Watching our backs
In Rear Window, Hitchcock wanted a protagonist with whom his audience could see itself reflected. L.B. Jefferies, or Jeff (Stewart), is a voyeur. As a photojournalist, he gets as close as he can to the action — car crashes, murder scenes — so that he can serve up the most lurid images to the masses. Sometimes he gets too close; his last escapade left him with a broken leg, and he is now languishing in his stifling Manhattan apartment in a wheelchair, immobilized and impotent.
Again, just like the movie’s audience. Unable to live his own life, Jeff watches the lives acted out in the rows of windows across the way, windows which, as many have noted, resemble movie or — in a nod to the upstart medium even then threatening Hollywood — TV screens.
At first, the most adolescent attractions draw Jeff’s attention, such as sunbathers on the roof or the scantily clad gymnastics of “Miss Torso.” Eventually, though, he settles on one window. It’s an odd choice; the apartment of a grumpy salesman, Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr). He’s henpecked by an ailing wife in a sour parody of ’50s matrimonial bliss.
That’s just the fate Jeff fears for himself: wrenched from his carefree prolonged adolescence and cast into responsible citizenship with a wife, family, and a lifetime indentured to bills and broken dreams. Already in his incapacitated state he’s at the mercy of Stella (Thelma Ritter), a gruffly sensible nurse, and more important, Lisa Carol Fremont (Kelly), his on-again off-again fiancée, both of whom drop by and coddle him in his convalescence. Lisa is a gleaming fashion plate whose vapid begowned image adorns the cover of Vogue, the gaudy enticement to a lifetime of conformity and enslavement to feminine narcissism. No wonder he wants to kill her! Or rather, no wonder Thorwald wants to kill his wife and in fact has done so — or so Jeff believes. Saner voices will tell him he’s just suffering from cabin fever. More analytic types might suggest that he’s projecting his own fears and fantasies onto someone else, constructing a web of rationalizations, explanations, and evidence to justify his delusion. In short: paranoia.
Which is pretty much in keeping with the general mindset of the time, in which those in charge encouraged citizens to turn their discontent with the boredom and soulless affluence of their lives into hatred of the Red Menace. Especially those agents posing as folks just like ourselves, people who might be living in the apartment on the other side of the courtyard.
But wait a minute, wasn’t Jeff right in his suspicions? Yes and no. Hitchcock knew he would alienate his audience irrevocably if Jeff’s suspicions didn’t pan out. But just because paranoids have enemies doesn’t mean they’re any less paranoid. The film’s female voices of reason still ring true. Says Stella: “We’ve become a race of peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look inside for a change.”
Through a glass darkly
Fifty years later, Stella’s wish is even further from being realized. In Disturbia, the adolescent-acting Jefferies is now the literally adolescent Kale (Shia LaBeouf), a representative of the prized 12-to-24-year-old demographic the film has so successfully tapped ($52 million and growing). He lives in the suburbs now, not far from a multiplex in the local mall — the type of theater that exists throughout the country to screen films such as this one.