The Presentation of Scopophilia in Rear Window (1954)

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by Hasnat Ahmad

Rear Window is a 1954 film by Alfred Hitchcock which follows a globe-trekking photojournalist named Jefferies who’s been confined to his home due to a leg injury. While Jefferies is sitting in his wheelchair, he decides he has nothing better to do but spy in on the going-abouts of his neighbors, leading him to suspect a certain Mr. Thorwald of murdering his wife. But the film is not so much a murder mystery as it is a film about voyeurism and the pleasures of viewing other’s lives without their express knowledge or consent. Hitchcock uses multiple cinematic techniques, including camera movement, set design, editing, and zoom to create an effective presentation of the role of scopophilia in an increasingly modernized and urban society.

Camera movement

The camera movement of Rear Window is an important factor that Hitchcock utilizes to create an effective presentation of voyeurism. The point of view shots which slowly pan across the screen are a critical reflection of what the movie-goer themselves might do in a similar situation to observe ongoing events. This creates a unique sense of shared voyeurism for both the viewer and Jefferies himself, as the viewer is viewing him view the hectic lives of his neighbors. Hitchcock almost paradoxically also emphasizes the fact that this voyeurism can also have its positive benefits as well. If Jefferies had not violated the privacy of his neighbors while he was bedridden, he would never have implicated Mr. Thorwald in the murder of his wife or grown closer to Lisa, who he mostly brushes off and ignores during the first half of the film.

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As viewers, we come to the stark realization that the definition of voyeurism, to seek sexual pleasure from being a peeping tom, is not always applicable to every voyeuristic situation, many times such as in Jefferies’ case it is simply an individual attempting to be alive and gain a sense of meaning in a world where their profession depends on them being able to walk. Picking up his lenses and observing the neighborhood is nearly all he can possibly do to find personal meaning while he is confined to his wheelchair.

“Hitchcock uses long continuous shots during points of dialogue or non-action to lull the audience into a false sense of security and to make them focus on the dialogue or the significance of the image itself, while in scenes of action, he cuts from shot to shot anxiously trying to squeeze in as many shots as possible, especially at the climax as Jeff struggles for his life against the villainous Thorwald. The cinematography is bound by the apartment as well; there is very little tracking, making us feel as immobile as Jeff, and any tracking that is done usually follows a character.

There is, however, a lot of tilting, panning, and dolly shots. These are the motions Jeff is able to accomplish with the aid of his binoculars and long-focus lens. This choice means that the viewer does not get every detail of every event happening in the other apartments. Their residents drift in and out of view due to blinds, doors, walls, and the angle of the view from Jeff’s apartment. These decisions are all done to equate Jeff to the viewer, an observation that has led many scholars to conclude that Jeff represents the movie-goer, looking for entertainment wherever he can find it.” -Kevin S. Brennan

What is most striking about the camera movement of Rear Window is how little the inhabitants of the neighborhood truly interact with each other. The viewer almost gets a sense that they each live in their own little worlds with their own lives on tangents far from ever intersecting. Each time the camera slowly shows us the ongoings of the neighborhood, it is clear how isolated each apartment is, just as or even more so than the isolation of Jefferies. Jefferies is in fact so alone that he is not so much isolated as he is living his life through the lives of the people he spends his days watching.

Set Design

Set design is another effective tool that Hitchcock utilizes in Rear Window to implement a theme of voyeurism. The feeling of confinement and alienation is incredibly important to the film, as even when Lisa and Stella come to check on Jefferies, he pays as little to no attention to them as possible in pursuit of watching Mr. Thorwald’s every move. This entrapped feeling is created by the fact that the viewers of Rear Window can only see what is within the scope of Jefferies’ lenses most of the time, creating a feeling of powerlessness, as we can only see as far as he does or is willing to do so. From Hitchcock’s perspective, the set is designed in such a way to create an effective voyeuristic experience for the viewers of Rear Window. There are clear wide shots of the entire group of apartments which Jefferies is observing from his sedentary state.

This explicitly leads to the viewer understanding and recognizing the layout and structure of the neighborhood, similar to as if they were looking at a map while playing a video game, allowing the viewer to put themselves as shadows right behind Jefferies, following his every move with a telepathic understanding of his emotions and actions. There aren’t many things in Jefferies’ room, but of what does exist the most intriguing is definitely his photographs, which is no shock, of course, as he is a photographer and not a shabby one at that. They all contain images of events scattered across the spectrum of everything imaginable, but the single trait they share in common is that they all depict tragic destruction and devastation.

Another critical observance is the shot of a broken camera in his otherwise very basic room, which indicated how he has previously undergone danger in desperate pursuit of his job, not very dissimilar to what he is doing by pursuing Mr. Thorwald.

This undoubtedly brings a sinister tone to his pursuit of voyeurism. It begs the question, what line does one cross to become a voyeur? Is it not true that every person behind a camera is a voyeur in some sense? But what is for sure is that Jefferies receives pleasure from viewing scenes of unhappy endings, such as the demise of Mrs. Thorwald.

