Alfred Hitchcock was fascinated by voyeurism, and it was a recurring theme in his films throughout his career. This is often characterised by having both his characters and his audiences repeatedly peer in through windows. Hitchcock’s 1954 film Rear Window is the prime example of this fascination, with the entire film utilising windows both as portholes to characters and audiences increased knowledge and also as barriers to intervention & connection.
One key scene in the film exposes both the positive and negative impacts of voyeurism. Driven by curiosity and the insight into into the neighbourhood provided by their ceaseless watching, Lisa (Grace Kelly) sneaks into Thorwald’s (who Jeffries is determined has murdered his wife) second-floor apartment, with Jeffries (James Stewart) watching from his window. Jeffries is in obvious distress and is overcome with panic as he sees Thorwald (Raymond Burr) enter the apartment and notice the irregularities within. Completely impotent, Jeffries anxiously fidgets in his wheelchair, and grabs his telephoto camera to watch the situation unfold through the window, which is now acting as a barrier, preventing Jeffries from having any real impact on the events happening such a short distance way from him.
Thorwald then turns off the lights, shutting off Jeffries link to Lisa. Interestingly, Jeffries continues to focus on the window into the the pitch black apartment, rather than raising an alarm or noticing a neighbour contemplating suicide. The tension increases as the audience is powerlessly forced to guess what exactly could be occurring within the blackness of the window across the courtyard. Jeffries appears to feel unbearable distress as he realises that he is entirely responsible for Lisa’s predicament, especially now that he can no longer afford her any protection by watching over her. The pressure valve is released as police go to the Thorwald apartment, the lights come back on, and any danger Lisa may have been facing is temporarily dismissed. Despite the fact that Lisa is taken to jail and potentially came very close to a grisly end, Jeffries appears utterly awestruck by her fearlessness.
Hitchcock uses this window-peeping voyeurism throughout the film to such an extent that the moral lines between innocent and guilty are blurred. Despite the fact that Jeffries’ story has a seemingly peaceful and happy ending, and through their windows his neighbours appear to be closer than ever, a sour taste remains for the audience regarding Jeffries’ behaviour throughout the film. Additionally, can we as the audience actually trust that what we’re now seeing through these windows is truth? I guess we’ll never know for sure.