Exploring The Era Of McCarthyism In Rear Window By Alfred Hitchcock
Rear Window directed by Alfred Hitcock explores voyeurism as an entertaining but also dangerous act. Set to the backdrop of a country gripped by McCarthyism, the film highlights that while spying into the lives of others may begin from mere curiosity, it can lead to many consequences. These consequences are exemplified by the series of events initiated by the protagonist, Jeff’s eager prying into his neighbour’s lives. Yet despite the hazards, Hitchcock ultimately contends that keeping close watch of others and a healthy level of suspicion is required to protect the community.
From the opening scene of the film, Hitchcock establishes a sense of warmth and comfort, depicting voyeurism as a light-hearted form of entertainment. As the audience is introduced to Jeff through his broken leg, a series of symbolic objects in his apartment and the phone conversation with his editor, his character is set as an action starved photo journalist who can only find entertainment by observing his neighbours outside his window. Jeff’s role as a voyeur gazing on others is not just limited to watching his neighbours out of boredom as his profession as a photojournalist celebrates the action and trauma, exemplified by the photos of the car crash. Hitchcock’s depiction of voyeurism as an entertainment is further emphasised in these opening scenes by the helicopter hovering over the women sunbathing on the roof and Jeff and Doyle watching Miss Torso dancing. The helicopter, Jeff and Doyle are all attracted to the women due to their sexual desire and Doyle stops his gaze at Miss Torso only when Jeff reminds him about his wife. Thus Hitchcock presents voyeurism as an entertainment to get out of boredom but also to fulfil their sexual desires.
Despite initially depicting voyeurism as harmless entertainment, Hitchcock quickly demonstrates it as dangerous for the voyeur. After hearing the scream and observing the suspicious comings and goings of his neighbour Thorwald, Jeff becomes obsessed with the case to the detriment of his relationships and the ethics of his character. In the scene where Jeff kisses Lisa, he can only think about the actions of Thorwald and the whereabouts of his wife. His mind is somewhere else despite Lisa urging him that when she’s with a man she wants “all of him”. Lisa is clearly frustrated at being ignored, further highlighting the issues in their relationship, although Jeff appears completely ignorant to her disappointment. While Jeff’s initial invasion into others’ private lives is fuelled by boredom, he shows awareness of the morality around watching his neighbours, as exemplified by his pause and wavering gaze before raising the binoculars to observe Thorwald. Later, Lisa joins Jeff in questioning the morals of spying on others with Jeff wondering if it is “ethical to watch a man with binoculars and a focus lense.” At the end of the film, dangers of voyeurism is further emphasised by broken legs that Jeff has although he manages to solve the case. Hitchcock demonstrates that while voyeurism may have obvious physical dangers, such as Jeff’s broken legs, the real threat lies in the consequences for the individual as they challenge and at times breach ethical boundaries.
Nonetheless, Hitchcock ultimately reinforces McCarthyist ideals by demonstrating that despite the dangers of voyeurism, it serves to keep the community safe. While Jeff and his accomplices grapple with “rear window ethics” and what it reflects about them as people, their ultimate success in capturing a murderer is presented as a victory. Jeff’s wise quip to Doyle about whether he now has enough evidence for a search warrant demonstrates how much Jeff is revelling in the victory of having his suspicions proven correct and seeing justice served. The final scene of the film depicts a community once again happy and safe with a return to lively music, children playing and couples enjoying each others’ company. Even the dog owner, who previously lambasted her neighbours for failing to “care if anybody lives or dies” when her dog is murdered, is seen moving on with her life as she lovingly embraces and talks to a new dog. Jeff and Lisa are seen together with Lisa’s costume of flat shoes, slacks and casual shirts in contrast to the $1100 gown she was first seen in. These transformations from the beginning of the film suggest that it is the adventure provoked by Jeff’s voyeurism that has brought joy to the couple. Moreover, the fact that Lisa, Stella and even Doyle are so readily drawn into the case of Mrs Thorwald and the lives of others in the courtyard may be interpreted as Hitchcock suggesting that voyeurism is a natural urge for humans, especially in an era of McCarthyism.
Ultimately, Hitchcock presents voyeurism as entertaining but also dangerous, illustrating the physical damage that the protagonist ends up with. Initially depicted as entertainment and a break from tediousness, the ethical consequences of voyeurism are presented. But despite this, the ultimate victory of solving a murder and bringing security to the community is shown to outweigh the drawbacks. In this way it may be held that Hitchcock is promoting the ideals of McCarthyism and that despite questionable morals, the close examination and blatant spying on neighbours can be justified in order to protect society.