The setting of Rear Window is an apartment complex that surrounds a courtyard, located in Greenwich Village, and taking place in the year this movie was made, which was 1954. As the movie opens, we are given a look at the part of the apartment complex that can be seen through the window of one of those units, which turns out to be occupied by L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart). He is still asleep, with his face and neck wet with perspiration. His thermometer says it is ninety-four degrees. At the time this movie was made, air conditioners were not as prevalent as they are now, so it is no surprise that these apartments lack that amenity. It is for this reason that Jeff’s window is open with the shades up. More importantly, it also explains why the windows of the apartments across the way are also open with the shades or blinds up.
As the camera surveys the room, we can see that Jeff is a photographer, one who travels to places where there is danger in order to get thrilling pictures for the magazine that employs him, many of which are framed. One of those is a picture of an accident involving racecars, which he supposedly took while standing in the middle of the racetrack. Of course, a photographer standing the middle of a racetrack might be just the sort of thing that would cause an accident like that. Anyway, it was in getting that picture that his left leg was broken. It has been in a cast for six weeks.
One thing we do not see as we get to look around his room is a television. By 1954, televisions were becoming quite common, but I guess he just hasn’t gotten around to buying one. As a result, he has been forced to keep himself amused by watching the goings-on of those in the other apartments.
This movie is based on a story by Cornell Woolrich, “It Had to be Murder.” As this was published in 1942, it would certainly be no surprise if Jeff, who is the narrator in that story, had no television. And yet, he says that watching what is going on in other houses or apartments is like watching television, so maybe he had one in the original story.
In any event, it is an apt simile. I have heard of men who own several televisions so that they can watch four football games at once, but in Jeff’s case, it is more like having several televisions that allow him to watch a bunch of soap operas all at once. These “soap operas” show the various stages of love and marriage, which are especially relevant to Jeff as he struggles against the threat of marriage in his own life:
Miss Torso: Directly across the way, in what appears to be a house adjacent to the apartments, there is a beautiful woman whom Jeff calls Miss Torso. She is a ballet dancer, who exercises and stretches in front of her open window while music plays on her radio. She has several sexually aggressive suitors, one of whom she has to struggle to get rid of at the end of a date one night.
The Songwriter: At right angles to Jeff’s apartment is a man who writes melodies. He is working on his latest composition but is having trouble because of the radio Miss Torso is playing while she dances around in her apartment. However, even when her radio is off, he has trouble of some sort, coming home drunk one night, knocking the sheets of music off his piano in disgust. Jeff speculates that he probably lives alone because he had an unhappy marriage.
Miss Hearing Aid: Right below Miss Torso is a woman that an online script refers to as Miss Hearing Aid, even though Jeff does not so refer to her himself. The script says she is in her late sixties. The word “Miss” tells us she is what would then have been referred to as an old maid. She too is bothered by Miss Torso’s radio, but she has the advantage of being able to turn off her hearing aid.
The Newlyweds: Off to the left is a recently married couple who are just moving in. When we first see them, Miss Torso’s radio is playing “That’s Amore.” The wife is oversexed, continually putting demands on her husband to come back to bed for another round of lovemaking. It would be another couple of years before the magazine Confidential would report that Frank Sinatra’s secret for having sex with so many starlets was eating Wheaties, so this husband is having to struggle to perform without the benefit of that information.
The Married Couple on the Fire Escape: Next there is a married couple of many years, the kind that will continue to be married for many years to come. They live on the third floor. Because it is so hot, they pull a mattress onto the fire escape so they can sleep out there, in hopes of getting a cool breeze. They appear old enough to have had children that are now adults and have families of their own, but they have no young children living with them at this time. In fact, there are no children in any of these “soap operas.” Perhaps as a child substitute, they have a small dog for a pet, which they lower in a basket down two floors so he can do his business and then get back in the basket.
