‘Masterly builder of Mousetraps’: Immobility, identity and spatial fear in Hitchcock’s Psycho, Rear Window and North by Northwest – Alex Diggins

Alex Diggins is studying for an MPhil in American Literature. He is interested in presentations of landscape, space and identity in American culture and literature, as well as contemporary English landscape writing. He is currently researching for a thesis on the constructions of the Frontier in 19th Century texts, and the recent film and novel The Revenant, exploring, in particular, ideas of wounding, and the hauntedness, and legibility of the American landscape.


Image credit: Metropolitan Transportation Authority of the State of New York via flickr

‘Masterly builder of Mousetraps’: Immobility, identity and spatial fear in Hitchcock’s Psycho, Rear Window and North by Northwest

If Hitchcock was the master of suspense, then he was also the master of space. He stated himself that ‘you’ve got to make the setting work dramatically […] the locale must be functional’[1], an edict no doubt learnt in his time as a set designer in Germany. The manipulation of space through setting, architecture and action is essential to the narrative drive and meanings of his films. As Steven Jacobs states, ‘space in Hitchcock is far from neutral’. [2] David Thomson goes further, arguing that Hitchcock’s films embody a ‘remorseless carnival of space’.[3] This phrase captures the relentless force of suspense that fires films like Rear Window and Psycho, as well as the ludic, self-aware poise with which space is constructed in his films.

Hitchcock’s films are spatial funhouses where the control of ‘visible and invisible spaces’, and the ‘montage of known and unknown’, mimics Hitchcock’s teasing, giving and taking away of visual and narrative mastery from the viewer.[4] Both characters and viewers are lost in his maze of spaces, as Elsi Lemire asserts, we are mice ‘trapped’ by Hitchcock: ‘the ingenious, masterly builder of mousetraps’.[5] Rear Window (1953), North by Northwest (1959), and 1960’s Psycho are the subjects of this essay, though much of his oeuvre displays an awareness of the possibilities of space and innovation in its presentations.[6] They are linked by shared spatial concerns: the tension between agora- and claustrophobia, between mobility and immobility, and between male and female space. These films demonstrate the importance of space in Hitchcock’s filmmaking: it is essential to their impact, their meanings, and their uncanny afterlives.

In North by Northwest space is used to explore the atomising effects of urban existence, and identity as an unfixed, or even unfixable, concept in twentieth century America. In Saul Bass’ kinetic typography, vertical and diagonal lines invade the green of the screen; they resolve into credits before fading reveals that they are, in fact, the reflective sides of a skyscraper which mirrors the teeming streets below. The abstract nature of city life is foregrounded: the men and women of New York are shown to exist trapped in a nexus of verticals and right angles – there is nothing natural or organic about the space of a modern American city.[7] This is made clear in the fade out that immediately follows the title sequence. We are not introduced to Cary Grant’s character, the nominal hero of the film, but we are confronted by a multitude of city shots where crowds jostle and swarm, in a riot of movement and energy (see Figure 1). The visual mastery of the viewer is usurped, and we are overwhelmed.

Figure 1: the teeming New York street

Murray Pomerance sees these urban shots as evidence of Hitchcock’s ‘precise and fond acknowledgement of urban detail.’[8] ‘Precise’ they may be, but ‘fond’ they are not. They seethe with an uneasy tension, the sharp, jabbing music of Hermann’s score (so similar to Psycho’s infamous strings) echoes the viewer’s mounting terror. In the urban space, humans are reduced to insects, or grains of sand surging through an hourglass, stripped of individuality and humanity. Even the ‘fond’-ness, the humour, of these shots (Hitchcock late for the bus, women squabbling over a taxi) does little to alleviate the terror of this realisation.

Jacobs allies Hitchcock’s camerawork with the surrealist art movement. Both work to defamiliarise space to create a ‘surreal landscape’ in the work of art[9]. However, these opening shots are also an enactment of T.S Eliot’s phrase (borrowed from Dante) from The Wasteland: ‘I had not thought death had undone so many’.[10] Both North by Northwest and Rear Window show Hitchcock to be intensely alive to the concerns of the literary Modernists: an awareness that the modern urban space, with its automation and industrialisation, engendered radical atomisation, creating lives of isolation and loneliness. This recalls the ‘malevolent fate’ of many of Hitchcock’s films; a wrong turn off the interstate, or an innocent hand gesture, can lead to danger, violence and death. Much of this ‘malevolent fate’ can be traced to the anonymity, fluidity of identity, and the collisions and connections of life in the urban space. The space of the city simultaneously displaces identity whilst forcing encounters with strangers. Paul Auster articulates it thus in the New York Trilogy: ‘New York was an inexhaustible space […] it always left him with the feeling of being lost. Lost, not only in the city, but within himself.’[11] If Hitchcock’s New York is a similarly ‘inexhaustible space’ containing within it every sort of encounter and co-incidence, it is also a space which represents the loss of the self.

