This week, Valerie pitched Rear Window as a great example of the form of Narrative Drive known as Suspense. This 1954 thriller was directed by Alfred Hitchcock from a screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the short story It Had to be Murder by William Irish (aka Cornell Woolrich), published in 1942.
Thriller > Hitchcock (he has his own subgenre!)
- Beginning Hook – When L.B. Jeffries (Jeff) is reprimanded for spying on his neighbours, he must decide whether he’ll continue observing, and risk creating trouble for himself, or stop. He continues to spy.
- Middle Build – When Jeff observes his neighbour, Thorwald, behaving in a suspicious manner, he must decide whether he’ll call the police (and risk looking like an idiot) or ignore it (and risk letting a man get away with murder). He makes an unofficial call to a detective and continues to observe Thorwald’s activities until the detective tells him the case is closed. In the end, he’s forced to question the ethics of his behaviour.
- Ending Payoff – When a neighbourhood dog is killed, Jeff must decide whether to renew the case against Thorwald (whom he believes to have killed the dog) or ignore it. Continuing to observe Thorwald would put himself, Lisa and Stella in danger. Ignoring it would mean that the man could get away with murder. He decides to continue the case and his theory is ultimately proven right.
There are so many things going on in this film that we could talk about it for hours! I’ll do my best to hit the highlights.
So, as a quick recap narrative drive is all about generating curiosity in the audience by controlling the amount of information the audience has with respect to the protagonist. It’s about getting the audience to ask questions and to wonder what’s going to happen next. There are only three types of narrative drive namely:
- Mystery: when the protagonist knows more than the reader
- Suspense: when the protagonist and the reader know the same information
- Dramatic Irony: when the reader knows more than the protagonist
I’ve covered this in more detail in the episodes we did for Get Out and Murder on the Orient Express, and I have two Fundamental Fridays posts that go into much more detail. One is on mystery and the other is about suspense (where I talk about Rear Window). In the suspense article I’ve included a spreadsheet that I developed as a way of analyzing narrative drive, and I’ve done a full analysis of the narrative drive in Rear Window.
The other important thing to remember as you study narrative drive is that the words mystery and suspense are used interchangeably and they can refer to any of the three situations I’ve just described. So just check your resource to make sure you know which one is being talked about.
Hitchcock is called the Master of Suspense, but really, he’s the Master of Narrative Drive. There’s a very good reason that, in the Story Grid world, he has his own subgenre. If narrative drive is something that interests you, I highly recommend studying Hitchcock films.
Ok, so, Rear Window…there are two questions driving this story; first, did Thorwald kill his wife or not, and second, will Jeff and Lisa get married? These questions speak to the global crime story and the love story sub plot.
In the interest of time, I’ll focus on the main crime story. Hitchcock has used suspense throughout the entire film, with two notable exceptions which I’ll talk about in a minute. We know what Jeff knows. We’re inside his apartment in every scene, save the last. We’re looking out at the world through his eyes, and his camera, the entire time.
Like Jeff, we’re wondering what is going on over at the Thorwald apartment. Unlike Jeff, we’re not so quick to draw conclusions. Why? Because Hitchcock has created an unreliable protagonist, which in prose terms is an unreliable narrator. Hitchcock forces us to constantly second-guess Jeff’s conclusions and his sanity. He has the entire supporting cast question Jeff’s conclusions and since their arguments make very good sense, we too question him.
Right out of the gate, in Act 1, Stella tells us that there’ll be trouble. Then, during her second visit at the beginning of Act 2, she repeats her concerns and warns Jeff to stop spying on his neighbours.
When Lisa visits that evening, she too questions his conclusions. She tells him that looking out a window is one thing, but to do it with binoculars is diseased. She suggests that Mrs. Thorwald could simply be sleeping under sedative, which is perfectly logical. It doesn’t make sense for Mr. Thorwald to murder his wife in full view of everyone in the courtyard. We’ve got to agree that Lisa has a point. Even at the end of the scene when she sees Thorwald with the trunk, it isn’t immediately clear that she believes him—the change of opinion is too quick.
