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The Camera tells the Story. Alfred Hitchcock’s "Rear Window"

A Short Analysis of the Use of non-verbal Communication in Film

by Sandra Miller (Author)

Term Paper 2003 10 Pages

Communications - Movies and Television

Excerpt

Table of Content

Introduction

Frames within Frames: The Pleasure in Looking

Significance of Distance and Closeness between Characters

Symbolism in Gestures, Clothes and Props

Visual Relations between Women

Works cited

Introduction

Alfred Hitchcock used non-verbal communication extensively in his filmmaking to convey meaning and to create suspension for the audience. His critical and disparaging opinion of dialogue in film shows clearly that he did not consider language to be a privileged cinematic medium for communication – quite the opposite and he remarks that language “should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms” (Hitchcock in Truffaut 272).

The possibilities of the camera for conveying meaning was paramount to Hitchcock’s storytelling. As a film-maker, he is widely acknowledged for his use of point-of-view shots, tracking shots, and other techniques that reinforce the power of looking or the role of the gaze in cinema. A well-known example of his use of camera movement is Rear Window (1954), a film, that evokes a viewing experience for the spectator in the form of “a mental process, done by the use of the visual” (Spoto 224). As director, Hitchcock makes intensive use of his prerogative to manipulate points of view thereby controlling the viewer’s gaze with narrative frames. The directing of the gaze is both an exercise of power and an imposition on those whom it captures.

Theatrical and cinematic effects dominate in his work with the use of proxemics, stance and gestures of actors. Other visual clues are clothes and accessories worn by actresses. In Rear Window, most of the female’s protagonist’s dresses are mirrored in the dresses worn by other women. By coding dresses in such a way and juxtaposing them in different frames, they signify different states of mind and intentions; they act as emotional referents that connect the women through their visual appearance.

Frames within Frames: The Pleasure in Looking

The overall reflexive structure of the film is already present in the opening shot of Rear Window that alerts viewers that they are about to see a narrative. Hitchcock’s use of compositional frames, here the slow raising of a ‘curtain’, in the form of three blinds, gives a visual echo of the rising curtain that announces performances in theatres or in the early cinema houses. After the appellation to the audience, the views reveal a series of framed private scenes and as such they “resemble movie screens, and the stylized action they exhibit corresponds to miniature movie narratives [...] offering us illicit voyeuristic pleasures of precisely the sort that typical movie experiences give us” (Toles 225).

The audience is put in the role of viewers who view a protagonist who is almost obsessively preoccupied with looking at others: "In general, the film's narrative is built around a pattern of alteration from story-space to story-space, from scenes in Jeff's apartment which foreground the action taking place there to scenes playing out across the way, from Jeff as 'actor' to Jeff as 'spectator'" (Belton 1123). Physically immobilized, Jeff turns to observing the world outside his window. The activity of watching people is a relief for his boredom, but it also constitutes a position of power for him in which visual omnipotence becomes the substitute for his physical and emotional deficiencies. His role as the prying observer turns those whom he watches into objects.

Sitting in a wheelchair, his inactive position mirrors the seat of a spectator, which puts him in the same position as the cinema audience. There is a tension between looking and being looked at, evident in the changing relation between subject and object: whilst watching the opposite apartments, Jeff is a mirror image of the viewers who watch him in the process of watching others; he occupies at once the position of subject and object. Throughout the film, it is Jeff as well as the audience, who are placed in the role of voyeurs, “peeping Toms”, looking through Jeff’s window, his camera and his binoculars at life as it happens on the “screens” of the apartments opposite. They participate in Jeff’s preoccupation with watching and like him, they can see without being seen:

Unfolding within the confined space of a rear window courtyard (the parameters of the camera or projector), which suggests the double possibility of looking back from an interior or looking into an area of observation – these strategies are, at once, parts of a story about viewing, icons of viewer pathology and manipulative elements within the 'construction' of a Hitchcock thriller (Perlmutter 55).

Jeff’s voyeuristic detachment is indicative of his distance from other people, especially from women. Instead, he prefers visual pleasure and positions himself as subject opposite others, who become the objects of his gaze.

The film ends as it began with pure non-verbal filmic communication to produce meaning. The final scene is a reprise of the opening pan with the closing of the triptych of window shades, similar to the closing of a theatre curtain: "Beyond the curtained windows lies a space that serves as both a stage and a screen, a space controlled by the authorial presence of Alfred Hitchcock, who invisibly raises and lowers the bamboo shades to open and close the film's narrative" (Belton 1122). Hitchcock’s system of plotting his shots as frames within frames makes a stylistic use of specific points of view, in particular, the act of framing and the staging of action within a frame underscores the act of looking.

Significance of Distance and Closeness between Characters

Proxemics and stance are used to help define the relation between Jeff and his fiancée. Lisa makes her first dramatic appearance whilst Jeff is asleep. Before we can see her, we see her shadow “like a vampire” crossing almost menacingly over Jeff’s face before “she bends down to kiss him and then we see her luminescence, her beautiful face in extreme closeup” (Perlmutter 57). In this scene, she exerts her power in looking down on the unconscious Jeff. Subsequently, her upright position and mobility contrasts with Jeff’s semi-horizontal posture, his restricted movements, and confirms his role as a passive watcher, a theme that is repeated throughout the film:

The woman is continually shown to be physically superior to the hero, not only in her physical movements but also in her dominance within the frame: she towers of Jeff in nearly every shot in which they both appear (Modleski 77).

Her role as vamp and her obsession with fashion in the struggle to be noticed and to be loved suggests that her desperate attempts are made in competition to other women, but more particularly, she is concerned with drawing Jeff’s attention away from watching others, especially the women in the opposite apartment block.

The proximity of Lisa to other characters mirrors her mental distance or closeness to them. When Doyle, Jeff’s detective friend, does not believe what Jeff and Lisa say, Lisa walks away from Doyle and stands next to Jeff, uniting mentally with Jeff and rejecting Doyle. However, after Lisa watches the assault on the woman nicknamed ‘Miss Lonelyhearts’ in the apartment opposite and disagrees with Jeff’s opinion that private worlds should remain private, she creates a polarity between them. Her reaction is a physical indication of her rejection of Jeff when “she puts the biggest distance seen in the film between her and Jeff inside his apartment” (Mason 115).

Symbolism in Gestures, Clothes and Props

The background of Jeff, the main character, is explained in one long single camera pan, showing the view from Jeff’s apartment: his rear window looks out onto a small courtyard and several other apartments opposite; Jeff’s face covered in sweat – an index of the hot weather, confirmed by a view of a thermometer showing ninety degrees; Jeff’s leg in a plaster cast tells us his name, L. B. Jeffries, written on it; stacks of magazines point to his profession as a photojournalist; the connection between a smashed camera and the photograph of a race-car crashing tells the story of his accident; a framed photo-negative of a woman and a magazine cover showing the ‘positive’ image of that woman foreshadow the importance of Lisa as the woman in his life, her role as a model and professional fashion magazine editor. Thus, without any dialogue, the introduction reveals essential information about the characters and their activities: “[t]hrough that single opening camera movement we have learned where we are, who the principal character is, all about his work, and even how it caused his accident” (Hitchcock in Truffaut 272).

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Details

Pages
10
Year
2003
ISBN (eBook)
9783656914808
ISBN (Book)
9783656914815
File size
547 KB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v293862
Institution / College
James Cook University – James Cook University
Grade
High Distinction
Tags
Hitchcock Rear Window film non-verbal communication visual viewers gaze frames clothes

Author

  • Sandra Miller (Author)

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Title: The Camera tells the Story. Alfred Hitchcock’s "Rear Window"