The love of cinema is rooted in the love of voyeurism. The love of voyeurism is rooted in lack of excitement in life. Cinema, first and foremost, is a visual medium. Literature allows for the imagination of readers, but cinema defines it through the concrete visuals it possesses. Novels can pinpoint every thought and feeling of a character at every second, but film can’t. As famously noted from a Chinese proverb though, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, so every frame of a film contains multitudes of detail. Films have the ability to connect to audiences in a more personal way than novels because actors and actresses are far easier to relate to than paragraphs.
It is because of our need to connect with humans in a behavioral way that makes Rear Window more of a film about relation and the evolution of cinema than the heart pounding intensity of a thriller. Through the view of his binoculars, Jeff watches the neighbors across him with increasing obsession from his apartment living room after being hospitalized for an injury he incurred while on the job. Jeff is a photographer, so his natural inclination is to observe people and take photos of them. His inability to do this due to his profession has made him turn his head to the window. The inability to live out one’s own life forces one to live through the lives of others. Across Jeff’s window lie several stories that encapsulate stories that Jeff can relate to. He cannot hear the people in the apartment, he can only relate through the demeanor of their character and the actions of their behavior. This aspect of Rear Window is clearly reflexive because what the protagonist is essentially viewing is several different silent films. Silent films remain the purest way of telling stories through film because it is strictly image based. The phrase, “actions speak louder than words” also connects this idea of image based storytelling back to human interaction. The way emotions are conveyed by the human body and face are easier to relate to than words that define a character as being sad. Jeff uses these people as his subjects to escape his current predicament, but his girlfriend’s act of relating their situation to one of the subjects, a lonely woman, pulls him back into his real life situation. This calls back the famous quote that Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger wrote to Wendy Hiller in a letter, “No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does. We have proved, at any rate, that they will pay to see the truth, for other reasons than her nakedness.” Art naturally reflects life because art is rooted in real life. The only way to create true escapism is to avoid any kind of human vulnerability whether its emotional or physical. Jeff’s observational tendencies is meant for a source of entertainment, but as he continues to watch people, he begins to become more and more involved in their lives until the inevitable happens; suspicion of one of them as a murderer.
With Rear Window, Hitchcock is showing us the history of cinema because cinema is rooted in voyeurism and voyeurism is due to lack of excitement in life. Constant viewing of another person’s life gets boring after a while, so Jeff, whether his claims are true or not, imposes a narrative on one his subjects. He believes that his neighbor has killed his wife and he tries to convince friends and policemen that his claims are true. During the 1910s and 1920s, people grew tired of watching a train moving towards them or watching people play cards, so naturally film became more focused as a storytelling medium along with being a medium to express behaviors. Jeff wants to give his subject a narrative structure because he is bored of what he is seeing. There is comfort in placing a narrative structure to life because life is seemingly without one.
Until the very end of Rear Window, the audience is still uncertain that Jeff’s accusations against his neighbor are valid. The ending culminates in a battle between Jeff and his neighbor where Jeff literally uses his camera lights to fight the supposed villain off. The lights are as artificial as the assumptions that Jeff is using against the neighbor to accuse him of a crime. The neighbor uses his own natural strength to fight Jeff back. The battle of the audience and the actor figuratively plays out with the audience winning; Jeff is validated of his claims and evidence is found that convicts the neighbor of killing his own wife. The fictional suspicion of Jeff’s mind becomes the truth. Does Hitchcock convey the message to fight for the fiction instead of the truth? No, he’s not demanding that we do, he’s rather stating that it is what we do through the unwavering faith Jeff puts in his suspicions. The realistic ending of the film would be that the neighbor is not the killer, and that Jeff has been deluding himself the entire time. Realism and honesty are not virtues of cinema because art, in and of itself, is a lie. Pablo Picasso once said, “Art is the lie that tells the truth”. With Rear Window, Hitchcock disproves the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger quote that audiences don’t want escapism in films through the actions of Jeff.