Rear Window Ethics

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James Stewart as L.B. Jefferies in Rear Window (1954).

Is it okay to spy on your neighbors? The short answer is, of course, no. It’s an affront to their privacy, and it automatically stamps a label on your forehead that reads ‘creep’. But what if you fear your neighbor murdered his wife? It is justifiable then to take a pair of binoculars or an Exakta VX to better stare, for hours on end, into his apartment while being obscured by shadows?

Just recently I saw Hitchcock’s Rear Window, and to be concise I thought it was a splendid thriller, engaging from the very start, unsettling, intriguing. With a broken leg in the 50’s, L.B. Jefferies’s only pastime consists of looking out of his window, and consequently into the lives of his neighbors. Watching them daily for the most of six weeks, gives him a pretty accurate idea of what they’re like, but one night he sees something suspicious (his neighbor exiting and returning to his apartment several times, carrying a metal suitcase) and his mind starts to concoct the most dreadful possibility: the man has killed his wife. When Jeff first tries to explain his lethal theory to Stella, his not-quite-girlfriend, she takes him for a madman. For a short moment, in her eyes, Jeff resembles an unprincipled, sick individual. Gaping at strangers all day long out of boredom is one thing, but now he’s fantasizing about their lives in twisted ways. He asks her if it’s ethical to do so if one can prove another person’s innocence, and she replies,

“I’m not much on rear window ethics.”

Is anyone? The sole act of taking the time to deliberately invade someone else’s privacy unbeknownst to them is unnverving, there’s an inherent sense of depravity that accompanies it. It’s simply not polite. One’s house should be one’s refuge, should it not? Yet that same comforting privacy found within four walls, is at the time an open door to imagination, an unrestrained spectrum upon which humans can act freely.

Is a closed room the same to a sunny seven year old than to an adult whose mind battles questionable deeds on the best of days? The horrors that a closed room can witness are unlimited, as are the innocent, ordinary actions that can happen in the same confines – and that overweigh their eerier counterparts. Taking this into account, is surveillance of the shady vindicated? Is suspicion enough motive to infringe on another’s shelter?

Jeff and Stella think so. They’re attentively observant, giddy in their desire to demonstrate the neighbor’s, Thorwald’s, culpability, neglectful of the poor wife’s fate. And that’s exactly where staring into a stranger’s open window gets even trickier!

First off, it’s wrong, you shouldn’t be doing it at all. Yet if you do, and you see anything out of the ordinary that manages to instill suspicion in your mind, what do you do? Do you come forward with the pertinent authorities, do you call out your neighbor about it? What is the proper etiquette in such cases?

Many times we’ve seen it happen, both in real life and in fiction, it’s easier to turn a blind eye -or more like, both eyes, both ears, and lips sealed. A few days ago I read a quote by Chuck Palahniuk, one of my favorite writers, it goes like this, “Maybe you don’t go to hell for the things you do. Maybe you go to hell for the things you don’t do.”

Or we could recall one that’s much more popular, by Martin Luther King, paraphrased: the silence of the good is more damaging than the brutality of the bad. 

You may accidentally watch others, or you could purposely do so, if the latter, I pray you stop. In any case, the matter that arises is that when you catch sight of something nefarious, it is your responsibility to mitigate it, however small the measure you take is. Human decency.

Nonetheless, when what you see is only vaguely odd, uncertainty reigns.

Not so long ago I was in my backyard at night when I heard hushed, confrontational retorts coming from the house next door. Pulled by curiosity, I lingered in the darkness and waited for my neighbors to continue their quarrel, so as to receive a more tangible notion of what was transpiring. Could either of them be in danger? I’ll never know, because I heard nothing else. And thus the incident died. They’re both alive to this day, by the way.

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m one to go around eavesdropping, but inquisitiveness is an innate trait in humans. Therefore, it’s only natural for one’s mind to grow troubled when a pebble forms ripples on the waters. Whatever is nearby, affects me, ergo I have a right to investigate, to pry. Is that not it?

I feel as if I’m trudging murky waters by disclosing these thoughts. It’s not my intention to touch any sore spots, but the truth is, the ethics regarding peeking inside someone’s window, as Jeff did, are gray. There’s no written document or alibi that will justify your intrusion, however, on very rare occasions, said intrusion becomes acceptable, like Jeff and Stella uncovering a murderer that would otherwise get away with impunity.

But let’s say we’re not watching Thorwald, instead our eyes are glued to the window that gains us access into Miss Lonelyhearts’ solitude. What if the composer hadn’t played his music that night, would she have taken the pills, comitting suicide before our silent eyes?

To not play an active, deterring role against evil turns us into an accessory of crime, a participant if by proxy. There are many more quotes I could reference about this subject, but I’m sure you’ve all got the idea of what I’m trying to say by now.

The question remains: Was it her right to take her own life? Well, yes! Doubtlessly so, if not hers then whose? But were I to be in Lonelyhearts’ shoes, I think I’d appreciate someone stepping in to dissuade me.

Anyway, the bottom line of this seemingly pointless post is, you are not entitled in any way to another person’s private life, but if you, by any chance, come across anything that screams danger to you, then please proceed responsibly. I believe it’s better to be safe than sorry. Who knows, you could end up a hero, but don’t let this slim possibility make you into a self-righteous vigilante. Spectators often see themselves on higher ground compared to functioning actors; to be detached from reality provides us with clearer perspective and more objective reason. But everyone must remember, that even though we are special, we aren’t unique. We’re all just people trying to get by. If life gifts you with an opportunity to do some good in the world, take it, but if you keep looking for trouble, you’ll find it: filth and dirt and scum, it’s everywhere, lying just beneath the surface.

If your blinds are open to stare into the lives of strangers, then others might be able to stare back into yours too. And to be honest, it’d be your own fault.

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Miss Torso’s apartment.

Note: Peeping toms are disgusting, and this post in no way endorses those perverted, dishonorable customs. If you spend your time cowardly preying upon others in the safety of anonimity, you could end up in jail, and rightly so.

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