Rear Window is a classic film and is often quoted and referenced in other screen texts. This is not just because it is so witty and well-made, but because it is the definitive film about the experience of watching. Rear Window asks viewers to consider how they engage with film narratives and how their ideas and values align with those presented in the narrative.
Alfred Hitchcock: the master of suspense
The director of Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock, is a renowned filmmaker and is known as the master of suspense. Suspense is about how the audience feels and responds to the events taking place in the narrative, One of the reasons Hitchcock was such a popular filmmaker is that he had an expert understanding of how to shoot and edit a film to draw viewers into the story and elicit a particular set of responses from them.
We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, “Boom!” There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence.
Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock, and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: “You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!”
In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense.
A formula for suspense
In the above example, we learned Hitchcock's formula for suspense. It involves
- something dangerous
- the characters don't know about it
- the audience does know about it
- the audience can see it's getting closer and closer (watching the clock)
Using this formula, come up with your own suspense scenario. Write it out in a short paragraph as above.
It might be a good idea to start with a surprise scenario, and then build it up with the elements of suspense from the formula.
Although Rear Window highlights Jeff’s claustrophobic isolation in his room and the constrained parameters of the world that he engages with, in many subtle ways it references the complex, multifaceted and evolving nature of American society at this time. This is post-war America; it is less than a decade since this period defined by loss of life and social upheaval came to an end.
There are four historical context themes that are key to understanding Rear Window: the evolving role of women in society, suburbanisation in the USA, masculinity, and the beginning of the Cold War.
The position of women in the family and society
Rear Window context: suburbanisation
Rear Window context: masculinity in crisis
McCarthy and the beginnings of the Cold War
Follow the links below to read about the characters and watch clips of some key scenes.
Rear Window characters: Jeff
Rear Window characters: Lisa
Rear Window minor characters
Mise-en-scène is a term that comes from theatre and relates to the “staging of the scene”; it basically means everything that you can see at a particular moment in a film. The term for the actual process of placing actors and objects is the blocking of the scene. It refers to visual elements such as: set, props, costume, actors, colour, lighting and composition (where things and people are placed within the frame and in relation to each other). Mise-en-scène is often used to discuss the overall look or feel of a film or to home in on a scene and what it is being communicated through the visual language. One of the things you might notice about Rear Window’s mise-en-scène is that the world is generally represented in subdued earthy tones — unsaturated colours — highlighting that this is a gritty urban environment. But there are pops of saturated colour — blue, red and green — that really stand out within the subdued urban landscape. The colour patterns are a fascinating element of Rear Window with links made between: the blue sky, Jeff’s blue pyjamas and Thorwald, Doyle and Jeff’s blue eyes; Lisa and Miss Lonelyhearts’ green outfits and Mrs Thorwald’s green bedroom, the red flowers that are so closely associated with Thorwald but that also sit outside Miss Torso’s apartment; the woman in black and the black dress Lisa wears the following day.
When exploring mise-en-scène in Rear Window, the detail that has gone into the set is something to really think about. Hitchcock’s films are very carefully designed, and each element has a purpose. With this in mind, take the time to look carefully at the interior design of each of the apartments, as well as to focus on what they look like from the outside as well. You can learn a great deal about the characters that Jeff watches. Just as Jeff’s apartment is filled with information about him, so too are the other characters’ apartments. During the first viewing of Rear Window, Jeff’s blinkered perspective is so dominant, but on a second viewing, viewers have wider information that gives them the ability to question Jeff’s dismissal of Mrs Thorwald as a nagging wife – it is very likely she is furious about Thorwald’s relationship with the woman in black. And just looking at the Thorwalds’ apartment and noticing the care that has gone into its decoration provides a more nuanced vision of their marriage. Their apartment is also distinguished by the pretty red geraniums on the fire escape, while Lars Thorwald tends the flowers in the garden with loving care. Miss Lonelyhearts’ apartment is distinguished by the warm shade of pink she has painted her walls communicating her romantic personality as well as the fact that while she may be lonely and unhappy, she has made her home pretty and welcoming. Miss Torso’s apartment is a simple studio -- she is a young dancer and clearly not making a lot of money. The only detail that can be seen of the apartment of the couple with the dog is the white porcelain statue of a rearing horse, a clue to a private interior world that will never be revealed, just as the dog owner’s pain at her dog’s death offers an insight into her humanity that was absent from Jeff’s perspective.
As well as the precise detail in the interior and exterior design of the apartments, another noteworthy element of the set design is the lighting configuration. The move between day and night is an important element of the storytelling in Rear Window with the mood changing dramatically at night to emphasise Jeff’s voyeuristic gaze as he looks into the windows lit up for the ‘evening performance’. The lighting design also signals the passing of time, highlighting the gradual building of tension that reaches its peak in the classic/generic night-time scene when Thorwald crosses over to Jeff’s apartment. In the final scene, not only is it a brand new day but it is if the world has been reset, with the temperature dropped to a pleasant 70 degrees (21 degrees Celsius) and the lives of the Rear Window community taking on a new shape.
