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Karolina Katsika

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More Than Just a Line of Sight: Cinematic Windows and Their Significance

Tony Grace et Gill Jamieson

Texte intégral

  • 1 Henri Levebvre, The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson, Oxford, Blackwell, 1991, p. 209.

1Consider a window. Is it simply a void traversed by a line of sight? No. In Any case the question would remain: what line of sight – and whose? The fact is that the window is a non-object which cannot fail to become an object. As a transitional object it has two senses, two orientations: from inside to outside, and from outside to inside. Each is marked in a specific way, and each bears the mark of the other1.

2Lefebvre’s point, that a window is more than a void traversed by a line of sight, is worth bearing in mind with regards to the many windows in film. His question has tangible implications in terms of the various uses of the on-screen window. In what seems a throwaway remark in his remarkable consideration of space (nowhere else does he discuss the window or its significance), his fundamental point –that the window is not a void but a transitional object marked by subjectivity ( « what line of sight – and whose? »)– invites us to reconsider the window in film as a non-object that becomes an object overlooked by critical theory. Our starting point is the significance of the line of sight. How is this borne out on-screen? Film scholarship has been shaped significantly by work on the gaze since Mulvey’s seminal intervention in the debate in 1975, and there is a clear intersection here with theories of the gaze. This exemplifies Lefebvre’s observation that the window is always a non-object becoming an object. Remarkably, the fact of the window remains little discussed in its own right, despite forming the point at which the gaze is foregrounded by this common architectural feature. Moreover, where this occurs, we have found that trauma is a recurring consequence of the intersection. Narratives of crisis, of longing, despair and betrayal, are often played out in film against backdrops in which windows feature prominently.

3The window forms the architecture of the scene in many memorable examples. Taking inspiration from Bordwell’s neo-formalist approach to film narrative construction in which he takes apart the different components of construction – space as a distinct element of narrative – « fabula events must be represented as occurring in a spatial frame of reference ». A window can be a normal aspect of the diegesis – it can be compositionally motivated as part of the scene where events take place. This motivation can extend further, corresponding to audience expectations about realism and verisimilitude. Windows are a part of the everyday, a characteristic feature of domestic space and public buildings. Any narrative would normally feature the kinds of representational space encompassing the window. While audiences are unsurprised at seeing a window on screen, in many films the window becomes a locus of display as windows often feature in narratives in ways calling attention to their physical properties. A significant number of films incorporate a window within the design of the diegesis, motivated either generically or artistically.

4The window itself is often a part of the action of the film – whether as a means of ingress for heist movies like Dassin’s Topkapi (1964) where the robbery’s discovery is also made manifest by the hitherto unnoticed presence of a bird which had flown in the window at the time of the robbery; or as a comic means of survival for Buster Keaton in the famous gable end stunt in Steamboat Bill Jr (1928); or playing an integral role in the action and the set-up as in McKendrick’s dark comedy The Ladykillers (1955) where Alec Guinness’ sinister Professor Marcus first seen in silhouette both passing the window and then appearing at the translucent front door before inspecting the lodgings, noting the view of the railway and having the famous exchange where he discusses the house with it’s « pretty windows »: « I always think the windows are the eyes of a house, and didn’t someone say the eyes are the windows of the soul? ».

5As this snapshot indicates, windows have many different manifestations in film. Any attempt to classify the uses or occurrences of the window in film might consider the window as setting for observation or conversation with events unfolding in the world outside, as in many period dramas such as Pride and Prejudice (Wright, 2005) (inside to outside), either confirming or in juxtaposition to the position or conversation of characters within the building. Or as a means of narrative propulsion as we see a window revealing an interior world (outside to inside); in the The Pawnbroker (Lumet, 1964) Rod Stieger’s Holocaust survivor lives a life circumscribed by his shop window which he closes up each night displaying the forfeited goods of the neighbourhood and the shadows of the grille of the window where he takes the pledges, etches the memory of the concentration camp upon him.

6The physical challenges and psychological opportunities presented to filmmakers by windows link to the humorous appraisal by The Ladykillers’ Professor Marcus quoted earlier – the window recalls the role of the lens in capturing the action and emotion in « the profilmic-event » and the role of selection, opportunity, expertise and chance in this complex creative process. Celebrated cinematographer Conrad Hall, « The Prince of Darkness » shot a memorable scene in the 1967 adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood directed by Richard Brooks, where Robert Blake’s convicted murderer awaits execution and the rain – created on-set, with a gutter and lateral fan blowing the spray on to the window-beats on the cell window as he talks to the chaplain. The light from outside the window projects the raindrops on to the actor’s face, seeming to echo the condemned character’s fate like a second translucent skin:

  • 2 Arnold Glassman, Visions of Light – The Art of Cinematography, (DVD), London BFI Publishing, 1992, (...)

