Rear Window's main motif is voyeurism; the title itself announces it.
Jeff is obsessed with watching his neighbors, and even though he discovers a murder in the process, he's basically invading their privacy by being a peeping Tom who's armed with binoculars and a high-end telephoto lens. The audience becomes his partners in crime. As film critic Roger Ebert puts it:
The experience is not so much like watching a movie, as like ... well, like spying on your neighbors. Hitchcock traps us right from the first. As his hero, Jimmy Stewart, idly picks up a camera with a telephoto lens and begins to scan the open windows on the other side of the courtyard, we look too. And because Hitchcock makes us accomplices in Stewart's voyeurism, we're along for the ride. When an enraged man comes bursting through the door to kill Stewart, we can't detach ourselves, because we looked too, and so we share the guilt and in a way we deserve what's coming to him. (Source)
Hitchcock wants us to take a long, hard look at how we interact with movies and where our pleasure at watching them really comes from. The lesson seems to be: choose carefully what you look at because you might get more involved than you bargained for. Ebert again:
We are all asked to join Stewart in his voyeurism, and we cheerfully agree. We lust after Miss Torso in one of the windows, and we sympathize with Miss Lonelyhearts in another. We're aloof and superior to their plights, of course—until the chilling gaze of the killer locks eyes with ours across the courtyard. (Source)
Watch the opening credits again. The shades in Jeff's apartment window slowly rise, just the way a curtain in a theater rises before the show starts. Hitchcock knew what he was doing, and he wanted to make sure we understood what shameless peeping Toms we all were—and continue to be over 60 years later.
Through Jeff's lens, we see images of all kinds of male-female relationships. From the distant views of the squabbling older couple and the sad exploits of Miss Lonelyhearts to the close-ups of Grace Kelly's amorous come-ons, the film explores an entire range of relationships through visual imagery. Jeff and Lisa's relationship is the only one that gets dialogue and exposition; everything we know about the others comes from what we see through Jeff's eyes. It's amazing when you think about how much we know about the newlyweds or Miss Torso or the unhappy Thorwald marriage just from our glances into their apartments.
One writer thought that Rear Window was really a story about relationships just cleverly disguised as a murder mystery: "All of the lives Jeff observes from his rear window have one common denominator; they all in some way reflect different aspects of love and relationships. They all have a bearing on Jeff's view of love and marriage." (Source) In this view, the murder was just a plot device for the development of the complicated relationship between Jeff and Lisa.
Hitchcock gives us his final ambiguous prediction about that relationship using visuals: Lisa lounges on Jeff's daybed, but this time, she wears jeans and loafers and reads a travel book. Looks promising, right? But wait, there's more. Once she sees he's asleep, she puts down the travel book and picks up a copy of a fashion magazine.
Hitchcock always gave himself a brief cameo in each of his films: a non-speaking role where he'd basically appear once and never be seen again. It's a little running joke between Hitchcock and his devoted audience, a kind of Where’s Waldo? game he plays in each movie. In Rear Window, he's the man winding a mantel clock in the songwriter's apartment; we see him as Jeff's gaze moves across the windows of the apartments across the courtyard. Hitch winds the clock and turns his face toward the camera.
These cameos were small auteurial flourishes, sneaky signature images that let you know that this is a Hitchcock film. Whenever we see him, we're reminded that there's a director behind the scenes who's creating the story we're watching; it takes us outside the reality of the story for a moment. (Source) What's different about the Rear Window cameo is that he doesn't just appear onscreen suddenly and randomly. We see him because Jeff and the audience have been prying. Yep—so he's part of the voyeuristic action.
In a playful bit of self-analysis, Hitchcock wrote in The New York Times that his motives for inserting himself into his films were "devious, or, if you prefer a more devious word, sinister. I have wormed my way into my own pictures as a spy. A director should see how the other half lives." (Source)
So in Rear Window, we're spying on the spy. It's all so meta.
