Within These Four Walls
— How Alfred Hitchcock Made Us All Into Peeping Toms by Locking Us In The Room With James Stewart In “Rear Window”
We are in the same room as James Stewart’s character L. B. Jeffries (Jeff). We see what he sees. What is really interesting about this movie is how Hitchcock is pushing the boundaries of cinematic storytelling by placing the camera where he does.
He’s not breaking the “fourth wall” per se (more on that in a minute) but he’s placing us — as the audience — so close to the action that we cannot move or look away. It creates an extremely intimate and personal space, bordering on being outright uncomfortable.
What is the fourth wall and how is it sometimes broken?
Most people are by now aware of the notion of the fourth wall, the breaking of same. If not, here’s a super quick run-through.
In theater and movies, you refer to “breaking the fourth wall” when the actors on the stage/screen face the audience directly.
The three others walls are the back wall and the two sidewalls. The fourth wall consists — metaphorically speaking — of a giant one-way mirror that we as the audience are peering through. We are viewing the actors through this invisible wall that exists between us. Usually, it is considered bad form to break this invisible wall, as we the audience are meant as outside observers of the narrative being played out in front of us.
But sometimes a storyteller actively chooses the break this invisible wall — the fourth wall — and have the actors addressing the audience directly to make a specific dramatic point.
Sometimes this works really well and can be used as a tremendously powerful tool for the storyteller.
Some examples of breaking the fourth wall that works really well include (and is by no means an exhaustive list): “Fight Club”, “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “Goodfellas” (the final scene — super powerful use from Scorsese). And of course Deadpool as a more recent examples.
Or “The Last Action Hero”, an entire movie based on breaking the fourth wall in a very literal sense.
A room with a view
Back to “Rear Window”. Hitchcock’s movie clearly does not fall into the category of movies that break the fourth wall. At no time in the movie are the actors and actress speaking directly to the camera (even though they sometimes look directly into the camera, but I would argue that they are looking into Jeff’s camera)
But Hitchcock does something else that is really interning. Remember the fourth wall being a one-way mirror of sorts that we are looking through. We are observing the story from the outside.
What Hitchcock does in “Rear Window” is to move the camera inside the four walls. We are no longer merely observing the story from the outside, we are standing in the middle of the room together with Jeff.
He is bound to the wheelchair and therefore to the room because of his injuries. And we are bound the to the room because the closure of the four walls around us. At no point in the movie do we move away from where the camera is placed. This is clearly communicated to us in the final scene where Thorwald enters Jeff apartment and in the fight with him, Thorwald throws Jeff out the window. And we fall out the window with him.
“You won’t hear the bullets”
Another great example of this playing with the medium of film is the classic film noir movie “The Big Combo” from 1955. Here it’s not the placement of the camera that is interning, but the use of sound, or lack thereof.
The specific scene happens about halfway through the movie when one of the gangsters is double crossing one of the other gangsters. It’s important to note that one of the gangsters is wearing a hearing aide.
Watch the entire scene as it unfolds:
“You won’t hear the bullets”, now that’s a powerful line when it’s coupled with the effect of muting all sounds in the movie when the hearing aid is removed.
We, as a human species, are voyeuristic. We cannot look away from traffic accidents. Reality show is, like it or not, the most popular form of television currently.
Hitchcock clearly wanted to make a comment about voyeurism with “Rear Window”. The next time you watch “Rear Window” notice how the use of camera placement makes this movie so interesting.
And because of this placement of the camera — or use of sound as in “The Big Combo” — we shift uncomfortably in our seats when watching stories like these.
We are so close to everything that it is impossible to look away. We are inside the scene, trapped with the characters of the story. Everything stays within these four walls.
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Article updated on July 29th, 2016 with a new 4th wall break video.
In the 90s, Simon Lund Larsen was a production runner on a couple of movies, a sound engineer on others and a producer of some. He later founded two companies; one that made short films and one that made multiplayer online games. Sold one of the companies and dissolved the other.
Now he works Product Manager at a large toy maker in Denmark in the daytime and writes short stories, screenplays and posts like these in his spare time. You can find him here on Medium as Simon Lund Larsen or on Twitter with the same handle @SimonLundLarsen.