The light hitting his face with this phenomenon happening on the windows happened to hit his face one time when I was looking. So I went to Richard – « Watch this on his face now! » […] and we did another rehearsal. And you can see the water running down and it drips around and he’s talking about his father and its very sad, he’s going to be hanged but he’s playing it very straight, unemotional. The visuals were crying for him. I’ve had so many cinematographers call me and ask me how I did that shot! Well I didn’t conceive it at all, Richard didn’t conceive it, no one conceived it, it was purely a visual accident2.

7The window is frequently a physical opening allowing people and objects to enter or exit the building and the scene – often illicitly, sometime to humorous effect as in, the swashbuckling balcony entry of medieval costume drama parodied by Danny Kaye in The Court Jester (Frank & Panama, 1955) or sometimes to sinister effect as in The Lost Weekend (Wilder, 1945) with Ray Milland hiding his liquor outside the window.

Fig. 1. In Cold Blood – « the visuals crying » for Robert Blakes’ killer. IN COLD BLOOD

Fig. 1. In Cold Blood – « the visuals crying » for Robert Blakes’ killer. IN COLD BLOOD

© 1967, renewed 1995 Pax Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

8Windows often symbolise hidden interior worlds, a site of longing as in Ophul’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Again, the window can form a central plot device, as in the desired and contested window of the Merchant Ivory adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View (1985) or Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944). In fact, it is almost impossible to summarise the functions of the window in film without resorting to listing the many interesting cinematic examples and the principle by which each example varies from the norm (the window as an object overlooked as nothing more than the ‘furniture’ in a scene), this makes recourse to a simplified system of functionality such as that offered by neo-formalism both necessary and desirable. Therefore we consider remaining exemplars in relation to the four principles of motivation by which the spectator justifies any given element within the film according to Bordwell in Narration in the Fiction Film (1987): compositional, realistic, transtextual and artistic.

The window as an architectural moment

  • 3 Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film, New York & London, Verso (...)

9The new architectural turn in film scholarship carefully delineates and dissects architecture on screen. Giuliana Bruno’s work has been at the forefront of the fairly recent trend to engage critically with film space as something worth talking about, not least because there is a simple parallel between film and windows. As Bruno notes: the spatial perimeters of film and architecture always stretch by way of incorporation. Appropriated in this way, they expand through emotional lodgings and traversals. Fantasies of habit, habitat, and habitations they map the narrativization of liminal space3.

  • 4 John Belton, « The Space of Rear Window », in Comparative Literature, 103: 5, 1988, p. 1122.
  • 5 David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, p. (...)

10As a ubiquitous architectural feature, it goes without saying that the material reality of the window presents a physicality bearing significant correlation to the frame of the screen. Art direction and set design frequently allude to the parallels. Many directors have understood this but none more than Alfred Hitchcock. Windows recur in his films, transcending purely mimetic functions as defined by Wayne Booth (1961) in The Rhetoric of Fiction. Rear Window (Hitchcock, 1954) is a case in point. According to Belton (1988) the set design for Rear Window is both theatrical and cinematic. The window features in the credit sequence and throughout the film, creating a social space aligned to Jeff’s subjectivity; each window in the courtyard resembles « little movie screens » according to Belton4, simultaneously flat and three-dimensional. Returning to Bruno’s point about liminality, Rear Window offers the spectator with each « little movie screen » a spatial threshold which when crossed as ‘a line of sight’ offers the potential for « narrativization », whether it is the trajectory of the young lovers, or Miss Lonelyhearts, or the savagery of the Thowald’s stagnant marriage. The theatrical and cinematic threshold of the window makes each story possible for the spectator and for the audience surrogate, Jeff (James Stewart). However, as Bordwell’s neo-formalist approach to this film argues, « (w) hen we see a shot of Jeff looking out of his window, his action is a representation which signals us to infer a story event (Jeff looks out his window.) »5. Each threshold invites a spectating position based on inference, something Jeff does through boredom and physical incapacity.

