Voyeurism, the practice of spying for the purpose of sexual gratification, has long been one of the most popular themes of the movies. It was of course one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite themes (and don’t you just love how Lady Gaga didn’t merely namecheck three random Hitchcock movies in “Bad Romance” but actually proved a little cinephile cred by citing the loose trilogy of voyeurism that is Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho, hmmmm?). It is worth pointing out though that voyeurism has always been a popular cinematic theme dating back to the earliest days of film. A case in point is George Albert Smith’s delightful As Seen Through a Telescope from 1900, a one minute short that I frequently show to classes before screening Rear Window to prove this very point.
As Seen Through a Telescope begins with a long shot of an old man standing on a public sidewalk looking at something through a telescope. A young couple comes walking down the road. They stop momentarily in order for the man to tie the woman’s shoelaces, which have come undone. The old man trains his telescope on this act and Smith cuts to a second shot from the point-of-view of the old man looking through the telescope: a close-up of the woman hiking up her floor-length skirt by several inches so that the old man (and we the viewers) get a good look at her shapely ankle. Smith then cuts back to the original long shot as the young couple walk past the old man and his telescope. Apparently aware of his spying, the young man conks the old man over the head, knocking him off of the stool where he has been perched.
Although it is over a hundred years old, the final moment of this simple, three-shot movie always gets a big laugh from my Intro to Film students, which I believe cuts to the heart of the appeal of voyeurism-themed films. Movies about voyeurism allow viewers to share the voyeur’s delight but in a way that is completely guilt-free. We laugh at the end of As Seen Through a Telescope because we know that the “dirty old man” got what was coming to him for looking at something he shouldn’t have. But this doesn’t change the fact that we got to assume his exact point-of-view and vicariously experience the same titillation that he did. It wasn’t really us who did the spying we tell ourselves, and thus we can applaud the film’s moralistic ending. When it comes to experiencing a movie, sight is the most important empirical sense. Therefore, movies about the act of looking automatically become complex, multi-layered experiences. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell knew this and accordingly manipulated viewers through an alternating use of subjective and objective shots. But they could have never done so had George Albert Smith not paved the way with a pioneering film like As Seen Through a Telescope.
As Seen Through a Telescope can be found on volume 2 of Kino’s Essential The Movies Begin DVD box set. It can also be viewed online here.