Jeff is a photographer for a magazine, the kind that people used to depend on for the news back when dinosaurs ruled the earth. He gets dropped into hot spots all over the world to snap the images and share them with everyone, which means he's an adventurer like Indiana Jones but with a better camera.
Laid up with a broken leg, he's climbing the walls, restless and bored. His cast comes off in a week, but he's worried about another kind of confinement, too—his beautiful, devoted, intelligent girlfriend wants him to marry and settle down.
Out of the question.
We know what kind of guy Jeff is by the first scene, when his editor talks about "Indochina … about to go up in smoke" and Jeff all but leaps out of his wheelchair to get there. (Fun fact: this was actually a big international hot spot when Rear Window came out. Indochina is better known as Vietnam these days, and they forced the colonial French to surrender a few months before Rear Window opened.) In fact, the whole reason he ended up in the wheelchair was strolling out onto a racetrack to shoot pictures of the cars in motion. Now he's bored to death:
JEFF: You've got to get me out of here. Six weeks sitting in a two-room apartment with nothing to do but look out the window at the neighbors ... If you don't pull me out of this swamp of boredom, I'm gonna do something drastic ... like what? I'm gonna get married and then I'll never be able to go anywhere.
He's got a serious tendency to be nosy about the neighbors, which you'd expect from a guy working as a photojournalist. Journalists want to know; they want to get to the bottom of a story. When prominent threads present themselves, they just can't help but unravel them back to the source. We can see that Jeff has got a pretty thick streak of that running through his DNA, which only compounds his boredom and makes him all the more eager to find a story wherever he can.
We see this in his relationship with Lisa, too. The girl loves him—and when that girl happens to look like Grace Kelly and act like Nancy Drew, you hold onto her. But Jeff is terrified. He can't settle down, and he doesn't like the idea that getting involved with her could cost him his adventurous lifestyle.
EDITOR: It's about time you got married, before you turn into a lonesome, bitter old man.
JEFF: Yeah, can't you just see me, rushin' home to a hot apartment to listen to the automatic laundry and the electric dishwasher and the garbage disposal... the nagging wife.
He makes excuses and pushes Lisa away, even when she proves willing to jump into his murder investigation adventure.
Jeff's boredom forms one of the main drivers of the plot since he soon starts looking out his window at the neighbors, just as a way of killing time. That gets complicated real fast when he thinks he's seen a murder, but his curiosity won't let it go, even when most of us would have shrugged off the clues as coincidence. He doesn't realize how badly it might end up hurting him, as we see when his impromptu murder investigation goes into high gear.
As a photojournalist, Jeff watches. That's what he does for a living. But, he's a detached watcher in his day job, just getting the shots and telling the story. He assumes that will be the case when he's restlessly staring out his rear window, trying to deal with his boredom by spying on his neighbors. He follows their daily routines, gives them nicknames, and makes all kinds of assumptions about them.
That's just weird.
But, is it? Can we give him a pass because that's what he does in his profession? Is that how we'd pass the time if we were temporarily confined to a wheelchair and jumping out of our skin? As a photographer, he's a natural voyeur—trying to observe what other people are doing without being observed himself—and as we can gather, he's pretty good at it. He's used to watching without suffering the consequences. It might even be his thing, the reason he got into photography to begin with.
These issues make Jeff a great audience surrogate: a guy asking all of the questions we might be asking and doing what we might or might not do in his shoes. Like him, we're stuck in our chairs, watching the drama unfold in front of us without particularly worrying about the consequences. Like him, we're taken by surprise when we see something dark and disturbing that we weren't expecting. (Well, maybe we were expecting it because it's Hitchcock.)
Nothing's worse for Jeff than losing his freedom. And nothing makes him afraid of losing his freedom like Lisa. Stunning, witty, smart, and successful, she wants to share his life and marry him. She tries everything: seduction, cooking for him (well, ordering in from 21, even better), and making sure he's entertained while he recovers from his accident. But, no luck. He won't commit.
He's worse than noncommittal—he's downright nasty to her. He stereotypes her and her work as superficial and trivial, he doesn't even react when she's trying to get a make-out session going, and he insults her ability to understand how difficult and important his work is.
JEFF: Lisa, simmer down, will you?
LISA: You can't fit in here, I can't fit in there. According to you, people should be born, live, and die on the same—
JEFF: Lisa! Shut up!
[…] Those high heels would be a lot of use in the jungle, and those nylons and 6-ounce lingerie. […] Well, they'd be very stylish in Finland, just before you froze to death. Begin to get the idea?
LISA: If there's one thing I know, it's how to wear the proper clothes.
