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Watching the detectives

Sarah Dean

The first time I saw Rear Window was during my final year of university when I did a course on Alfred Hitchcock. It is one of the less 'stabby' Hitchcocks - a gorgeous film with a fabulous jazz score and Grace Kelly wafting about in lovely frocks, looking after her photographer boyfriend Jimmy Stewart. He has broken his leg and is incarcerated in his apartment where he spends his day staring onto the back of his neighbours' apartments. At first he is entertained by the soap opera of his neighbours lives as they come and go, then he becomes convinced he has witnessed a murder. But the view I had in front of me as I tried to get to grips with this film made Hitchcock and the cinematic gaze look a lot less interesting. My student terrace backed onto some identical terraced houses. Unlike Jimmy Stewart's place, our house was too far away for me to see what our neighbours were up to, and I should know - I spent hours sat at my desk staring out of that window (or 'revising' as I preferred to call it). When the houses were built the back alley I could see would have been teaming with life, but now that it was too narrow for cars all that went by was the odd cyclist on a short cut. Early on in Rear Window, Grace Kelly's character challenges James Stewart's behaviour. Isn't he just a peeping tom? A voyeur? Casting judgement and making accusations based on what he sees, not on what he knows? Clever old Hitchcock reminds the cinema audience of the danger of casting the first stone. We are in no position to judge Stewart for his behaviour because we are in fact watching him watching his neighbours! One afternoon the doorbell rang and my three housemates and I, all desperate for distraction, rushed to the door. Two men stood on the doorstep, showed us their ID and asked to come in. Sat on our knackered sofa, these plain clothes policemen explained that our house had been earmarked as the perfect location for a stake out. They wanted to set up an observation point in the back bedroom - mine - and monitor the comings and goings in the alleyway. Rear Window had moved from cinema to reality! The fourth wall had been broken. I agreed to their request less from a sense of civic duty and more because if my room was full of cops, I would have to get up and go to the library and revise. Every morning at 8am policemen armed with binoculars and night vision goggles would troop up to my bedroom and then sit and stare out of my window until I got back from the library. We weren't allowed to tell anyone about this or know what the police were staking out. It might have been that a man opposite had murdered his wife and put her in a suitcase as James Stewart speculates, or more likely (this was 90s Manchester) it was about drugs. It took Jimmy Stewart a few days to conclude guilt; it took Greater Manchester police three weeks to witness enough comings and goings to make an arrest. In the middle of the afternoon one day, they thundered down the stairs, ran through the back yard and arrested some bloke on a bike in the alleyway. I missed it of course. I was at the library staring out the window judging passersby ... I mean, revising.