“To begin in the most modest and objective way possible, let us merely say that the theme concerns the very essence of cinema, which is seeing, spectacle. A man watches and waits while we watch this man and wait for what he is waiting for." (Rohmer and Chabrol, Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films 124).
Let us dispose of a canard that frequently crops up in Hitchcock studies, the theme of voyeurism in Rear Window. The V-word was first dropped by Chabrol and Rohmer (1957), then repeated in English by Robin Wood (1966), and has continued to be used, on down through John Fawell's book (2001) to the present day. We are told Jeff is a voyeur, and we, his audience, are complicit. Both charges are in fact false.
Voyeurism is, by definition, illicit viewing. More specifically, it is “the activity of viewing people in places where they have a legitimate expectation of privacy” (Yanal 160). The cinema-goer is therefore categorically excluded from the designation. First, he views characters (fictitious beings) rather than people. Second, the characters are projected (by both the actors and the technology of the cinema) with the express intention that they be viewed. By its very nature, film viewing can never be voyeurism or anything like it (I sense 10,000 film studies dissertations shrieking in pain).
In the film matters have been arranged by Hitchcock and his screenwriter, John Michael Hayes, to exonerate Jeff of the charge as well. Jeff is immobilized with little to entertain him. He has a back window to look out but not, apparently, a front one. The city is in the grip of a heat-wave, so that all the neighbors parade in front of their open windows unconcerned about privacy (As a matter of fact, Jeff deduces that Thorwald’s use of open windows forms part of his scheme to avoid detection). Most importantly, Jeff is a photo-journalist, hence a professional observer, sanctioned by society to watch and record whatever comes into his view. He is not peeping feverishly, but idly, dispassionately.
The subject of voyeurism is in fact raised in the film, but only to be dismissed. The issue is treated early, first by Stella, then by Lisa, but abandoned once it becomes likely that a murder has occurred. It is returned to briefly at the end of the second act when Jeff asks “I wonder if it’s ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a long-focus lens. Do you suppose it’s ethical even if you prove he didn’t commit a crime?” This question is never answered for the simple reason that it does not apply in this case—Thorwald did commit a crime. The question germane to the film—is it ethical to spy on a criminal to gather evidence against him?—is never articulated, but nonetheless answered in the affirmative as events in the film unfold (the value of catching a murderer being unquestioned as a paramount societal good).
According to Raymond Durgnat, “. . . Jeff is in a dilemma. If he doesn’t try to find out where the wife has gone, he is guilty of that notorious New York callousness which just shrugs off murders and muggings as somebody else’s business. If he does try to find out, he is guilty of being an interfering busybody.” (237) This does not in fact adequately represent the situation. Rather, Jeff’s problem is this: if Thorwald is actually a murderer, Jeff is morally obligated to act on his suspicions, collect evidence, and denounce Thorwald to the authorities. If, however, Thorwald is not a murderer, Jeff’s eavesdropping is pernicious and unjustified, and he is morally and legally required to leave the man alone. Jeff must choose one of the options (and remember that doing nothing is option number two), but he cannot do so without assuming the nature of the case in advance. He does not have enough information to make a reasoned choice, but he must act as if he does. This is his existential dilemma. In the event, Jeff chooses correctly, but he might just as well have chosen incorrectly (in one Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, “Mr. Blanchard’s Secret,” circumstantial evidence that seems to tell against a neighbor is shown to be misleading). Jeff is either lucky or providentially led, depending on your point of view.
Jeff is admonished by his friend Doyle for his activities. “That’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.” Note that Doyle, a policeman and hence an authority figure, doesn’t tell Jeff he has no right to spy, or that he is guilty of a crime and therefore, their friendship notwithstanding, in danger of arrest. Rather, Doyle argues that Jeff is misinterpreting what he has seen, that his problem is not ethical, but epistemological.
And it’s epistemological issues that the film is concerned with. Did Jeff actually witness a crime? As far as the secondary plot is concerned, will Jeff perceive what is most important to him? Will he at last “see” Lisa’s true value, and what she means to him? And will he know what to do with the knowledge? “A man watches and waits while we watch this man and wait for what he is waiting for.” For what are we all waiting, unless it’s some kind of revelation? That revelation does not come in the form of forbidden knowledge (which could potentially harm Jeff or Lisa, or society, or us). No, when the moment of truth arrives, Jeff is transformed.
Rohmer and Chabrol finally misstate the nature of the case. “The passion to know, or more exactly to see, will end by suffocating all other feelings. The highest pleasure of this “voyeur” will coincide with the apex of his fear. His punishment will be that his own fiancée, a few yards away, but separated by the space of the courtyard, will be surprised in the suspect’s apartment.” (125). But the occurrence proves salutary. Jeff, a professional observer, typically remains detached from the events he witnesses. This professional detachment has crept into his personal life and his relationship with Lisa. Observing Lisa in danger gives him a jolt, allows him to reconnect with his feelings, to leave his professional perspective behind and see again as an amateur. Thus the episode in Thorwald’s apartment causes him to not only see, but to feel, and ultimately, to understand. And once the danger from Thorwald has passed—once hero and heroine have together completed the adventure (“seen it through,” in fact)—they come out the other end united (I do not see, as Wood and other critics do, irony in the final state of affairs). The view from Jeff’s apartment is ultimately beneficial.
Hitchcock’s popular success was founded on his ability to use film techniques (especially POV) to put viewers in the place of his characters. But the identification of the audience with the central character in RW is used to demonstrate that Jeff is like his viewers, not the other way round. So, we would not be voyeurs even if Jeff were one, just as we would not be photojournalists; however, Jeff is entitled to his natural curiosity and is responsible to detect and expose a murder, just as we would be in his situation. Our identification with Jeff is natural and does not elicit in us a sense of shame. Rather, we confer legitimacy on him and his activities. The theme of the film, then, cannot be voyeurism, but legitimate viewing and re-viewing (thus sight and insight). The quest for knowledge—in this particular case—is shown to be a good thing (Vertigo, on the other hand, IS about voyeurism and the ill effects of seeking and acquiring forbidden knowledge. But that is a different—very different—film).
Durgnat, Raymond, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock
Rohmer and Chabrol, Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films
Yanal, Robert J, Hitchcock as Philosopher