Miss Lonelyhearts: Moving on to another stage of love and marriage is a woman Jeff calls Miss Lonelyhearts. When first we see her, the radio is playing “To See You (Is to Love You),” which is sung by a lonely man who only dreams of having a woman to love. She is played by Judith Evelyn, an actress who would have been about fifty-five years old at the time this movie was made. She acts out a fantasy of entertaining a man for dinner before putting her head in her arms and crying. She is later driven to even more desperate measures to end her loneliness. Even though Jeff uses the word “Miss” as part of his name for her, we gather that she used to be married, but is now either a widow or a divorcee. Had she been single all these years, she would have been able to adjust to her situation gradually as those years went by. But when a woman has been married for thirty years and is suddenly divorced, let us say, she awakens like Rip Van Winkle to an unfamiliar world, ill prepared to cope with being alone again.
The Salesman and His Sick Wife: And now we reach the final stage of love and marriage, where a man gets so tired of his nagging wife that he murders her so he can run off with another woman.
And so, we see that marriage has its benefits and its costs. Marriage was certainly a benefit to Jeff’s editor, Gunnison, although the marriage in question was not his own, but that of his boss. When Jeff asks him how he got to be such a big editor, he replies, “Thrift, industry, and hard work…, and catching the publisher with his secretary.”
The reason Gunnison has called Jeff is that he thought the cast was coming off that day, and he wanted to send his best photographer off to Kashmir where a revolution is about to break out. Jeff wants to go anyway, but Gunnison refuses, now that he knows the cast will be on for another week. Jeff says if Gunnison doesn’t pull him out of this “swamp of boredom,” with nothing to do but look at the neighbors, he’ll do something drastic like get married. “Then I’ll never be able to go anywhere,” he says.
“It’s about time you got married,” Gunnison replies, “before you turn into a lonesome and bitter old man.”
“Yeah,” Jeff says, “can’t you just see me? Rushing home to a hot apartment to listen to the automatic laundry, and the electric dishwasher, and the garbage disposal, and the nagging wife.” Gunnison says wives don’t nag any more, they discuss. Jeff says that in his neighborhood, they still nag. As he says this, he is watching the costume-jewelry salesman arriving home. As we later find out, his name is Lars Thorwald, and he is played by Raymond Burr. His wife is an invalid. He goes into the bedroom, and she starts arguing with him about something, but we can’t quite hear what.
The principal spokesman for the blessings of matrimony is Jeff’s insurance nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), who comes by daily to fix him something to eat, give him a massage, and make sure he is in good health. She probably also gives him a sponge bath, but of course we don’t see that. As she comes in through the door of Jeff’s apartment, she sees him watching his neighbors and snidely remarks that the New York State sentence for being a Peeping Tom is six months in the workhouse. But she doesn’t know the half of it. Before she came in, while Jeff was talking to Gunnison, we saw two young women in their pajamas walk out onto the roof. There is a little wall surrounding the roof, about two feet high, so Jeff cannot quite see them when they lie down. What he can see is the pajamas they drape over that wall after having removed them, allowing them to sunbathe in the nude. However, the helicopter pilot who hovers over them gets a full, unobstructed view.
At least, we assume they are completely naked, allowing us to be Peeping Toms too, if only in our imagination. But Stella sanitizes our imagination when she refers to the women as the Bikini Bombshells. Women don’t wear bikinis under their pajamas, so this was probably to satisfy the requirements of the Production Code, which not only had restrictions on what could be seen on film, but also what was implied.
Stella and Jeff get to talking about his girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), who wants Jeff to marry her. But Jeff doesn’t want to get married. Stella asks if they had a fight. Then she asks if her father is loading up the shotgun, implying that she might be pregnant, which would mean that she and Jeff have been having sex. Jeff is shocked that she would even suggest such a thing. Of course, in those days, a gentleman would be expected to act shocked at such a suggestion in order to protect the lady’s honor. But his reaction seems sincere.
