“That’s no ordinary look. That’s the kind of look a man gives when he is afraid somebody might be watching him,” says the prize-winning photographer LB Jefferies about one-third of the way into the movie, as he, like most of us, is watching a total stranger while sitting in the dark. What has become unsettlingly clear to him by this point, is that one of the neighbors he has become so accustomed to watching from his Manhattan apartment window, is in fact a murderer – and Jeff’s the only one in the apartment complex who’s even aware that the stranger’s wife has gone missing.
This moment is not just the essence of the movie – but also the point where its overall theme is the most obvious. It’s clear that the story about a talented photojournalist who was injured on the job and is now largely trapped in his apartment with a broken leg and little to do, is in fact an allegory of movie watching. Like your everyday moviegoer, he sits in a darkened room and watches as the drama unfolds around strangers – in this case, the strangers are his neighbors living out their lives, ones that he is largely unable to interfere with – regardless of how high the tensions get.
Each apartment window becomes its own movie screen – ones that Jeff needs a telephoto lens to see into clearly. A neighbor who lives on the ground level becomes known as Miss Lonelyhearts, despairs over a string of stormy and failed relationships and becomes an alcoholic, another known as Miss Torso seems to be regularly inviting Jeff’s attention and welcomes a string of suitors, while a neighbor in an apartment above Jeff’s is a struggling musician desperately working on a tune that plays as diegetic sound whenever Jeff’s girlfriend, Lisa comes to visit, something she swears has been written for them.
Each little story illustrates a possibility of what could happen to Jeff and Lisa in the near future – whether they tie the knot – something Jeff is reluctant to do right away – or if they end up breaking it off, a real possibility that seems to loom over both. What does seem to bring the couple closer together is working on the mystery of what has become of Lars Thorwald’s wife who vanished after Thorwald took several short trips in the middle of the night. Apart from Lisa, Jeff and Jeff’s nurse, Stella who have regular views into Thorwald’s apartment, everyone else is skeptical that Thorwald’s ailing wife met as gruesome a fate as murder.
Therefore, a perverse sort of morality seems to appear – in which the viewer finds themselves morbidly curious alongside the protagonist about the murder Thorwald committed – as that would, after all, make for a better story than his wife simply being away on vacation the whole time. It’s also hardly a coincidence that Thorwald, played by Raymond Burr, is modeled after studio exec David Selznick who Hitchcock famously clashed with. By the end of the film, each of these neighbors will have their arc come full circle – but only after the inevitable showdown between Jeff and Thorwald – after Jeff has finally become an active protagonist within his own story.