The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975

The Apartment Plot: Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975

by Pamela Robertson Wojcik


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822347736
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/11/2010
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Pamela Robertson Wojcik is Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Theater and Director of the Gender Studies Program at the University of Notre Dame. She is the author of Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna, also published by Duke University Press, and the editor of Movie Acting: The Film Reader.

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Urban Living in American Film and Popular Culture, 1945 to 1975
By Pamela Robertson Wojcik


Copyright © 2010 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4773-6

Chapter One


Rear Window's Archetypal Apartment Plot

Characters seem almost literally to take their sense of the shape of the world from the shape of the floor plan of their apartments ... the rims of the apartment embody rules that can be touched.-PENELOPE GILLIAT, review of Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970)

It begins with a static shot, the image cut into roughly equal parts by three separate bamboo blinds for the front fl at panes of a large bay window. Slowly, moving from screen-left to screen-right, each of the blinds opens mechanically, one at a time, as the credits roll and a jazzy score plays. As the blinds open, the window, initially an image, is transformed into a frame. From a darkened room, over the window sill, this first shot reveals a richly detailed rear courtyard setting. It is daytime, seemingly morning. To the left, and almost perpendicular to the framing window, we see a light red brick building and steel dark green fire escape, partially obscured by a tree (building A). This building extends to the street. To the right of this building, we see a sliver of street and sidewalk, a lamppost and, across the street, a door with a red light, which will later be identified as a bar sign. In the far background, across the street, we see just the top of a three-story building. Behind it, we see the skyline of larger buildings, including a few skyscrapers. In front of it, in the middle plane of the image, facing the courtyard, a woman walks down the back porch stairs of a two-story light brown building with a flat roof (building B). This building shows signs of renovation and conversion. The house has been divided into apartments: from the rear, we see two separate studios, upstairs and down. The bricks on the top and bottom floors are of different shades and of seemingly different vintage, and the wooden porch and stairs are add-ons. To the right of building B, with no visible space between, we see three stories of a darker red brick building with a stepped terrace on its far left fourth floor, but at least four full interior stories across the rest of the building, where we see two columns of windows and a figure in a fourth floor window (building C). Each floor contains a single rear one-bedroom railroad apartment. This building has white steel fire escapes and balconies. We are prevented from seeing much of the third far right column of smaller bathroom windows by the camera position and by an open fourth pane in the window that frames our view.

As the credits conclude, a woman passes from screen-left to screen-right on the sidewalk, and at the same time the camera starts to move. The camera moves through the center window pane and over the sill, angling slightly down. A dramatic cut shows a high angle shot of a black cat placed below the framing window's vantage point. The cat walks up cement stairs from a brick patio. As the cat climbs, the camera follows and leads our eyes past a weathered brick wall along the patio stairs. The wall has been painted white, but is stained and in disrepair. To the left, and over the brick wall, we see container plants, a patch of grass, a few flower beds, steps, and a cement walkway leading from a ground floor door in building C. The camera cranes up and shows that the cat is on an additional patio below a red brick building (building E) that stands to the right and perpendicular to the framing window. We see part of a studio with large greenhouse windows. The studio is enclosed with a brick wall. Inside the brick wall, there are various mechanical vents and a chimney stack. Adjacent to this building, heading left, and at a right angle to building C, the largest building facing our window, there is a lighter concrete building, of indeterminate height, with a third-floor free-standing balcony (building D). A man, woman, and child are on the balcony, along with one or two flower pots. This building is also enclosed by a red brick wall.

The camera pans left, showing more clearly the far right side of the large red brick building (building C). The curtains and windows in this building are in various states of openness. As we pan left, we see a light flash, presumably from a camera, in a fourth floor window, and an arm dangling off a fire escape balcony on the third floor. The camera continues its pan left to the small light brown building (building B) and we see pigeons on the roof, and what appears to be a woman brushing her hair in the small second-floor window at the top of the stairs. The camera moves down and to the left, showing the downstairs doorway of this small house. There is a chair by the door on the bottom porch, and a small white picket fence with a gate opening from the service entrance into the courtyard. A milkman is visible, exiting the service entrance. At the same time, we see more details of the building (building A) that is to the far left of the framing window-one window with an awning, a fire escape, a covered birdcage sitting on a window sill, some climbing ivy, and some patched bricks at the corner. The camera continues its movement left and shows an angled wall with arched windows in building A, then returns us to the opened framing window and window sill. The camera crosses back over the sill to reveal James Stewart in medium close-up, sweating and presumably asleep, with his eyes closed and his back to the window.

