Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window situates the protagonist, a photographer, as a panoptic “eye” that watches all the goings-on of his neighbors. Jeff is confined to a wheelchair and unable to leave his apartment so he begins to obsessively watch his neighbors through their unshuttered windows. Jeff’s apartment is located in a perfect spot that allows him visual access into the homes of almost all of the other apartments that share a courtyard. The things that he witnesses are at times amusing, titillating, and horrifying.
It is interesting that when Jeff needs to see deeper into a situation, he uses his camera and long lens to extend his gaze. In the film still above, the lens acts as a screen, allowing the viewer to access Jeff’s panoptic vision by projecting what he sees onto the front of the lens. Jeff is pointing his camera into Thorwald’s apartment, searching for a thread of evidence that will prove that Thorwald killed his wife. The camera is a sign of privileged vision, because it allows Jeff to see deep into the private lives of his neighbors. Without the use of the telephoto lens, he may not have been able to expose Thorwald’s crime.
Since Jeff is confined to a wheelchair, he is unable to intervene in the drama that unfolds before him, in fact most times he has no interest in engaging with his neighbors. This inability or unwillingness to act is reminiscent of Susan Sontag’s characterization of photography as “an act of non-intervention.” Although his all-seeing eye is typically impotent, Jeff at times acts as a disciplinarian by revealing the misdeeds of Thorwald who killed his wife, and at times as a savior when he is remotely able to come to his girlfriend’s aid.