Viewing Alfred Hitchcock Through the Pandemic Lens: The Use of Confined Spaces

In the films of possibly the most famous “auteur” in cinematic history, Alfred Hitchcock there are often certain characteristics so distinct that you can tell you’re watching a Hitchcock film the moment you see it, without knowing anything about the movie. Hitchcock utilizes these recurring themes, patterns, plot devices in his films to amplify the feelings of mystery, anxiety, horror, and of course – in accordance with his famous nickname, suspense. An example of this is the use of closed spaces. While these movies are from half a century ago, this particular characteristic seems to strike a nerve in today’s audiences as we find ourselves stuck in closed spaces of our own.

The Confined-Space Quartet

Confined spaces appear in several Hitchcock films, however, there are four that are set almost entirely in a single space; namely, “Lifeboat” (1944), “Rope” (1948), “Rear Window” (1954), and “Dial M For Murder” (1954). 

In “Rear Window,” photographer Jeff finds himself stuck in his apartment as a result of a broken leg. During this dull, uneventful period of his life; he starts spying on his neighbors through his window. With the help of his girlfriend Lisa and his nurse Stella, he finds himself unraveling a murder he believes to be committed by his neighbor, only through his observations from the window. While Stella and Lisa sometimes cross the road and physically involve themselves in the solving of the mystery, Jeff is always in his wheelchair, unable to intervene. He feels helpless and the closed space element amplifies that. That is because while he’s stuck in his flat, the world around him keeps turning and the idea that full lives go on while he’s stuck inside haunts him.

With “Rope” and “Dial M For Murder,” the case seems to be different. Both movies are almost set entirely in a single flat but the characters, unlike Jeff, are able to do so much in such a small space. Both movies center around “the perfect murder” and the various ways in which it can be planned, covered up, or go wrong. The confined space element introduces an atmosphere of claustrophobia to this process. While the characters are able to leave their homes off-screen, the viewers are constantly locked in one place. Because of this claustrophobic atmosphere, everything that happens in the movie becomes more intense, more thrilling, and scarier.

In “Lifeboat,” eight survivors of a Nazi torpedo ship find themselves stuck in a boat with the Nazi man who sunk their ship. They’re low on food and water and there seems to be no ship coming to rescue them. The movie paints a perfectly clear picture of the more crowded side of isolation – constantly being with the same few people. With there being no possible escape and limited supplies, tensions run high and they represent themselves in the aggression between the characters. There are breakdowns, screaming matches, physical fights, and more. Ultimately, though, all the passengers have are each other and they all inevitably develop a sense of protectiveness and connection towards the others.

The Pandemic Lens

While these movies were made well over 50 years ago, I have found that they now resonate with audiences on a very interesting level. I was only introduced to Hitchcock’s filmography recently, and while exploring them, I came across several recent reviews referencing the connection between these movies and the situation we find ourselves in during Covid-19 lockdowns — also “locked” in places we can’t escape: our homes.

Perhaps our situation is most similar to that in “Lifeboat” – just like how the survivors are faced with the vast, deadly sea outside of their bubble of life, we’re faced with a dangerous pandemic. Going out has serious consequences so we stay inside, but staying inside drives us crazy. We have mood swings, we get angry, we feel scared, we feel anxious. Similar to how the passengers keep fighting each other due to the stress and fear, constantly seeing the same people raise tensions during the lockdown too. 

In “Rear Window,” Jeff is haunted by the life outside while he’s stuck in his home. It’s a bit different for us since most life outside has also halted.

Instead, we’re haunted by the constant reminders of our past, pandemic-free, outside lives.

Snapchat memories from a year ago, old photos that we inevitably come across while scrolling through our entire camera roll out of boredom, songs that we used to dance to in clubs that pop up on shuffle, and much more. Ultimately, his helplessness resonates a great deal.

And as for “Rope” and “Dial M For Murder,” although we only get to see the characters are in one place, their lives still seem to be extremely eventful with murders and accusations and the small, closed spaces make watching this a much more intense experience. Similarly, we can also find ourselves feeling every emotion more strongly during lockdowns. While we have a lack of stimulation from the outside, our brains seem to overdrive. We have more time to think and that causes us to feel more too. 

Furthermore, in both of the movies, the only connections to the outside happen through phone calls. Although technology has improved way past landlines, we also may feel like our only connection to the outside of our homes is through our phones, computers, internet, social media.

Times Change, We Stay The Same 

This all goes to show that the current pandemic has the power to go beyond time and place, and affect every aspect of our lives – even our viewing of old movies. And if we can find ourselves relating to photographers, war survivors, nurses from the 40s and 50s, it’s evident that even when centuries, technologies, lifestyles change; the human condition remains the same.

(A small note: While Hitchcock is undoubtedly a cinematic mastermind and audiences will probably continue to appreciate his work for decades to come, it’s important to keep in mind the faults of the artist behind the art. I encourage everyone to read about the sexual assault allegations against Hitchcock and the misogynist interpretations of his work when appreciating his cinema.)


Cover: Steve Rhodes

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