North by Northwest
is as much a film about acting, about the ease of losing and adopting identities, as it a rollicking caper about finding the ‘McGuffin’ of the microfilm. It is the urban space of the film, and the flickering selfhood of the urban subject, that makes necessary Thornhill’s flight across America and his construction of an identity around the ‘nowhere’, the empty space, of George Kaplan. The space of urban America is in North by Northwest both the catalyst and displacer of identity. Hitchcock’s phobias are universal, which is why his films have such potent afterlives, however, spatial fear, agoraphobia and claustrophobia define these three films. The two extreme wide angle shots in North by Northwest (see Figures 2 and 3) are shots of dizzying agoraphobia. They snag and catch the simple teleology of the film: diegetic space is pushed vertiginously far back. As in the opening street shots, the human, the individual, is lost: the gaze presented is inhuman and totalising.

Figure 2: The totalising gaze from the UN building.


Figure 3.  The vast space of the Prairie engulfing the bus, and the human.

This is the defining void of the film, not, as Slavoj Zizek has argued, George Kaplan.[12] The space of the Prairie and the bird’s eye view from the UN building are the emptinesses that swallows Thornhill and dissolves the human. Agoraphobia and claustrophobia are not opposing fears, rather, as Paul Carter argues, ‘agoraphobia and claustrophobia are two poles of the same existential dilemma.’[13] Agora can mean both ‘an assembly of people’ and a ‘place of assembly’ therefore ‘agora as crowd […] explain[s] the linkage between agoraphobia and claustrophobia, going out implies plunging in […] isolation risks engulfment.’[14]

The unease which these shots evoke is, then the same disquiet found in of the opening shots of the bustling crowd. This fear is manifest also in Psycho, most notably in the scenes when Marion is driving on the Interstate: she plays at different identities, ventriloquizes the voices of other characters, her being is in flux: she is literally ‘inter’, between, states. Movement characterises these scenes – Thornhill runs away from the UN building, the bus crawls along the Prairie, and Marion drives along the Interstate. Revealing that fundamental to concepts of agora – and claustrophobia is movement, or more accurately, its lack.[15]

Every move Thornhill makes is pre-ordained by Van Dame, and by the title North by Northwest: the only time he breaks his trajectory in the crop-duster sequence, it proves to be a dead end. It is as though Thornhill is aware that, were he to stop moving, stop compassing space, he would come to nothing. Not only would he likely be killed by Van Dame’s henchmen but also, having abandoned the identity of Roger O. Thornhill in New York, he would become himself a zero, a cipher, a nothing. In North by Northwest, Hitchcock displays an acute awareness of the way that space, understood both as the architecture of New York as well as the immensity of the American continent, is intimately bound up with problem of identity. The film resonates with the same fear of immobility: an inability to move through space, marking it as one’s own and thus shoring up identity.

Rear Window adds a sexual neuroses to this fear of immobility: physical immobility suggests impotence and emasculation. The first instance where this made clear is when Jeff, on the phone with his editor, ruefully states how he will ‘emerge from this plaster cocoon’ next Wednesday, before looking out and across to where Miss Torso is dancing – a whirl of joyous movement. Ostensibly this is further confirmation of Jeff’s virile masculinity: he is physically incapacitated but as potent as ever, able to enjoy and objectify the woman opposite. The film does superficially invite the audience to sympathise with Jeff’s desires, such as in the helicopter scene when, as Sharff states, ‘the view is neither ours nor Jefferies’ [….] still Jefferies smiles, he understands and we react accordingly to his dictate.’[16]