“By maintaining the voyeuristic point of view from the rear window of Jefferies’ apartment, the audience views the same events that Jefferies stumbles upon from the same limited perspective. Hitchcock is the renowned ‘master of suspense’ because of his expert use of revealing just enough information to the audience to keep them on the edge of their seat as events unfold in the movie’s narrative. Because the viewer knows as much as Jefferies does, they are forced to make their own conclusions regarding this mysterious murder plot. They must decide if they will believe Jefferies, in which case Lars’ apartment across the courtyard lurks ominously as a scene of a gruesome murder or follow the advice of Doyle and believe the entire story is the figment of a stagnant imagination” -Greg Beamish

Editing

Editing is another method Hitchcock utilizes in Rear Window in order to implement an effective presentation of voyeurism. During the film’s opening sequence, Hitchcock implements the Kuleshov effect in order to tie together the actions of Jefferies with the camera in hand.

He uses this effect to tie together shots which otherwise the viewer might not make any connection between. This effect blossoms into a broader theme throughout the entire film, as it is used by Hitchcock through the performances of Jefferies, Lisa, and Stella.

“By sharing this voyeuristic activity with the audience, Rear Window shows Hitchcock’s view on voyeurism that it is a universal pleasure that all human beings pursue. In the story of the film, Jeffrey’s spying of his neighborhood starts off as his private hobby, but it eventually becomes a shared experience with his fiancé, Lisa, and his nurse, Stella. They are wary of the ethical issue with peeping at first, but later, they become more enthusiastic about finding out about Mr. Thorwald’s murder case than Jeffrey has been. Through this sharing, Jeffrey and Lisa even develop a fonder feeling with each other.

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Outside the story, Hitchcock further expands this excitement onto the audience and makes their interest in watching a film also a kind of voyeurism. Therefore, in Rear Window, voyeurism is not as much as an unhealthy desire, but a very natural one that normal people also can possess” -Johns Hopkins Film & Media Studies

These effects could only come to fruition through the editing decisions of Hitchcock, which he performs masterfully and in great taste. The way Jefferies rolls up his blinds to observe the neighborhood through a mid-shot of the open windows lets the viewer see how many different places your eyesight can potentially travel to, creating almost a sense of desperation to try to seek out what is most important. Each and every frame exists only to exponentially magnify the voyeuristic effect within each and every individual shot.

Shot Size and Framing

Shot size and framing is another important method which Hitchcock utilizes in order to effectively implement a theme of scopophilia in Rear Window. Visual shots of the camera panning across the neighborhood and zooming in on happenings within various apartments are especially critical in creating a sense of voyeurism for both Jefferies and the viewer, as he holds the lenses which act as a second pair of eyes not only for himself but also for us. These lenses almost indicate a form of handicap or paralysis of Jefferies, as his own eyes are too weak so he must use other means to view what he needs to, further indicating his extreme isolation within the film. One particular method of shooting which Hitchcock utilizes especially well in Rear Window is the framing of shots within shots, such as the windows of the apartments across from Jefferies. This is what makes the ending scene of Mr. Thorwald angrily entering Jefferies’ apartment and physically assaulting him so dramatic, as he is in a sense breaking the fourth wall by doing so.

The entire length of the film where Jefferies has been watching Mr. Thorwald through his camera and further his window turns him into a moviegoer in some sense. This layering of frames is critical in Hitchcock’s attempt to create an intense theme of voyeuristic tendencies for not only Jefferies but also viewers of the film. The viewer is viewing Jefferies view through his camera the view through Mr. Thorwald’s apartment window. However, when Mr. Thorwald enters Jefferies’ apartment, the streak of voyeurism is hastily broken and the viewer is snapped back into reality, showing how no matter how far off what one is viewing might be and however much isolated one might feel, the events you are viewing are much closer than you might have initially imagined, very much like a car side-view mirror where “objects in the mirror are closer than they appear.” All of this is not even mentioning the camera used to film Rear Window itself. There are, however, many ways Hitchcock uses framing to indicate other themes, such as whenever Jefferies is looking at Lisa, she is always the only thing in the frame, indicating his strong attraction and love for her.

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Wrapping Up

By utilizing clever cinematic techniques such as camera movement, set design, editing, and framing, Hitchcock creates a voyeuristic viewing experience for the movie-goers themselves. Not only is Jefferies watching the neighborhood with his steady gaze, but we are also watching him with ours. This means that as opposed to a simple static experience, the viewer is actively participating in the film, piecing together the clues just as fast as Jefferies. Hitchcock masterfully recognizes the fact that viewers are intrinsically motivated by personal means, and the most effective way to keep them involved is to create a voyeuristic experience that draws them in themselves due to fundamental human nature.

Sources:

Greg Beamish, https://the-artifice.com/hitchcock-rear-window-1954-voyeur/

Johns Hopkins Film & Media Studies, https://hopkinscinemaddicts.typepad.com/hopkinscinemaddicts/2013/04/voyeurism-in-cinema-rear-window-and-the-conversation.html

Kevin S. Brennan, https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1150&context=cine

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