  • 6 Francesco Casetti, « Filmic Experience », in Screen 50: 1, 2009, p. 56-56.

11Rather inverting the way the « little movie screens » of Rear Window operate, Francesco Casetti assesses the rapidly changing form of the « filmic experience » and the impact of relocating cinema outwith the traditional black box cinema into domestic space and transitory space via televisions, computers, tablets and phones, noting that cinema « disperses itself through social space and now invades virtual space. […] What emerges from all this is a multiplicity of windows which both open and frame our viewing experience »6.

12Of course Casetti uses the term « window » to mean windows of time and space and opportunity as much as the physicality of the screens on which cinema and para-cinema is now viewed and « consumed ».

  • 7 Steven Jacobs, The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock, Rotterdam, 010 Publishers, 20 (...)

13Jacobs notes the significance of the window in Hitchock’s films as both a « hypersignifier » and an articulation of his central theme of voyeurism. Rear Window is one of seven Hitchcock films opening « with the image of a window that marks the transition from an urban exterior to the seclusion and mysteries of an interior »7. In Psycho (1960) Hitchcock brilliantly uses the window to create a literal place where narrative space is entered by the spectator.

14From an initial aerial view of Phoenix, Arizona, the spectator is drawn into the story world of the film as the camera slowly tracks into and through a window, in a movement recalling the notion of God’s « all-seeing eye » to reveal Marion Crane with her married lover. Whose line of sight is this? It is ours, the spectator’s, and we are complicit in snooping: the scene is illicit; a lunchtime tryst between lovers conveyed as such in a prying, probing movement of the camera that would be far less effective without the flourish of entering through a half-opened window, with drab Venetian blinds slightly askew. Beyond this faintly shabby and unremarkable window frame, a remarkable series of events will unfold. Here, the spectator is oriented from outside to inside. From outside the story world (the diegesis) of the film, to the very heart of the story. It is also significant that the window is partially open, augmenting the sense of entering a spatial frame. As an Englishman, Hitchcock was familiar with the British preoccupation with window dressings and ornamentation which contrast starkly with simpler Scandinavian and north European tastes: the established fashion for drapes and curtains, promotes the idea of the ‘curtain-twitching’ nosy neighbour, something particularly relevant to these examples. Focusing on the simple physical reality of the window, including the frame and the fact that the window is half open with the blinds slightly ajar, grounds the events we are about to experience as « story » in a material reality recalling Booth’s argument that what we consider reality is merely a consequence of such rhetorical flourishes.

  • 8 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, p. 68.

15In reference to Jacques Tati, another director making imaginative use of windows in his films, Deleuze comments: « The pane, the shop window, became the supreme optical and sound situation »8. The windows and doors of the ultra-modern house in Mon Oncle become a personification of its impracticality and the stark and relatively austere if rather bizarre manifestation of the sixties version of the home as a « machine for living », while the plate-glass of both the house with its modern impractical staircase and glass balustrade panel form a transparent barrier to the action. The large upstairs porthole windows of the house literally become « the eyes of the house » as Hulot’s in-laws peer out at night to see what is happening in their garden. Time and again plate-glass is used by Tati as a physical and metaphorical barrier separating Hulot and the pleasant organic chaos of his traditional world of humans and dogs from the bizarre antics of modernity, whether framing social rituals such as cocktail parties or the increasingly impersonal world of work.

Fig. 2 From Mon Oncle (1958), Tati’s homage to the windows as « The Eyes of the House »! La Villa Arpel, reconstitution du décor du film « Mon Oncle » de Jacques Tati (1958),

Fig. 2 From Mon Oncle (1958), Tati’s homage to the windows as « The Eyes of the House »! La Villa Arpel, reconstitution du décor du film « Mon Oncle » de Jacques Tati (1958),

©Spectra Films C.E.P.E.C. – Domeau & Pérès/Photographie Benoît Fougeirol

  • 9 Lee Hilliker, « In the Modernist Mirror: Jacques Tati and the Parisian Landscape », in The French R (...)

16Lee Hilliker9 provides a detailed analysis of Playtime, one of Tati’s last films in what Hilliker terms the « Architectural Period » of Tati’s cinema -his diagrammatic breakdown of significant elements contains a whole section on windows and the different aspects they present in Tati’s world and to the cinematographers. Hilliker regards Playtime as part of a discourse on boundaries and identities and the glass walls of the modern buildings play a significant role in articulating this discourse. There is a strong resonance with urban regeneration and remodelling in disrupting traditional and everyday life which resonates with the Haussmanization of Paris which created its famous boulevards and provided such rich material for Zola.