This is a simplistic reading though: Rear Window far more often undermines Jeff’s ‘dictate’ by suggesting that whilst the viewpoint of the film is predominately built upon the male gaze, whether through Jeff’s POV of the camera lens or telescope, the space of the film is marked out and constructed upon female movement and female agency. The moments when Jeff’s masculinity is reinforced through his gaze are always undermined by his immobility, his inability to move, pace out space, or to mark his territory. This is foregrounded in this scene by the surge of music that accompanies the sight of Miss Torso’s uninhibited movement: it is un-sexualised, since what is being celebrated is not her body but her mobility. It makes a sharp contrast to the ambient noise, the sombre piano keys, which accompany shots of Jeff and his broken, impotent, limb. Masculinity is tied to mobility. The ‘crisis of masculinity’ Lemire identifies, comes not so much from the equality of gaze in the film – the much analysed moment when it is Lisa’s looking that spots Thorwald’s criminality (see still) – but from Jeff’s inability to traverse space, and to prove himself a man.[17]

The colossal set made for the film is, as Jacobs argues, ‘an instrument of the gaze’, the architecture becoming ‘a kind of camera obscura on the urban scale’.[18] To argue that this reinforces the power of the male gaze is reductive. Lisa’s presence in the film, her invasion of diegetic and narrative space, evolves from beautiful bystander to critical actor, whereas Jeff moves from actor to helpless victim by the end of the film, his other leg broken, his movement and masculinity, doubly diminished. Jeff, though, does not seem to mind. It is telling that the first time he truly sees Lisa, rather than being distracted by events outside his window, is when she breaks into Thorwald’s apartment via the fire escape.

Her movement thrilling and agile,  she crosses boundaries, legal, moral and sexual. His smile then is quite different from the smirk he gives Miss Torso at the beginning of the film. Lisa has traversed the space he was unable to, and instead of hating her for it, he admires her. Jeff’s acceptance of Lisa’s increasing domination of space, and male space at that, is eloquently signalled when Doyle comes round and sees Lisa’s suitcase, evidence that she plans on staying over. Her shadow is on the wall, and her humming fills the air, the spectral presence of femininity haunts his apartment. And yet, when Doyle attempts to press the matter, his raised eyebrows and arch comments inviting Jeff to join in the male mockery, to explain Lisa’s presence by reducing her to disposable sexual object, Jeff responds by repeating ‘just leave it.’

Anne Williams identifies in Gothic literature: a ‘necessary configuration of ‘insideand outside, of us and them and the subsequent anxiety resulting from the inevitable boundary violations.’ [19]Rear Window ostensibly evokes these Gothic binaries of male and female space and their violation whilst consistently undermining them. Lisa is arrested for trespassing into Thorwald’s apartment, and as a result of her actions, Jeff is further incapacitated, however, Lisa and Stella are critical in solving the murder, and they support Jeff in his theory far quicker than Doyle, the almost fatally slow police detective. The female, and her ability to move through space is celebrated as a potential escape from the crippling immobility of the modern American male, the same paranoia that haunted North by Northwest. The architecture of the film, its diegetic space, is mostly constructed from Jeff’s male gaze: we never hear or see anything from the fourth wall of the courtyard, from Jeff’s immediate neighbours – but the female prove herself itself essential in solving the immobility, the impotence, of the male.

Psycho draws together much of Hitchcock’s spatial concerns. Just as in North by Northwest, Saul Bass’ credit sequence in Psycho highlights the film’s themes. Lines invade the space of the screen, the tension between movement and immobility is highlighted, and the title ‘Psycho’ warps and shivers before the audience, evoking both Norman’s flickering identity as well as the unstable identities of the other characters. Movement in Psycho is inextricably bound up in transgression: to cross space in the film is, inevitably, to sin. Norman transgresses the taboo of mother/son relations, as well as breaking the most sacrosanct taboo in his murder of Marion. Marion also breaks the law, stealing forty thousand dollars and fleeing under an assumed identity.  Sam and Lila are not above this boundary crossing: not only do they lie about their identities but they are also guilty of breaking and entering. As in North by Northwest, the characters shuttle between spaces of agoraphobia and claustrophobia, unable to satisfactorily resolve their identities. Marion escapes Phoenix, but her flight from exposure leads only to the bathroom of Bates Motel, a space of ultimate confinement that betrays her to the fatal attentions of Norman.

Marion’s flight and her immobility are visually manifest in the stuffed birds that haunt the mise-en-scène of the parlour. They are motion suspended; their outstretched wings speak to movement, animation and life, but, of course, they are dead. They function now as objects of the gaze, attracting fascination and horror. Just as in murdering Marion, Norman arrests her movement and forever preserves her in the memory of Sam and Lila (and in the audience’s’ eyes) as a creature of flight and beauty.[20] Unlike in Rear Window, no solution is proposed to the fatal problem of immobility: Lila’s breaking into the mansion, her crossing of space, comes too late to save her sister. Psycho ends, not in the cosy, but imperfect, domesticity of Rear Window but with the grisly image of Marion’s car being dredged from the swamp, the revenant, destined to haunt the mind of the viewer.