The kicker though is when Detective Tom Doyle drops by. This is a professional; a man who is used to looking at clues and drawing conclusions. Although, in this scene, Doyle can’t say unequivocally that a crime has not been committed, he’s not inclined to believe Jeff’s theory. He makes several clear and reasonable arguments that make the viewer doubt Jeff’s belief that a murder has taken place:
- there isn’t a dead body
- Jeff didn’t see a murder take place
- it’s too obvious and stupid a way to commit a murder (in front of all those windows)
- murder is a crime of passion and Thorwald is definitely not panicked—it’s 1000:1 shot.
He even questions Jeff’s sanity.
At the same time, Jeff makes several excellent arguments too. For example, Mrs. Thorwald couldn’t have taken a trip by herself because she’s sick in bed and in need of constant care.
What does all this have to do with narrative drive? Well, it keeps the audience guessing (we still don’t know whether Thorwald committed a crime—or, if indeed a crime has been committed at all) and it raises even more questions (is Jeff losing his mind?). The more questions the audience has, the more engaged they are in the story.
These kinds of questions are a recipe for success! Rear Window is a classic from 1954, but the same strategy still works today. In fact, The Girl on the Train uses exactly the same technique. The reader doesn’t know at first if a crime has been committed, and the lead character (Rachel Watson) is unreliable at best. Again, these few simple questions (Is there a crime? Can we believe the protagonist?) drive the story.
I said earlier that there are two places where dramatic irony kick in. The first comes right at the beginning of Act 2. Jeff falls asleep and doesn’t see Thorwald leave his apartment with a woman dressed in black. The second comes in Act 3 when, once again, Jeff doesn’t see Thorwald leave his apartment.
Why would Hitchcock choose to tell the entire story using suspense to drive the narrative, but flip to dramatic irony in these two places?
By giving us the same information that Jeff has, Hitchcock keeps us guessing about whether a crime has taken place or not. We can’t say for sure that it didn’t happen, but neither can we say it did. We’re constantly wondering whether Jeff is clever or crazy, and this is a very compelling point around which to build a story.
Casting Doubt: The first instance of dramatic irony makes us doubt Jeff’s state of mind. For eight scenes Jeff is convinced that Mrs. Thorwald is dead, but we know a woman left the apartment. We don’t know that it was the wife, but it makes us question Jeff’s assumption.
Evoking a Feeling of Dread: The second bit of dramatic irony comes very late in the story in scene 26. Jeff is so busying scrounging for bail money that he doesn’t see Thorwald leave his apartment. By this point, Thorwald knows Jeff has been watching him, and we believe Jeff’s theory that Thorwald killed his wife and the neighbour’s dog. We’ve seen him attack Lisa too. So it increases tension for the viewer. We can guess that Thorwald is on his way to get Jeff. Jeff is oblivious…he’s a sitting duck.
This is an example of Hitchcock’s famous ticking bomb. When asked how he created such tension (i.e., narrative drive) in his stories, he said that he’d give the audience information the character didn’t have (i.e., dramatic irony). He’d put a bomb under a character’s chair and let the audience fret over whether the character would escape in time.
Well, in this case we’re wondering whether Jeff will be able to defend himself from Thorwald and whether anyone will come to help him before it’s too late. It’s quite a tense moment!
Shawn is always talking about the macro and micro levels of story, and the need to keep both in mind as we write. Hitchcock certainly keeps both in mind. We’ve just been discussing the questions that drive the story on the macro level. On the micro, or scene, level Hitchcock raises smaller questions and either answers them within the same scene or a few scenes later.
For example, in scene 19 when Jeff is looking at the slide of the flower bed, we have a moment of mystery. Jeff knows something we don’t know—namely that the two yellow zinnias are shorter than they were.
Let me pause here to talk about narrative drive and units of story. A minute ago, I said that Rear Window uses suspense throughout with two exceptions of dramatic irony. But just now, I’ve said there’s a moment of mystery. As a novelist, I analyze stories at the level of the scene, because the scene is the basic building block for prose. However, scenes are made up of beats and as Hitchcock well knew, switching things up at the beat level can provide a little pop of adrenaline to the story.
So while at the scene level, the form of narrative drive at play here is suspense, for a beat within the scene the narrative drive moves to mystery. Jeff is looking at the slide and he sees something, and knows something, that we don’t know. It doesn’t last very long because he hands the slide to Lisa and then Stella and as they look at the picture, so do we. Jeff explains to them, and us, what is so special about the yellow zinnias.
