Rear Window directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock, is at it’s heart a film about shifting emotions. The film follows the story of L.B. Jeffries, or Jeff (played by James Stewart), as we go through his final days inside a full leg cast that keeps him confined to a wheelchair, immobilizing his point of view and giving him limited options in later moments of the film. Slowly the hindered Jeff begins to realize that not all is right in his tiny city block of neighbors. Due to his extended stay in a wheelchair, he begins to observe those around him and their day to day activities and interactions with each other. His only outer world contact is his fiancee, his visiting nurse, and his friend who works as a New York Police Detective, who provide him with insight and eventually in the case of the two women getting caught up in the murder mystery that is taking place in the small Greenwich Village apartment complex. The film is a voyeuristic journey, as the term is often used to indicate a general interest in spying at other people’s private activities or moments, and having this as the films backbone creates the voyeuristic theme within the film, by making a comment on cinema itself. Hitchcock creates a tense emotional landscape through; claustrophobic as well as incredibly perfect use of framing and lighting to create a voyeuristic ode to films of the past, as well as physically show a murder mystery from a limited viewpoint, providing a very creative tribute to the world of cinema.
The first important part of the film’s message on voyeurism is the films limited setting. The set is at first viewed and created by the character’s lack of a broad point of view. Jeff is confined to a wheel chair with only his binoculars, camera, and limited view of the neighborhood around him creating a harrowingly dark point of view, as he can never be quite sure of what he’s seeing, if it’s true or not, or if he’s just paranoid in his opinions. As his view is of a tiny space he essentially witnesses what is going on through a film screen, creating an even more voyeuristic feeling to the film, as it directly celebrates the audience viewing the film. This is a simple ode to the film medium as whole and the opinions of the audiences. All of this is created through the small amount of space that Jeff is confined to. The setting of a small apartment block in Greenwich Village of New York City. The setting of the film as plays into the voyeurism of Rear Window. The plain evidence of the murder mystery occurring within a massive city, in an extremely small part of it. This knowledge of knowing where the small apartment block is located adds to limited access and point of view in the film, taking the viewers right along with it. The setting in view that the film also offers much to the plot of the film in the trapped feeling of the main narrator as well as his inability to help his fiancee and his visiting nurse, as they do most of the dangerous things. Such as the scene where she is within the suspected murderers house leaving a note to see if Jeff can view a reaction to prove his thesis’s on the the man. His limited view through his camera lens only offers a glimpse of what the character of Lisa and what she is up to. By the setting constantly being reduced Hitchcock creates what the audience would be seeing, in order to build up suspense. By doing this the setting contributes greatly into the voyeuristic views of the film, just like the composition of the movie Rear Window.
The cinematography of Alfred Hitchcock’s film also lends much to the voyeuristic themes of the film. Cinematography is one of the most important parts of the filmmaking process, and Hitchcock carefully planned each part of his film to best show the themes, as well as create the absolute suspense that is present throughout the entire film. As in Rear Window the narrator is restricted to his apartment, as are we through the cinematography. By having all the shots from within the apartment looking out on the rest of the small apartment complex the viewer is automatically isolated within the plot of the film. With our point of view being restricted to Jeff’s point of view, the audience is put directly in his shoes. For example, one of the best examples of cinematography as being representative of the voyeurism within the film is the scene where Lisa and Jeff decide that it would be a good test of Thorwald to slip a note under his door, and judge his reaction from the safety of his window. After showing the writing of the note through, the shot is a bird’s eye view with a dutch tilt, then moves to the point of view shot through the view of Jeff’s large telephoto lens camera to show the entire event. By reducing the viewers eyes to the suspenseful use of the camera Hitchcock creates a view where the audience is actually the main character, thus replicating the fact that Jeff himself is just a viewer with no real play in the action of the film. The suspense builds in the scene when the camera shifts to a long shot in order to show the entirety of the scene with Lisa slipping the note under the door to the moment where Jeff realizes that Thorwald is coming after her, where the camera then switches to an extreme long shot so we can see the positioning of where the characters are. Lisa successfully makes it out easily but that’s besides the point, the real message lies in what the camera has shown the viewers. The audience has just witnessed what it is like to be completely powerless in a scene. Thus throwing the comment back on the audiences head as after all, aren’t they watching someones actions with no ability to help? By Hitchcock showing the audience the question of whether or not Jeff represents the people in the cinema, he’s observing through his camera and looking for the answers, but it’s ultimately other people who find out all the clues, and he has to put them together. Compare that to the average film viewer and you get the exact same, someone who is sitting behind a ‘screen’ and is trying to piece together what is going on, without actually being involved, and trying to figure out the ending before the credits roll. This comparison is important in the fact that it is highlighted by the camera work withing Rear Window, the cinematography in itself comment’s on the truth of film, in that it is essentially watching someone else’s story and not being able to get involved, as shown through the binocular and camera shots.
