From Rear Window to Copycat – the plot techniques in play when a film’s lead character is trapped at home. SPOILERS.
There’s one aspect of the murder mystery genre which remains relatively rare on screen: the house-bound detective. Confined to or trapped at home, the leading man or woman must solve the crime – or evade the killer – from a single location.
Several films borrow from this set-up; just think of any thriller that ends with the killer turning up at the house (or is revealed to have been there all along). That includes Single White Female, Orphan and Fatal Attraction for starters.
This kind of ‘domestic disturbance’ ramps up the tension – home, after all, is where we think we’re safest – and makes the conflict personal. It’s also a common ending in films featuring female leads, perhaps because we find it hard to shake the notion that the domestic sphere (home, home-making and childcare) is where women ‘belong’.
That said, these films typically spread their sleuthing across a number of locations before bringing things home in the finale. There are far fewer movies where the lead character is completely house-bound. Perhaps because it’s harder to pull these stories off successfully, this niche genre often falls back on common themes and techniques. This article takes a look at what unites films including Rear Window and The Bone Collector.
Examples of the genre
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In Rear Window (1954), photographer L.B. Jeffries (James Stewart) is recovering from a broken leg. Unable to leave his apartment, he uses his camera to observe the neighbours from a distance – then starts to suspect one of them of murder.
Rear Window isn’t unique, however. Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) tested out many of genre’s techniques a few years earlier. In this noir thriller, Barbara Stanwyck plays an invalid who picks up the telephone and – thanks to a wrong connection – overhears a murder plot.
Copycat (1995) revists some of these threads, particularly the theme of the dominant woman trapped at home (and, arguably, knocked back down to size as a result). Here, Sigourney Weaver plays agoraphobic psychologist Helen Hudson: she has the knowledge to stop a serial killer, but a debilitating anxiety that stops her leaving the house.
Perhaps the film that takes the biggest risk with its premise is The Bone Collector (1999), adapted from Jeffrey Deaver’s novel / book series. As quadriplegic ex-homicide detective Lincoln Rhyme, Denzel Washington must solve a serial murder not only without leaving the house, but without leaving his bed.
These are four meaty examples of the genre, yet they share more than a protagonist battling physical or mental limits. These films span 50 years of cinema – yet each relies on or returns to some common themes.
1. Technology is key
Solving crimes remotely sounds a very modern trend. After all, in the age of the true-life podcast we’re all house-bound detectives now (Serial is an early example of the power of armchair detecting).
As far as cinema goes, however, this niche genre has always relied on technology and ‘remote control’. This allows our protagonists to visit the outside world even when they can’t leave their own rooms.
The telephone is crucial to the plot of Sorry, Wrong Number. At a time when operators had to physically connect each call through a switchboard, it was possible to be patched into other people’s conversations. This is what happens to the domineering Leona Stevenson when she overhears a murder being planned.
The telephone helps Leona control her world without leaving her room, yet it also leaves her at the mercy of others. As a device that (unlike now) could only be used to make and receive phone calls, the telephone nonetheless extends Leona’s reach, and allows her to piece together information about the murder.
In Rear Window, the camera is the conduit. While this should be a one-way connection (with Jeffries spying silently on his neighbours), one memorablly frightening scene has the suspect spotting the camera and seeming to stare right back at Jeffries (and us).
While they seem woefully basic machines now, it’s the computer that connects the protagonist to the outside world in Copycat and The Bone Collector. Both films also use computers to advance the plot, either by showing the audience what the protagonist knows, or by using digital tools to work the evidence.
Arguably without technology to extend the protagonist’s footprint in the world, it would be easy for the plot to become hopelessly introspective.
2. Living vicariously
When the protagonist can’t (or won’t) leave the house, there has to be something more than technology to keep the plot moving along. In fact the protagonists in these films do leave the house, but it’s vicariously through other characters. Like the use of technology, this gives the lead another way to touch or taste the world remotely.
