Study guide: Rear Window
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.
Are you a teacher? Check out our Rear Window online lecture for students.
Subjects: English, Literature, Media
Year levels: 9, 10, VCE
1. 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.
3. Context: women after the war
During wartime, women were encouraged to fill vacancies in manufacturing, agricultural, transport and other essential services. When servicemen, who were predominantly men, returned from combat, they wanted their jobs back. While many women remained in work, the normative family structure was of a nuclear family in which a male head of the family went out to work leaving a wife at home to care for the household. (In today’s society we can also see how a way of life can be represented as the norm, even when so many people live quite different lives and share very different values.) The 1950s nuclear family structure reinforced the values of a patriarchal society based on male power and privilege.
In Rear Window, we do see an example of what might be described as a conventional nuclear family – child on tricycle, mother sipping coffee and father ready for work. This family is of no interest to Jeff and is balanced by the many different lives lived in the apartments opposite. Nevertheless, when Jeff imagines what marriage might be like, he draws on conventional and clichéd ideas drawn from popular culture: “Can't you just see me, rushing home to a hot apartment to listen to the automatic laundry and the electric dishwasher and the garbage disposal and the nagging wife?” Unlike many of his fellow servicemen, including Tom Doyle, Jeff has avoided marriage and domesticity. Instead, he describes his life as one of constant travel and is fearful of being ‘tied down’ by marriage to Lisa.
Viewers are unlikely to be convinced that this is what marriage with Lisa would be like. Indeed, Lisa is defined by her work; and the role she plays in Rear Window is integrated with the rhythms of the working week. We know that she can only come to Jeff’s place in the evening after work but can sleep over on Friday and spend the day sleuthing on Saturday. Even at the end of the film, when she is pretending to adapt to Jeff’s lifestyle, she returns to her work context by reading Harper's Bazaar.
4. Context: suburbanisation
The post-war era was a time when conformity and social cohesion were valued as a common good in a society rebuilding itself after the upheaval of war. There was a rapid rise in childbirth – known as the baby boom – and many families chose to move out of the city to the suburbs where large housing estates made home ownership more affordable.
Rear Window is set in a part of New York called Greenwich Village. It is expensive now but in the 1950s, it was a cheap area that attracted a lot of artists. We see this with Miss Torso, the Sculptress and the Composer. The ramshackle collection of apartments that make up Jeff’s Greenwich village neighbourhood is everything the suburbs are not, with diverse people and households living close together.
The opening of the film introduces city life as vibrant and interconnected while also highlighting the individuality of each household. While Jeff is stuck inside his apartment, apartment life is represented as outward facing unlike the enclosed private space of the suburban home. Jeff’s surveillance of the neighbourhood involves a kind of misreading of the community he is living in – the figure of the peeping Tom is much more aligned to the private and enclosed homes of the suburbs.
In the Rear Window community, people assume they have the freedom to live their lives more visibly, especially as for many of them, their home is also their workspace.
In his essay “Architecture of the Gaze”, Steven Jacobs expands this idea:
Instead of an absolute privacy behind doors and walls, the courtyard is characterized by a conditional or mediated form of privacy, which is based on the knowledge that others can watch but usually do not. It is a delicate social balance based on the collective use of spaces and on implicit rules of conduct between neighbors. Precisely the relative isolation and the lack of interference in the everyday life of others are the attractive elements of big city life. The story of Rear Window is unthinkable in a small town or in suburbia since the balance between individualism and collectivity is completely different in such places.
5. Context: masculinity in crisis
With the arrival of Lieutenant Doyle, we learn that Jeff and Doyle flew planes in the war, a fragment of information that provides an important clue about why Jeff might be the way that he is. Many returned servicemen struggled to accommodate themselves to both civilian and domestic life after the war, and Jeff would seem to be in this boat.
Domesticity and family life were presented as an ideal during this period but the reality of people’s experience in private could never measure up to the public representation of what life in the home should look like. As we discuss here, women struggled with these expectations but it was the difficulty many men had adapting to family life in the suburbs and coping with the role of breadwinner that was discussed most openly.
It is this popular representation of the male perspective that Jeff is referring to in his discussion with his editor. During the 1950s, books and articles suggested there was a crisis in masculinity as many men felt their lives had become limited and constrained.
