GCSE Level Analysis of the Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock) Opening Sequence.
This was done for a media studies GCSE essay, it scored top marks in the class at the time and landed me an A*. Although now that I’m at university and looking back at it, it’s a very shoddy piece of work. Of course; at GCSE level this sort of Point, Example, Explain (or however way it goes) work is expected. All they want you to do is explain shot types, denotations, connotations, hidden meanings, plot devices, audience reactions, and so on. Just read up on your AOs (Assessment Objectives) if they still even exist, and work with those in mind and it’s an easy A*.
I’ve just noticed that I missed out on relevant character and narrative theory. I didn’t even mention the word ‘protagonist’ or ‘equilibrium’ once, ala Vladimir Propp and Tzvetan Todorov.
In the opening sequence of Rear Window (1954), Alfred Hitchcock uses a variety of narratives, symbolism and originality to encourage the audience to continue watching. With a combination of visual techniques and subtle symbolism such as the black cat, Hitchcock encourages the audience to continue watching the film to find out what happens next. The genre of the film is thriller. The lighting is low-key which is typical for a film of this genre, though the technology at the time the film was made may have severely limited the ability to change the contrast and brightness through editing. The mise-en-scène is slow paced, and reveals information that is important throughout the entire film, especially the fact that it’s hot and there’s a lack of privacy because of it; key information for the film’s narrative.
In the opening, the soundtrack is lively, with jazz instruments, such as a saxophone. This genre of music was popular at the time the film was made. Along with the introduction credits, the camera is slowly zooming into progressively opening blinds, opening one by one. This can be similarly perceived as curtains rising to set the scene at the beginning of a play in a theatre. The text isn’t a boring generic font, but instead has an artistic style to draw the audience’s attention. The room slowly becomes brighter, giving the audience the idea that it is the start of the day. It is possible that the shot was intended to give the feeling it was a time-lapse of night turning to day. The soundtrack strikes up when Alfred Hitchcock is credited, which emphasises his important role to the audience. After this, the soundtrack is calmer, which helps to turn the audience’s attention to visuals. The windows are open; this signifies that it’s hot. The shot of the apartments brings the audience a sense of security, with a seemingly pleasant neighbourhood and a fine morning, a contrast to later events in the film.
After this, the shot switches to a high-angle shot of the ground below. An unheeded black cat is seen walking up some stairs. Black cats are known to be symbolic for misfortune, which fits the plot of the film. The camera tracks the cat upwards, and pans up to the apartments opposite. The camera halts at the ladder leading to the upper part of the apartment building and tilts slowly upwards, following the ladder. It is as if it is following someone climbing the ladder; it climbs all the way to the upper apartment balcony where a father, mother and daughter are preparing for the day. All the windows seen are open with no blinds or curtains blocking the view. This shows that there is very little privacy and that anyone such as Jeffries can see what is happening through the windows. If it wasn’t for this circumstance, the plot of the film would not be possible.
After the panning, a woman is seen with only undergarments on in a small apartment. She does some stretches – the audience is led to believe that she’s a dancer, which comes in later. Then, the camera switches to a shot of another larger and more open apartment. This is the home of a musician; through the window he’s seen shaving and listening to the radio, which reinforces the idea that it’s the beginning of the day. The audience can tell he is a musician because of the piano that is placed where it can clearly be seen. He turns off the radio after listening to an advert upon hearing “are you over 40 and feeling run down?” This tells the audience that the character doesn’t want to be reminded that he’s old. The introductions of these two characters show how life is in the city. It informs the audience about the hierarchy of the working class people and the contrasts between their standards of living – we know this because the musician has a larger, spacious apartment and the dancer has a small apartment. They are also connected because a musician creates music and dancers dance to music, a small detail some audience members probably would not have picked up on. After this, the camera pans to the other apartments and a medium-long shot of a couple are seen waking up on the balcony of their apartment, this indicates the heat, which is important for the plot of the film. A dog is seen with a leash tied to a lamppost and there is diegetic sound of traffic and children. This gives the audience the feel of the city environment. It’s important to emphasise the urban setting because the audience is shown that it’s hard to commit a crime going unnoticed. But somehow, Thorwald is able to commit murder and dispose a body in the city through careful planning. Nobody but Jeffries catches onto his plan. The camera then cuts to an extreme close-up of a thermometer, which reads as 94 degrees Fahrenheit. Hitchcock is emphasising and reinforcing the idea that the temperature is hot to the audience because it plays an important role throughout the film. The view of the apartments is a direct reference to one’s point of view through voyeurism from a vantage point – in this case being a rear apartment window.