Having gotten his start in silent films, Hitchcock developed a genius for telling stories visually. He liked to remind critics that "in other words, we don't have pages to fill, or pages from a typewriter to fill, we have a rectangular screen in a movie theater." (Source)
Think about the first few minutes of Rear Window: the camera pans around Jeff's apartment and looks out at his neighbors just like our eyes would, letting us know that he's a (1) award-winning photographer (2) who got into a racetrack accident and is recuperating (3) during a heat wave, which (4) is making the neighbors keep their windows open so we can see them going about their (5) pretty ordinary lives. All of that without a word of dialogue.
Rear Window is one of Hitchcock's most visual films. It's about watching. He keeps the camera at Jeff's eye level, so everything we see we see from his perspective; if he can't see something, neither can we. Hitchcock never leaves that camera view except to show us Jeff's reactions. We are totally identified with Jeff's POV, never leaving his apartment and feeling as trapped as he does. When Thorwald realizes he's being watched and suddenly looks up at Jeff—up at us—it's terrifying.
We've been found out.
Keeping the POV so limited was a pretty bold cinematic choice that could only have been successful in the hands of a director confident in his ability to use images to tell the story.
Diegetic sounds are sounds that occur "in-world": things like dialogue, gunfire, passing street noises, and anything else the characters themselves might hear. Non-diegetic sounds are things like the music of the soundtrack and voice-over narratives, which the characters presumably can't hear.
From the beginning, Hitchcock wanted to keep non-diegetic sounds to an absolute minimum in Rear Window. Franz Waxman's score gets a little opening flourish but then disappears until the closing credits. The rest of the time, we hear only those sounds that actually occur in the film's world. Even more, we only hear them the way Jeff hears them. Conversations in other apartments are heavily muted, for instance, while we hear cars and other noises the way Jeff would in his apartment. This technique keeps us tied to Jeff's point of view.
Just as we're only seeing what he sees, we're only hearing what he hears.
Hitchcock liked to play with Freudian symbolism. Even so, he'd probably be surprised at some of the interpretations of Jeff's full-leg cast. Just as it makes Jeff powerless to get around or do anything, it's seen by many critics as a symbol of sexual impotence. Stella has already made some wisecracks about Jeff's lack of sexual interest in the bathing beauties he's been watching from the window—they haven't raised his temperature a bit. She jokes that he must have a "hormone deficiency."
She's also wondering why he hasn't jumped at the chance to marry the beautiful Lisa. Maybe it's a fear of being tied down. Roger Ebert's take? "But perhaps his real reason for keeping her away is fear of impotence, symbolized by the leg cast." (Source) And how about this: "[…] Jeff's cast is a phallic symbol—long, stiff, and jutting from the body. Yet the cast also signifies that something is broken, weak; as Modleski writes, [it's] a physical impotence, but also a sexual one." (Source) Whether you buy it or not, it's true that Lisa is the one initiating all of the sexual activity in the film. Jeff seems totally uninterested in her.
In the last scene, Jeff has casts on both legs—"doubly castrated," according to Filmsite. Lisa lounges around wearing jeans and loafers—she's now wearing the pants in the family, so to speak, while Jeff sleeps like a baby.
If the cast represents Jeff's "broken" man parts, then the super-size telephoto lens is what he uses to compensate. It's the only way he can feel useful and powerful. Mere looking isn't enough—he lifts up this enormous camera lens to see even more closely. According to IMDb, the lens is a 400mm prime telephoto, whose magnification (we'll take their word for it) would make it almost impossible to use without a tripod. (Source) That's some pretty serious psychological over-compensation. Jeff's camera lens represents his work and his livelihood, everything that, back in the 1950s, made a man a man.
No wonder he needs that giant lens.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
The ordinary world is quite ordinary, indeed: a courtyard surrounded by apartment buildings where everyone goes about their daily routines like nothing is the matter. Jeff doesn't belong in this world: he's a man of action, after all. But he's stuck here where seemingly nothing is happening: just a few boring domestic scenes play out in the courtyard behind his apartment. He's left watching, and as the wise man said, the very act of watching changes whatever is being watched. Ordinary world, prepare to get a little bit of a Campbellian shake-up.
In this case, the call to adventure may be literal. Jeff wakes up in the middle of the night to hear a bloodcurdling shriek, then sees Thorwald slipping out of his apartment in the middle of the night. That sure sounds like trouble to us, and Jeff agrees. What the heck is that weird man across the way up to? Is there foul play afoot? Has one of those sordid little domestic dramas taken a turn for the murderous? Sounds like a call to adventure to us. And luckily, we have a man of action just itching to get mixed up in it.
The refusal of the call can make for good drama, but it's not always necessary. In this case, Jeff doesn't need any prodding to go looking for trouble. He's been sitting in his wheelchair going out of his mind for weeks. The minute any hint of excitement pops up, he drops everything to chase after it. Refusing the call never enters his thoughts—although as we learn, that doesn't keep him safe by a long shot.
There's no mentor here, although there's certainly a bunch of naysayers who try to take on that role. Stella, for starters, and certainly Det. Lt. Doyle. They're eager to give him advice like a mentor would, and sure, it sounds like good advice. Mind your business, don't make mountains out of molehills, things like that. That's reasonable, but it doesn't exactly fit the Campbellian mold. In fact, it sounds a lot like refusals of the call, something we're pretty certain Jeff just ain't gonna do.
Furthermore, Jeff isn't exactly a bright-eyed youngster out for his first rodeo. He's been around the block quite a few times, and he was actually off chasing adventure when he ended up in that chair. (Even James Bond would have second thoughts about running out onto a track mid-race.) James Stewart was in his mid-40s when he made this movie, and it's safe to assume that Jeff is the same age as the actor portraying him. Hence, no real need for a mentor. This guy knows enough to make his own decisions.
Technically, crossing the threshold takes place as soon as Jeff decides to keep track of Thorwald. He's invested at that point, and he's going to keep going until he's utterly convinced that nothing has happened or he sees Thorwald behind bars.
The interesting thing is that he's not consciously aware that he's crossed the threshold. Or, to put it more succinctly, he doesn't think he's in any danger. As long as he's "just watching," he can conduct his investigation with impunity, completely unaware of how quickly it can turn on him. He's on the road of adventure, but he tells himself that he isn't—which is exactly how an experienced adventure-seeker like himself could wind up dead.
For most of the film, Jeff's tests involve gathering evidence of Thorwald's guilt. Checking out the flowerbed where the dog was digging, luring Thorwald away from his apartment to do some snooping, and just watching his reaction to various pokes and prods—Jeff gets pretty good at doing all of that.
And, of course, he picks up some buddies to help him do his dirty work. They're reluctant at first but eventually participate with great enthusiasm. Lisa initially views his investigation as a rival for his affections, but she eventually jumps in with both feet to give him a hand. Stella is willing to help out, too, with some salty advice and even a few bits of legwork, as when she rushes out to get the name on the moving truck that Thorwald is using.
Less willing to help is Doyle, who thinks the whole thing is a wild goose chase and stands adamantly in the way of Jeff getting to the bottom of the murder. He's not exactly an enemy—the only real enemy here is Thorwald—but he's certainly an obstacle, and Jeff has to really lean on him to get him to help. The road to adventure is always this winding, and even though Jeff is stuck in his wheelchair, he's got to slalom through his share of pitfalls before he can reache the finish line.
Ironically, the approach to the inmost cave isn't conducted by Jeff. It's conducted by Lisa, who goes into Thorwald's apartment after Jeff lures him out in hopes of finding hard evidence. Jeff gets to watch—and ultimately gets to sit there helplessly when Thorwald comes back and tries to add another corpse to his growing collection.
The final ordeal is divided into two parts. The first is psychological: the torment Jeff has to go through while watching Lisa in mortal peril over in Thorwald's apartment. It's pretty horrible, maybe even more than the second part, since he can't do anything about it but squirm in his chair and hope that the police get there before Thorwald strangles his girlfriend.
The second half of the ordeal is a direct threat to life and limb, as Thorwald spots him and sets up a final, murderous confrontation. That's where Jeff needs to really think on his feet since he's stuck in a wheelchair and unable to move. He passes his final test by using the flash bulb on his camera to blind Thorwald in the darkened room long enough for the police to arrive. Even then, it's a close call, and while Jeff survives his final ordeal (both physically and psychologically), he's going to have a few new scars to show for it.
The main reward is justice done, as Thorwald gets caught and his crime gets exposed. The murderer is removed from the community, order is restored, and everyone can get back to their plain, old mundane existence without fear. For Jeff, the reward is also more personal: justification for all of his obsessing. As he lies on that pile of cops who broke his fall, Jeff gets to listen to Doyle tell him all about Thorwald's confession: proving that all of his suspicions were completely justified.
On a less tangible level, Jeff also gets to enjoy validation as a man of action. Even when he's stuck with a broken leg, he can find a story and ferret out the truth at great risk to life and limb. His quest has shown him that he's still the swashbuckling photojournalist he sees himself as, and it's going to take more than a plaster cast to hold him down.
Ironically, there's no real road back, at least not physically. Since the entire film has taken place in a single room, it's just a short walk up the stairs from where Jeff fell to get to where he started from.
Psychologically, of course, the road back is much more fulfilling. He's done what he set out to do. He has uncovered the murderer and set things right, though not without a little freelance voyeurism along the way. The bad news is that he has set back his recovery; he's now stuck with casts on both legs and an extended, enforced sick leave in his apartment.
But, he's okay with that—look at the smile on his face as he naps in the final shot.
Resurrection in this case takes place at the same time as the reward. Jeff has proven to himself that he's still got that Indiana Jones thing going for him, and that even when he's stuck in his apartment, he can find a little righteous trouble to get into. That gives him a real sense of psychological satisfaction, bringing him a happiness and fulfillment that he definitely didn't have when the movie started.
In addition to self-satisfaction, Jeff also gets a renewed relationship with Lisa, who has totally shown herself to be the type of girl who can hang with him. She's tough, smart, resourceful, and absolutely crazy about him. His "gee, I'm proud of you" at the end suggests that the elixir they've both won (and Lisa really does get to share credit for nailing Thorwald) is going to be shared in many adventures going forward.
Lisa even proves it by wearing more rugged clothes and reading a book on travel as the final credits roll—though as Hitchcock puckishly suggests, she's not entirely willing to give up her Manhattan lifestyle, either. Their bickering may not be entirely over, it seems to say, but with the elixir now in hand, it may be Jeff's turn to do a little changing since Lisa did plenty of it to help them earn the win.
We spend the whole of the movie in Jeff's small apartment somewhere in Greenwich Village, New York City. This isn't a mistake. Hitchcock really wants to put us in his protagonist's shoes, and the camera never leaves his apartment because Jeff can't, which limits the film to one room and the view out of his rear window.
Here's a cool article from the New York Post that takes us on a tour of the actual apartment and neighboring buildings that inspired the setting. Check out our "Production Design" section for more on how Hitchcock built an entire neighborhood on the Paramount soundstage.
The film is a traditional chronological narrative—no flashbacks or flash-forwards, no postmodern jumping around or playing with concepts of time and space.
Technically, we're bending the rules by calling it a first-person narrative. A real first-person story would use things like voice-over and constant POV shots to get us into the main character's head. Hitchcock doesn't quite do that—but, frankly speaking, he doesn't need to. We spend every second by Jeff's side, seeing what he's seeing and stuck in the apartment just like he is. Except for one brief scene at the very end of the movie, the camera never leaves his wheelchair.
That probably qualifies it for first-person status, despite the fact that it doesn't quite fit the strict definition. The only real difference is one of technique—Hitchcock does it all visually.
Mysteries and thrillers are genre cousins, but they're not the same thing. A thriller uses the specific circumstances of a story to generate excitement or suspense. A mystery is simply a question that needs answers, which the characters go hunting for so we don't have to. Mysteries can be thrillers and vice versa, but they don't have to be.
Rear Window is closer to the mystery side of the equation than the thriller side. Did Thorwald murder his wife? Jeff has suspicions, but he doesn't know for sure. That's a mystery in its purest form; just because he's pretty sure he knows who did it doesn't mean he's right.
The thrills appear toward the end of the film, when Thorwald catches on to Jeff's little games and starts plotting some payback. Suddenly, Jeff loses the upper hand since he can't run away. That makes it easy for Thorwald to find him, ratcheting up the suspense and sliding the mystery a lot farther up the thriller scale.
Rear Window flirts with the romance genre as well, in the person of the lovely Lisa. In between playing Jeff's Gal Friday and trying to get him into the sack, she and Jeff talk about the differences between them, the challenges to being together, and the fact that they really do make a great couple. (Jeff is irritatingly unwilling to commit, in Shmoop's humble opinion, but no matter.) Romance flourishes, despite a few bumps in the road, and those darker vibes get tempered by a few gratifying scenes of Jeff and Lisa getting serious smooch time. In fact, some critics think that it's really a romance film—the murder is just a backdrop. (Source)
Even in his most sinister films, Hitchcock injects some comedy, and Rear Window is no exception. Most of that comes in the dialogue, which has some pricelessly witty lines (much of them courtesy of Stella), but you can also see it in some of the trials and travails of Jeff's neighbors. Not all of them are killers; everyone else seems to lead perfectly normal lives that Hitchcock enjoys lampooning from time to time.
The best example takes place in the last scene, when we see what all of these people are up to a short while later. There are some great gags in there: the newlyweds start to bicker while the va-va-voom Miss Torso welcomes home her pint-size, nerdy-looking true love. Heck, it's loads funnier than your average Adam Sandler comedy, and considering the film centers around a guy murdering his wife, that's saying something.
The title is basically a descriptor: Jeff peeps on his neighbors through the rear window of his apartment, and the view through that window is the audience's, too—it's all we've got.
Rear Window also implies something secret—something out of the way, hidden in the back, where most people can't see it. That gives a hint of danger to the proceedings, a sense that maybe we're peering in on things we shouldn't.
The best thing about the ending isn't that Thorwald is in jail and our lovers are back together but the way Hitchcock wraps up all of the stories we've watched unfold through that window. Just as the camera panned across the courtyard at the beginning of the film introducing us to the neighbors and their dramas, it does the same at the end. We see Miss Torso's boyfriend finally coming home from the Army, only to be revealed as a skinny little geek. Miss Lonelyhearts befriends the songwriter whose music saved her life; the couple on the fire escape have a new dog to love; the passionate newlyweds have turned into an ordinary bickering couple; and the thermometer shows us that the heatwave has broken.
Lisa and Jeff seem to be doing just fine. Jeff, now in two casts, looks to be going nowhere for a while yet. Lisa seems to have given up on "taming" her beau and reads a travel book while lounging in jeans and loafers instead of expensive dresses.
But, as with the newlyweds, not everything seems to have wrapped up neatly. When Jeff falls asleep, Lisa puts down that How to Kill Your Dinner with a Penknife treatise in favor of a fashion magazine. And just as the shades on Jeff's window rise to introduce us to this film, the shades come down as the film ends. Jeff and Lisa's story is definitely to be continued, but we won't be seeing it. As Hitchcock ends the film with the blinds in Jeff's apartment being lowered, our own episode of voyeurism has come to a close.
The 1950s were the days of the Hays Code, which dictated everything a movie could show us. The code was mostly prohibitive of sexual themes and images; violence just had to be handled with "special care," i.e., not too graphic or gruesome. This kept Rear Window more or less out of trouble.
At the same time, however, we're talking about a murder here. And it's a messy one, with Jeff and his friends speculating about bodies dismembered in bathtubs and the splattery messes that ensue. We never see that gore, of course, but Hitchcock is happy to let us contemplate the gruesome details.
He also gives us a few pretty steamy scenes, where Lisa is doing everything she can to get Jeff's attention without violating the Hays Code. That, plus the generally adult theme of voyeurism, makes us think that a PG-13 rating is about right. But honestly, if it hadn't been for that strangled little dog, we might have said PG.