17The plate-glass window forms the narrative centrepiece of Dario Argento’s seminal « giallo » The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970). Like Hitchcock, Argento understands the window can be an effective locus for murderous action. This is a classic example of the transtextual (what Bordwell would elsewhere describe as « generic ») function of cinematic architecture. Mindful of Lefebvre’s distinction which makes sense of the built environment, Argento’s use of the window works from outside to inside. The protagonist witnesses what appears to be an attack on a woman in an art gallery. The production design with the huge gallery windows and the man becoming trapped between two massive glass sliding doors/windows produces maximum visibility, vital to the narrative and thematic energy of the scene. The action takes place on two levels: an attack and the witnessing of the attack. The window both makes the protagonist privy to what is happening and immobilizes him, rendering him powerless to stop the attack. It seems that the human actors here are « exhibits » in an exhibition case, the gallery context recalls the « Vitrines » of Josef Beuys, later reworked by Damien Hirst -something harking back to the museum cases where we see the stuffed (and as David Shrigley’s artwork reminds us – « Dead ») natural history exhibits where the glass seems there to contain any possibility of flight from the many birds we see. There is an obvious intertextual connection here to Jeff’s passivity in Rear Window and indeed the stuffed birds adorning the reception of the Bates Motel in Psycho.

18In these films the use of window also serves to forefront the power of the gaze and the objectification of the subject/victim. Patterns emerge as later films reference and pay homage to earlier works, one such text is The Woman in Black –an adaptation of Susan Hill’s popular novel (1983). In one suspenseful scene, looking from the inside to the outside, the male protagonist, hearing a mysterious noise and seeking out the source, finds himself in a nursery. The windows are ornate, stained glass. He is drawn further into a hidden room, towards the window and on looking out sees a fantastical occurrence of a figure rising up from the marsh in the torrential rain. Gazing incredulously at this scene his sees his own reflection in the glass and a smudged handprint also becomes visible. As he places his own hand on the print the screaming face of a woman suddenly appears.

19In both scenes the window becomes a visible object that functions to advance the narrative. It does so generically to heighten the moment of suspense. This function can also be read in relation to other generic antecedents in which the window has a comparable function. And in this regard Rear Window, and the films of Hitchcock more generally (Rebecca, The Lady Vanishes, Psycho, The Birds all feature important window scenes), as the cinematic example discussed most frequently in relation to the scopic drives as noted by both Laura Mulvey (1975) and Tania Modleski (2005) is the most pertinent example.

20On other levels these three examples invite identification with the woman – in the Woman in Black, Daniel Radcliffe takes the role traditionally occupied by the female in gothic fiction; in The Bird With the Crystal Plumage, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) misinterprets the scene because he identifies with the woman assuming she is the victim rather than the perpetrator; according to Tania Modleski’s reading of Rear Window, Jeff identifies with the woman. The dynamic within the scene placing a male protagonist in a position of powerlessness and passivity links these examples, the window is associated with a site of trauma experienced by the protagonist. This inevitably complicates Mulvey’s view that mainstream narrative cinema is « cut to the measure of male desire ». The slippage in subjectivity between different modes of spectatorship according to notions of active/passive, masculine/feminine would be revised by Mulvey herself in 1977 before Judith Butler’s intervention in the debate would advocate a more fluid appropriation of gender categories relating to spectatorship. Henceforth the idea of « masculinity in crisis » has been well documented by feminist film scholars since Judith Butler’s seminal Gender Trouble (1990), which formed the basis for contributions like Penley & Willis (1993) and the popularisation of the term.

  • 10 Hernán Vera, « On Dutch Windows », in Qualitative Sociology, Summer 1989, Volume 12, Issue 2, p 215 (...)

21Sociologist Hernán Vera and others have identified the window as a specifically feminine site of interaction between the public and the private worlds with domestic life on display. Vera talks of « the information game played through the windows in a context of the notion of privacy »10. Filmmakers have relished the opportunities this game provides in terms of visual narrative.

