Hitchcock: The Act of Looking

Matthew Trask
Apr 19, 2017 · 12 min read

Cinema itself is the act of looking. Hitchcock’s films are about both the viewer and the characters using the act of looking to gain a visual mastery that allows them to understand and be surprised by the story’s as they unfold. The act of looking and the visual is used, at times, as a perverse and unsettling power play between both the viewer and the story and between the characters themselves. In many of his films, Rear Window, The Birds, Psycho, are just a few examples, the act of looking, and by extension the cinematic form, is used as much to hide information from the viewer as it is to deliver information in order to create a sense of unease and tension both on and off screen.
In many ways the camera itself is an eye within the films of Alfred Hitchcock through which the viewer “looks”. It is an eye that is manipulated in order to affect the viewer by both delivering information and withholding information or by shifting the perspective of a story in order to align the viewer with a certain character. The camera is, however, not the only form of looking within Hitchcock’s films as they are constantly obsessed with the act of looking from a thematic stand point within the films themselves. In Psycho we see themes of voyeurism, obsession and gender all explored through the act of looking. Rear Window is perhaps the film most overtly concerned with this idea as we are presented with a story that revolves around the act of looking and a protagonist who is bound by the situation to watch those around him. Rear Window explores similar themes of voyeurism and obsession but it uses a different visual language with which to understand the themes ultimately creating an entirely different result. The Birds views eyes and the act of looking from a different perspective in that of the animal which creates a complex view of good and bad as a result of the presentation of the act of looking within the film. Conversely, Psycho tells us that looking, or voyeurism is bad and is inherently connected to evil while Rear Window presents the act of looking as good by making Jeff, and his own voyeurism, a savior. The Birds complicates this idea by presenting the act of looking from two perspectives creating a juxtaposition between perspectives that causes the villain to shift constantly throughout the film.

The 1954 film Rear Window which see’s a wheelchair bound protagonist, L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies, spying on his neighbors using both a camera and binoculars as extensions of his visions in order to perform the act of looking. Right from the opening frames of the film, it establishes the act of looking or voyeurism as the central theme on display by having the opening shot encompass the entire apartment complex in one sweeping motion. As seen in The single camera move allows the viewer to act as the voyeur as we silently spy on the residents in the same way that Jeff will continue to do during the events of the film as we move out of the window, the symbolic representation of the screen, and into the courtyard.

It is in these themes of voyeurism and scopophilia that the films present the act of looking. The culmination of the aforementioned tracking shot sees the viewer enter Jeff’s apartment through a window which in itself can be seen as a representation of the cinema screen, itself a form of looking. Throughout the film, Jeff is looking at the world through windows as if he is a viewer of a movie. The film establishes the viewer as the ultimate voyeur which serves to align them with the protagonist of the film. The film is playing with the inert curiosity of the viewer and connecting the act of looking within the film to the act of watching a film. Once inside Jeff’s apartment, we are shown various items from his life that give us visual clues to his life without a line of dialogue. This visual exposition is another form of voyeurism that underscores the importance that the film places on the idea of looking. We are invited to immediately make a judgment about Jeff’s occupation and life from the items that we are shown in the shot in the same way that Jeff makes judgments about his neighbors based on what he sees. The result of this the viewer is immediately invested in Jeff as a character as we both understand who he is and what he is doing.

The Birds makes use of the “bird’s eye view” shot to offer a new perspective on the events unfolding within the film. The clearest connection is with Psycho and the idea of the perspective of the villain. For example, in Psycho we see the perspective of Norman multiple times when he is watching both Marion and Lila through the peep hole in his office. A parallel can then be drawn between this “villain’s eye view” in Psycho and the “bird’s eye view” shots in The Birds. These shots serve to align the viewer with the villain and make the subjects, be it Marion or Lila or the townsfolk in The Birds¸ seem like objects to be desired and prey to be procured. The way that Norman watches Marion and the way The Birds watch their victims is similar in the way that both subjects are being objectified. In Psycho the woman is objectified in a sexual way however in The Birds the townsfolk are, at times, objectified as the prey being hunted.

