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Hitchcock, The Voyeur: Why Rear Window Remains the Director’s Definitive Film


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In conversation with Andy Warhol, another artist who spent a great deal of his career silently staring at bodies in intimate situations, Alfred Hitchcock claimed he had glimpsed pornographic films only once in his life, and that was after the age of sixty, and by way of happenstance. It occurred after a steak dinner during a publicity trip to Tokyo, he said, when he was led blithely “into this upper room and there they had a screen that showed these awful films,” the specifics of which he didn’t divulge. However, he daydreamed about including acts of sexual voyeurism in his films. The story of Adelaide and Edwin Bartlett, which Hitchcock frequently cited as his favorite true-crime tale, entailed the willing cuckoldry of Edwin by Adelaide and a young clergyman named George Dyson. In 1953, Hitchcock published a magazine piece about the case in which he explained—with, as the scholar Sidney Gottlieb has also identified, an intriguing but perhaps unintentional, parallel to his situation with Alma and Whitfield Cook—that the Bartletts’ marriage “had been entirely platonic. Except for one occasion which resulted in a stillborn child, they lived together as friends and nothing more....He had encouraged her friendship with George Dyson, and he urged them to become affectionate. In effect, he had ‘given’ her to Mr. Dyson.” Later, Hitchcock imagined making a film about the case, and explained how he would shoot the scene of the parson “making violent love to the young woman while the husband, sitting in his rocking chair and smoking his pipe, looked on.” In the first drafts of The Trouble with Harry, Jennifer—Harry’s widow, played by Shirley MacLaine—confesses that her late husband insisted on hanging a photograph of his brother over their marital bed, to create the impression that he was watching them make love. That risqué element was ultimately dropped, but approaching eighty and working on his final script, Hitchcock imagined a strange act of voyeurism that nobody had ever put in a Hollywood movie: a man and a woman exposing themselves to each other, a prelude to him combing her pubic hair.

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Beyond the graphically or explicitly sexual, Hitchcock’s preoccupation with looking, its motivations, and its consequences, is one of the most fascinating aspects of his work and one that ensures its enduring relevance to our culture. It was three Hitchcock films—Rear Window, Vertigo, and Marnie—that formed the basis of Laura Mulvey’s argument that Hollywood movies display the world through the “male gaze,” favoring male desires and experiences, reinforcing the notion that women exist only to please men. Mulvey’s term, and its underlying concepts, have drifted into common parlance and, in certain quarters, have helped to solidify Hitchcock’s reputation as the supreme auteur of patriarchy. Doubtless, there is abundant evidence in Hitchcock to sustain Mulvey’s theory of the privileged male gaze, but it’s also true that Hitchcock’s male voyeurs are rarely gleeful in their obsessive looking. Often, their ogling causes them either guilt or regret, and hastens their downfall in some way. In that opening scene of The Pleasure Garden, Hitchcock shows us the dancers hurrying their way to the stage before cutting to a panning shot across the front row of the audience, a line of supposed gentlemen leering at the women before them. We then see through the binoculars of one particularly lecherous fellow as he stares at Patsy, the film’s heroine. After the show, hoping to make a fantasy come true, he approaches Patsy, only to be mortified as she removes her blonde wig—she’s a natural brunette—and laughs in his face. Within the first five minutes of the first Hitchcock film, the male gaze is presented, critiqued, and ridiculed.

Unease with a compulsion to look is what makes Rear Window so compelling. Not since the experimental Rope seven years earlier had Hitchcock found a project that so enthused him; despite various claims to the contrary that have been made over the years, he was heavily involved in building the script from the template of its source material. As the historian Bill Krohn notes, the drafts of the scripts feature so many small touches evocative of earlier Hitchcock—“the little people who inhabit it, and the way the man at the rear window becomes involved in their lives”—that they surely came from him rather than from a writer. An initial treatment for the film by Joshua Logan—written before Hitchcock had bought the rights to the story—begins with the camera surveying the windows of the various apartments, not unlike the opening sequence of Rear Window. However, Hitchcock had already filmed something very similar more than twenty years earlier, a shot at the start of Murder! in which the camera pans down a row of houses, allowing us to peer inside at private lives as lights come on and people respond to a commotion outside.

