‘.. Rear Window reads like an ironic reversal of Bentham’s ‘Panopticon’ as exploited by Foucault’ Write an essay exploring the significance of the surveillant theme evident in the film Rear Window.
“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms – what people ought to do is get outside their house and look in for a change.” – Stella, Rear Window, 1954. The theme of surveillance is all too clear in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film, ‘Rear Window’. From the opening credits, we immediately get a sense of what this film is about. The slow uprising of the James Jeff’s (L.B. Jeffries a.k.a. Jeff) window blinds to reveal the setting, the courtyard and the apartment blocks we soon become all too familiar with is just perfect. This technique instantly puts a sense of surveillance and voyeurism into the forefront of the viewer’s minds. We then see that Jeff, who we realise is a photographer, has broken his leg and is in a wheelchair, “virtually emasculating him and casting him in the passive role of the spectator” (Surveillance in the Cinema, A. Hultkrans, [Online]). It is by no coincidence that Jeff is a photographer; this sets the scene nicely for the whole film. A photographer is the ultimate voyeur, by having the need to peer into other’s lives as the main objective of their profession. Even though he is out of work because of his broken leg, he applies his work to his home-life, by looking and watching the actions of all his neighbours. Not knowing the real names of many of his subjects, Jeff assigns nicknames to them, such as Miss Lonely Hearts - a middle-aged woman who never has any company over, and Miss Torso - a young ballet dancer who often has different men over to her apartment for drinks. It is made clear to us that he enjoys watching the everyday routines of these people. However, Jeff’s satisfaction doesn’t wholly come from watching his neighbours; it comes from him not being seen in return. This is the best form of entertainment he can get while he is injured and has to rest at home, so he rationalises his behaviour in his head, convincing himself and those close to him that the obsessive surveillance of his subjects is innocent and harmless. He revels in the idea of being able to watch, but not be seen. Bentham’s Panopticon is the basic idea of the few watching the many. The Panopticon is the way in which a building can be designed so that the watcher is unseen by all the others, i.e. in a prison, a school or a factory, so as Allen states, (1999, P126) ‘this very uncertainty intensifies the feeling of menace, of the impossibility of escape from the gaze of the Other.’ This means that no one is ever certain if they are being watched or not. However, in Rear Window, Hitchcock reverses this idea somewhat, therefore, Rear Window really does read like an ironic reversal of the idea of the Panopticon. Not only are his subjects aware that he can see them, and is watching them, but they seem to revel in it to an extent. The courtyard that separates him from his subjects is like a panoptic space. It is the natural exhibitionist nature of all humans being displayed. As stated by Allen, (1999, P126): The inhabitants of the apartments across the yard are actually observed all the time by Jeff’s watchful eye, but far from being terrorised, they simply ignore it and go on with their daily business.
The voyeuristic nature of Jeff’s character, Jeff, starts out as something quite innocent and playful, as he is looking out unto his neighbours because of boredom with his broken leg. As Hultkrans argues in his essay on Surveillance in the Cinema, this broken leg leaves our protagonist in the perfect position to become the observer of all the events that unfold, ‘his leg, broken in the line of duty, virtually emasculating him and casting him in the passive role of the spectator, a truly captive audience’. However, although he has a passive role in the lives of his subjects for the majority of the film, and never interacts with them, when he...
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