Rear Window - Alfred Hitchcock - James Stewart - Grace Kelly - L.B. Jefferies - Lisa Fremont - wheelchair

Rear Window
1954, directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Rear Window has a plot problem, and Hitchcock knew it. For three quarters of the film, until the neighbor screams about her murdered dog, there is no good reason to suspect foul play in the Thorwalds’ apartment across the courtyard. Instead of being held in suspense by the logic of the situation, the audience is asked to humor L.B. Jefferies as he drags his housekeeper, his girlfriend, and his war buddy into a childish conceit of a murder mystery on almost nonexistent evidence. It’s a bald and drawn out display of confirmation bias.

There may be no good reason to suspect murder, but we do have a couple of compelling reasons. First is the simple fact that it’s an Alfred Hitchcock film, so everyone expects a murder in it. Second, Raymond Burr plays the villain Lars Thorwald while made up to look like David O. Selznick, the strong-willed producer who brought Hitchcock to Hollywood and whose forceful supervision left Hitchcock with a lifelong grudge. Of course a man who looks like Selznick would have to be guilty, but these reasons lie outside the plot.

Rear Window - Alfred Hitchcock - Thelma Ritter - James Stewart - L.B. Jefferies

The case against Jeff’s theory, oddly enough, is built into the movie via Thomas J. Doyle, Jeff’s police detective friend who dismantles every argument Jeff can think of. By the time the neighbor screams, Jeff and Lisa have been deflated, convinced that Doyle was right. The fact that Doyle will soon prove wrong does not mean that Jeff had good intuition – it only means that the conventions of a suspense movie demand a dramatic payoff. Regardless of the outcome, Jeff has been acting like a petulant boy a small fraction of his age demanding relief from his boredom.

All this may be a flaw in the film, but if we recall the other man-children in Hitchcock’s movies – in Strangers on a Train, Vertigo, Psycho, and many others – we must ask whether the juvenile quality of Jeff’s murder fantasy isn’t exactly the point of Rear Window. We can start by searching for the “MacGuffin”, Hitchcock’s word for a plot hook whose original significance eventually fades behind something much greater. What’s so remarkable about Rear Window, if we want to take the most fruitful possible view of it, is that the murder of Mrs. Thorwald, which seems to be the main thread, is actually the MacGuffin. The real story is how Jeff grows up and comes to accept Lisa into his life.

Rear Window - Alfred Hitchcock - Lars Thorwald - Raymond Burr - apartment

We first see Lisa in a photograph – a printed negative, the first of many signs that Jeff views marriage in a negative light. In his first conversation, a phone call with his boss, he speaks of marriage as a “drastic” act, imagining himself coming home to a “nagging wife” just as we take our first good look at the Thorwalds, the nagging wife echoing Jeff’s fear in real time. In one way or another, most of the apartments Jeff watches will reinforce his prejudices against women or against matrimony: the sexually exhausted husband to the left, the unhappy spinsters on the ground floor, or the ballerina “Miss Torso” who represents his fantasy of single life. But the Thorwalds in particular embody Jeff’s fear of a disastrous marriage, and that’s where his attention gravitates.

Rear Window - Alfred Hitchcock - director cameo - piano - pianist - songwriter - winding a clock

The title Rear Window implies a backwards point of view, which befits a grown man who views the world through a child’s eyes. Hitchcock’s cameo, significantly, has him winding a clock counterclockwise, as if pointing to the psychological past that governs Jeff. The windows around the courtyard are like comic book panels with their bright colors, horizontal arrangement, and simplified pictures of life inside. Not only is Jeff’s attitude to marriage boyish, but so is his fondness for action and danger. His resistance to Lisa makes him look pre-pubescent, and in this light it’s oddly convenient that the neighbor’s scream saves him from her just when she offers herself to him in her nightgown.

Rear Window - Alfred Hitchcock - Grace Kelly - Lisa Fremont - nightgown

This coincidental timing exposes the fantastic nature of Jeff’s wish to find Thorwald guilty. His real fantasy is that of a sexually immature boy – to avenge an older, paternal male for the “crime” of taking a woman away. To an oedipal male like Jeff, the father’s interference in his mother’s affection is an unhealed wound which, having nurtured the pain all his adult life, has grown to be tantamount to a kind of murder. Jeff’s idea that Thorwald has actually killed his wife, and that he, Jeff, can punish the old man, is the fantasy that motivates the plot. For Jeff it’s a more powerful fantasy than making love to Lisa Fremont.