The idea of knowledge, power, and visual mastery can be connected to the use of the “overhead perspective” or bird’s eye view shot by evoking the perspective of God. Scorsese describes the overhead shots In Taxi Driver as offering a “sacramental perspective” where “God is looking down on a lonely man”. Like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Norman is a comparatively lonely man as a result of his mother’s personality within his own mind, however, I would argue that it isn’t God’s perspective, it is the mother’s overbearing perspective of her son. These overhead shots depict various moments such as Norman carrying his mother’s corpse into her room or the murder of Arbogast. The one thing that connects these moments is that they are all motivated by the mother’s personality in one way or another. Whether it’s her compelling him to commit the murder or her demanding he care for her, the mother’s overbearing character that hangs over Norman through the film is visually represented by this perspective in which her eye watches him from above. Critic, Jeffery Overstreet states that “films about sociopathic killers usually focus on comfortable, happy citizens threatened by an unstable and dangerous man” however I would argue that it thanks the perspective of Norman, the lonely, pathetic character, we are seeing a film focused on the unstable and dangerous man who is surrounded by uncomfortable and dissatisfied people. Everything in Psycho is used to unsettle and by extension, everything in Hitchcock serves the same purpose.

While, the “bird’s eye view” shot offers the idea of the objectification of The Birds prey it does call into question the idea of, as Derrida described it, “seeing yourself seen by an animal”. The idea is that it is inertly unsettling for us, the human, to see ourselves being looked at by an animal. Derrida gives the example of his own dog looking at him naked. For this essay, the most interesting comment that Derrida makes is the idea of “absolute alterity” or the extreme difference in perspective between the human and the animal or that “they have taken no account of the fact that what they call ‘animal’ could look at them, and address them from down there, from a wholly other origin”. It is this idea of a “wholly other origin” that connects back to the ideas of perspective that run throughout all three films. The film shifts perspective and, in the case of The Birds, offers us a perspective from a “wholly different origin” as an, at times perverse, and always unsettling power play that involves both the characters and the viewer. The viewer is in a position of power at the start of Rear Window as they have more knowledge than the characters on screen but in Psycho what the viewer sees is only part of the picture placing them in the same shoes as the characters. By shifting and unsettling perspective the film is able to comment on the nature of visual mastery resulting in the viewer being unable to decide on the films, true villain. Voyeurism in the case of Psycho is evil but voyeurism in the case of Rear Window is for good. Then, in The Birds, we have nature as a wholly different perspective offering us the idea that the act of voyeurism or the act of looking can be both good and bad.

In The Birds, they are presented as both villains and victims. There are the obvious attacks that take place throughout the film but there is also the underlying environmental message at the core of the film that comments on how man sees and interacts with nature. This is most clearly seen in the diner scene in which Melanie talks with Mrs. Bundy who talks about the nature of birds referring to them as “not aggressive creatures” that “bring beauty into the world”. Mrs. Bundy’s perspective of the birds is that they are “beautiful” where Melanie sees them as “aggressive” as they both have seen different sides of nature. The film uses these different perspectives to comment on man’s relationship with nature by having Mrs. Bundy immediately, and loudly, interrupted by a waitress calling out “Sam! Three southern fried chicken”. Here the idea is presented that the beauty of the birds is being interrupted by the greed and hunger of man. Man sees birds as prey to be hunted as opposed to the beauty that Mrs. Bundy describes and thus they are presented as sympathetic complicating the idea of their perspective is that of the hunter looking down at their prey.

Critic Donald Spoto argued that “the birds operate as markers of the chaos unleashed by shallow human relations”. Spoto argues that “the bird attacks are poetic representations of everything shallow and undermining in human relationships” however, I would argue, the “human relations” in The Birds are less about human relationships and more about humanities relationship with nature. I argue this because visually the film gives a clearer critique of the connection between man and it’s environment than between man and itself as Spoto originally argued.

The opening shot of The Birds also further complicates the idea of The Birds being simply the villains of the story as we open in the skies over San Francisco before flying down, much like a bird, towards a pet store in which we see multiple caged birds. Through the use of the camera as a mode of looking, we are, at the very start of the film, a bird being caged as we fly from high in the sky down to the pet store. Much like Hitchcock is allying the viewer with Jeff in Rear Window, we are immediately being asked to sympathize with the birds and are immediately connected visually to the birds in seeing the humans as the aggressors. Unlike Psycho, where you have a man sexualizing and objectifying women through his gaze and Rear Window where the gaze of Jeff is seen as heroic, in The Birds we’re constantly moving our emotional investment between the human characters and the bird’s thanks to the way that Hitchcock uses the perspective in different ways.
Perhaps the clearest moment of ‘killer POV’ in the film is during the infamous shower scene where we see a naked Marion, at various points, from the killer point of view. During the act of performing the murder, we are seeing Marion at her most vulnerable as we have seen her repeatedly reduced from the state of in control woman to venerable victim. Killer POV is used throughout horror as a means of viewing the world through the eyes of the killer (an example being the opening to John Carpenters Halloween in 1978). Killer POV allows the viewer to “experience the perhaps perverted pleasure attributed by the film to the murderer”. Much like the entire idea of looking in Hitchcock, this killer POV is normal in every sense other than the act it witnesses. Like the perspective of Jeff in Rear Window, we don’t get unusual framing or a surrealist, expressionist mise en scène in the way we previously did in the genre (see Nosferatu). We instead get the perspective of normality, witnessing abnormal events, which serves to make the final reveal all the more shocking.
I’ve talked about objectification in the way that hunters look at their prey (The Birds) but in Psycho, and at times in The Birds, the prey in question is very clearly female. The opening shot of Psycho ventures from out in the city into the seedy hotel room where Marion sits in her underwear after having sex. This is the first of many times we see Marion in various stages of undress in the film which invites the viewer to look through their own peep hole, the screen, in the same way, Norman does, in order to watch her during her most private moments.