For Hitchcock, the most important consideration was to begin with a great story and then tell it well. He placed great significance on engaging viewers, a concern that connected up with his fascination with suspense and its capacity to make viewers’ responses an integral part of the narrative. Nevertheless, As Hitchcock’s eventful stories unfold, they revisit and shed new light on themes relating to:
human nature and psychology relationships gender roles and identity personal and social ethics issues within contemporary society
Rear Window is no exception and, as the earlier discussion of the historical and social context attests, the 1950s audience would have recognised and identified with the social issues and themes explored in the narrative and been fascinated by the psychological insights that accompany the portrayal of contemporary urban society.
Voyeurism and surveillance
The themes of voyeurism and surveillance are of course at the heart of the narrative and refract outwards to take in the process of watching the film and challenging viewers to reflect on their role as ‘spectators’ sitting in the dark looking in on other lives as they play out within the narrative. The interconnection between voyeurism and the male gaze also draws attention to the issues around gender identity and masculinity driving Jeff’s obsessive watching. For 1950s audiences this process would have had a great impact but the issues it raises around the borderline between what is public and private continue to be very real.
In the same way as the themes of voyeurism and surveillance, the exploration of marriage and the single life engages directly with people’s lived experience, creating a form of ‘cost benefit analysis’ where the freedom and opportunities offered by the single life are weighed up against the loneliness and dissatisfaction of the lives lived by, in particular, Miss Lonelyhearts and the Sculptress. The Composer and Miss Torso are seen entertaining visitors, but they too are perceived to be isolated within their apartments and unfulfilled by their socialising. By the same token, the married couples whom Jeff observes have not necessarily reaped the rewards that come with commitment and companionship. The Thorwald’s are alone within their marriage and the impression at the end of the film is that the newlyweds may well be heading in the same direction. While the dog owners appear to be a contented couple who have found companionship and live their lives in a kind of mutual rhythm, the death of their dog brings home their aloneness within the community.
The theme of community is a profound one in Rear Window. Jeff and Lisa are both individualists with no real sense of community or social responsibility. They are each defined by their distance, Lisa because of her Park Avenue privilege and Jeff because of his desire to hide behind his camera and avoid any kind of dependence or responsibility through constant travel. When Jeff looks out at the world beyond his window, he only sees individuals living in their box-like apartments and rather than seeing a world of movement and change as people come and go and live their lives. When the Rear Window community is presented in the film’s opening, the impression is of a shared rhythm – in fact the brilliant choreography of this scene suggests some form of clockwork mechanism. It is by no means a perfect world, with Thorwald snapping at his nosey neighbour and Miss Torso’s music annoying the neighbourhood, but it could be described as functional, operating according to the give and take required when people live together in such close quarters. If you refer back to the discussion about set design, you will remember the observation that the windows that Jeff looks into are like screens. But it is worth reflecting why people, including Thorwald, are willing to live their lives so publicly. The ‘cause and effect’ answer is that this was a period before air conditioning became a typical feature of private homes and everyone has their windows open. However, the preparedness of the people to live their lives in front of Jeff also draws out the idea of ‘rear window’ ethics that Jeff briefly wrestles with just before the scene with the dog. By watching his neighbours so intently, Jeff is breaking an unspoken social contract which decrees you allow your neighbours to live their lives without feeling like “a bug under glass”.
One of the points that the dog owner makes relates to the meaning of being a neighbour: “Neighbours like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies!” In other words, the human emotions and responses that build connection and make a community liveable – compassion, empathy and kindness. This is so clearly lacking in Jeff’s engagement with his fellow human beings and particularly in his lack of feeling for Anna Thorwald, something that Lisa points out just prior to the scene with the dog. While there is much critical debate about whether Jeff changes or learns anything as a result of the events that take place in the Rear Window narrative, it is notable that he is deeply distressed when he sees Miss Lonelyhearts with the pills and, as a character defined by his inaction, he rushes to phone for help.
In Rear Window Hitchcock explores and dramatises a range of themes and ideas and poses knotty questions around human nature, and all of this is channelled through characters with elusive and conflicted motivations. As the narrative unfolds, the ground continually shifts as new questions arise. The narrative is replete with an ambiguity and contradictory possibilities. This is one of the reasons Rear Window is such a rich text to interpret but it also means that there will always be an alternative reading to the one that you carefully construct. What is Hitchcock communicating about the value of community, the single and the married life, male and female gender identities, the ethics of looking? For instance, the conclusion to John Fawell’s essay “The sound of loneliness: Rear Window's soundtrack” offers an exquisite reflection on the human themes explored in Rear Window, but does this reading tell us as much about Fawell as it does about Hitchcock’s opinion of humanity?
Loneliness and isolation
Despite Hitchcock's reluctance to make statements about the human condition in his films, Rear Window comments movingly on certain universal themes, particularly the loneliness and isolation of humans and the even more particularly a certain kind of modern, American, urban loneliness and isolation. The commentary is particularly eloquent because it rarely resorts to words, but is expressed through acute and poignant observation of the sounds and images of loneliness, and a touching counterpoint of the two... Hitchcock was less voluble about the gentler aspects of his art but a deep empathy for humanity and a sympathy for its loneliness is evident in Rear Window, less in the film’s words than in its sad and quietly echoing sounds.
Ready to go deeper, or looking for a printable version of this resource?
Read our full study guide on Rear Window by ACMI's VCE educator, Dr Susan Bye.