The point, then, is that back in the day when premarital sex was not the commonplace it is now, a man with a girlfriend that looked like Grace Kelly would need all his willpower to remain single. The problem for Jeff is that Lisa is too high class, a fashion model who loves wearing beautiful clothes, eating at expensive restaurants, and gossiping about the latest scandal. Jeff says he can’t imagine her “tramping around the world with a camera bum who never has more than a week’s salary in the bank.”
Now, wait a minute! Jeff, who is supposedly Gunnison’s best photographer, is a bachelor, living in a small apartment in Greenwich Village without air conditioning, and yet he’s living paycheck to paycheck? What’s he spending it on? This can’t be it!
Anyway, Jeff tries to argue that marriage can be approached intelligently and rationally, while Stella brushes that aside as nonsense, saying people ought to get married simply because they’re in love. On another day, when Jeff refers to Miss Torso as the “eat, drink, and be merry” type, Stella says, “You keep your mind off her,” because she’ll probably end up “fat, alcoholic, and miserable.” In other words, even if Jeff were to fall in love with Miss Torso, it would not be intelligent and rational for him to marry someone like her. Stella’s inconsistency in this matter would seem to be driven by whatever conclusion she wants to reach.
A further inconsistency in Stella’s reasoning is that Lisa is also the “eat, drink, and be merry” type, the only difference being that Miss Torso is working class, whereas Lisa is high society, eating fancy food, drinking fine wines, and having Park Avenue fun doing it. Consequently, if Jeff were to marry Lisa, she might also become fat, alcoholic, and miserable.
When the conversation turns to Miss Lonelyhearts, Stella says that maybe one day she’ll find her happiness. “Yeah,” Jeff replies, “and some man will lose his.” This remark, along with others we have heard him make, tells us that Jeff’s aversion to marriage is not specific to Lisa, but rather represents his attitude toward marriage in general. When he says marriage can be approached “intelligently and rationally,” he means that the intelligent and rational thing to do is not get married at all.
That evening, when Lisa arrives at Jeff’s apartment, she talks about her day, and we see that her lifestyle is even more extravagant than Jeff was able to describe to Stella. She wants him to give up his job at the magazine and become a fashion photographer. He is revolted by the idea. Saddened by his rejection, Lisa starts getting out the dinner she ordered from the 21 Club. It is while she does so that Jeff watches Miss Lonelyhearts acting out her dinner with her imaginary lover.
Then he notices the apartment of the salesman. The man brings his wife dinner, and all she has to say is, “I hope they’re cooked this time.” He gives her a flower from his garden downstairs. He fixes her pillow and kisses her on the head. She flings the flower away from her with disgust. He really cares about his flower garden, and we can see, when he picks up the flower she has discarded, that she has hurt his feelings.
That made me feel a little sorry for him when I watched this movie again recently. The first time I saw this movie, it was just a murder mystery, one in which Jeff slowly figures out that Thorwald murdered his wife, chopped up her body in the bathtub, and then used his suitcase to take her various body parts to the East River and dump them there. Then he got the woman he was having an affair with to pretend to be his wife, Anna Thorwald, so she could supposedly be seen leaving his apartment, as if going on a trip of some sort. This other woman then went to Merritsville, where she pretended to be Anna Thorwald and claimed the trunk with Anna’s clothes in it when it was delivered there. I assumed it was a premeditated, deliberate murder.
Had I read Woolrich’s “It Had to Be Murder,” that would have only strengthened my assumption that the murder was carefully planned in advance. In that short story, Jeff managed to figure out quite a bit from where he was, to an extent that bordered on clairvoyance. He concluded that Thorwald had taken out as much life insurance as he could afford on his wife, and then slowly started poisoning her, which was making her ill. But one night, she caught on, and he had to strangle her. Repairs were being done on the floor above, in which cement had been poured to make the kitchen floor raised above the living room, so Thorwald stuffed his wife’s corpse into the cement and then smoothed it over. This having been done, Jeff concluded that Thorwald’s plan was to leave some of Anna’s clothes beside a deep body of water and fake her suicide note, after which Thorwald and the other woman would be able to collect from the insurance company. Apparently, Woolrich did not realize that insurance companies don’t pay off when the insured person commits suicide.
