Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to the optical point-of-view shot, inserting a camera into the heads of his characters in nearly every film throughout his career. The Master of Suspense knew that this shortcut to conveying a character’s experience could be a powerful tool if used artfully. In Vertigo, this artfulness resulted in one of the greatest POV shots of all time, the discombobulating push-in-zoom-out (technically a “dolly zoom”) that simultaneously suggests our hero’s unbalanced frame of mind. More importantly, Hitchcock routinely tied these POV shot choices to significant narrative moments. In Vertigo this served to heighten the most intense action scenes by placing us directly in the action; elsewhere, the POV shot served to convey vital information, revelations, twists and — you guessed it! — suspense:
With Rear Window, Hitchcock structured an entire film around this single technique. It may not register on first viewing just how much of the movie is comprised of true POV shots, mostly because there’s a consistent pseudo-POV gaze out of Jeffries’ (Jimmy Stewart) apartment toward those of his neighbors. Insofar as such a thing can (or even should) have one unwavering, concrete definition, this analysis will define a “POV shot” as one that is truly mirroring the vantage of the character. There are a number of sweeping pans during Rear Window in which we see much the same thing Jeff is seeing, but many of these end up incorporating Jeff into the shot and are therefore technically objective, “false” POV shots.
Which highlights the primary element of a “true” POV shot, that being subjectivity. If we’re using Jeff’s eyes, it would follow that we’re also using his imagination. One of the most overlooked aspects of Rear Window‘s brilliance is the sound design, which takes an understandable backseat to the film’s dazzling emphasis on visuals and perspective. But the fact that Jeff can’t hear any of the conversations his neighbors are having, despite being fully invested in what these neighbors appear to be doing, subconsciously introduces subjectivity into every true POV shot. The question of Jeff’s reliability pulls our attention into every POV frame, challenges our own reliability, challenges us to view things for ourselves as if we’ll catch a truth he’s overlooked. Whenever our eye is merged with Jeff’s, then, it’s too simplistic to assume our imaginations are also merged. We’re the homunculus in Jeff’s head, a voice of reason tasked with keeping his perspective honest.
But Jeff’s a moviegoer, too, in a sense, watching action unfold without ever becoming actively involved. As he gets more and more interested in the case his POV gets closer and closer, first through an intentional gaze into a particular apartment, then through a pair of binoculars, and finally through a telephoto lens on Jeff’s camera. Likewise, we are by this point more involved with the story at hand, closer to it, more invested. If Hitchcock’s camera were to leave Jeff’s apartment and roam around in those of the neighbors, showing close-ups of the characters and their actions, it’s doubtful that the viewer would feel any more attached to the narrative. The fact that we’re rooted somewhere, even if it is all the way across the courtyard, provides a more solid connection than if we’re allowed to roam ubiquitously.
So, yes, true POV takes up an impressive amount of screentime throughout Rear Window. But it’s not always Jeff’s POV, and the times we get into the head of another character elevate the film above the likes of Cloverfield or Chronicle or Paranormal Activity or any other film that relies on POV as a gimmick rather than an artful utensil. Hitchcock blocks it the same way almost every time: an objective establishing shot of the character, a subjective POV shot from the character, and then (usually) a final objective reaction shot suggesting the character’s response to what they’ve seen. When Jeff invites Doyle over to see what he’s seen, Doyle stands in the same place and looks across the street. Ultimately, though, his attention isn’t drawn to the same things: it’s drawn to Lisa’s (Grace Kelly) shadow on the wall and, more notably, to her overnight bag. His gaze is even noticeable to the other characters, with Lisa commenting on Doyle’s inspection of her bag: “…did he think I stole it?”
Consider the first minute of this scene, one of the few sequences in which the camera is largely an objective observer:
That first pan, as alluded to earlier, gives the false impression of POV before turning on Jeff at the very end. There are only two instances of true POV here, both shots of Lisa approaching from Jeff’s waking vantage. Hitchcock hadn’t yet delved fully into horror as a filmmaker at this point, but he still employs its tropes effectively in capturing an ominous shadow eclipsing Jeff’s face. For him, whether it’s logical or evasive or just plain childish, Lisa’s desire for his attention is a sort of horror. From his perspective, the two of them can’t be together because their lifestyles are so vastly different. Long before Rear Window spells this out through dialogue, the framing of Lisa’s introduction from Jeff’s point of view hints at a discord between them.
If Rear Window is a matter of perspective, then surely it’s accurate to call it Lisa’s story as much as Jeff’s. We never leave Jeff’s side, look through his eyes frequently, are encouraged to sympathize with him and ultimately see his worth in uncovering the narrative mystery of the film; maybe this focus is a given in the man’s world of 1954. But in actuality it’s Lisa who journeys out of the apartment to fulfill a mission, who is initially at risk, and who makes a decision of her own that leads to a crucial discovery. The final shot of the film dwells on Lisa, not Jeff, and shows her dressed for adventure and reading the travelogue Beyond the High Himalayas. Then, upon seeing that Jeff is fast asleep, she quietly puts the book down in favor of Harper’s Bazaar. Granted, a moviegoer in 1954 (or a cynic in 2018) might interpret this as a woman unable to break from her ways.
Or, more poignantly: Lisa has adopted Jeff’s point of view without sacrificing her own. As far as the murder mystery is concerned, Lisa came around to Jeff’s perspective by literally mirroring his gaze, looking through the same binoculars as Jeff and forming a conclusion that matches his. But Doyle’s similar experience shows that it’s not enough to simply adopt someone else’s vantage; understanding is comprised of knowledge and analysis, not just knowledge. So one might assert Lisa as a more mature character in this regard, as Jeff remains unable or unwilling to take on Lisa’s perspective at all.
At least that’s one point of view.