Literature & Film in Lockdown – Hitchcock, “Rear Window” (film)

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Featured Speakers:

  • Susan Ohmer, The William T. and Helen Kuhn Carey Associate Professor of Modern Communication, University of Notre Dame
  • Kieron Webb, Head of Conservation, British Film Institute
  • Rev. Jim Lies C.S.C., Director for Academic Initiatives & Partnerships, University of Notre Dame, London, England

The third installment of the Literature and Film in Lockdown series again featured Barry McCrea, a Professor of English and the Donald R. Keough Family Professor of Irish Studies at the University of Notre Dame. Lisa Caulfield, the Director of the Notre Dame Global Center at Kylemore Abbey, moderated the event. This session addressed the film “Rear Window” directed by Alfred Hitchcock, a film released in 1954 just after the end of World War II. Though this film is not set during a plague, it directly addresses the topics of lockdown and isolation by focusing on a main character who is confined to his home and a wheelchair due to a leg injury. Set within a historical background of re-adjustment to normal life after the disruption of war, the film explores the challenges of redomestication and the return to normal life, as well as the struggles of the main character as he learns to live in isolation while those around him move about in the external world.

McCrea began the session by introducing the key themes of the film. The first main point he highlighted was the ability of Hitchcock to create works on a psychological level. The film takes the viewpoint of an individual to provide an in-depth look at the psychology of one person going through the experience of isolation. When the main character in the film no longer had the routine and stimuli of the external world he was accustomed to, he began to compensate by becoming obsessed with watching those around him. The main character experiences frustration in his loss of power and the ability to move about freely, focusing instead on how he can attempt to regain some sense of autonomy. McCrea concluded his presentation by highlighting the two ways that the viewer can choose to enjoy this film. It can be viewed simply as a thriller and a murder mystery, or viewed through a deeper lens as a psychological exploration, a projection of the internal world on the external.

After a brief breakout session, Caulfield transitioned to the question portion of the event. The first theme McCrea responded to was that of the women throughout the film and the roles they play in the mind of the main character. McCrea began by highlighting the fact that Hitchcock is able to trigger and activate the thoughts and feelings each viewer has. Because of the director’s extensive knowledge of psychology, the film offers each individual a different experience, even to the extent of producing a creepy feeling for some. By connecting with the women he sees through windows, the main character avoids the complexity of a relationship with a true human being by reducing the women to an image he can easily control. McCrea ended this segment by questioning whether the main character gains more freedom through being a watcher or whether this power is only a fantasy. Though he holds the position of power as the viewer in the film, the main character would be unable to escape if the gaze was turned upon him.

The second group of questions focused on today’s culture and how humanity in the present day can learn from this film created in the mid-1900’s. McCrea began with a connection to the current trends of social media, reality TV and soap operas. Viewers today seem to have an obsession with watching others and wanting to know what others are like when they don’t know they’re being watched, with gaining a perspective that the main character in “Rear Window” is able to by watching others through his window. The members of the discussion concluded that some individuals feel more comfortable with being viewed than others, and that this is manifested in choosing to use video on Zoom, keep one’s blinds open and maintain a regular posting schedule on social media. McCrea also highlighted a key theme that Hitchcock conveys through multiple symbols throughout the film: the disturbing side of cinema and the violent actions that many find visual pleasure in. The examples he identified of this included the disappearance and violent treatment of women, which are seen in various other movies and TV shows.

McCrea’s final conclusion was one of doubt. Hitchcock intentionally leaves unanswered questions to express to the audience the incompleteness of one individual’s interpretation of the world. There is always more to other people than the eye can see and one can never know for sure who speaks the truth. In response to one final question about how he would remake the film for a post-lockdown audience, McCrea identified his interest in a film that highlights the perspective of essential workers during the current coronavirus pandemic. Though these workers are often of lower social classes and are normally seen as those being watched, McCrea highlighted the similarities and differences between the viewpoints of these individuals and the main character in “Rear Window” as watchers.

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  • Through the film, Hitchcock uses the experience of lockdown and isolation to explore human psychology and how the human mind reacts to being confined to one’s home. (5:24)
  • When humans no longer have the external stimuli of the outside world, the internal mind compensates by running rampant. (10:54)
  • The main character in the film is so afraid of losing his power and freedom that his obsession with retaining them actually takes them away. (32:34)
  • Through the symbolism of multiple characters and the element of violence against women, Hitchcock explores the disturbing side of cinema, the bad habits of the world of entertainment that provide us with visual pleasure. (44:58)
  • One of the main elements of the film is the viewer being left with key doubts and unanswered questions. This displays to the viewer that one can never be completely sure about his or her interpretations of the world. (51:00)

  • “Hitchcock is always working as a film director on both a psychological and a literal level. He builds fantastic stories and ways of exploring human psychology.” (Barry McCrea, 4:50)
  • “This film is about what happens to the mind and to the self when instead of roaming around in the outside world, they unexpectedly find themselves confined to home.” (Barry McCrea, 10:18)
  • “Our obsessions and fixations and fears and disturbing thoughts in lockdown are suddenly free to run wild.” (Barry McCrea, 12:05)
  • “A sense of powerlessness produces a compensatory mechanism of watching, of turning things and consuming things as images.” (Barry McCrea, 14:43)
  • “The film is a system for us to interact with, that works upon us and works upon each individual differently.” (Barry McCrea, 31:01)
  • “It plays on a desire that we all have to watch the world without the world knowing that we’re watching, to see what everybody is like without them knowing we’re there.” (Barry McCrea, 39:07)