When she looks for a little appreciation after she checks out Thorwald's apartment, he's a world-class jerk; he makes a comment about how it would have made a great cover for a fashion magazine.
So, what's behind all of this? We get that he doesn't want to have to give up his risky globe-trotting job, but he doesn't give Lisa a chance to prove that maybe she could be happy traveling and sleeping in tents rather than hotels. We also know that all of the relationships he's been staring at for the past few weeks haven't given him a rosy view of marriage. Here's our amateur psychologist guess: for all of his dangerous work and risk-taking, she intimidates him.
Lisa makes way more money than he does, for one thing. She's an editor; he's the journalist who answers to his editor. At one point, she makes the mistake of suggesting that if he wanted to stick around New York so they could be together, she could get him a gig at her magazine. Working for your girlfriend? Not OK. Jeff tells her she's not made for his kind of life, but we suspect he's not too sure he could make it in hers.
JEFF: Can you imagine her tramping around the world with a camera bum who never has more than a week's salary in the bank? If she was only ordinary.
Lisa is a powerful woman in her professional world, and he seems to have the need to constantly devalue what she does. Lisa is lovely and very feminine, and Jeff defines this as weak and delicate. But, what we see of her is that she's assertive, relentless, and tough.
Lisa is also much more sexually aggressive than Jeff is. The film doesn't really explore this dynamic, but head over to our "Symbols and Tropes" section for some musings about that from folks in the know.
When Jeff sees Lisa in mortal danger over at Thorwald's place (danger he's gotten her into, btw), he realizes how much he loves her. By climbing up the fire escape and sneaking into Chez Thorwald, she's shown Jeff that he's met his match.
A high-fashion model with the spirit of Nancy Drew—now, that's someone you want on your side when things get dicey. Played by Grace Kelly, one of Hitchcock's favorites, Lisa Carol Fremont could probably have any guy she wants (even a prince), but she wants Jeff. He keeps her at a distance because he doesn't see a future for them. Their lifestyles are just too different.
Lisa tries to distract Jeff from the amateur murder investigation that's taking up all of his time and attention, but she gradually gets drawn in. Her participation turns out to be the way she shows Jeff that she's every bit as adventurous as he is.
Lisa and Jeff are from two different worlds. She's a model and the glamorous editor of a fashion magazine, paid obscene amounts of money to wear the latest dresses from Paris and presumably accustomed to the perks that come with that. That's one of the reasons why Jeff resists getting too close to her. He likes his rough-and-tumble lifestyle and doesn't think she's quite cut out for it. How could she live in a freezing-cold tent, eat fish heads, wear filthy clothes, and get shot at?
Lisa disagrees. "There can't be that much difference between people and the way they live!" she chides him. She just wants to be with him and take care of him. She puts it right out there:
LISA: I, I'm in love with you. I don't care what you do for a living. I'd like to be part of it somehow. It's deflating to find out the only way I can be part of it is to take out a subscription to your magazine. I guess I'm not the girl I thought I was.
Lisa doesn't have any luck convincing Jeff she could travel with him and put up with the cold and bad food and dangerous terrain. She realizes the only thing she can do is show him; that's what motivates her to get involved with his amateur investigation. Plus, this sleuthing is taking up all of Jeff's attention; she can't get him to notice her at all. In one scene, she's kissing and caressing him while he completely ignores her:
LISA: Pay attention to me.
JEFF: Well, I'm, I'm not exactly on the other side of the room.
LISA: Your mind is... and when I want a man, I want all of him.
Hard to get is definitely not in Lisa's playbook.
It was a man's world in 1954, and many of the female characters in the film are victims of stereotype: there's Thorwald's nagging wife, the newlywed wife who becomes demanding, the flirty Miss Torso, and the lonely spinster.
Lisa gets the same treatment from the men in her life. Despite being obviously very smart and capable, she's just not taken seriously. She makes some pretty perceptive observations about Thorwald after seeing him with his wife's jewelry. She knows that a woman (of her era) wouldn't leave her favorite jewelry and handbag at home if she was going on a long trip, so she finds it very suspicious that Mrs. T's jewelry and makeup are still in her apartment. Everyone's grateful for her observations, right?
DOYLE: Look, Miss Fremont. That feminine intuition sells magazines, but in real life, it's still a fairy tale.
Ouch. But it's worse coming from Jeff. Later, after she's risked her life casing the outside of Thorwald's building, she looks for his approval:
LISA: Jeff, how did I do?