After this, we have a close-up shot of L.B. Jeffries (played by James Stewart). He is in a wheelchair, wearing a blue shirt and with a sweaty face, by now the audience should understand that it is a very hot day. The colour blue is often associated with a cold temperature, which contrasts with the surrounding red and orange colours which represents the heat around him. Blue collars also associate with the working classes. Metaphysical teachers of the Ancient East taught that the colour blue is tied to the throat, or anything to do with verbalisation. In Jeffries’ case, it seems that because he is in a wheelchair, no one will listen to his shouts for help, which comes in later in the film. The camera then continues to pan over to his leg, where the audience sees “here lies the broken bones of L.B. Jeffries”. This shows that although he may be regarded as an uptight person from first impression due to his serious and strict looking expression, he has a sense of humour. The camera then continues to pan and track to a smashed up camera. Hitchcock shows this to help the audience understand his profession and how his leg was broken, which was when he was taking photographs. This shows how much of a risk taker he is, which is very important to the narrative. The camera continues tracking and we see a shot of framed photos of cars on the wall. The first picture is of a tire that appears to be on course to hitting the camera. This leads the audience to think that he is a car enthusiast (but he’s not necessarily) and that his leg was broken in a car accident due to the nature of the photos. The camera continues along a table and shows a photo-negative framed picture of a woman. After this, the camera pans onto a magazine. The front cover of the magazine appears to be the same woman in the framed photo. This tells the audience that he may be close to this woman, who is later revealed to be Lisa, his girlfriend, and that she is successful and may come into the story at a later time. Jeffries believes that Lisa is not the type of person that takes risks. This is later proved wrong later in the film. Lisa has a major significance later in the story because she is the one able to bring Thorwald to justice. This contrasts to what Jeff perceives her as at the beginning.
Jeffries then receives a phone call after waking up. When answered, we see a mid-shot of Jeffries on the phone. Important details of ‘Jeff’ are revealed in the conversation. It is revealed that he’s bored, he wants to get out of the cast, wants his assignments and he is important. Because he is bored, this leads on to his voyeurism, which then leads on to his suspicion of murder. Jeffries accuses him of stealing his assignments. He eagerly wants to get out of his cast and take his assignments but the person on the other end doesn’t want him to because he is too precious, he’s at the top of his job and valuable, so they don’t want to risk him being injured further. In the phone call, it is also revealed that he was the photographer that took the photos of the car before he broke his leg. With this, the audience is now ensured that this with the evidence of the pictures seen and broken camera, that this was the cause of his broken leg and that he is a risk taker. Jeffries mentions that he doesn’t want to commit to get married due to his beliefs about Lisa. During the conversation, we see a point-of-view (first person) shot of a couple in the apartments opposite through Jeffries’ rear window. The woman is lying in bed with the man standing. This indicates that she may be poorly. This is meaningful because later in the film when Lisa is revealed, she cares for Jeffries while with the other couple, the opposite thing is happening. The man, later revealed as Thorwald, doesn’t care for his wife when she is poorly, but instead murders her whilst Jeffries is poorly and Lisa cares for him. This shows that in one relationship, there is love, and in the other, there is not. Another reason this specific scene is meaningful is because when we see the shot of the couple, Jeffries is having a conversation about marriage and how he doesn’t want to commit.
While Jeffries is on the phone, we get another point-of-view shot of two women removing all their clothes and bathe with each other, which is not visible to the audience. This hints at Jeffries’ voyeurism. Then, there’s a shot of a helicopter flying lower and lower. This is an example of the use of special effects. The audience can hear the sound effect of the helicopter, which gives the feel of the helicopter actually being there. It is not known why this is shown. My analysis is that the helicopter was shown flying lower to show that the helicopter was looking down at the people below, much like how Jeffries is looking out the window and at the apartments opposite.
The opening sequence is a great start on the film and is excellent in showing how the storyline is going to progress. The purpose of the scene is to set the stage and reveal all of the compulsory plot devices, such as the heat and the lack of privacy of the apartments opposite. Without these being hinted at, the story would make no sense and it is important that the audience understands that these small details are there. Because of these plot devices and boredom, Jeffries is able to develop a suspicion through his voyeurism that a man has killed his wife in the apartments opposite. The scene introduces the characters in the neighbourhood and their lifestyles to the audience. Throughout the introduction, there were no out of the ordinary transitions between shots; it simply cuts from shot A to shot B. As mentioned earlier, the technology at the time of making may have limited the ability to change the transitions between shots. Hitchcock has produced a film opening typical of his genre and style which effectively holds the interest and attention of he audience.