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Hitchcock Annual (1993) - The unspeakable crime in Hitchcock's Rear Window: Hero as lay detective, spectator as lay analyst




A re-viewing of Rear Window (1954) confirms its significance as a classic detective story in the psychoanalytic sense. The crime the protagonist witnesses is the primal scene, a perfect crime for the medium of film.1

Jeff (James Stewart) awakes from his sleep and sees something that appears to be a crime of violence and passion. On a conscious level, Jeff is aware of something terrible happening in the night even though he is not sure what it is. On an unconscious level, when he looks at the movie-screen shaped windows in front of him it is as if he were looking at the mirror images of the fears and desires of his own being. Indeed the visual climax of the film occurs when, to his horror, Jeff's gaze is returned by the "murderer," the image in the mirror, when Jeff realizes he has become the object of the gaze. (In screening after screening, I have witnessed spectators in the audience gasp out loud at this moment of recognition as if they themselves had been "caught," and could no longer hide in the shadows of a darkened room.)

Only Jeff's extraordinary determination as an amateur detective, however, permits the spectator, in the role of lay analyst, to get to the heart of the mystery. Like Oedipus, Jeff continues to persist in his search for the truth, despite the warnings of his nurse (Thelma Ritter), nurturer by profession (good mother), and despite the admonitions of his police detective friend (Wendell Corey), authority figure by profession (good father).

Both Stella, the nurse, and Lisa (Grace Kelly), the gi...

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Barbara Odabashian teaches a Hitchcock course at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she directs the Film Studies Minor Program. Her article on Hitchcock and Scorsese will appear in Social and Political Change in Literature and Film, ed. Richard Chapple (Florida State University Press).


  1. For a re-viewing of Rear Window, I find these five works to be the most pertinent, and therefore acknowledge in advance any debt I may incur in the following discussion: above all, on psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton, 1966); on psychoanalysis and detective fiction, Geraldine Pederson-Krag, "Detective Stories and the Primal Scene," The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 18 (1949): 207-14; on psychoanalysis and film, Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. Celia Britton, Annwyl Williams, Ben Brewster and Alfred Guzzetti (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1982); on the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Robin Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1989); on Hitchcock according to Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984).
  2. Not insignificant is Hitchcock's creation of the two principal female characters, Stella and Lisa, for Rear Window; they do not exist in the Cornell Woolrich story on which the film is based. The Woolrich story was originally entitled "It Had to Be Murder" (1942); the screenplay is by John Michael Hayes.
  3. Hitchcock agrees with Truffaut's assessment of the nature of Jeff's crime: "Curiosity isn't merely a nasty personality trait; in the eyes of the Church it's actually a sin" (Truffaut 317-19).
  4. Also, on a literal level, Hitchcock points out to Truffaut the existence of a visual "symmetry" between the Jeff-Lisa couple and the Thorwalds: Jeff is "immobilized by his leg in a cast, while she [Lisa] can move about freely. And on the other side there is a sick woman who's confined to her bed, while the husband comes and goes" (Truffaut 216).
  5. Christian Metz, of course, sees the institution of the cinema as "the legalisation and generalisation of the prohibited practice" of the child witnessing the primal scene: "In this respect the cinematic signifier is not only 'psychoanalytic'; it is more precisely Oedipal in type" (Metz 63-66). Also, in a somewhat confused argument, Daniel Dervin formulates a rather dubious "psychotechnology" of the cinema based on the interpretation of film/filmmaking/film viewing from the perspective of the primal scene. (see Dervin, Through a Freudian Lens Deeply: A Psychoanalysis of Cinema [Hillsdale, NJ: The Analytic Press, 1985].)