James Stewart and Grace Kelly
James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ (1954) (Photograph: Starstock/Photoshot)

The poster for the 1989 film New York Stories portrayed a flattened out Manhattan apartment building. Behind its windows you can make out characters from the portmanteau of the three films that made up the movie – by Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Woody Allen. Just above the roof line poke up the Twin Towers. So we know where the film is set, we know it will be a story about the city and about the lives of those who live in it. Unfortunately, the poster was better than the film. No matter. The original poster for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) was very similar. It too portrays a New York apartment building and we see into the (slightly more dramatic) vignettes occurring in the building. Based on Cornell Woolrich’s 1942 short story It Had To Be Murder (from which Hitchcock also took the title – “they were the rear-window dwellers around me”), it is the film that begins to explore the seemingly universal desire to peer into the windows opposite.

In Hitchcock’s film, James Stewart’s photographer LB Jefferies sits inside his apartment during a sweltering summer. His wheelchair is parked by the open sash window and he spends his days – and more importantly his sweaty, sleepless nights looking at life behind the apartment windows opposite. These vignettes of urban life become so gripping that even his socialite girlfriend Lisa, played by Grace Kelly, and dressed in her most expensive evening wear, becomes merely an irritating distraction.

Jefferies’ apartment window becomes a cipher for the silver screen. It is like the movies, where we become voyeurs into the lives of others. And just like the movies, Jefferies has discretion over which films he watches. He can peer at fragments of life across the courtyard (a meticulously constructed studio set – actual cities are never as ideally urban as those created onscreen) and he begins to construct narratives from those fragments, building stories around the lives of his neighbours. The way these remotely viewed domestic dramas develop is analogous to the various Hollywood genres.

There is comedy, romance, murder, tragedy, farce, musical, dance – all contained within the glimpses of life through a little window. Occasionally the voyeurism becomes unsettling, such as when he spies on the dancer opposite undressing. Some of these scenes recall the paintings of Edward Hopper, the views through illuminated windows into sad, often lonely lives, most notably his 1928 “Night Windows”, in which we partially see a woman bending over while the net curtain billows out in the breeze. It is that partial view, that quality of the glimpse in the gaze that runs through Hitchcock’s film.

‘Night Windows’ (1928) by Edward Hopper
‘Night Windows’ (1928) by Edward Hopper (Photograph: Scala)

Each of the windows opposite Jefferies’ apartment reveals a stage in marriage, with each of the scenarios representing a possible future for the photographer and the socialite.

In the end, Rear Window is a curious absolution of voyeurism – Jefferies spots what he thinks was a murder and is vindicated, despite some sticky moments. Of course, the film has to approve of the voyeur, because that voyeur is not only Hitchcock (who is seen at one point through one of the windows in one of his trademark appearances) – but us.

In William Wyler’s 1937 film Dead End, the setting is the space between an array of buildings around New York’s Midtown piers. This is another studio set but one that closely reflects reality – if not an actual place. The script (by Lillian Hellman) attempts to show the social mix of Manhattan, the way in which the scrappy courtyard and its fire escapes become the theatre of the everyday – in fact it was conceived by playwright Sidney Kingsley and star designer Norman Bel Geddes as a kind of contemporary Romeo & Juliet set-up (more than two decades before West Side Story used a similar idea).

Although this is largely a portrayal of working class New York, an upmarket apartment block also features. At the time, developers were gentrifying slum areas in good Midtown locations (there’s nothing new in gentrification, the under-construction Rockefeller Center appears in the establishing shot as a symbol of encroaching modernity) and part of the tension lies in the proximity of the city’s poorest and more wealthy inhabitants.

The set the designers created in the studio was very realistic, right down to the garbage collecting in the streets and the fake dock. Samuel Goldwyn famously ordered it to be cleaned up, adding: “There won’t be any dirty slums in a Goldwyn picture.”

The courtyard that forms the setting for most of the scenes is there to be shouted across, it is there for washing and playing, for cooling down on the fire escapes and as a shared public space. There is no escape, everyone is aware of everyone else, their lives intertwined if not through social contact then through sound, physical proximity, the smells of cooking and, more bleakly, through the potential for exploitation and explosive violence. This kind of view, mediated by windows, became an artistic trope. From Edward Hopper and the photos of Berenice Abbott right up to Gail Albert Halaban, whose book Out My Window extends Hitchcock’s idea to the contemporary city.

Picture from the book ‘Paris Views’ (2014) by Gail Albert Halaban
Picture from the book ‘Paris Views’ (2014) by Gail Albert Halaban (Photograph: Gail Albert Halaban)

If New York, with its dense grid of blocks, proves the ideal cinematic city for this kind of life glimpsed through the architecture, it was not the first. That was Paris. And in no film is it explored better than in Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle (1958). Here the film revolves around Tati’s Monsieur Hulot, who lives in a rundown Parisian apartment house – not the bourgeois city-centre Haussmann type but a jumble of ad hoc additions and extensions situated in the suburb of St Maur. Hulot lives at the top of the building and every time we see him come home we follow his progress from outside as he slowly ascends through the building.

We see him appear at windows, moving through washing hung up to dry on lines and on balconies as he makes his way up, finally emerging on to his terrace. The architecture is the choreographer of daily life. When he reaches his tiny apartment, at the top of the building, he adjusts his window to angle it so it reflects light on a caged bird on the other side of the building, which starts to sing as the sun hits its cage. The implication is that, while we watch life go on behind these windows, the gaze can be turned back on us – as entertainment.

Jacques Tati’s film ‘Les Vacances de Monsiuer Hulot'
Jacques Tati’s film ‘Les Vacances de Monsiuer Hulot' (1953) (Photograph: Collection Christophel)

The apartment block here, imperfect, ramshackle, a stack of accretions and adaptations is, however, shown to represent real urban life. It is the opposite of Hulot’s brother-in-law’s house, a standalone villa of laughable modernist pomposity, fenced off from the street by an electric gate. Tati’s house is the epitome of urban compromise, in which residents are compelled to accommodate each other, adapt to each other’s movements and which exemplifies the fabric of the accreted city. The building, like those in Rear Window and Dead End, was specially constructed, crafted to Tati’s physical dimensions and, in this act of craft, he emphasises the way in which these historical architectures embodied the human scale and that it was exactly that humanity that was lacking in the architecture of modernity.

The finest exposition of this filmic idea, though, comes – paradoxically – in a novel. Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual (1978). Perec’s notion was to metaphorically remove the front of a Parisian apartment block and describe the lives of the inhabitants and the contents of the apartments, room by room. The author imposes a seemingly impossible series of constraints on his narratives, from the way he moves from apartment to apartment (based on the knight’s tour, a chess puzzle in which the knight lands on every square on the board without landing on the same one twice) and the types of narrative, going through tragedy, comedy and parodies of literary styles. His descriptions of interiors, contents of drawers, stairs and hallways are obsessive, occasionally infuriating and often heartbreakingly beautiful in their detail. For Perec, as for Hitchcock and Tati, the apartment block is a repository of stories, a checkerboard of lives revealed through rooms.

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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