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Boundary 2 (1989) - Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window as Critical Allegory




Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window" is examined for evidence of a critical allegory. The relationship between the photo-journalist/lead character and the audience is discussed.


Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window as Critical Allegory

George E. Toles


The most suggestive early readings of Rear Window focussed on two major thematic clusters. The first of these has to do with the relation between Jeffries, the photo-journalist protagonist of the film who is temporarily confined to a wheelchair, and the spectator in the cinema. The tenement windows facing Jeffries's own apartment resemble movie screens, and the stylized action they exhibit corresponds to miniature movie narratives, conflating different plots, moods, and genres and offering us illicit voyeuristic pleasures of precisely the sort that typical movie experiences give us. Discussions of this issue stress Hitchcock's complex anatomy of the act of movie-watching, dwelling on the odd mixture of passivity, emotional complicity, and the gratification of potent dream-desires that defines our involvement with screen events. The spectator, having chosen a secure, hidden position in the theatre, is spatially removed from the experience he or she observes, which frequently encourages the illusion that one is free to participate or remain disengaged. The principal consequence of this illusion is that the spectator sees the film image as under his authority. Because the film presents itself as there for his benefit, "submitting" to his desires while posing no recognizable demands of its own, the imagination assumes, as in a dream, that it is in control of the film's workings. Hitchcock demonstrates how the movie experience is calculated to persuade viewers (Jeffries's surrogates) that the story belongs to them, and that they can manipulate it for their own ends. The more viewers surrender to this fantasy of control, however, the more completely, and unconsciously, they can be manipulated themselves.

The second dominant theme treated by the film's first wave of commentators is the ethics of voyeuristic involvement in other lives. Critics have tried to establish the nature of Jeffries's (and, by extension, the viewers') culpability in the relentless visual probing of Thorwald's privacy. What sort of transgression has taken place in the act of watching? To what extent is the impurity of Jeffries's motives something to worry about? When the truth (of the limited kind that this genre attends to) comes out at last and Jeffries's hypothesis is publicly confirmed off-camera by Thorwald's admission of guilt, is our certain knowledge that a murder has been committed and that Thorwald's actions have been correctly fitted to the crime (that the crime now firmly belongs to him) sufficient to de-contaminate Jeffries's originally suspect spying?1

Recent Hitchcock criticism encourages us to further enlarge the optics of suspicion. We are now expected to be attuned not only to what Jeffries fails to "take in" from his strangely hermetic observation site that is, the possibility that his manner of seeing does not truly edify, or come home to the self as moral knowledge; we are also urged to interrogate Hitchcock and the conditions of his looking. Given Hitchcock's rigorous imposition of formal control, where does his authority over how we see his images break down? In the first section of this essay I shall sketch out three partial readings of Rear Window, working successively within the frameworks of Marxist, de-constructionist, and feminist critical perspectives. To varying degrees, each of these methodologies is concerned with challenging the self-sufficiency and completeness of the work as it can be imagined under Hitchcock's "control," and shifting responsibility for the making of the film's meaning to the necessarily insubordinate interpreter. Submitting to Hitchcock's plan for the coercive management of viewer response is conceived (in each case) as a form of naivete: the naivete of the enthralled spectator, or the naivete of the critic who is determined to honour the film's objective form (itself an illusion). Viewed less tolerantly, this submission to the work's governing intelligence (its "greater knowledge" of its own structural imperatives) might seem to reinforce habits of mind that keep us subject to the oppressive orthodoxies of our language and culture. The overthrow of the "completed text," by contrast, is an expression of imaginative freedom. Or if that too is a naive supposition, one's refusal of the text's authority strengthens the conviction that authentic freedom is possible and true somewhere. Having concluded my three readings, I shall, in the second section of the essay, attempt to reposition myself within the film - that is to say, within my understanding of what Hitchcock understands to be the case in Rear Window and formulate a reply to this many-sided challenge.

