Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock

Why Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ Mirrors Today’s Social Media Age

In its exploration of themes like paranoia, voyeurism, and loneliness, Hitchcock’s Rear Window strikes a familiar chord with the social media climate we live in today.

Rear Window
Alfred Hitchcock
1 September 1954

Throughout Alfred Hitchcock’s lengthy career, the 1950s were undoubtedly his most glamorous era in filmmaking. With Hollywood’s biggest stars in Technicolor and carefully crafted sequences that would have film scholars talking for decades, Hitchcock entered a new peak in visual storytelling. Rear Window, now approaching the 70th anniversary of its production, is a standout film of that decade with a storyline that still holds relevance in the 21st century. Using the camera as narrator, Rear Window carefully weaves a terrifying thriller through a multi-layered love story. Released in 1954, Rear Window is widely regarded as one of the most accessible and modern of Hitchcock’s 53 films.

These days, Hitchcock’s legacy hardly requires an introduction, but in the early ’50s, he was an outside-of-the-box filmmaker beginning to revolutionize sound and frame editing by putting himself in the audience’s place. Rear Window was released during a trying time to a post-World War II public when fears of Communism and nuclear war generated anxiety in America. Gender stereotypes were tightly intact, and it would be over a decade before the women’s liberation movement shook up the patriarchy. Yet, when re-analyzing Rear Window in our times, it still feels as fresh as the day it was made. The paranoia and isolation experienced by the central character reflect those feelings of loneliness and mistrust in current society.  Distortions of social media further mirror Rear Window’s themes, which remain universal in America.

Another reason Rear Window retains its relevance is partially due to the imperfection and relatability of its main character. J.B. Jefferies, known to his friends as Jeff (played by the reliably affable Jimmy Stewart, who even gives this curmudgeon appeal), is a flawed anti-hero. As a combat photographer who’d always been on the go, he’s now confined to a wheelchair after breaking his leg. (In an early scene, he explains the cast on his left leg is a result of getting too close for comfort with his camera at an auto race.) Jeff spends his days of recovering, staring aimlessly through the back window of his Greenwich Village apartment into the courtyard below—and into the windows of his neighbors.

Enter Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), a glamourous career girl of Madison Avenue who’s mad about Jeff. Though deeply frustrated at his lack of commitment, she doesn’t back down easily, even if it means going out on a limb to show him her dangerous side. Jeff also receives daily visits from Stella (played by the spunky Thelma Ritter), his nurse who serves as the voice of reason. She does her best to convince him he’s making a mistake by casting Lisa aside. Flabbergasted at the thought of Jeff ending things with her because she’s “too perfect”, Stella sighs, “I can hear you now: “Get out of my life, you wonderful woman. You’re too good for me.”

 Jeff, who seems too wrapped up in himself to take Lisa seriously, spends the entirety of Rear Window observing different walks of life through a camera lens at his back window, the same point of view that Hitchcock cleverly limits the audience. Bored to tears, he spies on neighbors, inventing stories about their lives. The curiosities in this intimate setting fulfill Jeff’s overactive imagination. The audience becomes one with him as he leaps from one conclusion to another about the narrow view he has of people he doesn’t know. His act of observing others from a secure, unseen distance isn’t unlike our online world today. 

Navigating social media platforms with similar access to friends and strangers can result in the same lack of connection Jeff is experiencing in his inner life (perhaps even more so in a post-pandemic world). When we indulge in social media to feel more connected to others, known and unknown, the nature of these platforms creates a further sense of disconnection and, like Jeff’s predicament, isolates us from our real-life networks, leading to more loneliness. The ’50s-era Rear Window demonstrates that people have always had the same counterproductive tendencies to overcome loneliness. It’s no wonder Rear Window‘s commentary on humanity remains ageless.

Though certain aspects of Rear Window, like the fashions and technology of the ’50s are of its era, its underlying messages on the common feeling of alienation and the tendency to judge others from a distance remains a tale as old as time. Upon release, film critic Bosley Crowther of The New York Times summed it up well, stating, “It exposes many facets of the loneliness of city life and it tacitly demonstrates the impulse of morbid curiosity.”

Stewart’s Jeff makes one wonder if they’d genuinely like him upon meeting him. On one hand, he is played with great charm by the most “Regular Joe” movie star of all time. (Visions of Stewart usually bring to mind the wholesome George Bailey in Frank Capra’s 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life, happily embracing his family on Christmas Day). From another angle, Jeff spends his days and nights with a camera – out of sheer boredom at being stuck inside – peeping into other’s windows. Though, with the blinds up in many of these apartments, it could be debated that some of these characters possibly want to be seen. This is comparable to the exhibitionism we see in the desired accumulation of “likes” in the social media world. As much as online privacy protection has been discussed in the media, people still want to be seen and positively acknowledged.

