Hitchcock’s Jimmy Stewart and Audience Complicity, by Tyler Smith
Alfred Hitchcock was primarily a director of thrillers. His films contained intrigue, espionage, obsession, sexual desire, and, most of all, murder. Sometimes this murder was expected by the audience, other times welcomed. In some films, the murder would come out of nowhere, taking the audience completely by surprise. It was in subverting the audience’s expectations that Hitchcock seemed to take the most joy; to force the audience to reassess what a thriller can be. In doing this, Hitchcock not only made the audience question and distrust the stories they were seeing, but question their own viewing tendencies. He made them question why they were so interested in watching movies about murder and death, and the psychological implications of doing so. He wanted them to see themselves on the screen, and this was never better accomplished by Hitchcock than in casting American film icon Jimmy Stewart.
By the time Jimmy Stewart was first cast by Hitchcock, he was already a firmly-established fixture in Hollywood. His work with Frank Capra established him as the picture of American humility and decency, and his Oscar-winning performance in The Philadelphia Story made him appear intelligent and quick-witted. In real life, he put his acting career on hold to fly missions in World War II, returning home a hero. In the public consciousness, he was a humble, intelligent patriot; a person that every American could aspire to. Hitchcock realized that to cast Stewart as unsavory characters would be jarring to most audiences, partially because Stewart’s credible integrity would go a long way in helping the audience to accept characters that they might not otherwise. The audience’s inherent cultural identification with Stewart would force them to see themselves in his characters; a prospect many could find deeply disturbing.
Rope, Hitchcock’s first collaboration with Stewart, uses our identification with Stewart’s character, Rupert, to first put us at ease in the midst of a morally chaotic story, then implicates his character in the chaos. The story begins with two young men, Brandon and Philip, murdering their former classmate, David Kentley; they strangle him with a rope. Their exhilaration at their deed is almost sexual in nature, making the audience uneasy. Murder is nothing new to the Hitchcock audience, but associating a sexual thrill with it – in 1948, no less – is most definitely a new component that makes the death much more unsettling.
The audience’s discomfort compounds as Brandon glibly speaks about the murder as though it were of no emotional consequence. As he and Philip discuss the murder – both their motivations and the disposal of the body – the senselessness of the act becomes clear. These young men did not murder David out of any animosity towards him, nor for any financial gain. They did it simply to see if they could. They believe themselves to be somehow superior, not merely to David, but to the average person, whose moral limitations would keep him from ever committing such a crime. Theirs is a motivation similar to that of Raskolnikov’s in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but with none of the oppressive guilt afterward the fact. For several minutes, Brandon and Philip are the only characters on screen. The audience is forced to spend time with two men who are not only murderers, but are particularly sadistic in their motivation and reaction. We are given nobody to sympathize with, which leads to the unnerving conclusion that we might be forced to sympathize and identify with these two men. And Hitchcock’s choice to shoot the film as one unbroken taken (albeit with hidden cuts every few minutes) only emphasizes the feeling that we are truly “stuck” with these two.
Fortunately, more characters arrive, each one pleasant and likable, and wholly unaware of the murder that has just taken place. Each new arrival is somebody that is close to David; his father, his best friend, his girlfriend, his aunt. Their obliviousness to the death of their loved one makes Brandon and Philip all the more odious in our eyes, but it does not help us to identify with them.
Finally, almost 30 minutes into the film, Jimmy Stewart’s Rupert appears, seemingly out of nowhere. While we have seen the other guests enter through the front door, Rupert’s arrival comes as the result of a camera pan. As the camera surveys the room of people, slowly moving from right to left, it eventually arrives at Rupert, standing patiently as he waits for somebody to notice him. It is a jarring effect, and works to separate Rupert from the other characters in the room. He arrives with an air of mystery. How long has he been standing there? How much has he heard?
