From Rear Window to Copycat, the plot techniques in play when a film’s lead character is trapped at home.
There’s one murder mystery genre that’s relatively rare on screen: the housebound detective. Confined to the house, the leading man or woman must solve the crime – or evade the killer – from a single location.
Several films borrow the 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 the likes of Orphan, Run, The Woman in the Window and Fatal Attraction.
This kind of ‘domestic disturbance’ ramps up the tension. After all, home is where we usually feel safest.
Yet while many films draw on the terror of being preyed upon at home (especially for female characters), it’s much rarer to have a lead character who is completely housebound.
Four films about housebound detectives
In Rear Window (1954), photographer L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart) is recovering from a broken leg. Unable to leave his apartment, he uses his camera to spy on the neighbours. Then he starts to suspect one of them of murder.
This Hitchcock classic is one of the most influential films in this genre. It’s built around a simple device (temporary disability) since borrowed by countless other films and TV series.
In fact, Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) used the same techniques a few years earlier. In this noir thriller, Barbara Stanwyck plays an unwell woman who picks up the phone and – thanks to a wrong connection – overhears a murder plot.
Like Sorry, Wrong Number, 1995’s Copycat has a dominant woman trapped at home (and, arguably, knocked down to size as a result). Here, Sigourney Weaver plays agoraphobic psychologist Helen Hudson. She has the knowledge to stop a serial killer, but debilitating anxiety stops her leaving the house.
The film that takes the biggest risk is The Bone Collector (1999), adapted from Jeffrey Deaver’s book series. As quadriplegic ex-homicide detective Lincoln Rhyme, Denzel Washington must catch a sociopath without even leaving his bed.
These are four good examples of the genre, but 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 pretty modern. After all, in the age of the true-crime podcast we’re all housebound detectives.
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 rooms.
The telephone is crucial in Sorry, Wrong Number. At a time when operators had to physically connect calls through a switchboard, it was possible to eavesdrop on other people’s conversations. This is what happens to the domineering Leona Stevenson when she overhears a murder being planned.
The phone helps Leona control her world without leaving her room, yet it leaves her at the mercy of others. As a device that – at the time – could only be used to make and receive calls, the telephone extends Leona’s reach and lets her piece together information about the murder.
In Rear Window, the camera is the conduit. While this should be a one-way connection, one memorably frightening scene has the suspect spotting the camera and staring right back at Jefferies (and us).
While they seem woefully basic machines now, the computer connects the protagonist to the outside world in Copycat and The Bone Collector. Both films also use computers to advance the plot, either by revealing what the protagonist knows, or by using digital tools to work the evidence.
Without technology to extend the protagonist’s footprint, it would otherwise be easy for these plots 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.
So the protagonists in these films do leave the house – but vicariously through other characters. Like 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 and report back to him over the radio or in person.
The relationship at the heart of Copycat is more an equal partnership. Here, cop MJ Monahan (Holly Hunter) and psychologist Helen Hudson (Weaver) pool their expertise to fill in each other’s blind spots.
Poor old Leona Stevenson in Sorry, Wrong Number doesn’t have any such friendships – she’s notably unlikeable – but her fast phone work with former acquaintances is a stand-in. This is a turning point for Stevenson, as before this her worldview is rigid and self-serving, leaving her blind to reality.
Finally, Rear Window’s wheelchair-bound hero sends not one but two little women 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 when our sleuths have health issues AND a murderer on their hands?
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, shown in flashback.
Romance reinforces the humanity of our lead characters. Without it, they’d be tough to like (Leona Stevenson, Helen Hudson), creepy stalkers (Jefferies) or so reliant on technology they become almost robotic (Helen Hudson, Lincoln Rhyme and The Net’s Angela Bennett).
The love angle reminds us that these people are just like us. It gives us a reason to care about what happens to them.
4. Bringing the killer home
For each of our detectives, communication is a spider’s web. It catches snippets of the real world, but also connects them to the killer.
This is quite literal in Copycat. Helen uses chat rooms to talk to strangers but then the killer uses email to send her disturbing taunts. Later he visits her home and leaves a gruesome present under the mattress.
Many genres end by bringing the killer home in the final scenes. This is especially effective here as none of our protagonists can run away. With no miracles in sight, all we can do is hope for a twist that might let them escape.
This climax resolves a question implied at the very start of the film. What’s the most terrifying thing that can happen if you can’t leave the house? For detectives (or amateur sleuths) it’s their knowledge or investigation opening a portal to a killer … and having them step right into the living room.
5. The comeback
Once the killer is on home turf, the lead character is left to face their ‘weakness’.
If this sounds an unfair fight, remember this isn’t necessarily their mental or physical ailment. And, like any super hero, great weakness is balanced by great power – typically knowledge or expertise of some kind (see also Unbreakable).
Helen Hudson battles anxiety and draws on her work profiling serial killers. Lincoln Rhyme, who is ready to die at the start of the movie, fights to stay alive. This dovetails with side-kick Amelia’s journey, which is to learn to trust herself. This is what leads her back to Rhyme’s apartment in the nick of time.
Memorably, Jefferies uses his camera’s flash to blind the killer and stall for time until the police arrive. This is a kind of ‘exchange of disadvantage’, in which the protagonist uses their knowledge or skills to limit the killer in some way, making them more equal. In Wait until Dark (1967), Suzy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn) shares her blindness with her killer by smashing the lights.
Leona Stevenson in Sorry, Wrong Number learns the hardest lesson. The murder plot she overhears is her own. In a genre which returns time and again to friendship, 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 all these protagonists must deal with, it’s to keep your enemies close – but keep your friends closer.
Picture credit: Debby Hudson