This, of course, is the opening of Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window. Soon, we will meet the various tenants. In building A, the Newlyweds. In building B, Miss Torso, upstairs, and the Sculptress, down. The Childless Couple, the Thorwalds, and Miss Lonelyhearts all live in building C, on the third, second, and first floor, respectively. The Bathing Beauties will adorn its terrace. The Composer dwells in the studio in building E. Thus far, however, we have not seen most of the buildings' occupants-the Thorwalds, the Composer, Miss Lonelyhearts, or the Newlyweds. We have only grazed in passing the Childless Couple, Miss Torso and the Sculptress, and their characteristics have not yet been established. Certain key visitors to Jeff's apartment-Lisa, Stella, and Doyle-are also still to be introduced. Also, while this opening sequence gestures toward the film's theme of voyeurism insofar as it establishes a view, it does not identify the look of the camera with that of any character. Instead, the film resolutely underlines both Jimmy Stewart's incapacity to see-as he is sleeping and turned away from the window-and the omniscience of the narration-in the opening of the blinds and in the itinerant camera. Indeed, we will have one full additional pan of the courtyard while Stewart's character, Jeff, still sleeps.

Rather than introduce characters or develop plot, this opening functions to lay out the geography of space and provide a sense of setting. In these few shots, we discover an urban domestic space. We know it is urban from the close proximity of buildings, from the dominance of apartments, from the brief glimpses of the street and bar. We know it is residential from architectural signs such as porches and balconies, and from domestic touches, such as flower pots, birdcages, and children. We see the proximity of this domestic space to public spaces-street, sidewalk, service entrance, bar. Without seeing many people at all, we nonetheless know that this setting has multiple users-tenants, delivery people, passers-by, children, and others-and multiple uses-sleep, work, play, gardening, and so forth.

In the courtyard arrangement, we see the spaces between buildings and their borders, consisting of gardens, walls, gates, and fences. That it is a back courtyard is significant. It is neither fully public nor fully private. 1 We see individual spaces (apartments, private balconies), shared public spaces (fire escapes, walkways, stairs), semiprivate spaces (interior hallways, fire escape balconies, apartment entryways) and spaces whose "ownership" is hard to establish (flower gardens, terraces, patios). We see built-to-purpose apartment buildings and conversions, side-by-side, with different styles of building, different building materials, different heights, differently shaped windows. We see traces of time and history-patched bricks, added fences, conversions, worn paint. And there is much we do not see. We do not see the front of any building, nor details of most interiors.

We recognize this as an American space and very likely as in New York. In particular, all those fire escapes, the crowded arrangement of buildings, the modest size of the apartments, the small gardens, and the rear courtyard all point to a Greenwich Village location. The Village itself is symbolic: a favored locale for Hollywood and dominant in the apartment plot, it instantly conjures a New York bohemian culture populated by artists, writers, intellectuals, homosexuals, cafes, bars, and bookstores. However, while this location signifies a specific locale, it also serves as both a microcosm of the city and a macrocosm of apartment living. It can be multiplied out to the city as a whole or divided into its parts. As Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol suggest, it provides "an opportunity to paint several types of fauna flourishing in Greenwich Village in particular and a big city in general. A sealed world inside that other sealed world represented by the City" (125). Beyond marking locale, the courtyard, the buildings, and the characters are all in some way emblematic, a "world." This typicality is heightened by the fact that the courtyard is a manufactured set, a Hollywood invention; and extends to the typification of most of the characters, the "fauna," who are without name, but defined by some combination of their status (married, single), work (composer), and appearance (sexy, lonely).

Like the courtyard it represents, this famous credit sequence is also simultaneously unique and generic, a specific instance and one of a type (figures 2 and 3). Despite its immediate recognizability, numerous other films in the genre of the apartment plot begin in a similar fashion, with an omniscient narrator laying out a larger urban space before eventually entering one space, clearly marked as a microcosm of the city. Consider, for instance, the opening of Rosemary's Baby, in which the camera slowly pans the Upper West Side in an aerial shot, arriving at the rooftop of the Dakota on West Seventy-second Street, before moving into the entranceway where Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes meet their new landlord. How to Marry a Millionaire offers aerial views of such landmarks as Rockefeller Center, Central Park, and the Queensboro Bridge before arriving at a sign marking the intersection of East Fifty-fifth Street and Sutton Place, the posh address of the apartment Lauren Bacall will sublet as a snare for rich men. Bells Are Ringing offers a series of dissolves of the city, then switches from aerial shots to ground-level shots, with particular attention to signs of urban renewal and construction, before entering the dilapidated Greenwich Village brownstone that serves as a livework residence for Judy Holliday. The Courtship of Eddie's Father produces a curious box-shaped iris out, that opens from the center of the image, like a window, to move through several Technicolor skyline views before landing inside Glenn Ford's kitchen.

In a somewhat different mode, the opening song of Gordon Jenkins's vocal suite, Manhattan Tower, offers a first-person description of the narrator's view of his apartment building. The building, the narrator's "tower," is at once a unique bricks-and-mortar space and the realization of his fantasies of an imaginary urbanism:

It was raining the first time I saw my tower. That is, the first time I saw it in reality. In my mind, I'd seen it many times before- Standing at the ocean, Looking out a train window at night, Even the structure I'd made with blocks as a child was this same tower, that long ago.