22The contrast between Midge and Scottie’s apartment in Vertigo is stark. In Midge’s cluttered, « bohemian girl pad », books and art dominate the space. The wide, side window with the two blinds haphazardly pulled up, suggests an artistic nonchalance. The city spreads out on the level with this vista, creating a seamless merging of interior with exterior. The opposite affect is achieved with Scottie’s apartment: the overwhelming feeling is of a tight space, despite lacking the clutter of Midge’s world. Vertical lines dominate this space both with the window blinds and the pattern on the accent wall. The view is partially obscured by an adjacent building, augmenting the feeling of the city closing in on Scottie, compounded by the building encroaching on the right hand side of the window frame. Meanwhile, the Coit Tower is clearly visible mid-frame. This neatly references the acute malady afflicting Scottie: an intense and debilitating fear of heights.

23A serious drama, dealing with relationships and consequences of dysfunctional behaviour, Shame (Steve McQueen) posits white heterosexual masculinity as deeply problematic — Brandon (Michael Fassbender) experiences « trauma » of an inability to form lasting, fulfilling relationships in preference for transient anonymous sexual encounters and perpetual one-night stands. His fraught relationship with his sister (Carey Mulligan) implies a shared childhood trauma which may or may not be incestuous in nature. A key narrative development has Brandon take a serious romantic prospect, a woman from work that he could conceivably form a normative relationship (both sexual and emotional), to a hotel where he earlier glimpsed a couple having sex at the full-length window. However, the possibility of a genuine emotional connection with this woman renders him impotent. His potential girlfriend leaves, Brandon calls a prostitute and they go on to have the same kind of highly visible sex he witnessed earlier. The window foregrounds the dysfunctionality of his desire – he sees a couple having sex, he tries to replicate that within the bounds of a normal relationship, fails, then replicates it with the transgressive on-demand sex he has grown accustomed to. In staging the act in such a visible manner, the woman is pressed against the glass of the window, completely nude, on display while her partner takes her from behind, Brandon’s sexual and emotional dysfunction manifests an extreme form of exhibitionism —another component of an aberrant and unhealthy sexual desire. The visibility of passing traffic and the industrial landscape on the margins of the shot, foregrounds the anonymous and transient features of city life below and makes these features almost pathogenic: the audience are encouraged to contemplate the root cause of Brandon’s dysfunctionality and to attribute this to environmental factors prevalent in contemporary urban life.

  • 11 Andrew Gellatly, « Steve McQueen », ICA London, in Frieze, Issue 46, May 1999.

24Here we see a warped evolution of the window’s « showcasing » of modern life noted in the Netherlands and other northern urban cultures, whereas in the windows of Amsterdam prostitutes the sense of display has overcome the notion that we will eschew blinds or curtains as we have nothing to hide which of course relates to McQueen’s film Shame. The window also presents visual possibilities to the film-maker which are as significant as are the difficulties sometimes of the cinematographer in realising these. These compound the physical properties of the window which connects and separates, brings together and distances, forming a barrier which can sometimes be opened or at the risk of physical pain and social outrage, broken. Windows have played a significant role in McQueen’s work which also reflect his ongoing concern with « masculinity in crisis » in his artist’s film Deadpan (1997) famously reprising Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jnr. stunt alluded to earlier where the attic window ensure his survival, but with more serious intent. Andrew Gellatly11 notes that:

An establishing shot near the beginning of the film reveals that McQueen’s boots have no laces, as though he is in detention overnight with the possibility of suicide taken away.

  • 12 Peter Bowen, « The Taste of Others », in Filmmaker Magazine, Winter 2009.

25While McQueen has spoken of his drive to engage with architecture of the prison in Hunger, the physical and metaphorical role that the windows and skylights of the prison and he cell of Bobby Sands (again played by Fassbender) the blown highlights breaching the darkness and squalor within. As McQueen comments in an interview with Peter Bowen12:

I wanted to create the atmosphere, a sense of place. […] Here is the cell: it is six feet by four feet for 24 hours a day. […] What dictated the camera for me was the prison itself, the architecture of the prison. We didn‘t do any breakaway walls; we just followed the actual architecture.

26In another narrative of male crisis, released in the same year as Shame, the espionage thriller Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) the narrative coalesces around two striking window images. The most significant of these in narrative terms involves Smiley’s (Gary Oldman) recollection of the office Christmas party —when the ‘old gang’ were together. George glimpses his wife in the arms of his colleague Bill Haydon (Colin Firth). George is emotionally traumatized by the experience and struggles to « see straight » thereafter. The window itself is not notable, typical of those of 1960s public buildings, a drab space taking nothing away from the spectacle of the event taking place on the other side (Bill and Ann embracing, Bill groping Ann in a crude and overtly sexual manner). The visibility of the betrayal —set up deliberately by Bill— distorts Smiley’s perspective. As Bill calculates, Smiley won’t be able to see straight when he is compromised by the emotional bias of the betrayal. The other example involves Ricki Tarr and an internal window (an inside to inside example).

