This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 1 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Alfred Hitchcock was one of the most forward-thinking filmmakers of the twentieth century, advancing the artform and anticipating audiences’ taste. Through his most famous films (Psycho, Rear Window, and Vertigo), we find a common theme: anonymous watching. This theme is exponentially more relevant today than in Hitchcock’s own time, living as we do with the power to present our stories and peer into others’ lives. Though Hitchcock’s cinema is often morally askew, gleefully implicating the viewer as just another peeping Tom, his work offers a powerful lesson. Art offers us the chance to see ourselves through the screen. It draws us in through the chance to watch unseen, but then reveals to us our own motives. One of the famous features of Hitchcock’s movies, his cameo, shows that the director is as aware of the audience as we are of the actors. Though we may think we are bystanders in media, Hitchcock suggests we are rather participants. Like Norman in Psycho, we think we are secret watchers, but Hitchcock’s cinema shows there is no such thing. Someone is always watching us, if only the creator of the works we consume. Like Jeff in Rear Window, our idle pastime of peeping grows to an obsession that will be found out, but it can offer moments of genuine insight. Like Scottie in Vertigo, however, if we unthinkingly accept the vistas we are offered, vision can easily degrade into delusion. Hitchcock, more than any other modern filmmaker, understood this and helps us to see it, too.
Alfred Hitchcock made movies in every era of the twentieth century. He directed silent films. He made the first British talkie. He adopted color and used it beautifully. Hitchcock made the switch to the post-code, rated-R world of ‘70s cinema. He even made a 3-D movie. If he were alive today at the ripe age of 119, we might see him using CG characters in place of live action, especially since he often joked that actors were cattle.
Hitchcock could make these transitions because he was always ahead of his time. He expanded the possibilities of the medium, but he also tested the limits of audiences. Rewatching even some of Hitchcock’s oldest films, there’s a whiff of modernity. In fact, we may miss his innovations (the rapid editing, the push/pull effect, the first sight of a toilet on screen) because they’ve now become normal. Likewise, Hitchcock’s favored world of urban sophisticates with divorces, career vs. family tension, and aimless romantic relationships is now much more our world than it was in Hitchcock’s day.
But there’s another theme running through many of Hitchcock’s best movies that deserves attention: watching. Sitting in the dark, we watch Hitchcock’s characters, often watching each other. Watching is alluring, so it’s no surprise that in Hitchcock’s movies, spying tips easily into voyeurism. Here again, he was ahead of his time. He lived in a day when watching others anonymously was hard. It required a pair of binoculars or a telephoto lens (or a ticket to the movies). It’s easy to do now, when all it requires is wifi. But, despite Hitchcock’s frequent averrals about morals in his movies, his obsession with watching reveals some important truths.
Hitchcock’s most famous movie, Psycho, begins with a slow push through a cheap hotel window, where we see Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) and her noncommittal lover Sam Loomis dressing after a mid-afternoon tryst. The camera floats in through the window of the hotel room like a curious drone trying to document the sad lives of the residents of Pheonix, Arizona. The camera watches Marion dress, as Sam frequently stares out the window, a sure sign of Sam’s halfhearted commitment to the relationship’s future.
Watching and love are nearly identical for Hitchcock. We watch the ones we love. We grow to love the ones we watch. Watching, of course, can easily break bad. But so can love, as Hitchcock well knew. Many of his best movies map the tense emotional geography of a single house, where love and death share adjoining rooms. He once joked that television had “brought back murder into the home — where it belongs.”
The hazards of watching begin to be felt in Psycho’s very next scene. Marion leaves Sam at the hotel to return to her boring office job. There her coworker (played by Hitchcock’s own daughter Patricia) brags that her husband called, and then “Mother called to see if [her husband] called.” This is already the second time “mothers” have been discussed in the film’s few first minutes. In the last scene, Sam talks about having dinner at Marion’s house and then “turn[ing] Mother’s picture to the wall” after dinner. For a film that will have so much to do with mothers, these are important details. Mothers watch with a scrutinizing, judgmental glare.
Thus far in the film, we’ve enjoyed the pleasures of watching anonymously. Like the free-floating camera, we’ve gotten to see without being seen. But the second scene of the film adds another layer. Others are watching. Mothers are watching. And someone else sees us, too. As Marion enters her office, we see the familiar, rotund figure of Hitchcock himself, standing outside the window, who made cameo appearances in most of his movies, starting way back with The Lodger. That Hitchcock made his first cameo when he did was notable; this was the first film that showcased the director’s style. The cameos remind the audience this is his film. It was made for us, by him. We aren’t watching anonymously. Hitchcock is watching us watching.
