“We’ve become a race of peeping toms.” This terse line, spoken by the wisecracking masseuse (Thelma Ritter) in Alfred Hitchcock’s voyeuristic classic Rear Window, has taken on greater meaning since it was first uttered nearly 60 years ago. With the advent of social media and with the majority of people now equipped to snap photos or capture video at a moment’s notice, everyday events possess the potential for viral proliferation across the globe. But the darker side of this new technology lies in the inherent threat of privacy invasion.
In the midst of the Information Age, a modernization of the surveillance-oriented Rear Window seemed appropriate, even necessary. Though remakes of Hitchcock films rarely end well (just ask Gus Van Sant), Rear Window is one of Hitch’s consensus masterpieces that most shows its age. Hitchcock’s mastery of framing, fluid crane shots and the creeping pace that builds incredible tension still influences filmmakers today. But Rear Window also demonstrates how prone Hitchcock was to overlong opening sequences, expository dialogue and misogyny.
Rear Window opens with a gorgeous crane shot of the claustrophobically condensed neighborhood in which the entirety of the film transpires. The camera deliberately washes over the apartment windows of residents going about their respective business and finally rests on the sweat-speckled face of temporarily wheelchair-bound international photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart). Jeff may be laid up with a broken leg, but he seems most hobbled by his angel-faced socialite girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who spends most of her initial screen time nagging him to quit his globetrotting gig, settle down and marry her. As Hitchcock’s collective portrayal of women declares, manipulatively clipping men’s wings is nearly all that women can do when they’re not getting strangled, slashed to ribbons or pecked to death by birds. Homebound Jeff spends his time with binoculars in hand, peeping on his neighbors (few of whom own curtains). He lecherously peers at a scantily clad blonde he refers to as Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy), experiences schadenfreude as Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) pantomimes an unlikely dinner date and, most notably, speculates about what burly neighbor Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) has done to his suddenly absent “invalid” wife (who was, of course, also a nag).
Once Hitchcock’s obligatory half hour of setup runs its course, the tension of the film lies in Jeff and company’s intrusion into Thorwald’s activities from afar and, ultimately, from within his apartment as well. Hitchcock forces the viewer to also become a voyeur by framing each apartment window from Jeff’s point of view. We watch Jeff. We watch Thorwald. We watch Jeff watch Thorwald.
In Disturbia, director D.J. Caruso’s re-imagining of the Hitchcock classic hits the right notes early on. Opening with in a picturesque fly-fishing scene between father and son, the expanse of sky and mountains offers a contrast to the stifling house-arrest with which the son, Kale (Shia LaBeouf), will soon be burdened. There’s even a few shots reminiscent of Hitch’s impeccable framing. When Kale and his father fall victim to a horrific car crash, Kale pries himself from the wreckage and, as he frantically approaches his doomed father, the camera remains fixed inside the twisted metal. The gore of what lies within is visible only in the pained horror that contorts Kale’s face. Unfortunately, from there Caruso reverts to conventional thriller camera angles: partially obscured views, hands reaching from out of frame and far too many jump cuts.
Disturbia adopts a teen popcorn movie approach, one that still could have worked if executed less predictably. Kale’s house arrest (for decking a cruel Spanish teacher) forces him into the same voyeurism-for-diversion situation as Rear Window’s Jeff. He too becomes enthralled by an amorous rendezvous and other peculiarities about his suburban neighborhood. Kale begins spying on and eventually gets involved with Ashley (Sarah Roemer), the literal girl next door. She never quite transcends the role of a stock character, but at least she’s treated with some modicum of respect. Unlike Jeff, Kale never shouts “Shut up!” and no skeptical detective bemoans the years he’s wasted “tracking down leads based on female intuition.” Unlike Lisa, Disturbia’s Ashley doesn’t base her own suspicions on generalizations about women refusing to go anywhere but the hospital without “make-up, jewelry and perfume.” Like its source material, Disturbia soon focuses on a malevolent neighbor, in this case Mr. Turner (David Morse) whose conspicuous car and increasingly sinister behavior match the description of a serial killer on the loose.
One of the primary differences between the two films is the approach to music. Hitchcock — who was never averse to heightening tension with the strings-heavy fright of a Bernard Herrmann score — uses music sparingly in Rear Window. In fact, during the most suspenseful scenes (those in which Lisa is imperiled while snooping in Thorwald’s apartment) Hitchcock masterfully juxtaposes the terror with upbeat lounge music naturally drifting on the breeze from a nearby apartment. In contrast, Disturbia employs a crappy alternative rock soundtrack also stuffed with frenzied violins that heavy-handedly dictate when the viewer is supposed to feel fear. The remake also misguidedly makes the guilt of its villain clear early on, while Rear Window casts Jeff’s suspicions of Thorwald in a paranoiac’s light. Disturbia’s chances of effectively modernizing Rear Window are dashed by the third act when Caruso ridiculously pulls out every horror cliché in the book. As Kale finally finds hard proof of the villain’s guilt through surveillance video that mirrors the found footage subgenre, Mr. Turner stalks Kale and his friends with the fixated determination of Jason Voorhees, wielding a butcher knife like Norman Bates, chopping through doors like Jack Torrance and causing Kale to fall into a water-filled pit brimming with corpses in a scene straight out of Poltergeist.
Despite showing its age, Rear Window will undoubtedly be long revered as a masterpiece of suspense. Hitchcock, regardless of his personal failings, pulls the viewer into the action, making us accomplices to Jeff’s voyeurism. Disturbia manages some intrigue of its own but only through well-worn methods that fail to even pay homage to their source. Then again, in the YouTube age most videos are quickly forgotten.