The idea that the windows across the way are metaphorically windows into Jeff’s soul, projections of his fears and desires—an idea touted by any number of critics—is entirely fanciful and without basis in the film. Thorwald’s disposing of his wife, on this view, parallels Jeff’s need to be rid of Lisa. Never mind that nowhere are we told Jeff wants to be rid of Lisa—just the opposite, in fact. His problem is with commitment, not the girl. So much for the usual film crit nonsense.
A better reading is available. Lesley Brill, in his wonderful The Hitchcock Romance (1988), makes this observation about an image early in the movie:
After surveying the awakening block of apartments, the camera returns to Jeffries [sic] and pans over his broken leg, smashed camera, and the picture that resulted from his dangerous trackside photography. It then stops for a moment on a negative close-up, framed in a light box, of a female model. From there it moves to the positive image of the same photograph on the cover of a fashion magazine.
Other than the misspelling of Jefferies’ name and the fashion magazine flub—it’s actually, I think, an ersatz cover of Life, spring fashion issue—Brill’s description is accurate. And the point he is making is worth noting: “These images, the picture and its negative, are at once identical and opposite to each other.”
Brill has his own agenda—something about irony and romance—which I’m ignoring here because I think what he has in fact done is given us the key to understanding the images from Planet Thorwald beaming in from across the courtyard. First, however, we must dispose of an inconvenient counter-reading.
Early, a correspondence is established between the Thorwalds’ world and Jeff’s. On the phone with Gunnison, Jeff describes a hypothetical domestic situation he imagines for himself; meanwhile we see the very situation being acted out between the Thorwalds. At that point the correspondence between Jeff and Thorwald is pretty close to one-to-one. But this correspondence is only temporary, a means of illustration that is dropped once it has served its purpose. In an essay “The Space of Rear Window,” John Belton points to a later event to explain how we know this.
. . . it is surely no coincidence that the Thorwalds’ apartment is directly opposite Jeff’s and at a level that is approximately the same as his own. Indeed, its frequent presence in the background of scenes that take place in Jeff’s apartment subtly colors our reading of those scenes. Most significantly, it provides a crucial point of reference at the conclusion of Jeff’s first argument with Lisa, when he refuses to leave the magazine and become a fashion photographer. As Lisa begins to set the table for dinner, Jeff looks at the Thorwald apartment which is also engaged in dinner activity. The mirroring that takes place here is rather complex. Thorwald, who in several respects reflects Jeff’s notion of marriage as entrapment and whose plight is compounded by the fact that his wife is an invalid, serves her dinner in bed. She openly rejects this husbandly gesture by tossing aside the flower which he had put on her tray. Meanwhile, Lisa, whom Jeff has just rebuffed, prepares and serves dinner to Jeff, who is also, like Mrs. Thorwald, an invalid. Though Jeff seems to identify himself with Thorwald as the hen-pecked husband in a bad marriage, Hitchcock complicates this identification by likening Jeff, as ungrateful, cranky invalid, to Mrs. Thorwald. The sequence clearly confounds any simple theory of projection that might reduce the relationship between the film’s foreground and background to that of one-for-one allegory.
Yes, any simple theory of projection is thus confounded. But Belton, apparently without realizing the full implications of his argument, has done a good job of providing us with a simple theory of inversion. The Thorwalds represent a looking-glass view of Jeff and Lisa, a negative image to Jeff and Lisa’s positive one. Notice Belton’s use of the word mirroring. Here’s our metaphor, folks. Mirrors reflect, and a reflection is a copy of an original image that has been reversed. Thus the roles in the two apartments of husband and wife, caretaker and invalid, are opposite. The nature of the respective relationships are similarly polarized: the Thorwalds are a tragic couple, Jeff and Lisa operate in the sphere of comedy.
[the Belton essay is available in Hitchcock’s Rereleased Films: From Rope to Vertigo, edited by Raubicheck and Srebnick. I have quoted from page 86 of the 1991 paperback edition. My citation from Brill was taken from page 73].