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.
Action Man out of Action
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.