JEFF: Real professional. Would have made a great layout for the Bazaar. The model pressed against a brick wall, eyes wild, tense. Low-cut bodice, in new suspicious black, with a—
Lisa is totally deflated, and Stella shoots Jeff a look that could kill an elephant. This isn't the only time Jeff treats her so badly. He tells her to shut up, implies that she knows nothing about his lifestyle, insults her intelligence, and ridicules her job. Why does she even stick around after treatment like that? We think this is another one of those 1950s realities. A woman, even an executive, is desperate to be married. Is Hitchcock promoting the idea that women are driven by their emotional needs and don't know enough to look elsewhere even after some pretty shoddy treatment by their supposed boyfriends? Is getting the guy the most important thing, even if it means sacrificing some self-respect?
Hitchcock liked Grace Kelly too much to make her just eye candy. Lisa keeps her head, plays it smart, and even gets a key piece of evidence to put Thorwald away. That's pretty impressive for a runway gal, and a sign that maybe she can handle Jeff's rough-and-tumble lifestyle better than he thinks she can. In that sense, she grows and changes the most during the film: going after her goal of getting closer to Jeff while acting as a nifty Gal Friday and keeping the bad guy from getting the upper hand.
That's not bad for a female character in the notoriously sexist 1950s. Though, ever the mischief maker, Hitchcock closes the film by implying she might not be totally ready to give up her high-end lifestyle when she puts down the travel book and picks up a copy of Harper's Bazaar. Maybe she figured out how to have it both ways.
Lars Thorwald is a traveling salesman in an unhappy marriage who kills his wife in order to run off with another woman. He would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren't for those nosy kids—a wheelchair-bound photographer and his buddies.
For a guy who's at the center of the film's plot, Thorwald doesn't get a lot of screen time. Until the very end, everything comes from Jeff's observations. We see his activities from a distance: leaving the house with weird packages and scrubbing down his apartment after his wife "leaves," along with other suspicious behavior that get Jeff all up in his business. The "other woman" angle comes from secondhand information courtesy of Doyle and a bit of assumption from Jeff and Lisa.
That's it for almost the entire film. We never hear his voice, we never see his activities, and we can't even be sure he killed his wife. We see only what Jeff sees of him, a smart cinematic technique that draws us in to the drama. As a character, Thorwald has to remain very much a man of mystery because of that.
Only after Thorwald realizes he's being watched does he make an up-close appearance. (And seriously, how freaky a moment is that? Watch it with an audience, and they're apt to shriek like banshees when it happens.) He soon shows up in Jeff's apartment, and there at last we start to see what kind of person he really is. He seems more upset about being watched than about carving up his wife.
In fact, he's a little pathetic. As he talks to Jeff in the darkened apartment, admittedly right before trying to kill him, he comes across as a trapped animal:
THORWALD: What is it you want? A lot of money? I don't have any money.
The scene suggests that he's something more than just a horrible monster (though to be clear, he is that, too). He commits murder because he wants to be free of his miserable life, and now that he's been caught, he's not ready to face the consequences. This isn't murder on a grand scale; he's just a poor schlub trapped in an unhappy life that he thinks he can get out of simply by getting rid of the wife.Is a little happiness too much to ask?
There's something sad and a little depressing to that. It's also staggeringly ordinary, a miserably normal life taking a bloody turn. Hitchcock always had a little sympathy for his villains.
Oops, sorry, wrong movie.
Stella is a nurse working for the insurance company handling Jeff's case. She shows up to check his vitals, give him a massage, and give him blunt, unsolicited advice about his love life. She's the main source of comic relief in this suspenseful film.
Stella definitely disapproves of Jeff's new hobby:
STELLA: We've become a race of peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change. Yes, sir. How's that for a bit of homespun philosophy?
Stella prides herself on having a nose for trouble, and she sure smells it now:
STELLA: I can smell trouble right here in this apartment. First, you smash your leg. Then, you get to looking out the window. See things you shouldn't see. Trouble.
Played by veteran actress Thelma Ritter, whose voice, as Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, "could clean an oven," Stella stands as (Canby again) "the wisecracking representative of the happy but caustic proletariat."
In addition to disapproving of Jeff's peeping, Stella thinks he's crazy for not marrying Lisa. Stella is the one character who presents some common-sense ideas about marriage: it's hard, and you can't sit around waiting for the perfect person.
STELLA: You kidding? She's a beautiful, young girl, and you're a reasonably healthy young man.
JEFF: She expects me to marry her.
STELLA: That's normal.
JEFF: I don't want to.
STELLA: That's abnormal.
JEFF: I'm just not ready for marriage.
STELLA: Every man's ready for marriage when the right girl comes along. Lisa Fremont is the right girl for any man with half a brain who can get one eye open.
Stella has been married a long time herself, and she knows it ain't easy. She tries to talk sense into Jeff:
STELLA: Look, Mr. Jefferies, I'm not an educated woman. But, I can tell you one thing: when a man and a woman see each other and like each other, they ought to come together, wham, like a couple of taxis on Broadway and not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle.
