English & EAL

Rear Window – How does its message remain relevant today?

Fern Nicholls

February 1, 2019

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Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller Rear Window was released nearly 65 years ago. Back then, Hitchcock was a controversial filmmaker just starting to make waves and build his influence in Hollywood; now, he is one of the most widely celebrated directors of the 20th century. At the time of its 1954 release, Rear Window emerged into a world freshly shaken by World War II. The fear of communism riddled American society and Cold War tensions were escalating between the two global superpowers, the USSR and USA. Traditional gender stereotypes and marital roles were beginning to be challenged, yet the ‘old way’ continued to prevail. The culture of the 1950s could hardly be more different to what it is today. Within the Western world, the birth of the 21st century has marked the decline of cemented expectations and since been replaced by social equality regardless of gender, sexual preference and age. So why, six decades after its original release and in a world where much of its content appears superficially outdated, do we still analyse the film Rear Window?

Rear Window is a film primarily concerned with the events which L.B. (Jeff) Jefferies, a photographer incapacitated by an accident which broke his leg, observes from the window of his apartment. He spends his days watching the happenings of the Greenwich Village courtyard, which enables Jeff to peer into the apartments and lives of local residents. The curiosities which exist in such an intimate setting fulfil Jeff’s instinctual need to watch. The act of observing events from a secure distance is as tempting as reality television and magazines. To this day, these mediums provide entertainment tailored to popular culture. At its roots, Jeff’s role as a voyeur within Rear Window is designed to satisfy his intense boredom in a state of injury. As the film is seen through Jeff’s voyeuristic eyes, the audience become voyeurs within their own right. Until relations between Thorwald and his wife simmer into territory fraught with danger, Jeff’s actions are the harmless activities of a man searching for entertainment.

So, if Rear Window teaches us that voyeurism is a dangerous yet natural desire, does the film comment on the individuals who consent to being watched? Within Greenwich Village, Jeff’s chance to act as an observer is propelled by the indifference of those he observes. Almost without exception, his neighbours inadvertently permit Jeff’s eyes wandering into their apartments by leaving their blinds up. The private elements of others’ lives, including their domestic duties, marital relations and indecencies, are paraded before Jeff. Greenwich Village is his picture show and its residents willingly raise the stage’s curtains. This presentation of Hitchcock’s 1954 statement remains relevant today. Jeff’s neighbours’ consent to his intrusion into their lives bears striking similarities to current indifference. The prevalence of social media enables information to be gathered as soon as its users click the ‘Accept Terms & Conditions’ button. Rear Window is a commentary on social values and provokes its audience to examine habits of their own, especially in a world where sensitive information is at our fingertips. Just as Hitchcock’s 1954 characters invite perversive eyes to inspect their lives, society today is guilty of the same apathy.

The characters of Hitchcock’s thriller are a pivotal element of the film’s construction. They add layers of depth to the text and fulfil roles central to the plot’s development. One of Hitchcock’s fundamental directorial decisions was leaving multiple characters unnamed – within Greenwich Village alone, we meet Miss Lonelyhearts, Miss Torso and Miss Hearing Aid. The stereotypical nature of these labels, based on superficial traits that Jeff observes from his window, exemplifies the sexism prevalent in the 1950s. Jeff’s knowledge of these women is limited to such an extent that he does not know their names, yet considers himself qualified enough to develop labels for each of them. The historical background of stereotypes is imbedded within Rear Window and shares vast similarities with the stereotypes we recognise today.

Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller Rear Window portrays a little world that represents the larger one. Its themes, primarily voyeurism, and character profiles illustrate Hitchcock’s societal messages and provide a running commentary on issues which govern America during the 1950s. In the six decades since the film’s release, the Western world has undergone significant developments both socially and culturally. L.B (Jeff) Jefferies’ perception of women and married life is inconsistent with the relations between men and women that we observe today. Regardless, the timeless views that Hitchcock’s conveys through Rear Window continue to speak volumes about our society. Jeff’s voyeurism, which comprises much of the film’s major plotline, is a channel for Hitchcock to comment about the instinctual desire for individuals to observe others. Additionally, Hitchcock delves into the flip side of this matter, presenting the theory that those he watches are just as guilty of allowing his intrusion into their private lives. Apathetic mindsets in today’s digital world are responsible for the same indifference that Hitchcock explores within his film. Let’s not forget the sexist stereotypes that Jeff develops to label certain women within Greenwich Village. Miss Lonelyhearts, Miss Torso and Miss Hearing Aid are all victims of Jeff’s narrow mindset towards women, emphasised by these superficial and demeaning names. Stereotypes remain as apparent within society today as they were within the world of Rear Window and can be identified within the media’s diverse presentation of social issues. It is easy to assume that Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller, Rear Window, lacks the relevancy we expect from films. Contrary to this perception, its ingrained messages are fundamentally true to this day.


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