Romantic windows: a locus of longing and despair

27One thinks immediately of the famous window scenes in film adaptations as diverse as Wuthering Heights (Wyler, 1939) and Room with a View (Ivory, 1985). In the former the window is an important threshold between the wildness of the natural world and the Heights, the window evokes the cruelty of this world when Cathy’s hand is maliciously rubbed against the broken pane by Mr Lockwood, and later leads Heathcliff to open the window and call out to Cathy ( « My heart’s darling! »). In Room With a View, the all important window presents a view of the Arno and sets in motion the freeing of Lucy from the restrictions imposed by Victorian society having been exposed to a freer sensuality with her holiday in Italy. Although both novels and film adaptations are very different, the striking connection between the two is the way in which the window is metonymically representative of a libidinal economy on the part of the characters. From the perspective of cultural geography, we might argue this is a type of character-environment interaction wherein the character expresses their desires through the precise meeting point between the inside and outside. The non-object as described by Lefebvre seems to condense all expectations around death, desire, longing and social conventions. In Room with a View, framing the lovers in the window with the rooftops of Florence as the backdrop is the ultimate in cinematic romantic imagery.

28Windows often move cinematic action on. In Hitchcock’s adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca the crucial conflicts between Joan Fontaine as the young second wife of Max de Winter and the celebrated performance of Judith Anderson as Mrs Danvers the sinister housekeeper of Manderley, are framed by the windows of the eponymous Rebecca’s bedroom. Exploring the mysteries of Manderley, Fontaine’s character has been drawn there by a wild gust of wind blasting through an open window with its blind billowing. Danvers has maintained this as an untouched hidden shrine to her former mistress and as the second Mrs de Winter tries to come to terms with the opulence of her predecessor’s domain, Danvers appears in her Mephistophelean manner proclaiming, « It’s a lovely room isn’t it, the loveliest room in the word the loveliest room you’ll ever see », and unveils the double-height windows with complex yet restrained arched mullion tracery revealed only as shadows against the light flooding through the translucent curtains, but with the shadows extending over the floor towards Fontaine’s character resembling those of an ornate prison cell.

  • 13 Leonard Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and Da (...)

29For cinematographer George Barnes this was a major challenge, how to depict « the loveliest room in the world » and one he got round by using, movement, light and shade from windows largely unseen and only suggested in outline. He won the only academy award of his long and distinguished career for Rebecca and Hitchcock was able to create the overwhelming impression that Fontaine’s character at least believes this - reflecting something of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White in a modern context. Leonard Leff notes that: « Mrs Danvers handles Rebecca’s “things” as though they were religious relics. Having belittled and frightened the young bride the housekeeper […] coyly invites her to stay and listen to the sea »13.

30Rebecca’s room is again the scene of a confrontation between Danvers and the second Mrs de Winter, as Leff describes the scene:

  • 14 Ibid., p. 68.

When the second Mrs de Winter appears at the costume ball in the same gown work by her predecessor her husband orders her to change. Distressed she runs upstairs into Rebecca’s bedroom. The housekeeper calls her to the window then whispers: « Look down there, it’s easy isn’t it? Why don’t you… Go on… Go on… . Don’t be afraid »14 .

31Here we could argue that the window really embodies the sense of threat and physical intimidation that the second Mrs de Winter feels in occupying the place of her predecessor.

The window as a site of Trauma

32Perhaps the most interesting examples of the window in film are those where all four of Bordwell’s functions -compositional, realistic, transtextual and artistic -operate simultaneously; arguably the case in films challenging and subverting audience expectations. The multidimensionality of the window in cinema often occurs when trauma is a characteristic aspect of the scene, possibly to underscore the complexity involved in manifesting a state of mind in which emotional pain is a direct consequence of the action of the scene. Perhaps one of the most acute and resonant examples can be found in the scene in A Clockwork Orange (Kubrick, 1971) where Malcolm McDowell’s Alex is tortured by being played classical music, the reflection of the window remains there impassively before he finally cracks, runs across the room and unlocks the leaded glass casement upstairs window to jump out, apparently to his death. There have been many cinematic defenestrations but one of the most memorable is the final scene of Alejandro González Iñáritu’s Birdman where Michael Keaton’s troubled actor assumes his final role. Here the window operates as it often does in cinema as an invisible barrier between one world and another, and in this case, it represents the possibility of release from the many emotional and professional tribulations facing Riggan Thompson. Moreover, the narrative and thematic possibilities this scene poses for the audience, hinge on « inference », refusing to impose any moral judgement on a possible course of action that is really very daring and potentially subversive for a Hollywood film.

