Sounds of the City – Defining the Metropolis in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).

In spite of being set in the most cramped of city-based fictional areas, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) successfully presents the bustling aesthetics of a whole metropolis while managing to retain an almost claustrophobic isolation.  In the film, Hitchcock presents a temporarily wheelchair-bound photographer who becomes obsessed with a neighbour. He suspects the unusual man to have murdered his wife.  Rear Window presents a number of Hitchcock’s typical themes but, in doing so, it deliberately isolates itself while providing the simultaneous contradiction of being able to imply a large, cosmopolitan world outside of the narrative.

One of the main ways that Hitchcock achieves this dialectical strand of aesthetics is through the particular reoccurring use of a stock soundscape; the sound work that this article will be focussing on.  This soundscape has been used in a multitude of films from all variety of different countries but it seems to be defined by Hitchcock’s use of it here.  Other films that rely on its ubiquitous nature include a number of films by Yasujirô Ozu including Late Autumn (1960) and Early Spring (1956), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Mikio Naruse’s When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (1960), Jules Dassin’s The Naked City (1948), Alan J. Pakula’s Klute (1971), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Une Femme Est Une Femme (1961).  From this list alone (which itself is only a tiny fraction of the sound’s use) it is clear that cinema has found a globalised aesthetic to denote the modern city.

For Rear Window‘s setting, Hitchcock created a microcosm of the modern city.  The apartment of Jeff (James Stewart) looks out onto a wealth of different types of life from the lonely single woman to the young dancer, the struggling musician to the newly married couple.  Here, the director is setting up the normal character types but going into distinct detail for each of the neighbour’s lives in order to highlight how his film is essentially a microscope zooming in upon a rather large (often struggling) Petridish.  Because of this set-up, Hitchcock can designate more of his general aural duties to diegetic means which automatically sets the film apart from most other soundtracks for his films (except for The Birds (1963)).

Behind all of these diegetic sounds (and music) is the constant sound of the city.  It’s a mixture of textures, mainly built around the cars on the road; its bustling nature often being a frenzy of exhaust spits and car horns as well as the hum of people going by.  In fact, if the viewer is to listen closely, it’s easy to tell that it is in fact the same car horn in every city that uses this soundscape.  Perhaps it’s a desire for both Hitchcock and the other directors that use it to show their cities to be quintessentially modern.  After all, in a time when this archive sound was most popular, what could suggest “affluent but morally ambiguous” more than an excess of loud cars driven by frustrated, aggressive drivers?

It is this sound that creates the strange draw that Rear Window has.  The narrative is a gradually tense and stressful one in spite of the main characters being excellent company yet there’s still a strange, hypnotic draw to this square of town as if it manages to cosily encapsulate all that modern living can provide.  Another sound later appears; that of sirens in the far off distance.  Though they could effectively be for any of the emergency services, there’s no doubt that in the film world they work as police cars.  This manages to signify that trouble is elsewhere rather than here; a calming thought but an ironic one considering what Jeff has accidently stumbled upon through boredom and curiosity.

This isn’t the only time Hitchcock uses this idea.  In spite of his own great personal fear of police and authority, the sound often comes as a relief because it potentially shows that there are forces out there trying to prevent bad things happening.  This occurs in Rear Window as well as Rope (1948) where that particular part of the soundscape is actually used as a final key note in the film which signifies its sadistic narrative coming to an end.  It’s also particularly telling that this sound doesn’t make an appearance during Hitchcock’s most obvious police-fearing moment; that of the mysterious officer in Psycho (1960) who is still Hitchcock’s most unnerving and unexplained character.  The precedent for this sound set up in Rear Window and Rope is a morbidly positive one so would very obviously not be of use in showing the strange scenario that Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is in when woken up in her car by an intrigued officer; eyes blank with aviator glasses and a face that suggest nothing and anything simultaneously.

In the end, this archive soundscape comes to define a whole host of cities in one particular era of cinema.  Most interestingly, the soundscape is used in the episode of The Prisoner, The Chimes of Big Ben (1967).  However, this time the sound is shown to be genuinely in on the illusion, being deliberately played in a room in order to convince Number 6 that he has in fact arrived safely in London, ready to tell why he really quit the secret service.  He is in fact still in The Village.  This is an apt final point to finish on as, when Number 6 switches off the tape spool, the illusion of the bustling city location vanishes.  Perhaps Hitchcock’s cities and there various stories are not just tall tales of tall buildings and murder but are equally delicate illusions in themselves; illusions that allow the Thorwald’s of the world to get away with murder, leaving only the Jeff’s to stop them. Only, however, if they don’t get distracted by the hum of the high street beyond.

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