While it is logically obvious that he arrived just moments before, there is an otherworldliness to his first appearance. Since we did not see or hear him enter, there is an ever-present quality to the character. It somehow feels as though he simply materialized, perhaps willed into existence from the audience’s desperate need to identify with somebody on screen. The fact that he is played by the always-comforting Jimmy Stewart only adds to the relief that the audience feels when Rupert finally arrives.
Hitchcock is counting on this feeling of stability, and the impulse of the audience to finally “settle in” now that we have a true protagonist to identify with and root for. Also, as Rupert makes his way through the party, speaking in witticisms and winking pleasantries, his inherent intelligence comes through. We are sure that this man is not only our protagonist, but our hero. Surely, this smart, well-spoken man (played by the decent Jimmy Stewart) will figure out what Brandon and Philip have done and put everything right. After almost 30 minutes of unease and instability, we finally feel like the story has kicked in, and Rupert’s good will triumph over Brandon and Philip’s evil.
However, this contentment does not last long, as the party conversation quickly turns to the subject of murder. When pressed for his unconventional views on the subject, Rupert rattles off a list of the various problems that murder would solve. “Unemployment, poverty, standing in line for theatre tickets.” At first, his comments seem playful and wry, but as he drifts into talking about murder being an art to be performed only by “superior individuals”, the audience starts to make the link between Rupert, Brandon, and Philip. Suddenly, the difference between our seemingly-sympathetic protagonist and our evil villains is less clearly defined. And Rupert’s role as Brandon and Philip’s former teacher suggests that it is entirely possible that they might have never had the idea to murder David had he not given it to them, albeit in the abstract.
Further complicating things is the reaction of David’s father, whose incredulity at the idea of individual inferiority or superiority eventually leads him to connect these Nietzchean concepts to the philosophies of Adolph Hitler. He speaks of Brandon’s “contempt for humanity and for the standards of a world (he) believe(s) is civilized.” As Brandon sputters about societal hypocrisy, he immediately turns to Rupert to come to his philosophical defense, forging an undeniable connection between the two of them. Brandon and Rupert are cut from the same cloth, and our knowledge of Brandon and Philip’s crime is now partially associated with Rupert, our supposed hero.
Rupert begins to protest, but the connection has already been made, both in Brandon’s mind and the audience’s. This connection is cemented once Rupert discovers David’s body in the trunk. His reaction upon seeing the corpse is one not merely of horror, but of realization. Stewart’s ensuing diatribe against Brandon and Philip is righteously indignant, but smacks of guilt and shame. Everything about the look on Stewart’s face suggests a silent question, not of, “What have you done?”, but instead, “What have I done?” Having delightfully spouted his pro-murder rhetoric earlier in the film, he is now faced with the consequences of such an attitude. It is an attitude whose glib morbidity is nothing new for Hitchcock, but certainly does not fit with the public image of Jimmy Stewart, whose all-American idealism and World War II heroism is something that audiences aspired to.
As audience surrogate Rupert despairs over his decidedly Hitchcockian attitude towards murder, we are led to question our own motives in seeking out such macabre and disturbing content. Our willingness as viewers to sacrifice characters like David Kentley in the name of our own entertainment fits nicely into Rupert’s ideas about “superior individuals” deciding which “inferiors” live or die. Rupert’s abstract philosophies then are no different than our moviegoing philosophies; ideas that, when they are carried out in real life, shock and horrify us. In Rope, Hitchcock uses our natural identification with Jimmy Stewart’s Rupert to eventually question our ghoulish desires to see played out on screen what we would never want to see in the real world, suggesting that perhaps our own instincts are not really that distant from the instincts of those that would carry them out. People like Brandon and Philip, or Leopold and Loeb, or perhaps even Adolph Hitler.
In Rear Window, Hitchcock once again utilizes Jimmy Stewart’s quiet humility and genteel humor to subtly pull the audience into the story. Stewart plays Jeff, a photographer laid up in his apartment in a wheelchair with a broken leg. His inability to leave his apartment keeps him at the mercy of his girlfriend, Lisa, who frequently stops by to question their relationship status. With every new suggestion, Jeff gets more and more visibly uncomfortable, eager to change the subject.
