Teaching Rear Window

Matthew H. Bernstein


Obviously, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is an incredibly rich and rewarding film to teach.  The voluminous body of criticism on it provides a wealth of ideas to explore. My brief here, however, is that the film makes for a perfect first week film in an Introduction to Film course.  Since the film is in color and students consistently find it entertaining, it also makes the case for my constant claim to them that films made prior to Star Wars Episode Four are well worth their attention. (Making the case for black and white films begins the second week of class with a screening of Citizen Kane.)

I teach Intro using David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art, and I begin the semester assigning their foundational chapter on principles of film form.  Hitchcock and screenwriter John Michael Hayes realized a classically structured film, so it is rewarding to guide students into recognizing relational principles at work within it.  I find students are alert to specific examples to share with each other, whether it be the motifs of the thermometer by Jeff’s window, of Jeff’s window shades rising and falling, the composer’s halting progress on “Lisa,” and so forth.  My students demonstrate growing excitement as we map on a white board Hayes’s and Hitchcock’s character configurations, their similarities and differences: Lisa vs.  Miss Torso, Lisa vs. Miss Lonelyhearts, Lisa vs. Mrs. Thorwald, and Jeff vs. the invalid Mrs. Thorwald.  The conflict between Lisa and Jeff is a textbook clash of values and worldviews, and so Lisa’s persuasive demonstration to Jeff that she is rough and ready through her adventures in Thorwald’s apartment provides a fine example of how characters progress and develop. And I make sure we discuss parallel stylistic motifs, such as the camera movements surveying the courtyard that occur in the start, middle and conclusion of the film.

The Socratic method encourages the students to draw out the film’s many meanings.  These can be explicit (as in its critique of voyeurism, Stella’s “We’re a nation of peeping toms”—a sentiment certainly made vivid in this age of FaceBook, Instagram and cellphone cameras).  Yet they note the ways in which the film implicitly complicates such ideas (after all, a murderer is caught and a suicide is prevented via voyeurism), and we discuss the importance of implicit meanings here and with each succeeding week.

The textbook’s term “symptomatic meaning” opens the discussion up to the ideological meanings at work in the film.  Here I of course draw upon Laura Mulvey’s landmark analysis of the patriarchal dynamics of voyeurism and exhibitionism in Jeff and Lisa’s relationship, but we also discuss the now-laughable dialogue between Jeff and Lisa about “women’s intuition” concerning whether or not Mrs. Thorwald would take her jewelry if she knew she was going to travel, among many other aspects of the film.

But we also can acknowledge how Rear Window complicates such a reading, given Lisa’s active role in the murder investigation and the switching of gender roles between the central couple (Lisa is the one at work every day, coming home to the domestically restricted Jeff, and telling him about her day at work).[1]  At the same time, I can guide students to an appreciation of how Hitchcock manipulates James Stewart’s all-American star persona (since few know him well, I bring up Tom Hanks) by turning him into a commitment averse, perverse fetishist whom Lisa correctly calls out.  We can also discuss the film’s historical grounding, with loose analogies to the advent of television (each neighbor’s window a different channel) and the era of McCarthyism, in which the anti-Communist hysteria encouraged citizens to spy on their neighbors.  This is a perfect teaching moment to stress there are many meanings to be interpreted in the best films.  My students invariably leave that discussion feeling invigorated and excited about being able to make sense of the film and demonstrate to themselves the value of keeping formal principles in mind for the rest of the semester.

And the rest of the semester is where Rear Window continues to pay dividends.  I return to it constantly in various units that follow the first week, particularly those on narrative and narration (week 2), camerawork (week 4) and editing (week 5 or 6).  The history of Jeff’s relationship with Lisa and with Detective Tom Doyle, or, as with many detective films, the dynamic by which we come to understand/find evidence of Thorwald’s crime provide clear examples of the distinction between plot and story.  The dialogue-less opening sequence that shows Jeff asleep in his cast and wheelchair and tracks and pans to survey his camera and various photos, including that of the race car accident, provides a textbook case of dialogue-less narration providing exposition and backstory.  In terms of range of narration, when I ask students why it exists, students learn to appreciate how the scene of Jeff asleep while Thorwald and the alleged Mrs. Thorwald leave the building in the middle of the night is a rare instance in which the viewer knows more than Jeff about the Thorwalds, and thus functions to provide a crucial element of doubt to Jeff and Lisa’s hypotheses about the murder.  While I had broached the reflexive elements of the film in week one, I now draw upon David Bordwell’s analysis of the film in Narration in the Fiction Film[2], so that students can be led to see how Jeff and his friends are analogues for the movie’s viewers, who draw upon clues offered in the film to create story out of plot.

