READING 5.2

JUMP CUT

“THE PUREST TYPE OF CINEMATIC IDEA”

Figure R5.3 consists of four shots from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the story of a man who’s laid up with a broken leg and, unable to leave his apartment, passes the time by spying on his neighbors across the courtyard from his window. This film, Hitchcock explained, “was a possibility of doing a purely cinematic film. You have an immobilized man looking out. That’s one part of the film. The second part shows what he sees, and the third part shows how he reacts. This is actually the purest expression of a cinematic idea.”[1] The view of the courtyard, adds Hitchcock, “shows every kind of human behavior. . . . What you see across the way is a group of little stories that . . . mirror a small universe.”[2] The protagonist’s world, in other words, is developed as a twofold metaphor:

  1. For the world that exists in the reality beyond the “windows” through which we commonly look at it.
  2. For the world that can be represented for us on the movie screen.
Hitch

         Alfred Hitchcock Looks In On Rear Window

In Rear Window, then, the view of the protagonist represents our view, but this character also serves as a mirror in which we can see—and perhaps judge—ourselves: just as he interprets what he sees and acts upon his interpretation, so, too, do we judge and act as a result of what we witness, whether in the real world or in the sort of fictional world that represents the “real” world for us on a motion-picture screen.[3]

Figure R5.3/Shot 1 introduces the two main characters: L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart), the photographer with the broken leg, and Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), the woman with whom he’s romantically involved. In the course of his spying, Jeffries becomes convinced that one of his neighbors has murdered his wife, and when he convinces Lisa that his suspicions are valid, she, too, starts looking. In Figure R5.3/Shot 1, then, we see our point-of-view characters, who are looking out of protagonist’s rear window onto a world which they believe has been disturbed by the irruption of evil.

Camera

 Rear Window through Hitchcock's Camera

Figure R5.3/Shot 2 is a view out of that same window. In this case, however, our point-of-view characters are in the shot. The view is that of Hitchcock’s camera, and the camera view includes not only our point-of-view characters, but also the scene onto which they themselves have been looking—the building across the courtyard, punctuated with lighted windows that serve as miniature screens on which several little “documentary” films are showing simultaneously. Technically, the view of Hitchcock’s camera is independent of the protagonists’ view, and in a shot such as this one, it places both those who look and those who are looked at within the same coherent space. At the same time, however, if we get the sense that, in this shot and others that record events inside L.B. Jeffries’ apartment, the director’s camera has unobtrusively and temporarily—surreptitiously—taken over the function of Jeffries’ camera, the explanation is simple: Hitchcock’s camera, whose primary concern is watching the activities that transpire within Jeffries’ apartment, is interested in looking out of Jeffries’ rear window only because the film’s point-of-view characters are interested in looking out of it.

Torso

              What the Peeping Tom Sees

Figure R5.3/Shots 3 and 4 are among the views that—simultaneously with the protagonists and the director—we see out Jeffries’ rear window. In Figure R5.3/Shot 3, for instance, we see “Miss Torso,” a shapely young woman who dances and exercises before her window in various states of undress. Jeffries, Hitchcock reminds us, is “a real Peeping Tom,” and his voyeuristic behavior is morally questionable. Indeed, that’s the point: Hitchcock suspects that “nine out of ten people, if they see a woman across the courtyard undressing . . ., will stay and look.”[4] He proves his point by inducing us to look through his camera while we justify our behavior on the grounds that what we’re really seeing is the result of Jeffries looking through his.

Upon reflection, of course, we know better, but this isn’t the sort of reflection that we’re likely to engage in as we sit in a darkened theater; in fact, we go to the movies because we intend to spy on fictional people. And yet, in being reminded to judge our hero as a Peeping Tom, we are being reminded that we are judges of the human acts which we witness and that, as individuals whose acts are witnessed by others, we are responsible for our own acts. Why, then, do we persist in acting as voyeurs? Because the theater is dark and no one can witness our behavior. Everything that we see in—and think we learn through—the cinema we perceive under these dubious conditions.

See an excerpt

Torvald

                  What the Detective Sees

Finally, Figure R5.3/Shot 4 is a view of Lars Thorwald, the man who has in fact murdered his wife because he believed that there was no one to witness his act (or at least the acts that he performs to cover up his act of murder). He’s caught thanks to L.B. Jeffries and Lisa Fremont, but it’s the height of Hitchcock’s irony that Torwald will be punished only because someone was in fact spying on him.

Rear Window, then, gives dramatic substance to a series of classic ethical questions: Do we refrain from acting immorally only because we fear that we’ll be observed and caught? Is that fear the only consideration that keeps most men from murdering their wives (or otherwise injuring anyone else)? If we lived our real lives in the same kind of protective darkness that we enjoy in a movie theater, would we be morally uninhibited? Should we, at the very least, act always as if we were being watched and thus refrain, despite our desires, from acting immorally? Are we fooling ourselves when we claim that we act morally when in fact we act as we do only because we’re afraid of being seen and punished? These are questions posed not by L.B. Jeffries, who casts a limited view out of his rear window, but by Hitchcock, who assimilates—and judges—Jeffries’ point of view when his surreptitious camera enables the viewer to cast a more comprehensive view that includes activities on both sides of Jeffries’ rear window.


[1] François Truffaut, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967), p. 159.

[2] Hitchcock, p. 160.

[3] See Stefan Sharff, The Art of Looking in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” (New York: Limelight, 1997), esp. pp. 2-10. There is no shortage of studies of “looking” and self-reflexivity in Rear Window. See, for example: John Falwell, “Hitchcock’s Self-Reflexivity,” in Hitchcock’s “Rear Window”: The Well-Made Film (2001; rpt. Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2004), Ch. 8; Lawrence Howe, “Through the Looking Glass: Reflexivity, Reciprocality, and Defenestration in Hitchcock’s Rear Window,” College Literature 35:1 (Winter 2008), pp. 16-37, at www.freepatentsonline.com (accessed June 19, 2016); John A. Bertolini, “Rear Window, or the Reciprocated Glance,” in Framing Hitchcock: Essays from the Hitchcock Annual, ed. Sidney Gottlieb and Christopher Brookhouse (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 234-50; Paula Marantz Cohen, Alfred Hitchcock: The Legacy of Victorianism (Lexington: The Univ. Press of Kentucky, 1995), esp. pp. 99-113; David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1985), pp. 40-47.

John Lewis uses Rear Window in a discussion of the eyeline match (see Chapter 5.1) in Essential Cinema: An Introduction to Film Analysis (Boston: Wadsworth, 2014), pp. 134-35. See also Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16:3 (Autumn 1975), pp. 6-18, at www.pdfdrive.net (accessed June 19, 2016); rpt. Mulvey, Visual and Other Pleasures, 2nd ed. (Basingstoke, UK:: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 14-27; rpt. Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen (New York: Oxford Univ. Press 1999), pp. 833-44.

[4] Hitchcock, p. 160.

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