Rear Windows

Edward Hopper, Night Windows, 1928.

English class on surveillance, voyeurism and neighbourliness, featuring Alfred Hitchcock, Edward Hopper, Avril Paton and Ole Marius Jøergensen

Following on from my previous post about The Prisoner, which evokes among other things the theme of surveillance, and the post about Brainstorm, which imagines a dystopian technology allowing users to vicariously experience other people’s memories, this class focuses on the subject of neighbourhood watch, privacy and voyeurism. The clips I have used that best elicit discussions on these themes are from one of the all-time greats, Hitchcock’s Rear Window.

The film explores the fine line between curiosity, concern and invasion of privacy, with plenty of potential for class discussions about issues related to surveillance, notions of neighbourliness and community, or debates around minding your own business and nosiness. These discussions have proven very rich where I teach today in France, where the idea of neighbourhood watch is a relatively new concept and not one many feel at ease with, and where informing on people (la délation) carries many pejorative connotations.

Level A2+


Show students Edward Hopper’s Night Windows, above, or else Avril Paton’s Windows in the West (below), or both. Get them to describe and react to the pictures in pairs/groups with some simple gist questions (what can you see? what do you think the painter wanted to convey? what do the two pictures have in common? in what way do they differ?), before asking volunteers to share their ideas, noting them down on the board (or projected word processing document, as you prefer).

Avril Paton, Windows in the West, 1993

Clip analysis

Step one

Watch the opening credits to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Ask the students to make notes based on the following questions:

Describe the man (age, profession, current situation)
Where does he live (describe his surroundings)?
What do we learn about his neighbours?
When does the scene take place (period, season)?
What do you think happened to him?
What do you think will happen next and in the course of the film? Why?

Get the students to share their observations in pairs/small groups, then together with the whole class, noting down pertinent vocab for all to see.

Step two

Watch the second clip. Ask the students to make notes based on the following areas:
What do we learn about the different people living in the apartment block?
What do we learn about the hero’s attitude towards them?
What suspicions do you think the hero has? Do you think they are justified? What would you do … ?
What do you think happens next?

Get the students to share their observations in pairs/small groups, then together with the whole class, noting down pertinent vocab for all to see.

Creative/productive activities for students

There are many different directions in which you can take this, here are some suggestions:

  • Have students prepare and present an imaginary conclusion to the story.
  • Have students to prepare and present the life story and situation for one of the hero’s neighbours. Alternatively, they could choose a picture from Ole Marius Jøergensen’s series Peeping Tom, which raises similar questions about voyeurism, privacy and community. (see below, for example)

Ole Marius Jøergensen, from the series Peeping Tom, 2016

  • Have students debate the ethics of neighbourhood watch or similar schemes. Is there a dark side to such schemes (for example, The Shooting of Trayvon Martin)?
  • Discussions in groups on the theme of neigbourliness, surveillance, privacy and voyeurism, focused on the personal experience of students.
  • Role-plays (could the man phone the police, based on what he has seen? What would he say? Imagine a dialogue between him and a sceptical cop)
  • Ask the students to watch the film at home and report back their impressions at the next class.

Possible areas of language focus

Depending on whether you prefer a task-based approach or a straight arrow ESA sequence, you could consider focusing on the following language points:

  • modals for deduction (He must be a detective, he could have broken his leg in an accident etc.)
  • tenses (past, present, future etc.)
  • conditionals (If I were him, I’d …)
  • prepositions (the building above/below, the flat to the right/left, across the courtyard, out of the window, through the window, opposite the man’s appartment etc.)

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