The narrative of Rear Window primarily channels this struggle over what it means to be a man through the character of Jeff, but also – at least as seen from Jeff’s perspective – through the other male characters, particularly Thorwald, the Composer and the Newlywed. A lot of the comedy is generated by Jeff’s anxiety about his male identity and his resort to spying on his neighbours to reassure himself that he is still powerful and in control.
6. Context: McCarthyism
Through his surveillance, as well as through his limited perspective, Jeff invokes the mood of suspicion and distrust that circulated in American society at this time.
During the period known as the Cold War, people were both fearful of the threat of communism and of the threat of being named as a communist sympathiser.
While there is no direct reference to these fears in Rear Window, viewers of the period would have been very aware of the roaming camera in the opening scene (where the viewers are the ones surveilling the neighbourhood) and the implications of Jeff’s continual spying on his neighbours.
When Jeff wakes up and begins the process of watching (while talking to his editor) the appearance of the helicopter and its all-seeing pilot hovering over the apartments foregrounds this theme.
- Research communism, the Cold War, the women's rights movement or the rise of suburbia. Take notes on the connections with Rear Window.
- How does finding out more about the historical context of Rear Window add to your understanding? Which events and characters does this information shed light on?
- How differently from present-day viewers do you think audiences of the time would have responded to Hitchcock’s portrayal of the Rear Window community?
7. Character: Jeff
Watch the opening sequence of Rear Window (above). What information are we given about the characters in these six minutes?
Jeff’s character is so central and integral to the narrative of Rear Window virtually any discussion of the film draws out more information about his characterisation. We have already covered Jeff’s issues with his masculinity, his narrow point of view and his anxieties about becoming trapped by Lisa. His job as a photographer is based on him travelling to dangerous and faraway places to take photographs that will connect the American readers of his magazine to these places and the people who live there. But he himself avoids human connection. Jeff may be prepared to put himself in danger to get close to his subject, but he uses his camera to come between him and genuine human interaction.
Jeff constantly talks about his action man credentials, as if to prove his powerful manliness to himself as well as to the rest of the world. Yet, Jeff’s idea of himself as a man of action is continually revealed as deluded. In fact, Jeff never actually does anything but is instead limited to watching and judging those around him. In part this relates to the fact that he has a broken leg, but Hitchcock takes it further so that, for instance, while he begins to open the bottle of wine Lisa has brought with her, the waiter takes it from him and removes the cork. You might have noticed that while Jeff uses his telephoto lens to watch the neighbourhood from a distance and uses the flashbulbs to fend off Thorwald, Jeff never actually takes any photos in the course of the narrative.
You may also be interested in some of the critical commentary around Jeff’s obsession with Thorwald and his wife. Some critics argue that it is almost as if Thorwald plays out Jeff’s displaced fantasy of getting rid of Lisa because of the threat she poses to his freedom – it is notable how similar Mrs Thorwald looks to Lisa with the same blond hair and slim figure and, when Lisa comes to spend the night, her seductive nightgown is very similar to the one Mrs Thorwald was wearing the night of her murder. On the other hand, this simple analogy gets a bit more complicated if you think about the fact that it is not Lisa who is confined to her apartment, but Jeff and in the end, it is Jeff, like Mrs Thorwald who becomes the victim of Thorwald’s violence.
8. Characters: Lisa
Lisa is both a woman with a career as well as a woman of privilege. This gives her more power and authority than any other female character in Rear Window. However, within the parameters of the conventional romance narrative, what Lisa has going for her would not make up for what she is missing out on – Jeff’s commitment. But in keeping with Hitchcock’s approach to other familiar narrative elements, Lisa is never represented as someone who is lacking. Instead, her active and successful public life is placed in contrast to Jeff’s confinement to his apartment and obsession with the private worlds opposite. When Lisa describes a day of work, it is jam-packed with activities and meetings, with the fact that much of her work involves connecting with others, highlighting that she is an extrovert in contrast to Jeff, who is quite the opposite. Her work also takes priority -- Lisa visits Jeff in her spare time and waits until the weekend to actively engage with the mystery that has captured Jeff’s imagination.