As I’ve already noted, Jeff’s knowledge and perceptions of the events occurring in the courtyard provide a textbook case of restricted range of narration.  Thorwald’s discovery that it is Jeff who is threatening him provides a dramatic example of how a seemingly simple twist in the hierarchy of knowledge among characters and between the characters and the viewer raises the stakes of suspense.  Moreover, Hitchcock’s commitment to Jeff’s optical point of view also helps students grasp one of the most challenging concepts they encounter in the course, depth of narration (character subjectivity).  One can point out the alternation of these optical point of view shots with shots of objective depth (which provide views of Jeff talking with Lisa and Stella or spying on his neighbors’ apartments.  Students can appreciate how strictly Hitchcock sticks to the regime of only showing us what Jeff actually sees when he switches from binoculars to the telephoto lens, and also the two instances in which the director breaks perspective (the various shots of the neighbors after the dog’s corpse is discovered and in Jeff’s final struggle with Thorwald).

In an era where students have curated their own movie-watching, Rear Window constitutes not only a common text in the classroom but a thread throughout the rest of the course, as I return to clips from the film constantly as the semester progresses for examples of cinematic style.   Regarding mise en scene, Jeff’s various lenses are crucial props, as is Mrs. Thorwald’s ring; one can also discuss the film’s scheme of lighting (with the sunny daytime scenes contrasted with Thorwald’s glowing cigarette in the dark, and Thorwald’s approach to Jeff’s apartment); and of course costuming is central to the film’s meanings via Lisa’s wardrobe and her ironic appearance in jeans in the final scene.  When discussing camerawork, I can return to Jeff’s binoculars and telephoto lens to illustrate the concept of different focal length lenses, and reiterate the expository functions of camera movement not motivated by characters in motion.  In the editing unit, students revisit the film’s prevalence of point of view cutting, which students quickly connect with after a discussion of the Kuleshov effect and the eyeline match.  When discussing sound, we can distinguish between diegetic and non-diegetic music by comparing the composer’s work on “Lisa” with non-diegetic music of the opening and closing credits; and we can note that the fact that while Jeff has held Thorwald in his visual view, Thorwald’s approach to Jeff’s apartment is conveyed in darkness and solely through sound to evoke off-screen space (I share with my students my strong suspicion that this scene may have inspired the Coen Brothers’ suspenseful treatment of Anton Chigurh’s approach to Llewelyn Moss’s hotel room in No Country for Old Men).

Finally, Rear Window resonates with other films I teach, in terms of form, style and meaning.  Most pertinently, I sometimes show Notorious for the units on editing not only because of the prevalence of point-of-view editing in the espionage film but also the similarities in narrative set-up to Rear Window—in each, a man secure in patriarchal social structures deputizes a woman (Jeff reluctantly, Devlin actively) to investigate life-threatening spaces and encounter murderous people whom the male cannot.  Alternately, I have used The Silence of the Lambs, an extremely Hitchcockian film, to teach editing, because of its great intensity and emphasis on point-of-view editing.  Here, one can contrast Demme’s decision to have characters speak directly into the lens in point of view shots with Hitchcock’s more traditional approach of looking to the side, and equally importantly, contrast the assumed desirability of monogamous heterosexual romance  portrayed by Hitchcock’s heroines against Clarice Starling’s feminist disinterest in men as she pursues Buffalo Bill.  Both Notorious and Silence of the Lambs demonstrate the demeaning of women in male-dominated professions, even as they demonstrate great bravery when asked to undertake life-threatening missions in the service of the government.

There is much more that can be said about the rewards of teaching Rear Window in and of itself, and I’m sure readers have thought of many.  Of course, teachers find extremely useful any number of films to begin an introduction to film course.  For me, though, and more important for the students, Rear Window is the gift that keeps on giving.



Matthew H. Bernstein chairs the Department of Film and Media Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, where he has taught since 1989, and he continues to cherish teaching Introduction to Film.   He is the author of two books and editor or co-editor of four anthologies on American film history and criticism, and a winner of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Katherine S. Kovacs Essay Award and Pedagogy Award.  He is completing a study of Atlanta’s film culture in the segregated era and at work on a history of Columbia Pictures.  He also serves on the National Film Preservation Board, which advises the Librarian of Congress on matters of film preservation and entries into the National Film Registry.



[1] See on this latter point Elise Lemire, “Voyeurism and the Postwar Crisis of Masculinity in Rear Window,” in John Belton, ed., Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (Boston: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 57-90.

[2] David Bordwell,  Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 40-47.


The Cine-Files, issue 13 (fall 2017)