She shares her own experience:
STELLA: When I married Miles, we were both maladjusted misfits. We still are. And we've loved every minute of it.
JEFF: That's fine, Stella, now will you make me a sandwich?
STELLA: Okay, but I'm going to spread some common sense on the bread. Lisa Fremont's loaded to her fingertips with love for you. I'll give you two words of advice: marry her.
Except for Stella and Miles, all of the other marriages we see in the film are in trouble, or at least filled with bickering. We're glad someone figured out how to make it work. Maybe Jeff will see the light.
Stella eventually gets drawn in to the drama as she starts to think that Jeff's suspicions might not be unfounded. She calls the police when it looks like Miss Lonelyhearts is about to commit suicide, and she helps Jeff get whatever info they can about Thorwald. Once she's in, she's in:
STELLA: (watching Thorwald washing down his bathroom) Must have splattered a lot. (Jeff and Lisa look at her.) Well, why not? That's what we're all thinking. He killed her in there, and he has to wipe up the stains before he leaves.
LISA: Stella, your choice of words …
STELLA: Nobody's invented polite words yet for killing.
Stella's plainspokenness gets to the heart of the matter and helps clarify for the audience exactly what's going on.
If Stella and Lisa are Jeff's accomplices, then Det. Lt. Doyle is an obstacle, a skeptic who questions Jeff at every opportunity and tries to convince him that he hasn't seen what he's seeing. "I think you saw something that has a very simple explanation," he says, and he doesn't really give up that idea until the murderer is literally dangling Jeff out the window.
At least he seems competent enough: he and Jeff are good friends, and he's clearly a man of integrity, if not always of intelligence. He has a family at home, and he definitely wants to do the right thing. He just doesn't believe that Jeff has stumbled upon a murder, and while he answers a few questions and provides a few signposts, it's clear that he doesn't approve of Jeff's snooping ways. It's a waste of resources in his professional cop's mind, and he's not going to do that just to indulge an excitable friend.
Doyle's attitude comes from practical storytelling necessity. If Doyle believed Jeff, he'd assign some detectives to catch Thorwald, and then we'd have no movie. He keeps emphasizing to us that the police aren't getting involved in these little reindeer games, and if Jeff wants to solve the murder, he's going to have to do it himself.
But beneath that, Doyle has something subtler to say, something very near and dear to Hitchcock's heart: don't trust The Man. According to Hitch, his father brought him to the local police station as a boy and asked the cops to lock him up in jail as a punishment for something he did wrong. (Source) Whether that's true or not, Hitchcock definitely didn't like policemen, and his films sometimes show them in this negative light. (North by Northwest, for example, has the hero being unfairly pursued by the authorities for the whole film, while Psycho features a very scary cop following Janet Leigh for a while.)
At least Doyle comes through to wrap everything up at the end, the time-honored purpose of cops in movies like these. He's big enough to admit that he was wrong, preserving his friendship with Jeff and making sure Thorwald gets taken off to prison. Beyond that, he exists simply to challenge Jeff's assumptions and ensure that the mystery isn't solved too easily, making him a sympathetic pain in the butt but a pain in the butt nonetheless.
We could describe each and every one of Jeff's neighbors individually, but in fact, they don't have much character to speak of. Most of them can be summed up in a single sentence, and since we don't see or hear them except from the distant vantage point of Jeff's apartment, we don't get many details. From left to right on your movie screen, here they are:
That's basically all we've got, and while these folks develop some rudimentary character arcs (Miss Torso's geeky boyfriend comes home from the Army, the songwriter finishes his song and strikes up a friendship with Miss Lonelyhearts, etc.), they're almost completely uninvolved in the plot.
The neighbors exist in part to mask Thorwald's behavior, making it harder to determine whether he's committing murder or not. Jeff watches all of them, after all—reveling in their little dramas, spying on their private movements, and generally intruding upon their privacy. Thorwald and his wife seem no different. Only over time does Thorwald separate from the pack and become the sole focus of Jeff's extracurricular activity. The neighbors emphasize how dark events can take place in the midst of ordinary life—a favorite theme of Hitchcock's. As they go about their little stories, something horrible is happening right under their noses.
Their other job is to quietly point out that Jeff may not be doing a good thing by peeping on these people. He is violating their privacy, and none of them are doing anything actively awful. Jeff can intervene for their benefit, as he does when Miss Lonelyhearts swallows a bottle of pills, but otherwise, he treats them as ways of alleviating his boredom—less as people than as objects for his amusement. It's a small lesson, but an important one.
Because we're watching their little dramas, too, we become as complicit as Jeff in the way he treats them.