As critic Laura Mulvey discusses “There are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure” and in the case of Hitchcock’s films, the “pleasure” in question is key when discussing the act of looking. While the “pleasure” that Jeff gains from looking are as a cure for his boredom, for Norman Bates the pleasure he derives from looking is sexual. Mulvey continues on to discuss Freud’s idea that scopophilia is associated “with taking other people as objects” and “subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze”. Norman takes the women he meets very much as objects as a direct result of the physical attraction he feels for them and as a result of his loneliness and isolation. For Norman looking through the peep hole, there is a disconnect between himself and the character of Marion whom he is looking at. She is an object to be admired from afar as opposed to someone to connect with, an idea that is furthered by the physical barrier, the wall, between both characters. This is because of the controlling gaze that the mother exerts over son.

In Rear Window we encounter a visual parallelism created through the use of the window frames that allow us to see two stories coinciding at the same time. The window frame essentially acts as a screen itself allowing us to see part of the story while hiding the full picture from us. An example of this is a scene in which Thorwald is the scene in the left window dialing the phone while his wife tiptoes out of bed in order to hear her husband’s conversation in the right window. This is a marked change in framing as “the onlooker sees two actions simultaneously on two ‘small screens’ (windows with a small space between them)”. This dramatic irony is, in essence, allowing the viewer a literal window into the world of the story while explicitly hiding something from them. For example, the zoom lens used by Jeff is in itself cutting off much of the image even though it does allow us to gain more detail regarding the section of the frame we are focused on, as seen when Lisa finds the wedding ring in Thorwald’s apartment. This same motif returns later in the film during the climax whereas Stefan Sharff describes “a similar instant parallelism is played out on a higher level of suspense at the end of the film”. Sharff is referring to the moments where the police are approaching the apartment in one window while Thorwald molests Lisa in the other. Sharff’s use of the word “parallelism” is particularly pertinent when considering the film as a whole as we are constantly dealing with parallelisms both in framing and in character. This change in the way that Jeff performs the act of looking ultimately results in a greater understanding of the story that reinforces Jeff’s theory that something is wrong which ultimately leads to the murder. The film is drawing a distinct parallel between the viewer and Jeffries in the way he invites us to be the voyeur in the same way that Jeff is on screen and, conversely to Psycho, align us with his views on the film. Interestingly though, the viewer is placed in a position of helplessness during the climax as Hitchcock reverses the camera and looks across “the forth wall of the film” (p. 93) in the scene where Jefferies is hanging out of the window.

All three of the films discussed in this essay complicate and analyses the act of looking in a way that suggests the idea that the films of Alfred Hitchcock are less concerned with good and evil and more concerned with the perspectives of good and evil people. His films are consistently analyzing the idea of looking through what they are choosing to depict in the frames of their stories and what they choose to hide from both characters and viewers. Hitchcock’s films present the act of looking as a filter or perspective through which to see, and at times not see, events as they unfold around the characters. It’s about the differences between looking with good intentions and looking with bad intentions and how the line between those two perspectives is more often than not unclear and askew.


Bibliography

Carpenter, John, Halloween (USA: Compass International Pictures, 1978)

Derrida, Jacques, The Animal That Therefore I Am (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy), ed. by Marie-Louise Mallet (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008)

Hitchcock, Alfred, Psycho (USA: Paramount Pictures, 1960)

Hitchcock, Alfred, Rear Window (USA: Paramount Pictures, 1954)

Hitchcock, Alfred, The Birds (USA: Universal Studios, 1963)

Mulvey, L., ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’, Screen, 16 (1975)

Overstreet, Jeffrey, Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies (United States: Regal, 2007)

Scorsese, Martin, Taxi Driver (USA: Columbia Pictures, 1976)

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