Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ and Roald Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’

“It only takes one witness to spoil the perfect crime”. (1999 re-release) Hitchcock’s Rear Window expertly explores this idea through his manipulation of the traditional crime genre. While he adheres to many of the conventions, Hitchcock cleverly employs variations to these in order to construct a more realistic setting. Roald Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter challenges the conventions of traditional crime writing while exploring aspects of committing the ‘perfect crime’. Both Rear Window and Lamb to the Slaughter reflect prominent ideas and values of a 1950s American society.

Hitchcock’s setting of the apartment block conforms with the traditional closed circle, ensuring any crime would not go unnoticed. As the film opens the camera pans around the building complex, establishing the setting. These acts as a point of view shots as it also establishes what Jeffries can see of his neighbours. Hitchcock comments on society at this time where apartment living was common. In doing so, the morality of voyeurism is questioned. Although such actions of Jeffries ensures Thorwald’s crime is solved, Stella considers they’d “put out your eyes with a hot poker.” Initially, Jeffries’ voyeurism is perceived as “diseased” and reflects a “race of peeping toms”. However, both Lisa and Stella eventually become interested as the murder is uncovered. The setting in which Thorwald kills his wife would seem irrational to many. However, if Jeffries had not become suspicious the apartment block may have been the perfect setting to commit the crime as the formal detective discredits the idea. This is shown through Doyle’s conversation with Jeffries, saying “it’s too obvious a way to commit murder within view of fifty windows”. Hitchcock employs the use of high angles on Jeffries to enforce his lack of authority compared to Doyle. However, as Jeffries begins to present his evidence, although circumstantial, both Doyle and Jeffries are shot on an equal level, presenting Jeffries’ investigative potential equal to that of the professional. The apartment, while conforming to a realist setting ensures Thorwald’s crime does not go unnoticed. Therefore he could never commit the perfect crime.

Hitchcock’s detective characters form an interesting variation to the traditional crime writing conventions. While Jeffries is not a detective by profession, he plays the role. His personality is presented in the opening scene as the camera pans around his apartment, revealing a broken camera and action photographs. This establishes Jeffries as a brave and courageous man. Conventionally, he fits a realist detective’s characteristics. However, his impotence from being wheelchair bound restricts his physical ability. His conventional want of justice is conveyed through his relentless pursuit of Thorwald. This is achieved through the actor’s portrayal of the character who is always positioned at the window, intriguingly waiting for further developments. Confidence with Jeffries’ ability is instilled within the audience when he declares Thorwald is giving the “look of a man when he’s afraid someone might be looking.” This shows that Jeffries is competent in fulfilling the investigative role. Alternatively, the formal detective, Doyle, reflects police procedure of the time. Without evidence Doyle cannot search Thorwald’s apartment, commenting “a judge must ask for evidence” before issuing a search warrant. If a sole reliance was placed on formal investigation Thorwald may well have gotten away with murder. While Jeffries offers a variation to the traditional detective, his pursuit of justice ensures Thorwald could never commit the perfect crime.

The characters of Lisa and Stella challenge traditional conventions of crime writing, however, Hitchcock uses them to comment on the roles of women in 1950s society. Initially, these characters are presented as stereotypical women. Stella is a nurse who appreciates the ideals of marriage and dedication to her husband, while Lisa is presented as a glamorous femme fatale. As Jeffries convinces them of Thorwald’s guilt, Stella and Lisa become his physical investigators due to his physical impairment. This challenges traditional conventions where only males were detectives. Lisa’s courage is presented when she gets into Thorwald’s apartment. In finding Mrs Thorwald’s wedding ring Lisa plays an integral role in solving the crime. Thorwald’s inability to discard such evidence ensures he never commits the perfect crime.

Hitchcock’s depiction of Thorwald as the murderer fits within the traditional conventions of crime writing. From the outset of the film Thorwald is presented as the villain. This is established as the camera pans across Thorwald’s apartment, following his movement. He is seen fighting with his obviously ill wife. Furthermore, Thorwald’s villainous personality is presented in his backyard when he tells his neighbour to “shut up”. This personality fits the conventions for a traditional murderer. Furthermore, he is clever in attempting to cover up his wife’s murder. He evades Jeffries’ watch while disposing of his wife’s body, kills the snooping dog in the garden and disguises his mistress as his wife. In doing so, Hitchcock builds tension and suspense as the audience begins to question whether Thorwald is guilty after all. Jeffries also considers “for a minute [I thought] I was wrong”. Thorwald’s calculation in covering up the murder and his belief that he could commit the perfect crime conventionally fits with the murderer’s persona of traditional crime writing.

Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter offers distinct variations to the traditional crime writing conventions. In the context of a 1950s American society, Mary Maloney conforms to the ‘housewife’ stereotype, “waiting for her husband to come home from work.” However, with her becoming the murderer, the conventions of crime writing are challenged. Traditionally, only males were seen as murderers which is enforced as the police officers discuss it “impossible that she” would murder her husband. Although not explicitly said, Dahl implies through their dialogue that Mary’s husband is leaving her. This ensures the audience is sympathetic towards Mary and accept her motives to kill her husband. Dahl’s portrayal of the murder supports the lack of detail found in conventional crime writing. He writes she “simply walked up behind him and without any pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head.” Dahl does this to maintain the audience’s support of Mary. She does, however, conventionally fit with a murderer’s attempts to conceal their crime. She creates her alibi by travelling to the grocery store to pick up vegetables for dinner. In doing so Mary is accounted for at the time of her husband’s death, and in establishing this alibi Mary is assured she committed the perfect crime. Dahl challenges the conventions in many ways as the audience generally wants the criminal brought to justice. In Lamb to the Slaughter the responder is satisfied that Mary evades punishment for committing the perfect crime.

Mary, in Lamb to the Slaughter ensures she commits the perfect crime as she convinces the detectives to eat the murder weapon. Dahl uses black humour to depict the detectives as incompetent. He presents this through the use of dialogue between Mary and Noonan when she offers him a drink of whisky, saying “why don’t you have one yourself.” Mary cleverly distracts them from their investigation, highlighting their clumsiness and then urges them to eat the leg of lamb she used to murder her husband. Dahl employs dramatic irony here to heighten the black humour. The story ends as Noonan comments the murder weapon is “probably right under our very noses”, while eating the leg of lamb. This ensures there is no evidence and no way of solving the crime. Mary “begins to giggle” as she knows she will get away with the perfect crime. Dahl offers bold variations to traditional crime writing in satisfying the responder with no resolution to the murder.

In both Rear Window and Lamb to the Slaughter different aspects of crime writing are explored. While composers of both follow conventions specific to their context, they offer variations too. Hitchcock, in Rear Window explores the criminal’s belief in committing the perfect crime while Dahl constructs his story where a perfect crime is committed.


Rear Window, The Real Inspector Hound, Lamb to the Slaughter and The Mentalist

Significant texts in any genre arise from specific social and culture conditions and possess an enduring relevance:

Possibly the greatest driving force within any genre is a text’s contextually. That is, its ability to adapt and reflect specific social and cultural constructs. In any genre, and most certainly crime fiction, a composer’s adherence to, or rejection of conventions ensures a reflection on the society in which it was created. This is masterfully presented in Hitchcock’s Rear Window and Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound. A significant text within the crime fiction genre possesses enduring relevance due to its reflection of specific social and cultural conditions. Similarly, context plays an integral part in Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter and Heller’s The Mentalist where both composers manipulate generic conventions to express specific social and cultural concerns.

Texts in all genres, including crime fiction present moral concerns specific to the contexts in which they are created:

The ability for moral concerns to transcend contexts gives a text an enduring relevance. Hitchcock, in Rear Window explores the morality of voyeurism in a 1950s American society. This is presented through the construction of the setting which reflects the social conditions of apartment living. The film’s opening sequence masterfully captures this idea. The camera pans around the apartment complex and establishes, through a point of view sense what Jefferies can see of his neighbours. Hitchcock takes the traditional closed setting and adapts it expertly to reflect the changing social fabric of the 1950s. Having established what Jefferies can see of his neighbours, he begins to stereotype them according to appearance only, giving them names such as Miss Lonelyheart and Miss Torso. This is one of the dangers of voyeurism Hitchcock presents – essentially warning not to judge a book by its cover. Stella, Jefferies’ nurse speaks of “a race of peeping toms” and warns that “they’d put your eyes out with a hot poker”. Hitchcock presents different perceptions of the morality of voyeurism, as even Stella, who was the philosophical warning to Jefferies, also becomes tied up in voyeurism. Jefferies’ voyeurism, however, essentially means that he is able to witness what he considers a murder that has occurred in a neighbour’s apartment. The danger now is that Jefferies has to somehow deal with what he has seen and essentially he is in danger for doing so as Thorwald confronts him and attempts to kill him. The final sequences of shots are able to draw feelings of tensions and fear from the responder due to the uncertainty that Jefferies will survive. A reversal of depth of field shows Jefferies before a long shot captures his rescuers in the opposite apartment block. At this stage Hitchcock points out the dangers of voyeurism through creating a point of view sense of danger. Hitchcock, through his manipulation of the traditional closed circle setting, criticises the direction of humanity as a whole and effectively warns of the dangers of intruding upon the personal lives of your neighbours.

Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound, constructed during a time of incredible social and cultural revolution in the 1960s is heavily influenced by its context:

As there was a movement away from a clear-cut understanding of the purpose of humanity, Stoppard recognised that the traditional crime fiction conventions were also too simplified, logical and did not truly reflect the social and cultural conditions. Through his absolute absurdist creation of a traditional crime fiction story, Stoppard moves his audience to reject the over-simplification of the genre. He achieves this through a traditional closed circle setting of Muldoon Manor where it is characterised as “a strangely inaccessible house”. The repeated references to the isolated nature of the setting make it clear that Stoppard masterfully and deliberately makes a mockery of the genre obvious. His characters are exaggeratedly simplified, flat, often engage in meaningless dialogue and the choice of character names, such as Moon and Birdboot reflect the unrealistic nature of traditional whodunits. The non-sequential progression and irrationality of the plot is emphasised at the play’s conclusion. There are clues, but the resolution is unconvincing. The audience are left wondering “who killed Simon Gascoyne? And why?” Stoppard does this to highlight that justice cannot simply be found as the detective would in traditional whodunits and effectively presents the idea that classic crime fiction is no longer relevant for his audience. Thus, because of the social conditions of his society, Stoppard masterfully criticises the traditional crime genre in a way which reflects a movement into a more complex society.

A crime story’s conventions will inevitably be challenged to ensure its appropriate reflection on society:

Contextually, Mary seemingly fits the role women were expected to fulfil in the 1950s. Conforming to the stereotype as the housewife, Mary seems content on her domestic duties. Initially, the responder considers Mary the ‘lamb’ as indicated in the story’s title. Seemingly innocent, just as a lamb symbolises innocence, the responder considers Mary the lamb that will be slaughtered. As a convention of crime writing this innocent profile fits rigidly with the stereotypical victim. Therefore, Mary Maloney does not fit the conventional expectations as a murderer. What is strange about Mary, however, is that she makes so easily the transition from innocent housewife to a murderer. The responder is positioned to question her mental state and consider that she possessed traits of a killer all along. This works as a comment on the nature of humanity where even the ordinary, respectable citizen has the potential for cruel or destructive acts. Mary’s actions, however, fit the conventions of a calculated murderer. Her lack of emotion after killing her husband is evocative of a traditional murderer. Her measured actions in creating an alibi parallel the actions of her in the first part of the story where she had everything planned for her husband’s arrival. This explores emerging social conditions where idea that everyone has the ability to kill when provoked. Dahl again urges his audience to ask some confronting questions about themselves and their morality. Unconventionally, the sympathy the responder holds towards Mary the murderer completely overrides any sympathy directed at Patrick. Possibly, the innocent depiction of her at the start, coupled with the fact that she was pregnant and the fact that Patrick, although we’re never told, seemingly is leaving her for another woman, all ensure that sympathy remains with Mary and that the responder is satisfied when she gets away with the crime. Although the thematic convention of good and evil is blurred, the complexities of humanity’s instinctual behaviour explore emerging conditions within Dahl’s society.

Appropriate to context within a modern society, composers of crime fiction have manipulated the genre’s conventions to create endurance in their society:

Appropriate to technological advancement, the murder occurs due to a bomb’s explosion. The sleuth type character, Patrick is seen looking in the van where the victim is. Orchestral music drowns out the diegetic sound and the director’s editing transforms the film into slow motion as the bomb explodes, killing the victim. The graphic imagery of the murder challenges the conventions of traditional crime fiction where the murder is not seen or read about in bloody or gory terms. The crime, as Patrick begins to work out is linked to modern, consumerist flaws within humanity where the victim is a stock broker, responsible for the loss of many people’s money. This reverses much of the sympathy conventional victims were afforded and hence reflects the changing social and cultural conditions of Heller’s modern society. As an unusual play on the traditional crime story, Patrick becomes blinded by the explosion and so uses his other senses as a way of solving the crime. Although Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound moved audiences to rejecting the over simplification of the detective’s investigation, Patrick applies realistic and believable methods to solving the crime. He interviews a suspect by feeling his hands, concluding “artistic fingers…soft”. He realises that the murderer would had to of built the explosive device and hence would have tough, working hands and a strong smell of explosive material. Just through these logical observations Patrick can determine that this suspect is not the murderer. Patrick’s ability to solve the investigation and ensure justice is served is adapted to reflect the social and cultural conditions of a modern, consumerist and technologically advanced context.

Shaping a text’s adherence to or rejection of its genre’s conventions is the context in which the text is composed. The social and cultural conditions of the composer’s society are integral in creating a text’s enduring relevance. This is shown is Hitchcock’s Rear Window, Stoppard’s the Real Inspector Hound, Dahl’s Lamb to the Slaughter and Heller’s The Mentalist. These crime fiction stories adhere to and challenge the genre’s conventions so that the text reflects the responder’s society and ensures an enduring relevance.