But none of these psychic conclusions about slow poisoning, an insurance policy, and a faked suicide note are in the movie. It seems more likely that the browbeaten Thorwald became so tired of his wife’s nagging that he struck her in a moment of anger one night, killing her. Then he gets the woman he was having an affair with to help him cover it up.
Of course, my sympathy for Thorwald was undoubtedly conditioned by my being much more aware of the theme of marriage in this movie, and in particular, how Jeff has a negative view of marriage in general and despairs at the thought of marrying Lisa. The first time I saw this movie, I barely paid attention to these things.
Later in the movie, when Thorwald realizes that Jeff has been watching him and knows he killed Anna, he goes over to Jeff’s apartment to kill him too. And yet, even so, he comes across as pathetic when he enters Jeff’s apartment and asks, “What do you want from me? Your friend, the girl, could have turned me in. Why didn’t she? What is it you want? A lot of money? I don’t have any money.”
At one time, he and Anna loved each other very much, and so they married, fully believing in the vows they made, including, “in sickness and in health.” But sick she did become, souring her on life and taking it out on her husband, driving him to seek love elsewhere while he continued to take care of her, until one night he hit her in anger and killed her. His attempt to kill Jeff is more out of frustration than any coldblooded attempt to conceal his crime, for Jeff’s murder would only confirm the evidence the police already had by that time regarding Anna. At least, that’s how I imagine all this came to be, but I’m not psychic like the Jeff in Woolrich’s short story.
Now, let’s see. Where was I? Oh, yeah! After Jeff and Lisa have the dinner that she had delivered from the 21 Club, they start arguing about marriage. Jeff says that he could never be a fashion photographer, and, presuming to speak for her, he says she would never be able to stand traveling around the world, living in cramped quarters, cold and hungry. They almost break up. He doesn’t want to lose her as a girlfriend, but she does not want to continue on as they are. As she leaves, however, she tells him she’ll be back tomorrow. It is later that night that Jeff sees Thorwald behaving strangely, leaving the apartment with his suitcase and returning shortly thereafter, several times that rainy night.
Lisa knows that Jeff is the kind of man who would feel obligated to marry a woman if he had sex with her, so she decides to spring that female trap on him. A couple of nights later, she comes over with a Mark Cross overnight case containing a nightie and slippers, telling Jeff she intends to spend the night, maybe the whole weekend.
In the meantime, Jeff had called a friend of his, Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey), a police detective, in hopes that he would investigate some of the suspicious goings-on in Thorwald’s apartment. When Tom shows up, we hear the Songwriter start playing boogie-woogie music on his piano in a minor key, acting as ominous background music, making us think that Tom is about to confirm Jeff’s suspicions. And then, just as the boogie-woogie music stops, he announces, “Thorwald is no more a murderer than I am.” It seems that his investigation has revealed that Anna Thorwald simply went on a trip and claimed the trunk with her clothes in it.
As he explains all this, he keeps looking at the nightie and slippers in Lisa’s overnight case. Lisa thinks he is looking at the overnight case itself, wondering why he does so, and even asks Jeff later if Tom thought she stole it. So important is it to Lisa to be fashionably attired that her chance to sport an expensive, Mark Cross accessory has made her overlook the implication of its contents. Or maybe she is simply unconcerned about that. From her point of view, it’s all right to have sex, just as long as you do it in style.
So, they spend the night and have that sex, although I’m not sure what sex would be like for a woman, if the man has a cast on his leg extending all the way up to his hip. But the important thing is that this should pretty much seal the deal, as far as marriage is concerned. It also helped that Lisa proves to be the adventuresome type herself, inasmuch as she later sneaks into Thorwald’s apartment through his window on the second floor, wearing high heels, no less, in order to try to find Anna’s wedding ring.
