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Perspectives on Political Science (1999) - Art and Liberalism in Hitchcock's Rear Window




A critique of Alfred Hitchcock's classic film "Rear Window" reveals the relationship between art and the harmful effects of individualism on the human soul.


Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window is about a photojournalist, L. B. "Jeff" Jefferies (James Stewart), who is confined to his Greenwich Village apartment by a broken leg. Bored and eager to return to exciting assignments in exotic locations, Jeff spends his time watching the neighbors through his rear window. Americans have "turned into a nation of peeping Toms," his nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) laments. Jeff would be better off marrying Lisa (Grace Kelly), Stella warns him, but this is a prospect in which Jeff claims no interest. He represents a version of American individualism, a man who eschews commitments and cherishes his freedom. His convalescence intensifies his detachment and magnifies the pernicious tendencies of individual isolation. Those tendencies are encouraged by his art, which gives him the equipment (such as his telephoto lens) and the justification for his way of life. Critics over the years have noted a parallel between Jeff's camera and Hitchcock's, and between Jeff, as he watches his neighbors, and a movie spectator.' Rear Window may be a movie that criticizes "looking," but as a movie it also encourages looking. Rear Window is thus a reflection by Hitchcock on the dangerous effects of liberal individualism on the human soul, and on the question of whether art promotes those effects or mitigates them.

Critics have linked Jeff's voyeurism with his lack of commitment to Lisa; both are signs of an oppressive masculinity. Tania Modleski, for example, refers to Rear Window as a movie "about the power the man attempts to wield through exercising the gaze."2 Jeff's detachment leads him to objectify those who fall under his gaze, making him unfit to be a citizen in a liberal society, which respects the individual integrity of others, or to be part of a modern marriage, which requires emotional involvement in another's life. Stam and Pearson refer to Jeff's voyeurism and his resistance to Lisa as "mutually reinforcing neuroses" that require "a social and sexual" cure. Jeff is cured, they argue, as the plot progresses. "The central trajectory of Rear Window . . . consists in the progressive shattering of Jefferies' illusion of voyeuristic separation from life and the concomitant rendering possible of mature sexuality with Lisa."3

Modleski, on the other hand, sees the film's story as less optimistic. She is not convinced that Jeff overcomes his patriarchal tendencies, although she does acknowledge that the film exposes and criticizes such an oppressive masculinity. Rather than taking the central movement of the film to be Jeff's "cure," Modleski draws our attention to the ways in which Jeff's voyeurism begins to infect Lisa, who joins him in his obsession with the goings on in the apartment across the way. It appears that voyeurism is doubly threatening to a ...

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