The captivating nature of film as an artform stems from the natural human pleasure of watching something unfold upon others, without that someone having an awareness of our presence. Rear Window (1954) is a film that not only understands the voyeuristic nature of film as a medium, but makes the viewer participate in Jeff’s (James Stewart) voyeuristic behavior as he spends the film watching the actions of his neighbors. He’s a photographer, someone who is naturally inclined to observe others. Stuck in his apartment all day as an invalid, he has little else to occupy his time and mind.
Seeing Jeff as a Peeping Tom is to see one’s self as a Peeping Tom, as we end up equally guilty of spying on his neighbors as he is. But guilt isn’t what we’re supposed to feel.
“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.” - The Artifice
Hitchcock praises the curious nature of human voyeurism. It’s a running theme in many of his films, but the central one of Rear Window. Though voyeurism will always carry as social taboo overall, when there’s something interesting to be seen, people tend to cast aside their reservations. In the film, Lisa (Grace Kelly) and Stella (Thelma Ritter) become equally avid in their voyeurism to Jeff.
“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 with 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. 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
Hitchcock knows we as a species like to watch others, but he’s also aware that despite our voyeuristic tendencies, we can frequently go through life with a disregard for those around us. There’s a loneliness in community that he examines through Jeff’s eyes. Hitchcock takes the voyeuristic approach to cue us into the realities of the world around us - realities we may not take the time to observe on our own.
“[Voyeurism] has its healthy implications. It is through his peeping that Jeff solves Mrs. Thorwald’s murder (no one else seems to care) and also gains a more human quality, a greater sense of other people’s vulnerability, especially that of Lisa…. We are not likely to leave the film with a sense of having spent two hours in salacious voyeurism. Rather, our glimpses into other people’s lives in Rear Window tend to leave us feeling more aware of the way in which people suffer in close proximity to one another, more sensitive to the sights and sounds of loneliness in our own world.”