It takes about 20 seconds from the time Jeff asks for the slides to the time he draws his conclusion. That’s enough for us to wonder what he wants with the slides, what he’s looking for, and what he’s found.
It takes another 35 seconds for us to look at the slide and have Jeff explain the significance of the flower bed. The audience is completely captivated looking at the slide and the flowerbed. We’re asking ourselves what the difference is—what is it Jeff sees? What clue is being presented here?
Think how much different this scene would have been if Jeff had merely told Lisa and Stella that the yellow zinnias were shorter than they had been. He certainly could have so why didn’t Hitchcock do that? Jeff giving the information would have been exposition, and exposition kills narrative drive. Whenever writers tell their audience information outright, it keeps us from asking any questions. It doesn’t provide anything for us to become curious about.
Theme: Narrative drive doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It works in tandem with all the other elements of story and in Rear Window, theme and narrative drive are wonderful bedfellows. Hitchcock is obviously exploring the theme of voyerism here; what does it mean to see and be seen? What happens when the world we’re looking out on, looks back at us?
Jeff is presented as a “morally flexible” guy (to borrow a phrase from Breaking Bad). He enjoys oogling Miss Torso but thinks it’s inappropriate for Doyle, a married man, to do so. He thinks that Thorwald not telling his landlord that his wife has left is dishonest, however, he doesn’t tell his own landlord when Lisa sleeps over. His moral inconsistencies help fuel narrative drive because it’s one of the things that makes us question his state of mind, which in turn, gets us asking questions.
When Jeff and Lisa observe Miss Lonely Heart preparing to take an overdose, they have a discussion about rear window ethics. Jeff thinks that, even though what he’s witnessing is private stuff, voyeurism is ok. After all, he makes his living that way (to great acclaim) and his neighbours can look right back at him if they want. Lisa on the other hand, draws the blinds.
Jeff continues to observe his neighbours until finally, the neighbours look back. Near the end of the film, Thorwald finally looks up and sees Jeff spying on him. He looks directly into the camera and it’s enough to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. We know Jeff is in trouble, but we somehow feel like we’re in trouble too, because after all, as a viewer, we’re voyeurs too.
This film lends itself to so many layers of analysis that I could go on and on. But I know the others have a lot to talk about to, so I’ll end with this:
Hitchcock said that he likes to play his audience like a piano. Here in Rear Window, Hitchcock has a cameo in the musician’s apartment. While the musician is playing the piano, Hitchcock turns in the audience’s direction—it’s almost as though he sees us. In reality, he not only sees us but he tells us what to look at, what to believe and what to feel.
Anne – I’d like to comment on the term “morality” as it’s used in Story Grid vs in the social sense. I think SG followers might have some confusion about this.
In a Morality story, we’re talking about a protagonist’s willingness to sacrifice, whereas in the general social sense, we’re talking about behaviors, and what the culture deems acceptable.
I don’t mean to enter into a big philosophical discussion, but only to point out that a “Morality” internal genre story isn’t about, say, sexual abstinence vs promiscuity, or Jeff’s voyeurism vs minding his own business. It’s about how and whether the protagonist makes a sacrifice for the good of others.
Leslie – Conventions
I’m studying conventions the season, which are the characters, setting and circumstances, and means of turning the plot that set up reader expectations. Thrillers are particularly interesting because these stories combine elements of the action, crime, and horror genres.
- Action: life/death value spectrum; hero, villain, victim
- Crime: Crime indicative of a master criminal and the protagonist’s object of desire to see justice done
- Horror: Damnation is on the table, which gives thrillers the required internal element
Heroic protagonist – One who is willing to make sacrifices for others, but in this case, Hitchcock innovated the convention because Jeff is incapacitated. This creates the conditions that allow him to observe the crime, but also sets up his internal change—he must rely on Lisa, and to a lesser extent Stella, in order for justice to prevail.
Victim – Anna Thorwald – We don’t know the nature of her illness, but the fact that she too is an invalid evokes Jeff’s compassion.
Villain – Lars Thorwald commits murder indicative of a master criminal. He commits a crime and cleans up afterward in plain view of his neighbors, but only Jeff is observant enough to discover the crime.