Costume plays a large part in expressing how different Jeff and Lisa are and in demonstrating Lisa doesn’t belong. Lisa’s designer frocks are artfully coordinated while Jeff never changes out of his pyjamas. The power of Lisa’s presence and of her taste and privilege are communicated through the invasion of the upmarket New York restaurant 21, and her off-the-cuff dismissal of Jeff’s well-worn cigarette case and determination to replace it with her simple – and expensive – choice.
By the same token, Lisa is in many ways very similar to Jeff. She is also committed to having her own way and is just as reluctant to change. Both Lisa and Jeff are self-centred individualists, used to getting their own way. The implication is that Lisa’s interest in Jeff is piqued by the challenge he represents. It is worth taking a look at the discussion they have about her potentially going on the road with Jeff – it is not really a conversation as she refuses to take what he says seriously in the same way as he refuses to contemplate her plans for him to become part of her world. In fact neither of them really listens to the other – and during the first and the second acts, Jeff is also less interested in looking at Lisa than he is looking out his window. As Lisa tries to take control of his life as well as express her desire for him, Jeff reassures himself he is still powerful and in control through his voyeuristic gaze at the neighbours.
When Lisa looks out of the window, she offers her own interpretation of the meaning of what she sees. From her point of view, Lisa perceives Miss Torso as having to manage the unwanted attention of the wolves in her apartment, rather than as the sexualised temptress that Jeff sees. She is also able to identify with the loneliness of Miss Lonelyhearts, and build a connection with Mrs Thorwald. Lisa’s curiosity is piqued when she becomes aware that Mrs Thorwald has been separated from her handbag, jewellery and, most disturbing of all, her wedding ring. For Lisa this is evidence that something is wrong, a deduction drawn from her alternative perspective as a woman that marks the point in the narrative when Jeff acknowledges her subjectivity and pays respectful attention to what she has to say. At this point he recognises the value of Lisa’s expertise as a woman who knows about other women -- an expertise that he has previously dismissed.
Once Lisa also becomes interested in getting to the bottom of the mystery, she moves into action. While Jeff watches and speculates, Lisa heads out of the apartment to gather more information and, as a result of Lisa’s observations based on her understanding of female behaviour, Jeff contacts Doyle, his former army comrade who is now in the police force. At this point, Lisa with some help from Stella takes on the role of heroic protagonist who solves the mystery through action and adventure. Typically, in Hollywood films made in the 1940s and 1950s, the defenceless victim is female, and it is the job of the active male protagonist to rescue her. In Rear Window, Jeff becomes the defenceless victim – something that is highlighted by his ineffectual use of the flash bulbs. After his fall, Lisa cradles him in her arms and he tells her how much he admires her for her actions and deeds -- a reversal of the classic Hollywood romance in which the hero proves through his deeds that he deserves the love of the heroine. In this case, the resolution to the romance narrative involves Jeff’s acknowledgment of Lisa’s adventurous spirit.
The conclusion/epilogue/coda (that harks back to the opening scene) has generated a great deal of critical discussion, as in some ways it is almost a ‘choose-your-own-adventure' with viewers having the opportunity to decide how the narrative has actually been resolved. It is apparent that Lisa has changed out of her designer frocks into jeans, shirt and loafers and she is reading a book about the Himalayas. She glances at the sleeping Jeff to make sure he doesn’t catch her reading Harper’s Bazaar. This surreptitious glance suggests a meekness that is out of character for the feisty and determined Lisa. Has Lisa has decided to give up her life to fit in with Jeff’s? Maybe the excitement of investigating Thorwald has made a life on the road more attractive.
For those with an alternative interpretation, Lisa’s casual outfit seems far from convincing. It is very stylish – the carefully turned-up jeans reveal Lisa’s slim ankles, her shirt is silk and the shoes are made from expensive leather. It could be regarded as a costume, rather than a commitment to a life of adventure and hardship. Within this scenario, the book is a prop that is part of her performance. Once Jeff is asleep, she can get back to work -- remember that, for her, Harper’s Bazaar means business. Moreover, however surreptitious, her glance at the sleeping Jeff positions her in the text as the character with the final look. In a film focusing on the power and significance of the look, this placement of Lisa suggests, according to Elise Lemire, that she “has garnered the power to watch over [the sleeping Jeff].” That Lisa has achieved her goal of getting inside Jeff’s life and emerges triumphant is further reinforced when the last word heard in the film is her name, sung as part of the composer’s song.