As Jeff scans his neighbors’ windows, he makes snap judgments about who they are. He looks down on the loved-up newlyweds and the bickering old couple as he rejects the “suffocating” institution of marriage for himself. He dubs the shapely dancer who entertains male suitors “Miss Torso”, and the unmarried woman who entertains imaginary dates in the next apartment over “Miss Lonelyhearts”. Jeff’s behavior shares similarities with the comments sections of many social media platforms. People anonymously pass judgment and make snide remarks about others, yet in the real world, they wouldn’t dare say such things face to face. 

Jeff’s old-world misogyny doesn’t allow him to see much about these women beyond what they physically represent. In his mind, women seem to belong in two categories – the “vamp” or “the spinster”. What he’s unconsciously observing in his multi-box display of domestic dramas is relationship commitment (and his potential future with Lisa) in its various stages and forms. In his mind, Lisa is from another world. Her distaste for combat boots and hostels instead of three-star hotels demonstrates a stark incompatibility between the two. Jeff views her desire to marry him as a ball and chain that will slow him down and impede his photography career.

To emphasize their differences, Hitchcock ensured Lisa Fremont’s wardrobe was considered with meticulous detail for every scene. When meeting with legendary Hollywood costume designer, Edith Head, he stressed that Lisa must appear so perfect that she’s almost untouchable. Head needed to create a nearly unattainable dream-like air about Lisa. Drawing inspiration from Christian Dior’s post-war “New Look”, the costumes range from an elegant monochromatic dress with a full white skirt and off-the-shoulder top to a pistachio-colored suit with a tailored white halter top. The on-camera effect is breathtaking as Lisa enters and leaves his apartment. The visual contrast of her exquisite clothes next to the dingy apartment and Jeff’s baggy pajamas further emphasize the different worlds Lisa and Jeff aspire to. 

When Lisa first appears, Hitchcock uses a clever trick by shaking the camera for a shimmering effect. The result is a desired dream-like sequence. She whispers to Jeff. 

Lisa: How’s your leg?

Jeff: Hurts a little

Lisa: Your stomach?

Jeff: Empty as a football

Lisa: And your love life?

Jeff: Not too active.

Lisa: Anything else bothering you?

Jeff: Yes—who are you?

As she moves about his small apartment to switch on his three lamps, the romantic haze slowly lifts, and reality sets in. Jeff’s defenses are up. He won’t open up to Lisa, and her exasperation mounts as, at one point, she wonders aloud, “How far does a girl have to go before you notice her?”

If Jeff is the voyeur of Rear Window and, essentially, the filmmaker who follows a killer, then Lisa is the heart of the film and the more courageous of the two in expressing her feelings and desires. “I’m in love with you,” she says plainly. ”I don’t care what you do for a living. I’d just like to be part of it somehow.” Lisa embraces life in the real world. Each night when she visits Jeff, she’s full of stories and excitement about her work day, which he resents. For almost eight weeks, he’s been stuck in a dark room with his overactive imagination, peering out and creating paranoid ideas about the world. In today’s context, Jeff represents the typical lonely internet addict, whereas Lisa embodies someone with a healthier relationship with the outside world. 

Soon Jeff begins to confront the worst-case scenario of spying on his neighbors. Through his camera lens, he sees what he believes is Lars Thorwold (Raymond Burr) murdering his wife by poisoning her, then following up that horrible act by dispensing her body parts in the East River. Jeff’s world is shaken by what he’s sure he’s just witnessed. It’s one thing to stare across the courtyard and fabricate murder mysteries to pass time, but he suddenly realizes the reality of someone taking another human life is absolutely stomach-turning. 

What makes Rear Window‘s murder scene unique is that it takes place out of sight with the blinds drawn. Mrs. Thorwald’s scream goes mostly unnoticed in the heat of the Manhattan summer night, and not an ounce of gore is shown. Jeff and the audience observe as Thorwald quickly moves in and out of his apartment with a heavy suitcase of presumed evidence, and we are left to conclude what it contains.

Compared to Hitchcock’s later acclaimed films like Psycho (1961) or The Birds (1963), where the violence is more blatant and intense, he made an interesting choice with Rear Window. Here, he plays on the viewer’s mounting anxiety about what may be happening instead of showing what is happening. In Psycho, the aggressive murder scene where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is stabbed to death on-screen in the shower by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is terrifyingly effective. Rear Window’s murder is just as horrible an act, but that it happens behind closed curtains taps into the audience’s emotions of apprehension.

