Windows as the central motif of Alfred Hitchcock and Wim Wenders filmography

Lately the window images galore have prompted us to relook at its fond usage in the cinematic narrative to highlight the overlaps between the inner self and the outer world.

by Dilpreet Bhullar Published on : Aug 21, 2020

The surge of images with citizens standing onto their balconies, windows and rooftops to raise applause for the frontline healthcare workers fighting the pandemic crisis has been rampant in the past few months. First came the Italians and Spaniards, and following the suit were the Indians on the day of junta curfew with their possible kitchenware, and not just the musical props to encourage the medical teams working round-the-clock. The circulation of these images with a view of the outside world, especially from the windows, for the participating live performer-cum-audience and its viewers, whether on the television or phones was a reminiscence of the frequent use of the windows — as the central motif of the narratives — on the celluloid. Synonymous to the discussions on the motif of the window are German filmmaker Wim Wenders and English film director Alfred Hitchcock.

Rear Window Mural at Leytonstone Tube Station | Alfred Hitchcock | STIRworld
Rear Window Mural at Leytonstone Tube Station Image: Courtesy of Creative commons

When the view of the outside world, from the window, for the observer carries an objective reality, an architectural troupe of the window becomes a metaphorical bridge between the two. As opposed to this, it is primarily argued that the claustrophobia and anxiety arising out of confinement nudges the dimwit attitude. The Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who is known for designing Villa Savoye in Paris, the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, and planning the city of Chandigarh in India, once mentioned, “I exist in life only on the condition that I see.” This principle of seeing was even embraced in his modern architectural style of the horizontal window that offered a panoramic view as opposed to the vision restricted to top to bottom.

At the start of Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), based on Cornell Woolrich's short story It Had to Be Murder (1942), the image of a window blinds raised by an unseen greets the audience. The scene is followed by the casual mapping of the activities in and around the apartments. The camera pans out to showcase the life of confinement led by Jeff — his thick plaster cast, photographic equipment and frame of his works. Next, the camera shows a film negative that is now developed to be on the cover of the LIFE magazine. After this survey, Hitchcock establishes the window of LB Jeff’s (James Stewart) room as the central point of both convergent and divergent views. The windows facing the Jeff’s apartment turn into multiple plots that forge the larger narrative of the movie. Besides its scope as the narrative technique, the semblance of the window acts as a view on the microcosmic ways of capitalist life, where the objects are put together for the spectacle consumption rather than a coherent network of logic.

The nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter) calls the photojournalist Jeff, temporarily confined to a wheelchair, "race of Peeping Toms". The voyeurism cannot be distinct from the act of watching through the window in the entire movie. The leitmotif window unfolds the metafictional discussions around scopophilia dovetailed with scopophobia. Thereby, it opens a worldview where the masculine spectator overpowers the feminine spectacle. Raising the hierarchy between the ‘one who is watching’ and the ‘one who is being watched’, Jeff fears that neighbours might have seen Stella and him spying on them. She responds, "I am not shy, I have been looked at before," to which Jeff retorts, "That's no ordinary look. That’s the kind of look a man gives when he thinks that someone might be watching him”. The site of privilege under which Jeff operates is counter-productive to the sense of alienation and abandonment experienced by the individuals.

The Picasso Museum in Hotel Sale | STIRworld
The Picasso Museum in Hotel Sale Image: Courtesy of Creative Commons

An extension of what German philologist Jacob Ludwig Karl Grimm claimed, “the window as the eye of the house”, Wenders, from 1960s to 1980s, constructed the window-view shot to let the protagonist have a moment of introspection while looking at the world moving in front of his eyes. In the road movie Paris, Texas (1984), Wenders let his male protagonist Travis (Harry Dean Stanton) confess the burden of the lost love to his estranged wife Jane (Nastassja Aglaia Kinski) across the window screen. Not just another external apparatus, but the screen sketches the dividing line between two former lovers who are now beyond reconciliation. At the start of the scene, sitting across each other with a window between them, Travis begins a conversation over the phone. The interplay of light and shadow let the faces of the two protagonists subsume into each other. When Travis asks Jane to switch off the light to be able to see his face, we see that the two of the lovers share their anxieties and resentments looming around the slow death of their relationship. Towards the end, as Travis leaves before Jane confirms her presence at the hotel to collect their son, a new window opens with the light pouring inside the room. Throughout the scene, the window motif seems to be tracing the course of their relationship that continued to stay afloat for a while but now remains ebbed.

Frank Gelett Burgess’ photograph on the wall between the windows shows Pablo Picasso in his studio in 1908 | STIRworld
Frank Gelett Burgess’ photograph on the wall between the windows shows Pablo Picasso in his studio in 1908 Image: Courtesy of Creative Commons

Before the use of the motif of windows was turned into a rage by the filmmakers, the idea was practised by a series of painters and theorised by philosophers. Leon Battista Alberti, Italian Renaissance author and artist, with his treatise Della pittura or On Painting called painting a “window through which we look at the world”. The paintings Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velázquez and Woman at the Window (1952) by Pablo Piccasso emulate the ideas of format and composition that are inherent to the architectural and metaphorical window. Photographers and filmmakers further explored the technique, but this time with the ting of the technology, which empowered them to challenge the conventional notion of a mimetic way of reproducing reality.

Of course, there is a vast oeuvre of movies that bespeaks the manifold art of working around the visual motif of windows. Perhaps, these two movies straddle and blur the boundaries between the aesthetics of mimesis (imitation) and poiesis (to make) to be etched in the memory for the longest of time.

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