, suppressing his romantic feelings for the purpose of practicality. It is not until the end of the film, when Lisa is in trouble, that Jeff realizes how much he loves her, and, just as Stella predicted, all of his analysis goes out the window.
As a photographer, Jeff must remain detached from his subjects; his job is to chronicle, not to be compassionate. Similarly, while he is injured, Jeff uses the drama playing out in his courtyard to distance himself from his own fears of commitment and intimacy. Donald Spoto writes, "The Thorwald murder is the MacGuffin, merely a pretext to examine the movie's central concern, the affective relationship of Jeff to Lisa. The killing... gets the real story going, allowing its more important aspects to flourish." Indeed, the Act I of the film focuses on Jeff and Lisa's relationship; Mrs. Thorwald doesn't disappear until 30 minutes into the movie. It is not until Lisa inserts herself into the dangerous situation that Jeff is observing does he realize how strong his feelings for her really are.
The morality of Jeff's spying forms a strong theoretical undercurrent in Rear Window. Throughout the film, Stella, Lisa, and Doyle each point out the moral and/or legal questionability of Jeff's new hobby. Even though all three of Jeff's companions get involved in the Thorwald "mystery", they each have misgivings about it at first. Jeff, on the other hand, does not. This is likely because Jeff has been chronicling difficult situations from behind a lens for his entire professional life. As a result, it is easier for Jeff to justify his voyeurism; he considers it to be his duty. It is not until he and Lisa witness Miss Lonelyhearts' date sexually assault her that he suddenly starts to question his actions. "I wonder if it's ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long-focus lens," Jeff muses, but Lisa is already way ahead of him. She says, "we're two of the most frightening ghouls I've ever known." And yet, only a few scenes later, they cast aside their ethical concerns and have resumed their positions at Jeff's rear window, as they both have an emotional motivation to do so. Jeff is determined to prove that he is right about Thorwald, and Lisa is determined to prove to Jeff that she can be the kind of wife he wants.
While the Thorwald mystery serves as a distraction for both Jeff and Lisa, who are trying to resolve the problems in their relationship, the external drama does force both characters into poignant moments of self-reflection. At one point, Jeff realizes that someone could just as well turn their binoculars on him, and there are certain things that he wants to keep private. For example, when Doyle raises an eyebrow upon seeing Lisa's flimsy negligee in Jeff's apartment, Jeff warns him to be careful. He does not want Doyle to pry into his business, even though he has violated the privacy of many of his neighbors.
Meanwhile, the occupants of the apartments around the courtyard reveal something about the characters of both Jeff and Lisa; they speak about their own relationship by reflecting on the relationships they observe. Jeff uses the Thorwalds' unhappy marriage as a way to reveal his fears about being tied down. He believes that Lisa, like Miss Torso, has plenty of other men to choose from. Meanwhile, Lisa corrects Jeff by insinuating that her apartment feels more like Miss Lonelyhearts' than Miss Torso's because it is lonely to be surrounded by men she doesn't love.
Many of the characters in Rear Window feel lonely over the course of the film, often in their most private moments. Hitchcock emphasizes the separation between the people by confining them to their own spaces. They are all together in this courtyard, but they rarely have any kind of significant interaction. Even when Mrs. Thorwald is alive, Hitchcock frames her and Mr. Thorwald in different windows, separating them from each other. The woman with the hearing aid, though probably the person who moves around the courtyard the most, is spending her time making a sculpture of a human torso with a hole in the middle called "Hunger". Miss Lonelyhearts is the most obvious example of loneliness, while Miss Torso doesn't have a single sincere companion until her beau comes home from war in the last few moments of the film. Most importantly, Jeff's emotional distance from Lisa clearly makes him lonely as well. He cannot commit to her, nor can he bear to let her go. And yet, besides Lisa, he has nobody to talk to other than his editor, Stella (who is being paid to come to his apartment), and Doyle (a friend with his own family with whom Jeff constantly argues). Ultimately, Rear Window encourages viewers to interact with their neighbors instead of keeping them at arm - or camera's - length.
Rear Window Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Rear Window is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
By the end of the selection, Thorwald is attempting to strangle Thorwald, and Miss Lonelyhearts has been distracted from her intended suicide. The violence is caused by Jeff's suspicions, and Lisa's investigation.