Jeff’s fear of domesticity comes at a time when the United States was far enough removed from the Depression and World War II to arrive at a time of peace and prosperity. Veterans started families and moved to the suburbs. It was a time of contentment. If Jimmy Stewart’s performance in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington established him in the public consciousness as upright, patriotic, and admirable, his role in It’s a Wonderful Life firmly established him as the symbol of hard-won domestic happiness. Though, as George Bailey, Stewart suggested a deep discontentment and cynicism, it eventually gives way to joy and acceptance of the American definition of success, both professional and societal.
To cast Stewart as a man who is clearly suspicious of this kind of contentment and unnerved by the idea of settling down is to suggest to the audience that they might be not be as happy as they would appear to be. And as Jeff begins to gaze out his back window and into the personal lives of his neighbors – each in their own little domestic box – Hitchcock addresses the rise of that exciting new invention that was quickly becoming the center of so many suburban homes: the television.
In those moments of extreme romantic pressure, when Jeff feels as though he literally cannot escape from the advances of Lisa, his automatic response is to look out the window at the variety of distractions his neighbors provide. Each is their own television show. There is the sad drama of Miss Lonelyhearts, the goofy comedy of the fire escape couple, and even the bawdy striptease of Miss Torso. As Jeff glances from one window to another – with the frequency of somebody flipping through channels on their television – he eventually lands on the appropriately Hitchcockian tale of the Thorwalds. Jeff allows himself to get more engrossed in this morbid thriller, supposedly to get to the truth, but his investment conveniently coincides with Lisa’s insistence that they talk about their romantic future. Eventually, Lisa allows herself to watch, as well, possibly because this is the only way to get the attention of Jeff. She is so eager to be a part of his life that she even endangers herself to further the “storyline” of the possible Thorwald murder.
While the film remains undeniably charming, there is something inherently off-putting about the man that the audience has come to see as George Bailey – the image of domestic acceptance – ignoring the woman that loves him. It conjures the image of a disgruntled husband staring intently at the television as he tries to drown out his wife’s voice. Surely, this is not the Jimmy Stewart the audience had come to know and love, and yet there he is, so eager to avoid the trapping conversations of his girlfriend that he essentially wills the Thorwald murder to happen.
Rear Window is Alfred Hitchcock’s examination of how we watch movies and, increasingly in 1954, television. It is also – perhaps more importantly – an exploration of why these forms of entertainment became so popular. Perhaps it was simply enthusiasm for the latest invention. Or maybe it allowed the viewer to escape the uncomfortable intricacies of the domestic life they felt so culturally pressured to embrace. Were Jeff played by another actor, his personal foibles could be seen as distant from those of the audience. However, since this man is played by family man Jimmy Stewart, his obsessive avoidance suggests a deep, unspoken dissatisfaction with what many in the audience undoubtedly defined as American success.
In Vertigo, Hitchcock’s final – and perhaps most notable – collaboration with Stewart, he returns to the theme of watching. Stewart plays Scottie, a former police officer approached by an old friend to follow his mentally- unbalanced wife, Madeleine. The story that Scottie is told – and the possibility that Madeleine’s delusions might be true – is just the kind of hook that a filmmaker would use to attract an audience to his film. By this time, Hitchcock has already used Scottie’s near-death experience and stylistic subjective camera to force audience identification with the character, so anything story-related that Scottie is told is also being used to intrigue the audience to want to follow Madeleine just as much as Scottie is.