If the point about cameos seems a stretch, here’s Hitchcock speaking with French filmmaker François Truffaut: “My main satisfaction is that the film had an effect on the audiences….I feel it’s tremendously satisfying for us to be able to use the cinematic art to achieve something of a mass emotion….With Psycho we most definitely achieved this. It wasn’t a message that stirred the audiences, nor was it a great performance or their enjoyment of the novel. They were aroused by pure film.”1
Hitchcock’s cameo in Psycho’s second scene introduces the idea that we’re all being watched, which makes sense if we all like watching so much. Psycho will go on to develop this theme to the point of agony, as Marion Crane’s next decision puts her under the painful scrutiny of many watchful eyes, the last of which will be “Mother’s.”
As the second scene wears on, Marion’s boss and a sleezy client enter the office. The businessman propositions Marion, flashing a stack of cash in her face. The cash is for a real estate purchase, and Marion is charged with depositing the money in the bank. Her coworker comes over to look at the cash, noting that the businessman didn’t flirt with her, supposing “he must have noticed my wedding ring.” Again, attention and love are nearly identical in Hitchcock. The businessman didn’t notice the coworker’s ring, or anything at all, except Marion.
Going a “little mad,” Marion steals the real estate money and bolts for California, where new life awaits with Sam — but not before her boss spots her leaving town. In Hitchcock, as in the Gospels, nothing’s concealed that won’t be revealed. Marion’s flight to California is closely watched. Hitchcock’s camera sits on the hood of the car and stares at Marion as she drives, scrutinizing her worried face. A policeman stops her, mostly just to help, and his mirrored sunglasses seem to reflect her guilt back on her. In a doomed attempt to buy some anonymity, Marion switches cars, only to have the transaction witnessed by the curious policeman.
Marion’s inability to escape being seen culminates at the Bates Motel. Checking in under a false name with a fake hometown, Marion connects with the motel’s sensitive young manager, Norman. Norman is obviously not a normal man. But the two connect over dinner, sitting in Norman’s office, which is filled with stuffed birds watching them intently. Through the first genuinely kind conversation Marion has encountered in the film, her guard slips. She reveals her true name and true hometown. She allows herself to be seen. Again, watching is like love in Hitchcock, and watching easily slips into voyeurism, so it should be no surprise that when Marion goes back to her adjoining room, Norman takes a picture from the wall and watches Marion prepare for her shower through a peephole.
Voyeurism is a theme of utmost importance for Hitchcock. It’s not just watching; it’s secret watching. But in Hitchcock’s films, nothing stays hidden. Someone is always watching. And Norman’s secret spying is seen. “Mother” is watching. And Mother soon puts a stop to Norman’s fun. After just a moment of spying, Norman puts the picture back guiltily and heads to his house. We watch as Marion starts to shower, Hitchcock’s artful cutting making us think we will see her naked, but always cleverly cutting away, implicating us in watching.
Mother’s earlier nagging of Norman, her judgmental assessment of his vulgarity, echoes the earlier judging eye of Marion’s coworker’s mother and Sam’s desire to “turn mother’s picture to the wall.” Mothers, at least in Psycho, embody judgment. As Marion showers, having resolved to return to Pheonix and return the money, her guilt and worry is washed away in the shower. Then Mother appears. But Mother isn’t punishing Marion for her guilt. Mother, as we find out later, is punishing Norman for his. His crime? Watching with interest.
Hitchcock’s own view of the audience is less like Mother’s than it is like an indulgent uncle. He doesn’t condemn us for peeping; he implicates us as co-conspirators. After the famous shower murder, Norman has to clean up after Mother. He mops and scrubs and puts Marion’s body in the trunk of her car. Pushing the car into the swamp, Norman panics as the car doesn’t fully submerge. We cut to his worried face and, because of the emotional nature of cinema, we begin to worry with Norman. We want the car to sink in the swamp. Again, in his book of interviews with Truffaut, Hitchcock sums it up: “One intriguing aspect is the way [Psycho] makes the viewer constantly switch loyalties. At the beginning he hopes that Janet Leigh won’t be caught. The murder is very shocking, but as soon as Perkins wipes away the traces of the killing, we begin to side with him, to hope that he won’t be found out….The viewer’s emotions are not exactly wholesome.”2
If there’s a thesis here, it’s this: the viewer’s emotions aren’t exactly wholesome. Again and again, Hitchcock reminds the viewer that we aren’t detached observers. The viewer is implicated. Though Hitchcock’s comments suggest a sort of mild immoralism in his work, his point is highly relevant for a healthy understanding of art and our relationship to it. In the second major text on this subject, Rear Window, we see this clearly.