In his effort to prove Thorwald murdered his wife, Jeff receives help from Lisa and Stella. Unlike Jeff, trapped in his apartment, the women go out searching for concrete evidence to show the police, and they even deliver Jeff’s handwritten note to Thorwald, which simply says, “What have you done with her?” To prove her gumption and willingness to get her hands dirty, Lisa steals into Thorwald’s apartment in search of further proof of murder while he’s away. Confined to a wheelchair, Jeff (and the audience) look on with utter anxiety, as the murderer will be returning any minute. When Thorwald comes home and begins to interrogate and manhandle Lisa, Jeff falls to pieces as all he can do is peer across the courtyard in sheer agony.

The police, of course, arrive just in time, and she’s free to go. In triumph, Lisa flashes Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring to Jeff as she leaves the scene. Thorwald, unfortunately, catches onto this as well. For the first time, he looks across the courtyard and locks eyes with Jeff. It is a chilling moment. Jeff’s voyeurism has now been revealed, and his secretive judgment of his neighbors is no longer his private – and safe – world. 

Later that night, Thorwald’s entrance into Jeff’s apartment is one of the most suspenseful climaxes of all of Hitchcock’s films. His face is unrecognizable in the blackness of the night as he taunts Jeff from the doorway. “What do you want from me?” he says sinisterly. By now, the audience has become Jeff, if you will. As a viewer, it’s impossible not to experience his feelings of paralysis and helplessness. Thorwald wastes no time trying to kill Jeff, ironically attempting to toss him out of his rear window – and succeeding. Once again, the police arrive to take Thorwald away.

The next frame shows a rough landing for Jeff, and not without further casualties. In the final scene, Jeff, now in two leg casts, is resting, notably with his back turned to the rear window. Lisa, now his caretaker, is dressed casually and resting beside him with a copy of William O. Douglas’ 1952 travel book, Beyond the High Himalayas. Just before the credits roll, as if to note that she won’t be changing herself entirely for Jeff, Lisa casts the book aside and begins to leaf through a copy of Harper’s Bazaar

A script loaded with social commentary by John Michael Hayes and a central character conflicted in his psyche are key elements that firmly place Rear Window in the category of one of the best films of all time. Keeping the audience in a small, dark apartment along with Jeff so they hear and see exactly what he hears and sees created new territory in mainstream film back in 1954, but it has the same effect on our anxieties today. “I was feeling very creative at the time,” Hitchcock said of the Rear Window’s success. “The batteries were well charged.” (The Art of Alfred Hitchcock: Fifty Years of His Motion Pictures, 1976). In his artistic vision for Rear Window, it’s almost as if Hitchcock predicted the future of social media and voyeuristic reality television. 

Going into production, Hitchcock was no stranger to working with Stewart. They had previously made Rope together in 1948 (another murder caper, which, coincidently, was also filmed entirely on one apartment). Soon after Rear Window, they made The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958). Kelly had also worked with Hitchcock earlier that year in Dial M for Murder (1954). They would reunite after Rear Window for To Catch a Thief (1955). When Kelly first decided to do Rear Window, she had an agonizing decision on her hands. At the same time, she had also received the script for On the Waterfront, with an offer to play Marlon Brando’s girlfriend in the film directed by Elia Kazan. 

“I sat in my apartment with two screenplays—one was to be filmed in New York with Marlon Brando, and the other was going to be filmed in Hollywood, with James Stewart. Making a picture in New York suited my plans better—but working again with Hitch…well, it was a dilemma.” (High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly, 2009). She knew her destiny was to work with Hitchcock, the director she fully trusted. Besides, due to her upbringing in a prominent Philadelphia family, playing a privileged woman of New York high society was a character she deeply understood.

 Rear Window received four Oscar nominations in 1955 for Best Director (Hitchcock), Best Writing (John Michael Hayes), Best Cinematography, and Best Sound. Though it shockingly didn’t take home any statues that year, it’s still considered by filmgoers, scholars, and critics to be one of the top films of American cinema. In 1997, Rear Window received the credit it deserved when the Librarian of Congress placed it on the National Film Registry.  

Over time, Rear Window has set off a chain reaction of inspiration in modern films on the dangers of loneliness and self-destructive behavior. Even in recent years, it has influenced multiple voyeuristic films like Sam Mendes’ drama American Beauty (1999), a modern fable about the mid-life crisis in America and a lonely teen with a camcorder. Another example is D.J. Caruso’s crime drama Disturbia (2007), a tale taken directly from Rear Window about a teen on house arrest whose boredom leads him to suspect his next-door neighbor is a wanted serial killer. 

Rear Window’s thesis seems to state that everybody’s watching everyone, but what we all need is a genuine connection. As Stella put it so aptly, “What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”