Viewing the exterior of the apartment building as the concretization of his dreams of an apartment skyscraper, the narrator enters the apartment, which he renders "pure enchantment," and looks out the window:

I went over to the window and looked out at my beloved town. The buildings were constant flames, bright and shining stronger than the rain. And, on the street below, were the people who built that fire and kept it alive, Seven million keepers of the flame!

Moving, in effect, from a low angle exterior shot to a high angle vantage from the apartment's window, the narrator links his dream tower to all the buildings he sees, each one an imagined space produced and "kept alive" by the people below, thus establishing his apartment as at once an idealized imaginary space and as a microcosm of the city as a whole.

Just as many apartment films begin with aerial shots or other mechanisms that emphasize the apartment's link to the larger city, many apartment films, similar to Rear Window, begin with an image of a window or enter the narrative through a window. The credits for The Apartment, for instance, focus on the nighttime exterior of a brownstone, our attention directed to the light in one apartment window. Rope, usually remembered as occurring strictly within its single set, actually begins with an exterior shot of a city street then pans left to enter the murderers' apartment window, just after the victim's scream. Bell, Book and Candle begins with a wintry street scene then tracks to the exterior of a shop window with a sign reading "Gillian Holyrod, African and Oceanic Primitive Art," before entering the window to examine the live-work space inhabited by Kim Novak's Holyrod.

Even the camera's arrival at the image of a sleeping resident in Rear Window reverberates throughout the apartment plot. For example, An American in Paris piles up tourist images of Paris before arriving at, first, the wrong window and, then, the correct window of Gene Kelly's voiceover narrator, who, sleeping, opens his eyes briefly, then rolls over, away from the camera's view. Similarly, the original credit sequence for the pilot of I Love Lucy features skyline views in miniature before entering, first, the wrong window and, then, the appropriate bedroom window, to show Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball sleeping (in twin beds, of course).

The opening of Rear Window is similar but not identical to these other credit sequences. It is, in some sense, a distilled version. Whereas these other films move from the very large (the city) to the very small (the apartment), Rear Window never acknowledges the larger urban context of the city through aerial views, but establishes a relatively small sphere-the courtyard-and stays within it. In addition, once these other films have situated the narrative inside a particular apartment, they do not return to the larger view. Rear Window, by contrast, will alternate consistently throughout the film between the interior of Jeff's apartment and the courtyard view, without leaving the premises or allowing the camera to enter inside the other individual apartments. Along with this, whereas most apartment films use the window as a point of entry for the camera in the credit sequence, and often as a literal point of entry for characters, Rear Window will make the window and the act of looking through the window dominate the plot. This is not totally unique. Both The Window and Pushover are centrally organized around window voyeurism. Additionally, The Window revolves around a child who witnesses a murder through an apartment window, and climaxes with the murderer entering the witness' apartment to attack him. However, the persistence of voyeurism, combined with the rootedness of the plot in one set, are somewhat unique to Rear Window.

The chief distinguishing attribute of Rear Window's credit sequence, however, may be that this sequence features the name Alfred Hitchcock, which appears at the end of the static shot and signals the beginning of the camera's movement. Therefore, this sequence, unlike those for The Courtship of Eddie's Father or Rosemary's Baby, despite their auteurist credentials, has been subject to deep and frequent critical analyses. Not surprisingly, most of the critical discourse around Rear Window celebrates it as an auteurist film with technical and thematic links to other Hitchcock works. In auteurist accounts, Rear Window stands as an exemplar of Hitchcock's manipulation of point of view and sound; it contains numerous Hitchcock motifs, including his famous cameos, his use of handbags and jewelry, and a fall from a high place; it is one of his single-set films, along with Rope, Lifeboat (1943), and Dial M for Murder. In its use of signature Hitchcock actors, it is one of the Jimmy Stewart films, along with Rope, Vertigo (1958), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956); and one of the Grace Kelly films, sandwiched between Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief (1955) (Coon; M. Walker; Wood, Hitchcock's Films Revisited; Fawell, Hitchcock's Rear Window; Fawell, "Torturing Women and Mocking Men"; Weis, The Silent Scream; Rohmer and Chabrol).


Excerpted from THE APARTMENT PLOT by Pamela Robertson Wojcik Copyright © 2010 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................vii
Introduction: A Philosophy of Urbanism....................1
Chapter 1. A Primer in Urbanism: Rear Window's Archetypal Apartment Plot....................47
Chapter 2. "We Like Our Apartment": The Playboy Indoors....................88
Chapter 3. The Great Reprieve: Modernity, Femininity, and the Apartment....................139
Chapter 4. The Suburbs in the City: The Housewife and the Apartment....................180
Chapter 5. Movin' On Up: The African American Apartment....................220
Epilogue: A New Philosophy for a New Century....................267

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