The philosopher Slavoj Žižek, writing on Rear Window, recognized the fantastic quality of Jeff’s interest in the murder, and he said that Jeff’s cure required Lisa to enter the “frame of his fantasy”, as she does when she crosses the courtyard and boldly enters Thorwald’s apartment. This is logically sound, but one more step is still required to complete the cure. Jeff must be confronted with the disappointing reality of his fantasy’s fulfilment. Thorwald is caught and confesses his guilt, but like most fantasies that come true, the experience isn’t everything Jeff expected. Instead of triumphing heroically over the old man, Jeff is pushed out the window and dropped to the pavement, suffering a second broken leg to match the one that kept him home all this time. Now at least he can move beyond his boyhood fantasy and accept a normal adult relationship.

The fact that Jeff falls out of his rear window is symbolically important. Just as Lisa had become part of his fantasy when she entered the make-believe world across the window, he too has to transcend the passive position of someone sitting behind glass, detached from the outside world. By falling to the ground he also falls out of his childlike point of view. The trauma brings him into an adult awareness much like the shock on the ski slope snaps Gregory Peck’s character out of his amnesia in Spellbound, simultaneously giving him a mature outlook on a childhood trauma.

Rear Window - Alfred Hitchcock - James Stewart - Grace Kelly - L.B. Jefferies - Lisa Fremont

Hitchcock’s films do not just ape Freud’s theories to be fashionable. He apparently held a conviction that the ills of our world are rooted in the childhood scars and hatreds that people too often carry into adulthood – not only the scars of abuse, but also the longings and rivalries that, when left unresolved, turn children into selfish, immature, entitled, and hateful adults, unable to form healthy relationships. Many of Hitchcock’s characters exemplify oedipal or elektral incest lingering past childhood, but Rear Window is the chief exception to a curious pattern.

In general, Hitchcock treats the elektral cases with greater sympathy. His female characters are allowed to grow out of their incestuous desire and evolve into healthy adults. The younger Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt gets over her crush on her uncle; in The Lady Vanishes Iris gives up her plan to marry a Lord Fatheringale; and Barbara in Strangers on a Train, after flirting lightly with her sister’s fiancé, falls for a detective. In the Freudian model this is the normal path of development, but among Hitchcock’s oedipal males Jeff is a rare case who completes the arc. Bruno Antony, Scottie Ferguson, and Norman Bates all go unredeemed at the end. This disparity between men and women surely reflects a social reality, that more damage is done to society by emotionally stunted men than by daddy’s girls.

After Strangers on a Train it’s understandable that Hitchcock would have wanted to take the oedipal male in a different direction. Robert Walker may be memorable as a murderous mommy’s boy, but by making him a psychological freak the argument loses some of its punch. It’s too easy to write Bruno off as an outlier, and Hitchcock would rather have us believe that oedipal incest is a rampant danger infecting even ordinary people. Who better then to represent the ordinary and seemingly sane adult male than Jimmy Stewart? If he could pass for someone as dangerously infantile as Bruno Antony, then people might start to take the idea seriously. But the experiment came at a high price. The ending of Rear Window does two things wrong: it validates a fantasy that was never credible, and by allowing L.B. Jefferies to triumph it avoids acknowledging the societal threat of his immaturity. Four years later, using Stewart again, Hitchcock would solve both problems.


Shadow of a Doubt – Starts with a character’s boredom; flashing ring; ends with idea of marriage

Spellbound – Falling as a symbolic release from childhood trauma, opening a new point of view

Strangers on a Train – Study of an oedipal male in preparation for Vertigo

Vertigo – James Stewart as a boyish and sexually immature middle-aged man

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown – Protagonist witnesses a spectrum of behaviors and emotions, including crying and dancing, in the windows of a city block

The Truman Show – Disappointing reality of a fantasy’s actualization

Dry SeasonFreudian tale of a man who grows out of his oedipal immaturity

Burning – Oedipal male who grows up when he moves beyond a fantasy world


Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p.118