May 21, 2012

The very idea of cinema is voyeuristic. As viewers, we watch people onscreen break up and break down, fall in love and fall from grace, lose loved ones and lose their minds. And it is this basic human desire to watch people, to spy on them and learn their secrets, that is the central theme of Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window.

L.B. Jefferies (Jimmy Stewart) is a photographer confined at home after breaking his leg at an auto-racing event. With not much to do at home, Jefferies takes to spying on his unsuspecting neighbours — a hobby that soon proves to be rather dangerous. Jefferies notices suspicious behaviour in the apartment right across the courtyard from his and becomes convinced that a woman has been murdered by her husband. Unfortunately, he has no evidence. He convinces a friend in the police to investigate and finds out that the suspect’s name is Thorwald and that Mrs Thorwald is allegedly travelling. Jefferies does not buy any of this and, with the help of his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) and nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), does his own sleuthing to prove that he was right all along.

The whole film is shot from inside Jefferies’s apartment — thereby closely aligning the audience with him as he peers at his neighbours through binoculars. The characters are aware of their voyeurism and wisecracking nurse Stella even scolds Jefferies saying, “We’ve become a nation of peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”

The film’s legacy can be seen in the many remakes and spoofs it has inspired including a 1998 made-for-television movie adaptation starring the late Christopher Reeve and the Steven Spielberg film Disturbia (2007) starring Shia LeBeouf.

Zehra Nabi is a graduate student in The Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. She previously worked at Newsline and The Express Tribune.