The term ‘voyeurism’ originally means an act of “[gaining] sexual pleasure from watching others when they are naked or engaged in sexual activity (Oxford Dictionary, Oxford University Press) However, it is often used to indicate a general interest in spying at other people’s private activities or moments. Voyeurism has often been a subject in cinema. In fact, watching a movie itself may also be a voyeuristic activity in its nature in that the audience seeks pleasure in looking at lives of other people.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation are two of many films that talk about voyeurism. In Rear Window, its main character Jeffrey seeks pleasure in looking at his neighborhood while sitting still in a chair all day long with his broken leg. In The Conversation, the protagonist, Caul takes part in a voyeuristic activity with his job as a surveillance expert. However, voyeurism is dealt in a significantly different way in each of these two films.
In Rear Window, Jeffrey’s voyeuristic activity is mainly engaged with vision. His sight is the primary sense that is used. The story evolves from what he ‘sees’. This visual aspect of Jeffrey’s voyeuristic experience is effectively shared with the audience throughout the film. The audience sees the neighborhood only through Jeffrey’s window, binoculars, or lenses, purely from Jeffrey’s point of view. This way, they automatically take his position as a voyeur, and become part of his voyeurism. This sharing also draws parallel with their voyeurism with the experience with cinema itself, in that the audience peeps at his personal life through the screen just like Jeffrey peeps at his neighborhood through his window.
By sharing this voyeuristic activity with the audience, Rear Window shows Hitchcock’s view on voyeurism that it is a universal pleasure that all human beings pursue. In the story of the film, Jeffrey’s spying of his neighborhood starts off as his private hobby, but it eventually becomes a shared experience with his fiancé, Lisa, and his nurse, Stella. They are wary of the ethical issue with peeping at first, but later, they become more enthusiastic with finding out about Mr. Thorwald’s murder case than Jeffrey has been. Through this sharing, Jeffrey and Lisa even develop a fonder feeling with each other. Outside the story, Hitchcock further expands this excitement onto the audience and makes their interest in watching a film also a kind of voyeurism. Therefore, in Rear Window, voyeurism is not as much as an unhealthy desire, but a very natural one that normal people also can possess.
While the voyeuristic activity in Rear Window is mostly carried out by vision, it is mostly carried out by sound in The Conversation. Instead of looking at other people, the main character, Caul, secretly ‘listens’ to them. Again with The Conversation, the audience goes through Caul’s experience purely from his point of view. They therefore share his voyeuristic activity but at the same time also his faulty interpretation of the situation. To eavesdrop, Caul relies on technology and he never doubts its accuracy. Since the audience accesses the story only through his perspective, they also take in the information without any doubt. Thus, when the truth is revealed and it is found that the technology actually hindered Caul from gaining the right knowledge, it is striking both for him and for the audience. Regarding this, voyeuristic activity in this film is not a powerful tool that can take advantage of other people by prying on their secrets. It is rather a flawed, one-sided information with which it is very dangerous to make judgments based on it.
Voyeurism in The Conversation is therefore not a pleasure. It is depicted rather as a violation that acts as a burden for the protagonist. As a surveillance expert, Caul has been continuously haunted by his guilt that he has put people whom he eavesdropped in danger. The guilt that spurs from his past deeds as a voyeur, pushes him forward to rise up and stop the mischief, but eventually fails him by making him oblivious to the fact that the information may be completely different from what he is already expecting. Through this voyeuristic activity, Caul only discovers the presence of a huge power in the society that he, as an individual, cannot simply defy, as opposed to Jeffrey, who overcomes a dead-end in his relationship with his fiancé and renews it successfully through his voyeuristic experience. Thus, while voyeurism helps the characters escape from immobility in Rear Window, it only defeats the protagonist even more and deprives of his ability to move forward in The Conversation.