As Scottie covertly follows Madeleine as she goes about her day, the pacing and tone of the film becomes hypnotic. There is no dialogue, forcing both Scottie and the audience to watch the proceedings more intently. Much of what we see is through Scottie’s car windows. The square windows of Rear Window – used to mimic the television screen – have been replaced with the widescreen of the car windshield. We are firmly in the realm of movie watching, and Scottie approaches the case the way audiences watch a movie. He is pulled deeper into the plot by his mysterious – and beautiful – leading lady until he quite literally decides to insert himself into the story by saving Madeleine from drowning.
Unfortunately, despite his best efforts, Scottie is unable to keep Madeline from killing herself, and both his immediate and eventual response to the tragedy mirrors that of the audience when their entertainment does not work out the way they want. His shock soon gives way to an ugly sense of entitlement. When he meets Judy, who looks uncannily like Madeleine, he sees his opportunity to “fix” the story. Scottie’s obsessive abuse of Judy, as well as his complete disregard for her feelings, is illustrative of Hitchcock’s view of certain audience tendencies. They want what they want, and if they don’t receive it, they will thrash about until they get it. And Scottie’s intensity quickly turns to outright rage when he discovers that Madeleine never truly existed, and that the story he was told is just that: a story. No matter how real his emotions might have been, they were only in response to a work of fiction and manipulation.
If the audience is to see Stewart as their surrogate, they would see a man whose light charm and sympathetic approach to life quickly evaporates when he is denied what he feels he is owed. They would see an ugly, entitled child of a man, whose desire to get what he wants betrays a deep and sustained selfishness. In doing so, they would see Hitchcock challenge their own general attitude about art and entertainment, in which they demand, as Scottie does, that the story go “their way” and that everything unfold completely on their own terms. However, Hitchcock shows that, no matter how much they demand their required entertainment, the story is always going to end the way the storyteller decides, and the audience will be left confused and wondering what it is they wanted in the first place, just as Scottie is by the end of the film.
In Vertigo, just as in Rope and Rear Window, Alfred Hitchcock attempts to hold the audience responsible for the role it plays in his stories, and how its viewing habits and demands reflect its own character. In these films, Hitchcock accomplishes this primarily through the casting of Jimmy Stewart, an actor the audience has come to identify with and admire over the years. However, if we are take the various characters that Stewart has played for Hitchcock and combine their separate traits and arcs, we see a man who is far from admirable. He is a man whose philosophies are dehumanizing and have led to acts of violence. He is a man unable and unwilling to engage meaningfully with the people that love him. He is an entitled man, stopping at nothing to get what he wants. In short, he is most definitely not a man that audiences would want to identify with. But they do, and, in that identification, Hitchcock is able to explore the audience’s complicity in the death and moral decay found in his films.
Thank you for taking Rope seriously. It is too often dismissed as medium or lesser Hitchcock by some unable to keep the gimmick out of their minds, evaluating it rather than watching the movie. Some of those reactions are honest ones, but it’s the kind of distraction that would depart on a second viewing.
Also, with Rope at least, you’ve earned the ‘complicit’ charge. It’s far too common a concept, in academia especially, and is rarely defended, let alone explained, but just asserted, like a challenge we dare not deny. I usually do, finding it lazily applied, but you make a fair case with Rope.
This is phenomenal, really astute. I’ve suspected similar things with Stewart, and Hitchcock always seems hyper-aware of audience preconditioning with his actors, often using it against them, like with Laurence Olivier in Rebecca. Though, it could be argued, especially with Janet Leigh and Cary Grant, that viewers today, looking back on Hitchcock’s films, see a utilization of the actor’s personas, as opposed to realizing Hitchcock simply created those personalities as we understand them.
I wonder, beyond audience complicity, if there’s a little post-war criticism of American society here, given that Hitchcock is British and so smartly dials in on the American ideal of Jimmy Stewart, working against Capra’s vision. Is this audience criticism or more social criticism? In this way, it feels reminiscent of The Third Man, whose British characters can be callous and dismissive to be sure, but whose Americans are by turns stupid and murderous. Does Hitchcock seem to be channeling a little of this criticism – exposing the underbelly of the victorious American?