Rear Window presents many of the same obsessions as Psycho, but with less distress. Though mostly set at night, Rear Window is more hopeful. Its themes are vintage Hitchcock, but transposed from a minor to a major key. The film opens with Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) wheelchair-bound and bored. He idles away the hot summer days and nights looking out his window, across the courtyard into the perfectly proportioned 1.66:1 aspect ratios of his backdoor neighbors’ windows. There’s the lithe dancer, the amorous newlyweds, the nagging couple, the old folks with their tiny dog, and many other neighbors somewhere along life’s journey.
Early in the film, Jeff sees two women go up on a rooftop to sunbathe, then a helicopter hovering in the sky, watching. Jeff watches, then watches others watching, all from the safe distance of his apartment’s rear window. The movie’s theme is, precisely, voyeurism. Early on in the movie, Jeff’s nurse Stella proclaims, “We’ve become a race of peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change….How’s that for a bit of homespun philosophy?” Always wary of didacticism, Hitchcock punctures the preachiness with a knowing comment from Jeff, “Readers Digest, April 1939.” Yet despite the corniness of the sentiment, this quote summarizes the central lesson Jeff learns. His peeping gets him into trouble, but it also enables him to see his own life.
The movie’s A-plot is Jeff’s amateur investigation into the possible murder of a nagging wife from across the way. The invalid wife (whose condition mirrors Jeff’s own) suddenly disappears. And her husband acts strangely. Jeff collects evidence from his quiet vantage point, but can’t pin the guy down, despite his use of longer and longer lenses for spying.
The B-plot interweaves, as Jeff’s relationship with his girlfriend Lisa (Grace Kelly) waivers between the passion of the newlywed neighbors and the annoyed arguments of the homicidal husband. The camera shot that introduces Lisa is telling. Jeff awakens from sleep as Lisa’s face looms in, nearly out of focus. The vantage offers the viewers a glimpse of what it would look like to be kissed by Grace Kelly, but also introduces Jeff’s problem: Lisa’s too close for comfort.
Fearing commitment and sacrifice, Jeff keeps pushing Lisa away. In Hitchcockian terms, Jeff can’t see Lisa clearly. As Stella tells him earlier, “Lisa Freemont’s the right girl for any man with half a brain who can get one eye open.” Only at the thematic climax of the film, when Lisa sneaks into the murderous husband’s apartment and finds the dead wife’s wedding ring, does everything come into focus. Lisa’s adventurousness proves she’s the right girl for Jeff. He finally gets “one eye open” to see her, literally the one eye looking through his telephoto camera lens. Putting the ring on her finger, Lisa symbolically locks up the relationship. She and Jeff will marry. But at this very moment, the husband’s eyes look across the courtyard and see Jeff. The watcher is now being watched. What’s more, the murderous husband’s eyes look directly into the camera. After an entire film where Jeff’s watching, and ours, has been totally anonymous, the sudden exposure is shocking. Again, the master himself made the connection between the character in the film and the viewer while speaking to Truffaut: “[Jeff’s] a real Peeping Tom….What’s so horrible about that? Sure, he’s a snooper, but aren’t we all?”3
Rear Window, like Psycho, implicates the viewer but offers a silver lining. Jeff’s discovery puts an end to his voyeurism. In the film’s final frames, he no longer looks out the window but rests contentedly with his back to the courtyard, eyes closed. He no longer relies on the vignettes playing out in other windows around the courtyard for his entertainment. However, his relationship with Lisa is recovered by her appearing in one of these vignettes. Because she ventured across the way, Jeff is able to get out of his own house and “look in for a change.”
The leap from Rear Window to the arts more generally is an easy step. Through the arts, we see the stories of others but also recognize ourselves. In seeing other stories, we see our own. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote that one of the great features of fairy tales is how they enabled us to recall again our original perception: “Recovery…is a re-gaining — regaining of a clear view….We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity.”4 Tolkien could just as easily be talking about Rear Window here as Red Riding Hood. In seeing Lisa through the lens, Jeff sees this woman in his life more clearly, freed of the triteness of familiarity. In being discovered, Jeff sees himself more clearly.