 Elise Lemire, “Voyeurism and the Postwar Crisis of Masculinity”, in John Belton (ed.) Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, CUP, Cambridge, 2000, p. 81.
9. Minor characters
Stella is at first sight very different from Lisa. She is plain, middle-aged, working class and married. However, from the beginning of the narrative, she champions Lisa’s efforts to get Jeff to commit to their relationship. “I’ve got two words of advice for you: Marry her.” Like Lisa, Stella sees marriage as being about physical attraction and desire and not at all about conformity: “When l married Myles, we were both a couple of maladjusted misfits. We are still maladjusted, and we have loved every minute of it.” By identifying the capsules Miss Lonelyhearts has laid out by their colour, Stella reveals that she (like Lisa) is good at what she does. What is more, her practical/professional understanding of the human body gives her a greater capacity to envisage the bloody reality of what the dismemberment and disposal of a body might entail. Jeff and Lisa are in turn repulsed by Stella’s pragmatic comments about bloody bathtubs and body parts. Like Lisa, Stella works in a job that requires continually moving around and meeting new people. They both share their knowledge and intuition with Jeff who gradually recognises the value of their perspective, and they end up forming a team actively pursuing clues, while Jeff can only watch. When he concedes the women are the ones “taking all the chances”, the pair agrees to vote him into the group.
Stella, like Lisa, is gradually drawn into the narrative that Jeff has created around his neighbours. She is initially introduced policing Jeff’s voyeurism – catching him out on her first appearance and then again at the end of the scene. (The fact that Jeff, and the viewing audience, hear Stella before seeing her, heightens the impression that Jeff has been ‘caught out’.) She makes her disapproval more than clear and correctly predicts the trouble Jeff will bring by looking out the window and seeing things he shouldn’t. The irony is that not only does Stella become increasingly implicated in Jeff’s point of view, she ends up joining Lisa in actively assisting him in his process of surveillance. Through this trajectory, Stella represents the audience’s compromised perspective, as she moves from a morally-driven awareness of the tawdriness of Jeff’s voyeurism to keen interest. In fact, the last thing we hear from her is a question – about what was in the hat box – a final reference to and reminder of the physical reality of the murder.
Doyle is everything Jeff isn’t: calm, measured, concerned to do everything by the book. The implication is that Doyle is a grown-up aware of the rules and responsibilities of his job. He responds to Jeff’s frustrated desire for Thorwald’s apartment to be searched by reminding him (“at the risk of sounding stuffy”) of Thorwald’s Constitutional right to maintain the privacy of his home – a hot topic during this era and a reminder of Jeff’s failure to respect private space. Doyle’s stance towards Jeff’s eager desire to play “amateur sleuth” builds on the representation of Jeff as struggling to maintain a sense of power and control without the authority that comes from his work. Doyle lectures Jeff using reason and the institutional authority of the law, an approach that leaves Jeff appearing irrational and over-emotional and reinforces Jeff’s feelings of powerlessness. When it emerges that Doyle and Jeff know each other from their time flying together in the war, the audience is alerted to the different ways that the friends have chosen to live their post-war lives, with Doyle working in an unglamorous job and settling down with a wife and family while Jeff is free to travel the world. Doyle’s reference to the part he played in helping Jeff take the photos that won him “a medal, and a good job, and fame, and money” adds a subtext of envy that adds further complexity to this examination of post-war masculinity. As does his fascination with Lisa’s overnight bag which reveals a suburban narrowness out of place in the bohemian neighbourhood of Greenwich Village.
The apartment dwellers
Each neighbor is not a random supporting character, but a carefully-chosen representation of a possible future for Jeff. 
A number of the apartment dwellers have their own narrative arc which reaches a conclusion in the final scene – a scene that highlights the limitations of Jeff’s perspective and perception. As with all the important information in the narrative, Jeff misses out on these revelations.