33Iñáritu was not setting out to explore Bazin’s famous analysis of the cinema screen as compared to the psycho-spatial limitations of the « aesthetic microcosm » of the theatre and also of painting, which he says is « not to be confounded with the scene it represents and is not a window on the wall ».

34As Bazin continues:

35It is not the same with cinema, the basic principle of which is a denial of any frontiers to action.

36The idea of a locus dramaticus is not only alien to, it is essentially a contradiction of the concept of the screen. Screen is not a frame like that of a picture but a mask which allows only a part of the action to be seen. When a character moves off screen, we accept the fact that he is out of sight, but he continues to exist in his own capacity at some other place in the decor which is hidden from us. There are no wings to the screen.

37Yet, Birdman provides a striking illustration of Bazin’s essential point - not only do we see the wings of the theatre exposed on the cinema screen, and indeed the outside world beyond « backstage » when Riggans is memorably locked out on the street in his underwear, but we see the ability of the cinema screen to create the metaphorical construction of the character of Birdman and Riggan Thompson’s own « wings » as his beaten and bruised face looks through the simple window of his hospital room, the brick wall visible but revealing a hint of city skyline his reflection echoing his upward gaze as he contemplates his final flight.


38The structural distinction, or « orientation », as noted by Lefebvre, from « inside to outside » and « outside to inside » is immensely significant when applied to windows in film. When the distinction is considered it is possible to explain the affective quality of the window, an object instilling an emotional moment in the minds of character and spectator alike. Without the window the paranoia intrinsic to the horror film experience is lost, as that familiar moment of looking in from without in a manner not sanctioned by society, is marked by the presence of the window.

  • 15 Francesco Casetti, « Filmic Experience », op. cit.

39The window in film presents many ambiguities and possibilities with the different planes of transparency and reflection. The observation that the window is both an object/non-object, presents a visual link and physical and social boundary —in itself a reminder of the film camera’s lens and the separation of the pro-filmic event in time and space. The window embodies a sense of transience almost of the order of Keats’s Grecian urn, having gone through a similar metamorphosis, and in general equally fragile, but being made of glass, a substance which is not a true solid as anyone looking through old windows which have become distorted through time and gravity becomes aware, as glass is in reality a supercooled liquid flowing at a glacial pace which ultimately resonates with Francesco Casetti’s multidimensional consideration of the window in film15.


Works Cited

Alfredson Tomas, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 2011.

Argento Dario, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, Central Cinema Company, Glazier, Sedda Spettacoli, 1970.

Belton John, « The Space of Rear Window », in Comparative Literature, 103: 5, 1988, p. 1121-1138.

Booth Wayne, The Rhetoric of Fiction, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Bordwell David, Narration in the Fiction Film, Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

Bowen Peter, The Taste of Others, Filmmaker Magazine, Winter 2009 - available online at Accessed 5th July 2013.

Brown Clarence, The Possessed, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 1931.

Bruno Giuliana, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film, New York & London, Verso Books, 2007.

Butler Judith, Gender Trouble: feminism and the Subversion of Identity, London, Routledge, 1990.

Cairns Graham, The Architecture of the Screen: Essays in Cinematographic Space, London, Intellect, 2013.

Casetti Francesco, « Filmic Experience », in Screen, 50: 1, 2009, p. 56.

Dassin Jules, Topkapi, Filmways, 1964.

Deleuze Gilles, Cinema 2: The Time Image, New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Frank M. & Panama N., The Court Jester, Los Angeles, Paramount Picture, 1955.

Gellatly Andrew, « Steve McQueen, ICA London », in Frieze, Issue 46, May 1999.

Glassman Arnold, Visions of Light – The Art of Cinematography, (DVD), London BFI Publishing, 1992, 2006.

Jacobs Steven, The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock, Rotterdam, 010 Publishers, 2007.

Hilliker Lee, « In the Modernist Mirror: Jacques Tati and the Parisian Landscape », in The French Review, Vol. 76, N° 2, Dec. 2002, p. 318-329.