Other romantic couples – This is obviously not a thriller convention, but the partnership between Jeff and Lisa has a great impact on Jeff’s internal change, and his ability to solve the murder. The other couples demonstrate other life value shifts on the love/hate spectrum.
Respectable audience as voyeurs – Hitchcock-specific convention: He brings us into private moments of others’ lives, and if Jeff is “diseased” for peeping at his neighbors, as Stella suggests, what does that say about us as we watch Jeff watch his neighbors? Of course, we feel okay about it because we’re rooting for justice to prevail.
Internal landscape – In a Thriller, the hero gains access to the means to defeat the villain by expressing their gifts in the world, and this requires an internal shift in character, thought, or the way they deal with misfortune. Here, it is Jeff’s thought that is impaired because he thinks Lisa (and maybe all women) are not intrepid enough to be an equal partner to him.
Means of Turning the Plot
MacGuffin – Shawn calls this the villain’s object of desire, though Hitchcock defined it more specifically as a detail that evokes curiosity because it motivates the characters’ actions. What the MacGuffin is doesn’t matter so much as what it causes the characters to do. In Rear Window the MacGuffin is the murder represented by Anna’s missing body. Jeff wants to uncover it to obtain justice for her; Thorwald wants to keep it hidden. But if the victim’s body is the MacGuffin, shouldn’t we care about it in this story? We do want to see justice done, but it may be that we see Thorwald through Jeff’s eyes, and believe he’s committed murder, rather than caring about Anna, a character we’ve seen for only a few moments.
Red Herrings – Clues that mislead the hero and others. There are three types of red herrings, and this story employs all three.
- Lies of commission: A woman poses as Anna, and Thorwald produces a postcard purporting to show Anna had arrived safely at her destination.
- Lies of Omission: Thorwald fails to tell the landlord that Anna is not staying at the home any more.
- Lies of Conflation: The building employees’ statements, the trunk that doesn’t contain the body, and the woman with Thorwald who appears to be his wife going to the train station.
Make it personal – When Stella turns the lights on in Jeff’s apartment, Thorwald sees him and realizes he must be the one who put Lisa up to breaking into his apartment. As soon as Jeff is alone, Thorwald comes for him.
Clock – Given time, Thorwald will dispose of all the evidence of his wife’s murder. Jeff and Lisa must act before all the evidence, for example, the wedding ring, is gone.
Internal genre – While Jeff wants to obtain justice for Anna, he needs to see Lisa in a different light, as an intrepid and resourceful person who can think on her feet, rather than a helpless woman, so she can do the leg work required for the investigation. (This, incidentally might also be the only way their relationship has a chance of working.)
One more point: This film seems particularly poignant in the age of social media when we can find out a lot about other people, and need to understand, like Jeff ultimately did, that it’s a two-way street, whether we like it or not.
Kim – Internal Genre’s Role in Thrillers
This week I want to highlight the vital role the Internal Genre plays in a Thriller story. As I waded through it all, I ended up at the edge of my understanding, which is a little but scary, but I made some new connections for myself about the meta meta of story. I don’t have it all nailed down but I am going to attempt to translate my thoughts in a way that is hopefully useful for others. But before we go meta, let’s look at how this internal genre affects the global Thriller story.
Remember that the Thriller genre is a combination of Action, Crime, and Horror, the only external genres which do not require an internal genre in order to work. However, in a Thriller, the protagonist’s internal genre is integrated as a “means of turning the plot” and directly affects whether or not the protagonist defeats the villain.
Shawn writes, “The Thriller is all about one individual negotiating a complex world, living it to the limits of human existence, and usually triumphing over seemingly overwhelming forces of antagonism.”
In order for the individual to negotiate this complex world that will push them to the limits and triumph over seemingly overwhelming forces of antagonism, they are going to have to CHANGE. The internal genre change that the protagonist goes through in a Thriller is the means of defeating the villain. Sometimes it gives the protagonist access to the thing they need and sometimes it is the thing they need. But either which way, the change is needed.
Let’s look at the internal genre for Rear Window and see how it integrates into the global Thriller story. It should come as no surprise by now that to determine the internal genre we use Friedman’s Framework.