The Bone Collector makes explicit use of this, when bed-bound Lincoln Rhyme has beat cop Amelia be his eyes and ears. He coaches her to work the crime scene on his behalf, and has her report back to him over the radio or in person.
The relationship at the heart of Copycat is far more an equal partnership, with cop MJ Monahan (Holly Hunter) and psychologist Helen Hudson (Weaver) pooling their respective expertise to fill in each other’s blind spots.
Poor old Leona Stevenson doesn’t have any such friendships – she’s notably unlikeable – but her fast phone work with former acquaintenances affords her a new view of the world. This is in fact a turning point for Stevenson, as until now her worldview has been rigid and self-serving, leaving her blind to reality.
Finally, the wheelchair-bound hero of Rear Window sends not one but two little women out into the world to do his bidding: girlfriend Grace Kelly and housekeeper Thelma Ritter.
3. There’s always time for love
What’s love got to do, got to do with it – especially when our sleuths already have health issues AND a murderer to deal with?
There’s an established relationship between Jeff and Lisa in Rear Window. In Copycat, Helen flirts with young detective Ruben; unlike Lincoln Rhyme and Amelia, however, it can’t last. Even Leona Stevenson has a love interest, told mainly in flashback.
Romance reinforces the humanity of our lead characters. Without it, they’d be tough to like (Leona Stevenson, Helen Hudson), creepy stalkers (Jeffries) or so reliant on technology as to render them unfeeling or robot-like (Helen Hudson, Lincoln Rhyme and, similarly, The Net’s Angela Bennett).
The love angle reminds us that these are people just like us. It also gives us a reason to care about what happens to them (or to be moved when things don’t work out).
4. Bringing the killer home
For each of our detectives, communication is a spider’s web that catches snippets of the real world, but also connects them directly to the killer.
This is quite literal in Copycat. Helen uses chat rooms to talk to strangers but the killer uses email to send her disturbing taunts (later he visits her home in person to leave a gruesome present under the mattress).
Many genres end by bringing the killer home in the final scenes – but it’s especially inevitable (and effective) here as none of our protagonists can run away. With no miracles in sight, all we can do is watch for an unseen twist that, presumably, lets them escape.
This peak of tension also resolves a question implied at the very start of the film: if you can’t move / run / leave the room, what’s the most terrifying thing that could happen to you? For detectives (or amateur sleuths) it’s their knowledge or investigation opening a portal to a killer, and having him or her walk right into their living room.
5. The comeback
With the killer on home turf, the lead character is left to face their ‘weakness’. If this sounds an unfair fight, remember that this isn’t necessarily their mental or physical ailment. Furthermore, like any super hero, their great weakness is balanced by great power – typically knowledge or expertise of some kind.
Helen Hudson battles her anxiety and learns to draw instead on her work profiling serial killers. Lincoln Rhyme, who is ready to die at the start of the movie, must be prepared to fight to stay alive (this dovetails with Amelia’s battle, which is to learn to work the clues for herself – leading her back to Rhyme’s apartment in the nick of time).
Memorably, Jeffries uses his camera’s flash to blind the killer and stall for time until the police arrive. In fact, this is an example of the ‘exchange of disadvantage’, in which the protagonist uses their knowledge or skills to limit the killer in some way (making them more equal). Similarly, in Wait until Dark, Suzy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) ‘shares her blindness’ with her killer by smashing the lights.
The hardest lesson is reserved for Leona Stevenson in Sorry, Wrong Number: the murder plot she overhears is intended for her. Moreover, in a genre which returns time and again to friendship and the shared burden, there’s no reprieve for Leona – she’s cut herself off from meaningful relationships, and now there’s no one left to step in. If there’s a lesson tied to the isolation all these protagonists must deal with, it’s ‘keep your enemies close – but keep your friends closer’.
Picture credit: zvandrei via Unsplash