There’s a final film that fits into this discussion. Vertigo has often been called Hitchcock’s greatest. It’s a beautiful and perverse film highlighting the master’s talents and obsessions at the height of his career. Despite Hitchcock bemoaning the leading lady, the casting is perfect. Jimmy Stewart plays Scottie, a detective suffering from vertigo after a scary rooftop incident. He’s hired to follow the wife of an old college buddy. Madeline (Kim Novak) seems to be possessed by the spirit of a dead woman from San Francisco’s sordid past.
In a series of hypnotic and mysterious scenes, Scottie follows the beautiful, blonde Madeline as she visits places dear to the long-dead Carlotta Valdez. She sits in front of Carlotta’s portrait in a museum, her hair twisted into an identical bun. She puts flowers on Carlotta’s grave. Despite having a luxurious apartment, Madeline has rooms in a lodging house once belonging to Carlotta. Her strange behavior fits with the notion suggested by Madeline’s husband that she’s possessed by the spirit of a dead woman.
Along the way, the viewer realizes Scottie has fallen in love with the beautiful, damaged Madeline. His “surveillance” turns into an excuse to spend time with her. Despite being commissioned by her husband, Scottie is soon kissing Madeline and trying to heal her madness so they can be together. Scottie’s progression is one a student of Hitchcock can now expect. Watching gives way to love, which gives way to obsession.
In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Scottie drives Madeline to a Spanish mission she claims remembering from her previous life. He wants to prove it still exists, and she’s probably visited it in this life and is simply recalling a visit she’s forgotten. Breaking from Scottie, Madeline runs up the mission’s bell tower and Scottie is unable to follow (due to his vertigo). Through a window, he sees Madeline fall from the tower and onto the mission roof below.
Believing Madeline dead, Scottie suffers a nervous breakdown (again, Hitchcock’s very modern interest in psychological maladies). Much later, he sees a woman who resembles Madeline and attempts to remake her into the image of the woman he used to follow. At the film’s climax, Scottie realizes this woman is Madeline. She’s an actor of sorts, hired by his college buddy to behave insanely to cover up his murder of the real Madeline. Scottie’s sense of betrayal drives him to take Judy (the woman who posed as Madeline) up to the same bell tower. At the top, she confesses to the murder scheme. Then, surprised by the appearance of a nun (another “mother” — a religious image reinforcing her guilt drawn from Hitchcock’s Catholic upbringing), she backs away and falls out of the bell tower, thus re-enacting the very scene she helped to stage.
The tragic conclusion of Vertigo isn’t realistic in any sense, it operates on a kind of nightmare logic giving the whole film its power, but the tragic flaw of Scottie is highly realistic. Scottie is misled by his own trust in watching. For most of the film, he thinks that what he sees is real. He doesn’t believe Madeline is possessed, but believes she is mad. He mistakes a series of framed vignettes, carried off for him as an audience, as true-to-life snapshots. Rear Window affirms the power of peeping as a way of understanding reality. But Vertigo reveals an additional truth: what we see is often staged.
An earlier clue that Scottie, like the audience, is being mislead is hinted at with the ever-present cameo. As Scottie goes to meet Madeline’s husband for the first time, Hitchcock crosses the screen. The viewer understands, in retrospect, this is all a show, put on for Scottie, and us, by a master showman.
Making connections between Hitchcock’s day and our own is easy and a bit apparent, but no less true. Just like Stella’s corny proclamations, their obviousness doesn’t make them any less relevant. We live in an age of managed appearances. Through social media, we present our lives as believable-but-desirable. A subgenre of Instagram photos show the lengths to which dutiful friends will go to capture a perfect image — lying on the ground, perching on a fence — all to frame a moment of life in idealistic perfection.
Rewatching Vertigo, the absurdity of the scheme becomes apparent. Staging Madeline’s madness to cover up a murder is a far-fetched plan. Cinematically, however, it works. Like Scottie, we mistake peeping for reality. Scottie thinks he is seeing the truth because he watches in secret. But everything he sees is staged. Only in the final moments of the film does Scottie realize this, and it destroys him.
As always, Hitchcock was ahead of the curve. He saw what was coming. Through his films, we can look at ourselves as well, if we will have eyes to see.
Philip Tallon (PhD, University of St Andrews) is an assistant professor of theology at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil (Oxford, 2012).
- François Truffaut, Hitchcock: A Definitive Study of Alfred Hitchcock (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 282–83.
- Truffaut, Hitchcock, 272.
- Truffaut, Hitchcock, 216.
- R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy Stories,” in The Monsters and The Critics (London: Allen and Unwin, 1983), 147.