Framing and composition play a key role in the film, the mise en scene acting as a view into the detailed world of the Hitchcock film. To be honest, if one were to take any still from Rear Window they would be able to find loads of meaning in it. The one scene that has some of the biggest clues is the scene just as Lisa gets back from dropping the note on Thorwald’s reaction to the note and what he was currently doing. The scene then shifts into one of meaning created through camera space and framing, Lisa is seen in the foreground of the screen, showing that she is indeed a part of the action and is the most exhilarated and involved in the story, then comes his visiting nurse who has also become part of the action and planning of the film in the middle-ground of the shot, and then there is James Stewart’s character who is shrunken down into the bottom corner of the frame. This spacing and set up of the characters within the frame suggests there matter of importance within the films overall themes and use of characters. By having Lisa being the largest and most imposing of the character’s the audience is told that she is the one doing most of the action in the movie, as her fiancee is in a leg cast. While the visiting nurse at this point in the film has only just become involved so she is shown shrinking over in the middle of the line up behind Lisa, and in front of Jeff, showing her beginning curiosity. Then there’s Jeff who is the character that represents the viewer. He is concerned with finding out the truth revolving around the suspected murderer, just as the audience is. Jeff is also the character that is least involved in the films action, as he is only involved through his observations and panic over the plight of his two main companions. His character and his place in the shot mirror that of the audience, they are in the back observing just like Jeff is, they are hunched over in the corner, only being allowed to observe and comment rather than be involved with the action. Via framing like this Rear Window is truly a study in the voyeuristic aspects of cinema, as he creates James Stewart’s character to be exactly like the people in the audience, helpless and only able to observe.
The lighting in the film also contributes greatly to the claustrophobic feeling of the film, and the overarching themes of the movie. One of the most important scenes with lighting is perhaps the ending scene of the movie where James Stewart finally has to confront the product of his ‘rear window ethics’. By getting involved with the story Jeff has condemned himself to becoming a character in it. As the scene begins with Thorwald walking through Jeff’s apartment door inside with his eyes the only things lit in the shot, showing the mystery that surrounds the troubles with Thorwald and what he has done. The light also produces the idea of sinister connotations within the mind of the viewer. By lighting him in this light the entire audience will be put in suspense, as the person that their main character has been watching has broken through his ‘screen’, and thus creates suspense as the simple act of watching cinema is a tense look on what role the viewer actually plays in watching a film.
The next key lighting in the end scene is when we finally get a view of Jeff, he is completely shrouded in darkness and has only part of his cast and body illuminated, his face is in complete darkness and the only light comes from the window. This view shows Jeff as the audience, with the crippled leg symbolizing the inability of the viewers to control what is happening on scene, as well as the lack of face representing the anonymity of the people viewing the film. The lighting in this long shot show that the film really is commenting on cinema and one of it’s most fascinating traits, how it interacts with it’s audience. By being lit this way Jeff is shown as being unable to control his own fate. Most of the scene is intercut between two long shots of the characters that are both very dimly lit until the beginning of the flashes. The rest of the shot reverse shots are still dimly lit, but light up incredibly bright to show the audience where Thorwald is moving and what to expect in the coming scene. As this is the only true lighting that Jeff doesn’t have full control over, he is no longer observing he is a part of the action, so by having the scenes dimly lit and then brightly flashed in order to blind Thorwald both acts as a clever plot device and symbolic lighting. The quick bulb flashes are Hitchcock playing with the audience, as the viewers no longer have a character to view the action sequences through, and there main character is now finally involved in the action, this is the only scene where the film is truly voyeuristic in the movies nature, where the audience is still watching to find out what happens. By flashing the set repeatedly with bulbs he gives the viewer little snippets into how Jeff is doing in avoiding the wrath of Thorwald until help can arrive. The lighting in this film plays just as much a key role in creating suspense and contributing to the overall themes of the films as much as setting, framing, and cinematography.
The film Rear Window directed by Alfred Hitchcock is a direct study of suspense and the theme of voyeurism not just in the film but in all of cinema. Through limited cinematography, a claustrophobic set, symbolic framing, and low key lighting Hitchcock creates a tense emotional landscape and a voyeuristic ode to films of the past, as well as physically show a murder mystery from a limited viewpoint, providing a very creative tribute to the world of cinema. The voyeuristic aspect of spying on someone’s actions or activities is directly related to the audience of cinema. As cinema is essentially the view of a completely different person’s actions with the audience having the viewpoint of an outsider. Hitchcock takes this general theme of cinema throughout the ages and applies to Rear Window through James Stewart’s character having to play the part of the audience, until it actually started involving him. It stands that Hitchcock was able to create a stunning portrait of one of cinema’s greatest traits ,voyeurism into the unknown, and transfer it to a morality action tale through sheer skill of framing, lighting, camera work, and set production.