How can the context of a film be utilised to add complexity to an analysis?
Writing a film analysis can be daunting in comparison to analysing a written text. The task of dissecting a motion picture consisting of dialogue, camera shots and dialogic sound is challenging, but an understanding of a film’s social, cultural and political background can elevate your analysis from standard to spectacular. Thus, before analysing Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 thriller ‘Rear Window’, it is important to consider its cultural, political and social context:
- The Greenwich Village setting of ‘Rear Window’ is located in Lower West Manhattan, New York, and was known as America’s ‘bohemian capital’ during the 1950s, in which avant-garde artists freely explored unconventional lifestyles.
- Hitchcock’s decision to use Greenwich Village as the backdrop of the film links its image of human suffering to the failed vision of American progressivist culture.
- Despite acting as the main location of progressive culture, such as the beginning of the international gay rights movement, Greenwich Village was also the setting for the broken dreams of its eclectic residents.
- This cyclical nature of hope and defeat can be observed in the film, as the audience can perceive the frustrated songwriter destroying his latest work, and Miss Lonely hearts desperately seeking true love in the seedy bars and gloomy alleyways of the ‘bohemian heaven’.
- Additionally, it is this social radicalism of Jeff’s neighbours that provides the basis for his voyeuristic habits; by portraying their individual eccentricities though their respective apartment windows, Hitchcock offers to Jeff a range of human peculiarities, which he eagerly observes through his ‘portable keyhole’.
- ‘Rear Window’ encapsulates the rampant Mccarthyism, and subsequent suspicion, at the time of its release in 1954.
- The fear of Communist influence in the USA led to heightened political repression from the government, and Americans could only prove their loyalty to the country only by offering others’ names to the government.
- As such, Jeff’s insubstantial speculation about Thorwald murdering his bedridden wife is disturbingly reflective of the social strife in 1950s America, as thousands accused their neighbours for treason or subversion without concrete evidence.
- Along with heightened political surveillance followed the allure of voyeurism; just as Jeff is contained to his wheelchair, and can merely gaze through his rear window into his wider world - the courtyard, so were Americans during the Cold War; expected to only ‘gaze’, and leave all the ‘involvement and engagement to the politicians’.
- The suburban setting of‘Rear Window’ reinforces the sense of confinement and suspicion rampant during the 1950s.
- After WWII ended in 1952, millions of US soldiers returned to a multitude of suburban homes built using mass production techniques, all overwhelmingly close to another. The Greenwich Village of ‘Rear Window’ is an example of one of these suburbs.
- The crowded Greenwich Village apartment complex of the film acts as an effective narrative device, as Hitchcock employs the physical proximity of the apartments to reinforce the overwhelming sense of voyeurism and paranoia amongst neighbours.
How to Analyse a Scene
The Film’s Opening Sequence:
As the blinds roll up to reveal the apartment complex, a medium shot of the wide-open windows of each apartment immediately convey to the audience an environment of an uncomfortable openness. However, despite this, the separation of each apartment by brick walls as a separate entity on its own serves as a symbol of the widespread suspicion characteristic of the McCarthyian era. Within the frame of the main window, the windows of each apartment act as mini frames within the big frame, multiplying the sense of voyeurism present in the shot.
Although seemingly insignificant, the brown tabby cat that runs across the steps of Greenwich Village represents freedom and individual autonomy, later comparable to the character of Lisa in the film. The compounding sense of surveillance during the 1950s add more meaning to the freedom symbolised by the cat, which can then be contrasted to the suppressed independence of the protagonist, who is seen invalid in a wheelchair in the next shot:
By this extreme close-up shot of Jeff sleeping in his wheelchair during the opening sequence, Hitchcock immediately places the viewer in an uncomfortable position as the original and ultimate voyeur, surpassing the intimate boundaries of the protagonist. The camera’s focus on the beads of sweat on Jeff’s forehead signify the intense heat of summer in Greenwich Village, confirmed by the following close up shot of 94F on the thermometer:
The stifling temperature of the season foreshadows imminent tension about to unfold in the film, as does the following close-up shot:
The slow panning from Jeff’s head to his broken left leg in a cast, in tandem with the ominous, epitaph-like words, ‘Here lie the broken bones of L.B Jefferies’, increase the impending sense of tragedy.
Jeff’s profession as a photographer becomes gradually more evident, as the camera slowly pans from focusing on Jeff’s injury to around his room. This close shot of a destroyed, seemingly irreparable camera, literally reflects the cyclic nature of broken dreams characteristic of Greenwich Village, and also signifies that Jeff too has been hurt (literally) by radical pursuits in his progression. It is important to note that Jeff’s room is plain and lacks any decorative sophistication, establishing his character as a simple, ‘everyday’ American man.
The only things adorning Jeff’s small room are his many photographs, all taken by himself. Despite varying in size and setting, they all share a single point of similarity; they all focus on sights of destruction, such as the race car crash or the remains of a volcanic eruption. The framed nature of these photographs signify Jeff’s appreciation for tragic devastation, establishing further doom in the film by lending a darker note to his voyeuristic tendencies.
The last photograph the camera focuses on in the opening sequence is the picture taken by Jeff of an elegant woman, who bears a striking resemblance to Lisa.
This image of ‘Lisa’ in the negative literally symbolises Jeff’s negative perception of his girlfriend Lisa at the beginning of the film. In contrast, the following shot of ‘Lisa’ in the ‘positive’ foreshadows the development of the film, as he begins to perceive Lisa as a possible life partner: