Study Guide

Rear Window Hero's Journey

Hero's Journey

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.)

Ordinary World

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.

Call to Adventure

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.

Refusal of the Call

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.

Meeting the Mentor

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.

Crossing the Threshold

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.

Tests, Allies, Enemies

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.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

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.

Ordeal

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.

Reward (Seizing the Sword)

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.

The Road Back

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

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.

Return With the Elixir

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.

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