The titles also serve as a cataphor – Hans J. Wulff’s ‘advance reference that signal[s] some event or action that will occur later in the story’ – for the uncanny, Gothic construction of space in the film.[21] They manifest what Jacobs terms the ‘schizoid Architecture’ of the film, the labyrinth of the mansion, and its spilt function with the motel echoing, mirroring, and perhaps inspiring, the slippages of identity and sanity that fire Norman’s mind.[22] As Arno Meteling argues, ‘Gothic fiction […] establishes an almost corporal connection between the protagonists and the buildings they are situated in’, Psycho goes further.[23]

As in Rear Window, there is a sense that Norman’s mental state, and indeed his corporal transformations, would not have been possible were it not for the space in which he finds himself. Just as Jeff is trapped, immobile in an apartment, preoccupied by the lives being played out opposite him which seem to speak to the various traumas and desires of his mind, so too is Norman trapped in the motel. The isolation of the building is frequently referred to: Norman is lonely, immobile, impotent, and confined with the unquiet memory of his murdered mother. The house haunts Norman, as much as he haunts the house. If Hitchcock had simply followed the spatial conventions of Gothic fiction, Psycho would have been reduced, resembling much more his Rebecca (1940), instead he subverts them, and thus Psycho retains its power to disturb.

Hitchcock’s playful dialogue with the conventions of Gothic space is highlighted in the scene when Lila approaches the big house. The montage of shots flick between close ups of her apprehensive face, and the looming bulk of the house; the quick movements of the camera and Herman’s jolting, jarring score unsettle the audience, evoking the fear in Lila’s eyes. The house itself resembles the decayed grandeur of Edward Hopper’s ‘House by a railroad’ (see Figure 4), and has been described by Jacobs as ‘Californian gothic’: situated in a particular place but also universal in the unease it inspires.[24] It demonstrates the visual power of Hitchcock’s filmmaking, the mise-en-scène constructed with an artist’s eye for the creation and containment of space: it is the epitome of what he termed ‘pure cinema’. And the lingering, suspenseful shot of Lila’s hand on the door is pure Gothic. Williams argues that the ‘spatiality of secrets’ and ‘the gender based divisions of the house’ determine the logic of space in Gothic fiction.[25] Psycho is a teasing dialogue with this ‘spatiality of secrets’.


Figure 4.  Edward Hopper, ‘House by a Railroad’ (1925). Its decayed grandeur eerily recalls Psycho’s mansion.

In particular, Hitchcock plays with the Bluebeard archetype: Lila, the naïve heroine infiltrates the ‘castle’ of the mansion searching for its deathly secrets, the audience reading its space as analogous to what Thomson termed Norman’s ‘trapdoor, spider web mind’.[26] Slavoj Zizek runs with this interpretation, tracing each floor of the house to a Freudian vision of the unconscious: the ego is located on the ground floor, the maternal on the second floor, and the Id is found in the basement. [27] This interpretation ignores much of the film. Norman may be unmasked in the basement, in Zizek’s (and Freud’s) deepest level of the unconscious, but the murder of Marion takes place in a room entirely separate from the mansion – in fact she never enters its uncanny maze. The mad (wo)man is not in the attic, but in the motel bathroom.

Hitchcock does not confine the Uncanny to its traditional arenas, castles and mansions – buildings dark and decayed – rather he locates it in the well-lit and the everyday. In the eerie black and white of the film’s cinematography the bathroom is bathed in light, and yet it is unheimlich, ‘un-home-like’. As Williams states ‘the utterly familiar is presented as strange.’[28] In Psycho, Hitchcock invents a new language of spatial fear. The transgressive, the violent, and the uncanny are no longer confined to their usual haunts. Immobility is as fatal to the body and one’s sense of self, as it was in North by Northwest and Rear Window, however, unlike in Rear Window, no female presence can resolve this crisis: identity and gender collapse and cannot be made whole. Men, women, and those in between – Norman’s uncertain gender identity, for instance – are shown to be equal victims of Hitchcock’s psychosis of space.   