Who is the protagonist? Jeffries
What is the protagonist’s situation at beginning of story?
- Character – He appears to have neutral motives and a developed strength of will.
- Thought – He is sophisticated about the world but has a very limited view of Lisa, what she’s capable of, and what’s possible for their future (she’s too perfect and would never fit in to his life)
- Fortune – He is a professional photographer who is sought after, but currently laid up with a broken leg. He is also a relationship with Lisa but keeps her at a distance.
What is the protagonist’s situation at the end of the story?
- Character – Unchanged
- Thought – Changed for the better. Narrow view of Lisa has expanded and he recognizes her love and dedication to him as well as her adventurous spirit.
- Fortune – Bittersweet. He now has two broken legs, his partner is nearby to help him
How do we feel about this change? We’re pleased with his change of thought, and amused with this change in fortune.
What cause and effect statement represents this change? When Jeff, a risk-taking photographer who believes his girlfriend Lisa would never fit in his life because she’s too perfect, gets laid up with a broken leg and must rely on her to carry out the risky pursuits of investigating a murder, he realizes she is much more daring and capable than he ever believed possible.
Which internal genre best matches this statement? In Story Grid terms we call this change Worldview-Maturation, but more specifically this is what Norman Friedman calls an Affective Plot, that is the change from a limited black and white view to a broader understanding pertaining to a particular person, “to come to see some other person in a different and truer light than before, which involves a change in feeling.” Norman Friedman cites Pride & Prejudice as an example, which we know as Worldview-Maturation.
So how does Jeffries’s change in thought turn the plot of the Thriller genre in Rear Window?
Despite his lone ranger attitude, he is forced to rely on others, specifically Lisa, to investigate the suspected murder of Mrs. Thorwald. After Lisa delivers the note and subsequently has to hide from Mr. Thorwald, then makes it back to Jeffries’s apartment safely, he sees her in a new light. This in turn enables him to rely on her more and she goes into Thorwald’s apartment to find Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring. This is what leads to calling the police and capturing Mr. Thorwald red-handed. If Jeffries had not changed his view of Lisa, they would not have been able to solve the case. But if he’d never needed to investigate the murder he’d never have opened himself to considering Lisa in a new way. Which came first, Chicken / Egg?
So the internal genre is baked into the Thriller as a means of turning the plot, but unlike a global love story which has maturation baked in by default, a Thriller can have any internal genre baked in. We can see this play out in the other Thrillers we’ve studied:
- Silence of the Lambs – Worldview/Disillusionment – Losing her blind belief in the FBI allows Clarice Starling to question the validity of the FBI’s claim that they’ve found Buffalo Bill. And because she no longer believes in the meritocracy of the FBI she’s willing to risk her career to follow her gut, leading her to find the real Buffalo Bill, defeat him, and save Catherine Martin.
- Hot Fuzz – Woldview/Education – Finding meaning beyond his job by becoming friends with Danny enables Nicholas Angel to 1) be saved via Danny’s notebook / ketchup trick and 2) defeat the villains by teaming up and taking them head on (rather than going by the book and getting backup from London), and 3) be saved when Danny takes a bullet for him.
- Marathon Man – Morality/Testing-Triumph – Babe Levy’s enduring strength of will allows him to outlast Szell’s torture and he chooses a cause greater than himself and his safety (he no longer runs away but turns to fight) enabling him to defeat Szell.
- Gone Girl – Morality/Testing-Surrender – At first Nick Dunne uses his deep intimate knowledge of how his wife Amy thinks to outwit her and get her to come home, saving himself from murder charges, but then in the climax he chooses to gives up the fight and agrees to stay with her. He says it’s for his unborn child, but his sister recognizes it’s because “he wants to” marking his fall to selfishness masked as altruism.
Notice that the internal genre affects the external genre strongest in the ending payoff, starting with the apotheosis/transformation and carrying through to the climax. This makes sense for many reasons, one of which is how the Controlling Idea/Theme is generated: the Global Value [prevails/fails] based on the [change brought about by the internal genre].
Thinking about these internal changes of the Thriller protagonists made me remember something that Shawn said on the podcast, when he describes his meta meta global model of story. He explains that there are three ultimate forces in the universe: the two primal states of being, Order and Chaos, and the Individual, who navigates between these two states.
