Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, and quite possibly the greatest film director of all time, has used optical point-of view shots in many of his classic films. Optical point-of view shots are defined as when an image that we see on the screen is the exact representation of the image as a particular character in the film perceives it. In other words, we are simply seeing the world directly through the character's eyes. One of the prime examples of Hitchcock's use of optical point-of-view shots is his 1954 film, Rear Window.
There are two main purposes for his use of optical point-of view shots in Rear Window. One has to do with the story itself. The point-of-view shots help to pull the audience into the film and to identify more with the characters, most notably the main character, L. B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart). The second reason is much more universal, having to do with the nature of film itself, and the essence of cinema. I will discuss that essence a little later on in this paper, but for now I would like to deal with the use of optical point-of-view shots in terms of the story itself.
During the film, nearly all of the point-of-view shots can be attributed to L.B. Jeffries. He is held up in a wheelchair with a broken leg, and he spend most of his time spying on his neighbors in his apartment complex. For the point-of-view sequences, Hitchcock used the same formula every time.
First, he will show an objective shot of Jeffries - or whomever the POV shot is attributed to - as they looks out the window at one of his neighbors. Then, he will switch to the subjective point-of-view shot, showing us the character's perception of what he sees out the window. Lastly, Hitchcock will switch back to an objective view of the character, so that we may see their various reactions to what they have just seen. Hitchcock will also on occasion place a mask over the lens during a point of-view shot to further reiterate the character's subjective perception as they look through a pair of binoculars, or in Jeffries case, the telephoto lens on his camera as well.
For the most of the first half hour of the film, Jeffries' spying is of the rather innocent kind, if that's at all possible. That is to say it is quite a while into the film before he finally seeing something to be suspicious of. Why take so long to get the plot moving?
The main reason involves the need for the audience to identify with Jeffries. Hitchcock needs to reinforce the fact that we are learning things about these neighbors at the same time he is. We aren't privy to any information that Jeffries himself doesn't already know. That way, once the story really gets rolling we can feel the same sense of anxiety that he does, culminating in his watching his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly) be confronted by the murder suspect Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr). At that moment, we can help but feel afraid for her, still not yet knowing - just as Jeffries - that Thorwald has indeed killed his wife after all.
Another point worth noting is the fact that some shots of Jeffries' watching his neighbors can be misconstrued at optical point-of-view shots when in fact that aren't. On a few occasions, we see closeups on the people that Jeffries' is watching, such as the newlyweds, and when Thorwald tells his neighbor to shut up. Hitchcock keeps the same formula of showing us Jeffries as he looks on, followed by the close-up "POV" shot, followed by the reaction shot. We can tell these are not actual point-of-view shots because they are simply closer to the subjects than Jeffries' actually is.
These shots demonstrate Jeffries' increased attention at what he is looking at. As he pays more attention to the details in what he is looking at, we get to see more details in the image as well. If you look at the reaction shots for each of these "increased attention" shots, you will find that Jeffries is often leaning forward in his wheelchair and focusing harder on what he is looking at.
Since the camera is a non-thinking inanimate object, there is no possible way to communicate Jeffries' increased attention through the normal POV shot. Hitchcock, however, maintains the angle of the shot and stays true to the formula that he has already established for POV shots. Therefore, he is able to zoom in to demonstrate Jeffries' increased attention, while still being able to maintain the point-of-view effect that his formula serves to create.
There are other instances as well where the optical point-of view shots are ambiguous and can be attributed to either Jeffries, Stella, his physical therapist, or to Lisa. On a few occasions there are scenes where either Jeffries and Stella or Jeffries and Lisa are looking out the window followed by a point-of-view shot, followed by a reaction shot showing either pair once again.
The fact that the main purpose of these POV shots is to demonstrate how we are learning things at the same time as the characters makes these particular shots ambiguous because both on screen characters are learning something new through what they are seeing. However, since all of the point-of-view shots up until these few instances are attributed to Jeffries, it would not be presumptuous to attribute these ambiguous shots to him as well.
There are also a few instances in which the point-of-view shots are definitely attributed to characters other than Jeffries. One instance takes place when Jeffries shows slides of the backyard garden to both Stella and Lisa. Jeffries has noticed that the height of some the flowers has decreased somewhat, and he thinks that is proof that Thorwald had buried some incriminating evidence there. Since Jeffries already has knowledge of this difference, we don't see his point-of-view in this case. However, since this information is new to both Stella and Lisa, we see point-of-view shots for each of them as they compare the slide to what they currently see in the backyard.
There is also a scene in which all the point-of-view shot are attributed to Tom Doyle, Jeffries' friend and a police detective that is helping him out with the case. The reason for the point of-view shots in this sequence however are not to show us that he is learning new things. Rather, the reasons are twofold.
First, we must take notice of exactly what he is looking at during the POV shots. He notices Lisa's shadow and her overnight clothes. He then moves over to the window and looks at the songwriter's apartment and the party he is throwing. Lastly, for this initial sequence, he looks at Thorwald's apartment, with the light being off. Later on in the scene, he looks back at Lisa's overnight clothes as he makes a remark that Jeffries takes offense to.
This pattern of POV shots suggests two things. Since he looked at the Thorwald apartment last after arriving at Jeffries' apartment, combined with the way he is talking about the case demonstrates his lack of enthusiasm for pursuing this matter further. He is completely disinterested in it, and he tries to convince both Jeffries and Lisa to give up on their silly little theory.
The second reason for the shift in point-of-view can be seen when we combine the fact that Doyle twice looks at Lisa's overnight clothes, along with his reaction shot after he sees Lisa's shadow immediately upon entering the apartment. This perhaps suggests that Doyle has some romantic feelings for Lisa. She is a very attractive woman, and his reaction shot after seeing her shadow suggests some level of jealousy towards Jeffries for being with such a beautiful woman. It might be that jealousy that leads Doyle to twice irk Jeffries with his sarcastic comments.
The last character other than Jeffries to have point-of-view shot attributed to him is Lard Thorwald himself. After discovering that Jeffries has been watching him the entire time, he goes to Jeffries' apartment to confront him. With high-powered camera flash bulbs as his only weapon, Jeffries turns off the lights and attempts to blind Thorwald just long enough to get the attention of the police across the way in Thorwald's apartment. On four different occasions, Hitchcock shows us Thorwald's point-of-view as Jeffries flashes him in the eyes. This is not done to help us identify with Thorwald, but since Jeffries is covering his eyes to protect himself. Hitchcock shows us just how powerful these bulbs actually are, by using a red filter for each of Thorwald's point of-view shots. Not only do we directly see the effect of these flash bulbs, but it's a wonderful visual image as well.
As mentioned in the beginning of this paper, the point-of view shots not only aid in communicating the story well, but they also serve a greater cinematic purpose. It can be argued that the use of optical point-of-view shots, especially in a film such as this, captures the true essence of cinema in a universal sense.
This essence is the voyeuristic quality that nearly all films possess. After all, when we view a film we are watching a portion of other people's lives undetected by them. This is exactly what Jeffries is doing throughout Rear Window. He is peering into the private lives of others without - for the most part - being detected by the people he is watching. Most importantly, he is enjoying himself while he is at it, and he can never keep away from that window for too long. This is the feeling that Hitchcock hopes to invoke in his audience. We feel that same sense of enjoyment, never being able to stay away from the theater for too long.