A man confined to a wheelchair amuses himself by watching the neighbors through his rear window. He becomes convinced that one of them is a murderer and must then work to convince his friends and the police of his suspicions.
Hitchcock makes a cameo fiddling with a clock in the musician's apartment approx. 25 min. into the film.
L. B. "Jeff" Jeffries is a photographer for a top news magazine. He has been confined to a wheelchair due to a severely broken leg but is due to get the cast off in another week. In the seven weeks that he's had the cast on he's been amusing himself by watching the neighbors. It's a very hot summer and everyone has their windows open and has been utilizing the common courtyard very heavily. Jeff has a front row seat on their various goings-on.
In addition to spying on the neighbors, Jeff has also been fretting about whether to marry his girlfriend, Lisa Fremont. He feels that their lifestyles are not a good match. She is a fashion model who spends most of her time interacting with the rich and famous. Jeff sees himself as a vagabond, always moving from one place to the next, living out a suitcase, with very little money to his name. He worries that Lisa will be unhappy with that kind of lifestyle and he fears that he will become bored trying to live in her world. Lisa, for her part, thinks that Jeff could easily give up the magazine business and start his own studio. With her connections in the fashion world, she could help him get any assignment he wanted. Jeff, however, is resistant to the domestication that she offers.
Lisa and Jeff
In the time that he's spent watching them, he has given all his neighbors nicknames based on their behavior. First is Miss LonelyHearts, who spends her evenings pretending to have dinner with a handsome suitor. Then Miss Torso, a ballet dancer, who has men over nightly and manipulates them with ease. Then there's the henpecked salesman who caters to his shrewish, bedridden wife. There is also a struggling songwriter as well as a pair of young newlyweds who tend to keep their shades down.
After an argument with Lisa, Jeff hears a scream and the sound of breaking glass. Jeff falls asleep but is awoken by a thunderstorm. Jeff watches as the henpecked husband leaves carrying a suitcase despite the fact that it's almost 2AM and raining heavily. He returns almost an hour later with a noticeably lighter suitcase but leaves again almost immediately. Jeff initially surmises that the salesman is thinking about leaving his wife but begins to grow suspicious when he sees the salesman cleaning out his case and repacking his sales goods. Jeff's suspicions increase as he watches the salesman wrap a saw and a large carving knife in newspaper.
Not having seen the wife all day, Jeff tells Lisa about his suspicions but she is initially reluctant to believe him. However, she begins to believe him after
Tom Doyle checks things out
seeing the salesman securing a large trunk with heavy rope. Lisa goes over to the apartment building and, from the mailbox, finds out that the salesman's name is Lars Thorwald. Jeff tries to enlist the help of an old friend, Detective Tom Doyle. Without any hard evidence of a crime, there's not much that Doyle can do but he promises to look into it on an unofficial basis. Doyle finds several witnesses who saw Thorwald put his wife on a train for the country at 6:00 the previous morning. Thorwald even received a postcard from his wife, indicating that she has arrived safely in the country and is already feeling better. While Doyle checks on the whereabouts of the mysterious trunk, Jeff watches Thorwald going through his wife's jewelry, including her wedding ring. Lisa believes that no woman going on an extended trip would leave that sort of thing behind but Doyle dismisses her opinion. While he was out, Doyle found the trunk that Thorwald had packed and discovered that it was full of clothes. Doyle had sent it on it's way, where it was picked up at it's destination by Mrs. Thorwald. As Lisa and Jeff begin to believe that they were wrong about Thorwald, a scream punctuates the night. A small dog belonging to a neighbor is dead in the garden below, strangled. The owner screams at the neighborhood, asking which one of them killed her dog; every neighbor save for Thorwald comes out to see what the commotion is. Jeff had taken some pictures of the garden two weeks before and realizes that some of the flowers are shorter. The dog had been digging in that area
and Jeff believes that the dog was killed to prevent it from digging up something important.
Thinking that Doyle is no longer a viable source of help, Jeff, Lisa, and Jeff's nurse Stella hatch a plan to get Thorwald out of the apartment for a few minutes so that Lisa can go in and search around. Jeff writes a note asking Thorwald what he did with his wife and Lisa goes over and slips it under his door. Thorwald continues packing so Jeff calls him and pretends to be a blackmailer; unless Thorwald meets him at the Albert Hotel bar, he's going to call the police. As soon as Thorwald leaves, Stella and Lisa go over to see what's buried in the garden. Finding nothing, Lisa climbs up the fire escape into Thorwald's apartment.
Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly
The movie is based on a short story called "It Had to be Murder" by William Irish. The original story consisted of only the basic murder plot and contained none of the subplots or side characters. Hitchcock had already decided to use Grace Kelly but there was no role for her in the original story. In order to flesh out the story and make the world seem more alive, scriptwriter John Michael Hayes added in the other neighbors and the romance between Kelly and Jimmy Stewart. The original also didn't contain any humor but Hayes and Hitchcock felt that including some humor was important or the story might be unbearably suspenseful. This decision also worked well in helping Kelly find her character. Dial M for Murder was Kelly's first film and it showed; Hitchcock and Hayes felt that she was too stiff. She was a very charming woman with a very bright personality and the two men wanted to try to bring that out in Rear Window. Hitchcock wasn't sure how to accomplish that but Hayes solved the problem by giving her lots of funny, snappy lines that suited her personality.
To accommodate the set, the floor had to be removed
For this film, Hitchcock needed a set that would go to a full four stories in height but at the time the largest stage at Paramount, from the floor to the lighting rig, was not high enough. The set did have a basement which was used for storage so Art Director Mac Johnson removed the existing floor, giving the set the needed height. However, even with the floor removed, the set still went almost up to the lighting rig. Because of this, and because of the sheer number of lights required for the large set, the upper apartment floors were very hot to work on. The lights were set up to emulate four times of the day: morning, mid-afternoon, twilight and night.
Sound Design and Score
Franz Waxman composed the score, the last of four film scores that he did for Hitchcock. The opening piece is very jazz-influenced and was designed to evoke the life and energy of Greenwich Village. Previous to Rear Window, Waxman had done the score for A Place in the Sun and decided to use a small piece of that score in Rear Window. The practice of re-using pieces from other sources was very common at the time, which is why Waxman also used part of the popular song "That's Amore" in one scene. Except for the music that plays over the opening credits, Hitchcock made the unusual decision to only use ambient sound in the movie. All the music, sound effects, and dialogue spoken by the neighbors was recorded on-set by microphones located in Jeff's apartment.
Rear Window is one of the "Lost Hitchcock Five", along with Rope, Vertigo, The Man Who Knew Too Much andThe Trouble with Harry. Hitchcock had bought these five pictures back from the studio and gave them to his daughter, Patricia, as his legacy to her. Hitchcock had put the films in a vault and between that time and 1983, when restoration efforts began, the film had deteriorated badly. Most of the problems revolved around the color layers on the original 35mm camera negative. The yellow layer had deteriorated by as much as 90% on some reels and prints made from those reels turned out very green. Computer color restoration didn't exist at the time so restorers James Katz and Robert Harris had to work with Technicolor color labs to devise new printing and restoration techniques.