Each of these three aspects has a positive and negative side, creating six fundamental archetypes that are at play in every single story.
- Positive of Chaos = Creation
- Negative of Chaos = Destruction
- Positive of Order = Security
- Negative of Order = Tyranny
- Positive of the Individual = Protagonist Hero/Heroine
- Negative of the Individual = Antagonist Villain
These six aspects create the meta meta story:
- An Individual (who has positive and negative traits) is confronted with some version of out of balance Order or out of balance Chaos and then this Individual either is/becomes the positive force bringing the world into balance (prescriptive tale), or is/becomes the negative force that does not bring the world into balance (cautionary tale).
- The content genres are the various scenarios that exist within this six-part world, which we perceive as meaningful patterns.
So here’s where things are starting to take shape for me in a new way.
- Depending on where a story begins on the Order to Chaos spectrum (which I’m thinking is demonstrated through the specific Life Values generated by the global Status Quo and Inciting Incident) will determine what kind of Individual force we need to reach balance.
- And depending on where the Individual begins on their own spectrum of positive and negative will determine what kind of internal change is needed from them in order to:
- be the positive force to bring Order and Chaos back into balance (prescriptive tale)
- Or be the negative force that keeps Order and Chaos out of balance (cautionary tale).
I made a nerdy graphic on Canva that is basically an image of the universe with two giant stick figures playing tug-o-war with a big ol’ rope, a blue dude that is Order and a red dude that is Chaos. In the middle is a smaller purple dude, the Individual.
Now on the rope is a flag (just like in real tug-o-war) and when Order pulls too hard it shifts the flag to its side (Tyranny), and when Chaos pulls too hard it shifts the flag to its side (Destruction). Then it becomes the Individual’s job to be whatever force is necessary to pull the flag back to center (Sustainable Creation).
- So if Blue Order is pulling too hard, we need more Red Chaos to balance it out. The individual must become Chaos. Think of Tim’s book the Threshing–Jessie is a heroic force of chaos.
- But when Red Chaos is pulling too hard, we need more Blue Order to balance it out. The individual must become Order. Think of Armageddon where a meteor is rocketing toward earth and our heroes use controlled precision and cooperation to save the world.
This may all sound uber vague and annoying, but for me walking through the fundamentals of story in a sort of “if this/then this” way is building a clearer model in my own mind for how the heck stories really work.
We’ll put a pin in this for now and I’ll continue noodling things out. My hope and my hunch is that working through this meta model is going to help me identify and understand and create great internal and external genre pairings, which is what I really want to master. We’ll see where we land by the end of the season. Fingers crossed it’s something relevant and helpful for everyone.
Anne – Story Form
Since I’m at least nominally still studying complex story forms this season, and this story really isn’t especially complex, I’ve decided to look to the narrative device here for some semblance of complexity. The narrative device is everything in this movie, and it comes down to the strictly limited point of view imposed by the artificial setup: a man confined to a wheelchair, with a view out his rear apartment window, of the dozen or so neighbors crammed into a small New York City kind of space.
This film is unusual in adhering absolutely to only what Jeff can see and hear through his open window from his wheelchair. Most movies–as we noted in our first 25 or so episodes, tend to use a shifting point of view as needed, following one character and then leaving that character to follow another, showing us things the protagonist couldn’t have witnessed, in order to create various kinds of narrative drive.
This movie is much more like a single POV novel. We never see or hear anything that Jeff can’t see or hear. Even when Doyle–Jeff’s friend the police detective–goes out and investigates, we don’t know what he finds till he brings it back to Jeff’s apartment. As Valerie has said, it’s an almost perfect suspense setup: under those constraints, we simply can’t know any more than the protagonist knows, when he knows it.
I’m pretty sure that the very long beginning hook was necessary because so much setup is required to establish this narrative device. We need to understand why Jeff is in a full leg and hip cast and confined to a wheelchair. We need to feel that the long camera lens, the binoculars, and the flash gun are normal tools in his life because he’s an intrepid photojournalist.
We have to grasp the physical layout of his life, and get to know his various neighbors. We have to be convinced, if possible, that in the hot summer weather these denizens of urban life really do live in full view of one another. We need time to meet the characters who will end up doing Jeff’s legwork for him.