The diegetic architecture – the space of the film’s buildings – of Psycho and Rear Window reflects the troubled identities of its characters. The split of the motel and the mansion (an innovation not in the original screenplay), and its labyrinthine spaces, echo the unstable selfhoods presented in the film, just as the beehive of the apartment courtyard with its competing stories shatters the audience’s visual mastery, and Jeff’s mobile, masculine identity. Immobility is the defining fear of these films; rooted in claustrophobia and agoraphobia. An inability to move across space, and thus, in the great American fashion, to forge an identity, agitates Thornhill, Jeff and Lisa.

The fragmenting effects of the modern urban space is foregrounded in each of the films; their stories play out against a backdrop of anonymity, loneliness and isolation. It is only in Rear Window – with its capable female presence resolving Jeff’s impotent immobility – that some sort of uneasy stability is achieved. In North by Northwest Thornhill is still running at the end, his destination still uncertain, his identity still unresolved. Psycho ends with the terrifying shot of Norman’s (skeletal) smile fading into the dredging of the buried car: the repressed has returned, the uncanny has broken the boundaries of diegetic space and threatens the space of the audience. Identity, movement, suspense and the uncanny are intimately bound up with Hitchcock’s construction of filmic space: in these three films he demonstrates that an awareness of the possibilities of space is essential not only to good filmmaking, but also in attempting to unknot the complexities of modern life.



[1] Hitchcock on Hitchcock: Selected Writings and Interviews, ed. Sidney Gottlieb (London: Faber and Faber, 1995) p.65

[2] Steven Jacobs, Wrong House: the Architeture of Alfred Hitchcock (Rotterdam: 010 Publishers, 2007) p.6

[3] David Thomson, The Moment of Psycho: how Alfred Hitchcock taught America to love murder (New York: Basic Books, 2009) p.75

[4] Stefan Sharff, The Art of Looking in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (New York: Limelight Editions, 1997) p.85

[5] Elsie Lemire, ‘Voyeurism and the crisis of masculinity in Rear Window’ in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window ed. John Belton, p.40

[6] The ‘continuous take’ camerawork of Rope, and the extreme confinement of Lifeboat are good examples of this innovation.

[7]This recalls Stephen Straff’s identification of lines, in The Art of Looking, as defining feature of Hitchcock’s mis-en-scene suggesting both entrapment and the viewer’s lack of visual mastery. Whilst this is pertinent to the other two films, in North by Northwest something different is attempted: the scale is vast, the human is not so much entrapped as engulfed.

[8] Murray Pomerance, Alfred Hitchcock’s America, (Cambridge: Polity, 2013) p.143

[9] Jacobs, Wrong House, p.134

[10] T.S Eliot, The Wasteland in The Complete Poems and Plays (London: Faber and Faber, 2004) l.64 p.31

[11] Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy (London: Faber, 1987) p.47

[12] Slavoj Zizek, Everything you ever wanted to know about Lacan: (but were afraid to ask Hitchcock) (London: Verso, 1992) p.45

[13] Paul Carter, Repressed Spaces: the poetics of Agoraphobia (London: Reaktion Books, 2000) p.84

[14] Carter, Repressed Spaces, p.84

[15] Immobility, though universal, is also a peculiarly American fear. American culture celebrates the settler spirit: the movement through space to find home, to find rootedness and identity.

[16] Stefan, Art of Looking, p.43

[17] Lemire, ‘Crisis of Masculinity’ in Rear Window ed. John Belton

[18] Jacobs, Wrong House p.80;  The colossal set was the largest ever constructed at the time for a Hollywood film.

[19] Ann Williams, Art of Darkness: a poetics of Gothic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) p.198

[20] The advertising campaign for the film furthered this objectifying, voyeuristic gaze as the film was mostly sold on the presence of Janet Leigh, and the various states of undress she would be seen in.

[21] Hans J. Wulff, Suspense and the influence of Cataphora on the viewer’s expectations (New York: Routledge, 2009) p.6

[22] Jacobs, Wrong House, p.82

[23] Arno Meteling, ‘Genius Loci: Memory, media and the neo-Gothic’ in Popular Ghosts: the Haunted Spaces of Everyday Culture ed. María del Pilar Blanco; Esther Peeren (New York: Continuum, 2010) p.256

[24] Jacobs, Wrong House, p.86

[25] Williams, Art of Darkness, p.200

[26] Thomson, Moment of Psycho, p.72

[27] The Pervert’s guide to Cinema dir. Sophie Fiennes, scripted and presented by Slavoj Zizek

[28] Williams, Art of Darkness p.6

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