Hitchcock Alfred, The Lady Vanishes, Gainsborough Pictures/Gaumont British, 1938.

— Rebecca, Selznick international Pictures, 1940.

— Rear Window, Paramount Pictures/Patron Inc., 1954.

— Vertigo, Alfred J. Hitchcock Productions, 1958.

— Psycho, Shamley Productions, 1960. Iñárritu Alejandro G., Birdman, Regency Enterprises/New Regency Pictures, 2014.

Ivory James, Room With a View, Merchant Ivory Productions, 1985.

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Lumet Sidney, The Pawnbroker, Landau Company, 1966.

Mackendrick Alexander, The Ladykillers, The Rank Organisation/Ealing Studios, 1955.

McQueen Steve, Deadpan, Steve McQueen, 1997.

McQueen Steve, Hunger, Filmfour, Channel 4 Films, Northern Ireland Screen, 2008.

McQueen Steve, Shame, See-Saw Films, 2011.

Modleski Tania, The Women Who Knew Too Much: Hitchcock and Feminist Theory, London, Methuen, 2005.

Mulvey Laura, « Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema », in Screen, 16 (3), 1975, p. 6-18.

Ophuls Max, Letter from an Unknown Woman, Rampart productions, Universal Pictures, 1948.

Resiner Charles, Keaton Buster, Steamboat Bill Jr., United Artists, 1928.

Penley Constance, Willis Sharon (eds.), Male Trouble, Minneapolis, MN, University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Tati Jacques, Mon Oncle, Specta Films, 1958.

Tati Jacques, Playtime, Jolly Film, Specta Films, 1967.

Vera Hernán, « On Dutch Windows », in Qualitative Sociology, Summer 1989, Volume 12, Issue 2, p 215-234.

Wright Joe, Pride and Prejudice, Focus Features, 2005.

Wyler William, Wuthering Heights, Samuel Goldwyn Productions, 1939.

Wilder Billy, The Lost Weekend, Paramount Pictures, 1945.


1 Henri Levebvre, The Production of Space. Trans. Donald Nicholson, Oxford, Blackwell, 1991, p. 209.

2 Arnold Glassman, Visions of Light – The Art of Cinematography, (DVD), London BFI Publishing, 1992, 2006 -Documentary film contains interview with Conrad Hall.

3 Giuliana Bruno, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film, New York & London, Verso Books, 2007, p. 66.

4 John Belton, « The Space of Rear Window », in Comparative Literature, 103: 5, 1988, p. 1122.

5 David Bordwell, Narration in the Fiction Film, Madison, WI, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985, p. 50.

6 Francesco Casetti, « Filmic Experience », in Screen 50: 1, 2009, p. 56-56.

7 Steven Jacobs, The Wrong House: The Architecture of Alfred Hitchcock, Rotterdam, 010 Publishers, 2007, p. 27.

8 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, New York, Bloomsbury Academic, 2013, p. 68.

9 Lee Hilliker, « In the Modernist Mirror: Jacques Tati and the Parisian Landscape », in The French Review, Vol. 76, N° 2, Dec. 2002, p. 318-329.

10 Hernán Vera, « On Dutch Windows », in Qualitative Sociology, Summer 1989, Volume 12, Issue 2, p 215-234.

11 Andrew Gellatly, « Steve McQueen », ICA London, in Frieze, Issue 46, May 1999.

12 Peter Bowen, « The Taste of Others », in Filmmaker Magazine, Winter 2009.

13 Leonard Leff, Hitchcock and Selznick: The Rich and Strange Collaboration of Alfred Hitchcock and David O. Selznick in Hollywood. Place of Pub, Grove Press, 1987, p. 67.

14 Ibid., p. 68.

15 Francesco Casetti, « Filmic Experience », op. cit.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1. In Cold Blood – « the visuals crying » for Robert Blakes’ killer. IN COLD BLOOD
Crédits © 1967, renewed 1995 Pax Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Fichier image/jpeg, 20k
Titre Fig. 2 From Mon Oncle (1958), Tati’s homage to the windows as « The Eyes of the House »! La Villa Arpel, reconstitution du décor du film « Mon Oncle » de Jacques Tati (1958),
Crédits ©Spectra Films C.E.P.E.C. – Domeau & Pérès/Photographie Benoît Fougeirol
Fichier image/jpeg, 28k


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