What’s the value of this strictly-limited POV? The best way to test it is to strip it away and see what happens. First and most obvious, if Jeff were on his feet and able to get around, we’d have a bog-standard amateur sleuth or journalism crime story. He could go across the courtyard, nose around, do his own investigating. Boring. Even in 1954, audiences had seen it a thousand times. And no, I did NOT see this movie when it was new. I’m old, but this one came out before I was born. A whole year before I was born.
The physical limitations imposed on Jeff, and therefore on the story, are creative constraints, the kind that give rise to innovation. The innovation here has nothing to do with the murder and everything to do with the neighbors.
This story’s impact depends at least as heavily on all the little subplots of the neighbors as on the murder mystery. An ambulatory Jeff would never have paid so much attention to Miss Torso, Miss Lonelyhearts, the composer, the sculptor, or the others.
I shall now commit the rhetorical device of apophasis here by saying that I won’t address the inherent misogyny in names and characterizations like Miss Torso and Miss Lonelyhearts. I reluctantly give 1954 a pass. But it bugged me.
So what we have here is a very slim murder mystery set like a little diamond in a confection of surrounding mini-plots, or maybe micro-plots, each with a little arc and a satisfying ending, either happy or sad.
Why? Could it be that the murder mystery is just the pretext for a story about urban life in postwar America? Because that’s the story I came away with.
We’re so distant from the murder itself–as Valerie points out, we never even really discover the body–because we’ve become distant from each other, and all the more so in crowded urban settings. The story comments on human bonds of friendship, courtship, service, marriage–even the bonds between people and animals.
The dog owner cries when her dog is murdered:
Which one of you did it? Which one of you killed my dog? You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘neighbor’. Neighbors like each other! Speak to each other! Care if anybody lives or dies. But none of you do. But I couldn’t imagine any of you bein’ so low that you’d kill a little helpless, friendly dog. The only thing in this whole neighborhood who liked anybody. Did you kill him because he liked you? Just because he liked ya?”
[clip starts 1:23:15]
Sure, the crime is murder, but the salesman murdering his wife is only the worst among a host of lesser sins and transgressions, from animal murder, to attempted rape, to alcohol abuse and attempted suicide, to a mercenary marriage and miscommunication.
And on the other side, we see love, compassion, beauty, service, and mutual aid, as well as creativity in several forms, explicitly including music, dance, sculpture and fashion.
I don’t know whether Hitchcock chose that restricted POV in order to tell that underlying story and deliver that social message. Maybe to him it was just an interesting filmmaking challenge.
But once that creative restriction is in place, I’d say the central story of a guy investigating a murder from his wheelchair would have been a whole lot less rewarding without the micro-plot aspect.
Is it a complex story form? Not really. But it was a clever way to make a bare-bones story interesting and more complex-feeling, while posing some thoughtful questions about human nature and modern life, and I ended up enjoying it quite a lot.
To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes from an anonymous listener, who asks, “Do we always need a hero at the mercy of the villain scene in a thriller? And must the hero always get themselves out of that situation?”
Leslie – The hero at the mercy of the villain scene is the core event of the thriller genre, it’s the one the reader is waiting to see, so of the obligatory scenes, it’s arguably the most important. The core event of a story is the moment when the global life value shifts and the core emotion is at its height, and in a thriller, when the villain is at the height of their power and the hero at their most vulnerable. It’s like the big battle in a war story, the big performance in a performance story, and the big shootout of the western. If it’s not present in the story, your reader will miss it.
Now, ordinarily the hero should get themselves out of the mercy of the villain, but there are a few situations when it’s fine to let someone else help them out. For example, if the character sets up the means of their salvation (for example, in Rear Window, Doyle owes Jeff for failing to believe him early on) or if it’s part of another character’s arc and doesn’t deprive the protagonist of their climactic moment (for example, in Star Wars: A New Hope when Han Solo eliminates Darth Vader’s threat as part of the pilot’s redemption plot, but Luke must still fire the shots to destroy the Death Star).
If you have a question about narrative drive, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by clicking here and leaving us a voice message.
Join us next time to find out whether Kim can make the case that the 2015 Swedish comedy-drama A Man Called Ove is a great example of a global internal genre story. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?