Rear Window stars James Stewart as Jeff, a globe-trotting photojournalist, confined to his Greenwich Village apartment while he recuperates from a broken leg. Bored and frustrated by his incapacitation, Jeff begins to spy on his neighbors, one of whom, Lars Thorwald, he suspects of having killed his wife. Although disturbed by his voyeurism, Jeff’s physiotherapist, Stella, and his glamorous young girlfriend, Lisa, help him investigate the murder, eventually bringing Thorwald to justice. Jeff never leaves his apartment (apart from one brief moment of defenestration), and the camera stays with him throughout. Exhibiting Hitchcock’s love of the subjective camera, almost all the action is told from Jeff’s perspective. We receive clues, red herrings, and revelations along with him, save one scene in which we see Thorwald exit his apartment with a woman while Jeff dozes in his chair. We see Jeff’s pleasure in spying on the woman he calls Miss Torso as she exercises in front of her window. But we also see his shame as he watches Miss Lonelyhearts being assaulted by a man she has invited into her home, and as she later contemplates suicide. When Thorwald discovers Lisa in his apartment—where she has been looking for incriminating evidence—Jeff is reduced to pathetic impotence, barely able to watch.

Rear Window is Hitchcock’s definitive film. It draws together various strands of the Hitchcock touch: ingenious production design; perfect casting; a taut, sparkling script; thrilling entertainment interwoven with dark, unsettling themes; beautifully judged use of colors and clothing. There’s also something inspired, in a gently subversive, Hitchcockian way, about the construction of the Greenwich Village apartments where the whole film takes place. In a period in which studios splashed vast sums creating epics such as Quo Vadis, The Robe, and Ben-Hur, Hitchcock persuaded Paramount to spend more than eighty thousand dollars—a vast sum in 1953—on a single studio set for a movie that takes place inside a nondescript apartment, where a middle-aged man sits in his pajamas, spying on the neighbors. Robert Burks, the film’s cinematographer, likened it to a DeMille production, though, as the historian John Belton points out, the themes of Rear Window hearken back to the earliest days of cinema when films were “more concerned with exhibition, presentation, and display, than with narration.” Hitchcock maintained that he was at his best when he adhered most strictly to the principles of silent filmmaking, as was the case with Rear Window. Ironically, the film also features some of the best dialogue of any Hitchcock movie. John Michael Hayes was chiefly responsible for that, but he conceded that in the process of writing the script, “Hitchcock taught me about how to tell a story with the camera and tell it silently.”

“Of all the films I have made,” reflected Hitchcock in 1968, “this to me is the most cinematic.” Today, the word “cinematic” is frequently used as a superlative, a synonym for something visually stunning. Hitchcock used it in its strictest sense, meaning the core principles and techniques that differentiate cinema from other visual arts. This has relatively little to do with cinematography, and a lot to do with editing. “Galloping horses in Westerns are only photographs of action, photographs of content,” explained Hitchcock. “It’s the piecing together of the montage which makes what I call a pure film.” Hitchcock’s template was laid down by early pioneers, especially Griffith, Eisenstein, Pudovkin, and Kuleshov, the latter of whom conducted an experiment to demonstrate the almost magical properties of film assembly, which Hitchcock referenced in explaining his own technique. “Show a man looking at something,” he ventured, “say a baby. Then show him smiling. By placing these shots in sequence—man looking, object seen, reaction to object—the director characterizes the man as a kindly person.” But replace the shot of the baby with a girl in a bikini, and the sequence is transformed. “What is he now? He’s a dirty old man.” A sequence just like that appears in Rear Window as Jeff ogles Miss Torso, stretching and twirling in her kitchen. But elsewhere in the film, Hitchcock adds an extra element: the voyeur as unreliable witness. In Kuleshov’s experiment, our opinion of the man is manipulated by the nature of what he has seen; in Rear Window, Jeff thinks he’s witnessing a man getting away with murder—but he can’t be sure whether he’s being deceived by his own eyes.

It’s a feeling shared by Scottie in Vertigo, again played by Stewart, who is driven mad by silent watching and the obsessive pursuit that follows. If Cary Grant was Hitchcock’s favorite man of action, some heroic, imaginary version of himself, Stewart was surely his favorite man of reaction, expressing through his silent gaze unsettling things about being an ordinary man that Hitchcock felt but rarely articulated. Stewart explained that his role in Rear Window “largely consisted of reacting. First Hitchcock would show what I was seeing through my binoculars. Then he’d show my face, and I’d reflect what I saw. I spent an astonishing amount of time looking into the camera and being amused, afraid, worried, curious, embarrassed, bored.”

It is in their dumb staring that Jeff and Scottie are at their loudest. Hitchcock’s original ending for Vertigo, only restored on its re-release in the 1980s, was not the dynamic chase up the bell tower that ends with Judy’s fall, but its aftermath: Scottie sitting in a chair, mute, gazing into space. His voyeurism has led him to misery; the male gaze has become an ugly hall of mirrors.

***

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Excerpted from The Twelve Lives of Alfred Hitchcock: An Anatomy of the Master of Suspense, by Edward White. Copyright 2021. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co. All rights reserved.

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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