It has been argued that Jeff’s fascination with Thorwald relates to his own fears about marriage and having his life restricted by Lisa. At the very least, Jeff has come to believe that he somehow owns the lives that are lived in the apartments opposite, and that they have become part of a narrative that he controls. Because of this belief, it is not so much that Jeff cannot forgive Thorwald for murdering his wife, but that he cannot forgive him for doing it when Jeff wasn’t looking.
Within the murder mystery narrative that Jeff constructs, Thorwald is a two-dimensional villain. However, when Thorwald enters Jeff’s apartment and asks him: “What do you want from me?”, he becomes more than this. He is shown in close-up. Moreover Thorwald’s decision to head over to Jeff’s apartment and then throw him out of the window in front of all of the neighbours implies that a similar impulsive reaction led to his wife’s murder.
When Jeff spots Thorwald sitting alone in the darkness, the only person in the neighbourhood not to come out to see what is going on, Thorwald’s solitariness becomes analogous to the distance that separates Jeff from his fellow human beings and which has given him the detachment to recognise Thorwald’s guilt. The interconnection between Jeff and Thorwald that is explicitly played out in the scene where Jeff is talking to his editor about marriage reaches its climax in the moment where Thorwald looks straight back at Jeff. In staring straight at the camera, the character breaks the fourth wall something that film viewers are not typically prepared for and, in this moment, the audience’s connection with Jeff’s point of view is severed. The reorientation of perspective continues when Thorwald enters Jeff’s apartment and a series of point of view shots reveal Thorwald’s view of Jeff as each flash bulb is set off. By throwing Jeff into the space between his apartment and the rest of the community, Thorwald turns him into an object to be looked at by others.
Even more than Lisa, Miss Torso would seem to be the object of the male gaze -- just think about the nickname Jeff has given her. In his eyes, she is defined by her brief clothes and seductive body, and her constant eating reinforces the emphasis on her body. In Jeff’s eyes, her dancing and constant movement are a form of private performance, but it could more accurately be viewed as the exercise and rehearsal required for her job. Just as Lisa’s gorgeous clothes are an integral part of her profession, Miss Torso’s body connects her to the world of work. In contrast to the sexually charged object it becomes when viewed by the voyeur, her continually moving body can be related to her professionalism as a dancer.
In the scene where the dog owner discovers her dog has been killed, Miss Torso is shown in close-up for the first time. Her empathetic response to the dog owner’s pain reveals that she is not the caricature Jeff has perceived her to be. Just as Jeff’s view of Miss Torso is filtered by his preconceptions and obsessions, Stella, Lisa and Doyle each view her through a lens based on their own experience of the world. When Stella looks at Miss Torso, she imagines her in middle age (“she'll wind up fat, alcoholic and miserable”); Lisa experiences a sense of fellowship seeing her as a beautiful woman fending off unwanted male attention; and Doyle’s mesmerised attention implies the allure of forbidden fruit. The joke in the film’s conclusion is that the love of her life barely looks at her before heading to the refrigerator.
Miss Lonelyhearts is the character we learn most about and her story is almost fleshed out enough to be described as a subplot: her loneliness is established, followed by an unsuccessful search for love leading to self-destructive despair before salvation is achieved through the beauty of music. Her desire to connect opens her up to pain and unhappiness butalso challenges Jeff’sdesire to remain separate and emotionally disconnected from others. You probably noticed Miss Lonelyhearts shows her emotions on her face, almost as though she is in a silent movie, something that makes her vulnerable and unprotected. She is also the only character who actively reaches out to the dog owners when they discover their dog has been killed. She picks it up and tenderly lays it in the basket. It has been suggested that Jeff’s attention and emotions are captured by Miss Lonelyhearts because she is a woman who appears to need help and protection, restoring him to a position of strength and efficacy. When Jeff has the responsibility of warning Lisa of Thorwald’s return, his attention drifts instead to Miss Lonelyhearts’ apartment. Her potential overdose distracts him and Stella from the main game and they don’t get a chance to warn Lisa of Thorwald’s return.
 Jason Fraley, “Rear Window”, The Film Spectrum, 1 November 2011, https://thefilmspectrum.com/?p=241
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.
12. Go deeper
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.