Film is, obviously, a visual medium. Therefore in order to effectively analyse the themes, characters and underlying messages of a film, we need the skills to effectively dissect and analyse the very specific visual choices a filmmaker makes in the construction of their storytelling and meaning making. Hitchcock’s mode of introducing his female lead makes for particularly rich study in terms of symbolic representation of character, and what he could be telling us about the relationship between his two central dramatis personae! But first off, let’s frame this with some historical context…
The Red Scare
Alfred Hitchcock created his 1954 masterpiece, Rear Window amidst Mccarthysm at its most rampant. There was mass hysteria grounded in the fear of Communism and the practice of accusing one’s neighbour of being a member of the party, with little to no evidence, in order to prove your own loyalty to the American way, was commonplace. And the American way was focused on Consumerism and the individual (the historical/social context in which a work is created must be integrated into your essay!).
Possibly in contrast to this, at least at first glance, Hitchcock chooses to set his film in Greenwich Village (setting is something to include in your introductory paragraph!): the Bohemian capital of America in the 1950s where artists lived, worked and explored unconventional lives. However, it quickly becomes apparent that far from a communal, village lifestyle, the residents in the world of Rear Window are isolated from each other, unaware of the goings on on the other side of their wall. It takes a Summer heatwave for the residents of the Village to open up their blinds, and thereby open themselves to exposure.
This leads directly to Hitchcock’s major focus in Rear Window. The photographer Jefferies, confined to his apartment with a broken leg, sustained whilst getting an action shot, turns to his neighbours in the Village for entertainment. His unabashed voyeurism eventually leads him to suspect one of them of committing a heinous crime.
During his bouts of intense observation, Jefferies has a tendency to dose off. It is during one of these slumbers that Hitchcock uses his visual rhetoric to introduce us to the character of Lisa. How? In a closeup of Jeff’s face, the shadow of another person gradually creeps across it. It is Lisa. This seems quite a threatening, menacing way to introduce the ‘love interest’ (consider the themes of love, gender and relationships relating to many topics you may get in the exam!). What could Hitchcock be saying here? He’s already set up some intrigue surrounding the character of Lisa during the conversation that Jeff has with Stella, the Insurance Company nurse. We learn that he’s actually quite afraid of Lisa in some respects: she wants to marry him but he is reluctant to give up his adventurous lifestyle in order to do so. He also doubts Lisa’s ability to change or compromise and describes her as being ‘too perfect’. By making her first appearance on screen as a shadow, slowly engulfing Jeff’s face, Hitchcock symbolically gives voice to Jefferies’ fear of Lisa and marriage: of the threat of change she represents.
With his face clouded in shadow, Jeff opens his eyes and sees Lisa before we, the audience do. The next shot is a closeup of Lisa’s face, softly lit (don’t forget about the lighting!), coming nearer and nearer to the camera to kiss Jeff. This following sequence and their discussion is shot once again in closeup with their two big profiles filling the screen. It is a dewy and romantic encounter in contrast with its slightly ambiguous, shadowy beginning.
From Darkness into Light
When Jeff asks ‘Who are you?’, the camera pulls back to reveal that Lisa’s been leaning over his wheelchair (writing about the camera work is essential in analysing films in a text response essay!) Straightening up, she gives a warm laugh and moves over to the corner of the room, the camera keeping her in big closeup. With the introduction of her first name, Lisa switches on a low hanging lamp and we see her entire face for the first time. It is a beautiful, warm and intelligent face. The camera follows her to another lamp which she switches on and announces her middle name: Carol. She is now further away from us so we can see her from the waist up. The camera follows her to a third lamp at the farthest end of the room which she switches on as she announced her surname: Fremont. We can now see her in full: she is dressed in high-style fashion - her dress ‘fresh off the Paris plane’ has a white skirt, a black bodice and she wears a white shoulder wrap (don’t forget about costume!).
The introduction of Lisa’s character begins in darkness: a shadow clouding Jeff’s face, and ends in light after illuminating the space and revealing herself to the audience (and Jeff) in three stages ‘reading from top to bottom’.
Why is Hitchcock making these choices in his storytelling? Of moving from darkness into light? Of employing black and white in the costumning of Lisa when we first encounter her?
He Needs Her…
One reading is that Jefferies is a photographer: two fundamental things he requires in order to create his work are light and darkness. Light in order to take the photograph and darkness in order to develop it. In this scene, Lisa represents both light and darkness. If we apply this symbolically to the relationship between Jeffries and Lisa, it could signify that Jeff needs Lisa in order to be whole (don’t forget about symbolism and metaphor and how they drive and support the themes of the film!). Lisa’s illumination of the apartment from darkness into light could also be a foreshadowing of the transformation Jeff undergoes: the shift in his impression and opinion of Lisa and her capabilities over the course of the film. We need illumination in order to fully see...
Let’s link this to your VCE English Exam
A visual investigation of the introduction of Lisa could be applied to exam topics such as:
The relationship between LB Jefferies and Lisa Fremont is the real focus of the film. Do you agree?
Hitchcock endorses a stereotypical view of women in Rear Window. To what extent do you agree?
Perspective is shaped by our own fears and biases. Discuss.
Only through vulnerability can we truly see. Discuss.
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