A Marxist critic would presumably want to demonstrate that the apartment complex Jeffries observes is a microcosm of the capitalist life-world, where nothing exists in supportive relation, but rather as mere senseless juxtaposition. The rear windows are like the randomly assembled, emotionally de-natured human interest items in a tabloid newspaper. This critic might wish to argue that what neither Jeffries nor Hitchcock comprehends about the film's general setting is the degree to which the possibility of murder works as a paradoxically reassuring vehicle of integration. It introduces coherence and a methodical, if hidden, plot into a panorama that initially contained no activity that was not sterilely repetitive and disconnected from everything else. Jeffries and the audience are given the impetus (as well as the detective's familiar procedure) to logically order a portion of this distressingly fragmented environment. At the same time we are encouraged in the belief that the connective process is not arbitrary or limited in its effect - that it somehow naturally inheres in this space. A potentially infinite number of similar subtle joinings might be achieved if only we had the time to collect more facts, more "evidence" of how things related. The quest for love in the rear window flats would be a plausible, secondary integrating theme for Jeffries to contemplate.

Murder, however, proves the most satisfyingly dimensionalized and intense i...

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  1. See Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, Hitchcock, trans. Stanley Hochman (New York: Frederick Ungar, 1979), pp. 122-28; Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Films (New York: A.C. Barnes, 1977),p p. 68-76; Raymond Durgnat, The Strange Case of Alfred Hitchcock (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974), pp. 188-201. Among the most provocative recent examinations of the voyeurist issue is Roberta Pearson's and Robert Stam's "Hitchcock's Rear Window: Reflexivity and the Critique of Voyeurism," Enclitic, no. 7 (Spring, 1983), pp. 136-45.
  2. My thinking on the psychology of urban perception has been influenced by Philip Fisher's essay, "City Matters: City Minds," which suggestively links comic descriptions in Dickens with the landscapes of Eliot's early poems: "Harvard English Studies 6," The Worlds of Victorian Fiction, ed. Jerome Buckley (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 371-89.
  3. Fisher, "City Matters: City Minds," p. 375.
  4. Paul Fry, The Reach of Criticism (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1983). See especially "The Instance of Walter Benjamin: Distraction and Perception in Criticism," pp. 168-205.
  5. William Gass, "The Habitations of the Word," Kenyon Review, VI,No.4 (Fall,1 984), p. 99.
  6. J.M. Coetzee, In the Heart of the Country (New York: Penguin, 1977), p. 41.
  7. John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London, Penguin, 1982), p. 149.
  8. Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance (New York: Penguin, 1983), p. 69.
  9. Hawthorne, Blithedale, p. 157.
  10. Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (New York: Vintage, 1985), p. 91.
  11. Albert Cook, "The Wilderness of Mirrors," Kenyon Review, VIII,n o. 3 (Summer, 1986), p. 90.
  12. Leo Steinberg, "Picasso's Sleepwatchers," Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972), p. 99.
  13. Steinberg, "Picasso's Sleepwatchers," p. 104. The phrase comes from the Spanish poet Quevedo.
  14. Michael Murrin, The Veil of Allegory: Some Notes Toward a Theory of Allegorical Rhetoric in the English Renaissance (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1969), p. 15.
  15. Murrin, The Veil of Allegory, p. 15
  16. Murrin, The Veil of Allegory, p. 11.
  17. Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight: Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971), pp. 136, 139.
  18. Iris Murdoch, Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues (London: Chatto & Windus, 1986), p. 55.
  19. For a fuller discussion of this episode, see Susan Sontag, "Persona: The Film in Depth," rpt. in Ingmar Bergman: Essays in Criticism, ed. Stuart M. Kaminsky (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 253-69.
  20. Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1979), p. 205.
  21. The phrase is Robert Stams's. See his Reflexivity in Film and Literature: From Don Quixote to Jean Luc Godard (Ann Arbor: UMT Research Press, Studies in Cinema, 1985), p. 44. Stam draws an interesting parallel between Foucault's description of cells in the panopticon (viewed from the warden's position), and the rear window complex: ("so many small cages, so many small theatres, in which each actor is alone, perfectly individualized and constantly visible"[p. 48]).
  22. Charles Altieri, "Plato's Performance Sublime and the Ends of Reading," New Literary History, XVI, 2 (Winter, 1985), p. 259.