While all this is going on, there have been developments in the various soap operas. The little dog that belongs to the Married Couple on the Fire Escape has had its neck broken. It seems the dog was digging around Thorwald’s flowers. Jeff, Lisa, and Stella are convinced that something was buried there that would incriminate Thorwald, so Stella digs around but finds nothing. What it was that had been buried there, you see, was Anna’s head in a hatbox. According to the online script, Thorwald decided to dig it up after killing the dog, and then he stuck it in his icebox for safekeeping.
This makes no sense. If he was going to dig up the hatbox anyway, why kill the dog, unless the point is to keep people like me from feeling too sorry for Thorwald. A man can commit murder in a movie and still have our sympathy, but if he kills a dog, that is just too heartless to be forgiven. As for something else that does not make sense, Thorwald could easily have made one more trip with his suitcase, after putting Anna’s head in it, and then dumped her head in the East River with the rest of her body parts. This piece of information regarding Anna’s head in a hatbox, which presumably is an allusion to Night Must Fall (1937), is put in the movie for a little comic relief.
At the end of the movie, we see that the Married Couple on the Fire Escape have gotten themselves another little dog. As for Miss Lonelyhearts, she went out one night and brought home a young man, which was a mistake, of course. He immediately became sexually aggressive. She slapped him and sent him on his way. She finally decided to commit suicide by taking sleeping pills, but at the last minute, she heard the song played by the Songwriter, which soothed her savage breast. She was able to meet him when everyone came out to see the ruckus going on in Jeff’s apartment when Thorwald tried to kill him. The Songwriter is more her own age, and at the end of the movie, she is over at his apartment. He is pleased that she loves his music.
Earlier in the movie, Lisa also was moved by the Songwriter’s melody. She says, “Where does a man get the inspiration for a song like that?”
Jeff replies, “From his landlord, once a month.”
That’s typical. The man that rejects the suggestion that he get a job as a fashion photographer, where he could earn a much greater income, because he prefers the job he presently has as being meaningful and rewarding, cynically dismisses the creativity of the Songwriter, as if he could be motivated only by money.
As for Miss Torso, her boyfriend, who is a private in the army, shows up at her door. He is dorky and shorter than she is, but she just loves him. However, he is more interested in having something to eat out of her icebox than in making love to her.
Finally, we have the Newlyweds. Most of the time the shade for their window has been down because they have been having sex. Occasionally, the husband would raise the shade and look out the window, as if needing a little rest, but then lowering the shade again when he heard his wife calling him back to bed. But now the shade is up because the honeymoon is over. The wife, who appears to be cooking, says, “I don’t care if you help me or not, but if you’d told me you quit your job, we wouldn’t have gotten married.” The husband replies impatiently, “Oh, Honey, come on,” as he continues reading his newspaper without looking at her.
As for Jeff and Lisa, they will soon be newlyweds themselves, now that they have had sex. In the final scene, we see that Jeff has a cast on both legs, the other one having been broken when he fell off his balcony. Lisa is reading a book, Beyond the High Himalayas. She is wearing loafers, blue jeans, and a red cotton blouse, as if she is ready to embark on a trip with Jeff as soon as he gets a new assignment. But when she sees he is asleep, she picks up a copy of Harper’s Bazaar, opens it, and begins smiling. We wonder which of them will get his or her way in the end.
The answer to that question will come the day that Lisa discovers she is pregnant. At that point, life will become very serious. She’ll tell Jeff that while she was happy to follow him around the world when it was just the two of them, that would be no way to raise a child, and she must return home. As for Jeff, if he has been living paycheck to paycheck in that small apartment in Greenwich Village, on what little that magazine he works for is paying him, it will be clear that he will not be able to support a wife and child on the same salary. And so, Jeff will have to return home too and become a highly paid fashion photographer, which is what Lisa wanted all along.
You might say that Jeff should have thought of that, but as noted above, none of the soap operas featured anyone with a child, by which Jeff might have been warned of that possibility, and it would be just like a man to become oblivious to the reproductive consequences of having sex with a woman who is asking only to be enjoyed.