Dusty is an avid classic movie fan who wants to share movie stories and evoke conversation about them.
1 hr 52 mins Mystery/Thriller 1954 8.5 stars
Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Cast: James Stewart - L.B. Jeffries
Grace Kelly - Lisa Carol Fremont
Wendell Corey - Det. Lt. Thomas J. Doyle
Thelma Ritter - Stella
Raymond Burr - Lars Thorwald
Note: Spoiler alert. This review reveals the outcome of the movie.
The movie opens with a scene in a hot New York apartment. James Stewart plays the part of L.B. Jeffries (though his initials are LBJ the film predates that presidential administration by 9 years, so Hitchcock wasn’t making any subtle connection here). Mr. Jeffries is a globe-trotting magazine photographer who is laid up due to an injury he sustained, a broken leg. In the summer heat in his second floor apartment, evidently without air conditioning, he is suffering not only from that heat, but also from boredom. His efforts to pass time lead him to the practice of observing his neighbors, a voyeuristic hobby carried out using his binoculars and telephoto lens.
The first part of the movie is a sort of character development, learning what he can about his neighbors. Although he cannot learn much by simply watching, he can learn more than might expected, perhaps more than he wants to know. His knowledge gaps are filled with intuitive suppositions and educated guesses; he is after all a journalistic photographer. Perhaps he is a student of human behavior as well? As he continues to suppose, we the audience continue to learn. The director, Alfred Hitchcock, has made it so that as Jeffries pieces together a mystery and thus we come to believe as he does about what he sees and so too will two of his closest companions.
Jeffries observes the neighbors from his vantage looking out upon the courtyard. Most of these observations become side stories which are all part of drama that unfolds out of his rear window. As he observes he notices that the bed ridden wife of a neighbor across from him is suddenly no longer there and the husband whose name is Lars Thorwald (played by Raymond Burr) is behaving in strange ways. Jeffries contemplates this mystery and begins to wonder if he has discovered a murder or if she has just gone away. What he sees is extremely circumstantial, but the thought naggingly persists and the bored Jeffries begins to believe it to be true and becomes obsessed with it.
One couple in the neighborhood has a little dog which they place in a basket every morning which they lower to the ground by means of a rope and pulley. The dog sniffs around the court yard and generally enjoys the fresh air. But this dog is very inquisitive about some flowers in the corner of Mr. Thorwald’s little garden. In one scene Thorwald is annoyed by the dog and shoos him away.
Another neighbor he has dubbed “Miss Torso”. She is a scantily clad ballerina who dances her way throughout her apartment by day and fights off gentlemen callers by night. She unwittingly provides Jefferies with a baser sort of entertainment.
Another story is that of a woman whom Jeffries calls “Miss Lonelyhearts”. She is a middle aged spinster who is fed up with single life. Her nickname is an apt description. Jeffries watches as her emotions take her into deep places of despair. Early in the movie she sets a romantic candle light table for a dinner for two then proceeds to eat alone talking to the empty chair across the table. Finally she puts her head down in a burst of weeping. She had mimicked companionship but that only served to sharpen the sting of her isolation. In a later scene she has brought a young man home who tries to take liberties. She manages to kick him out and again collapses in a heap of tears.
Across the way Jeffries has been watching a composer working continually on a song. He hopes that he will have a hit, but is continually rejected and therefore humiliated. Incidentally, this song is the theme song that we hear throughout the movie.
Rounding out his neighbors are a sculptor and a newlywed couple. These are Jeffries’ cast of characters which he watches in the drama of his neighborhood.
In his own apartment Jeffries receives daily visits from Stella (played by Thelma Ritter) who is a nurse employed by the insurance company. He shares his murder theory with her and she is the type that is eager to believe anything that is sordid. A bit older and wiser though, she imparts wisdom and warning about what he sees. She also discusses his girlfriend, Lisa Fremont (played by Grace Kelly) who, while lovely and enamored with him, is getting nowhere with the reluctant Jeffries. Stella feels strongly that Jeffries needs to move forward with Lisa right away. But Jeffries and Lisa have a deep conflict which stagnates their relationship. There is a difference of class between these two and Jeffries sees no possibility of bridging that gap, yet Lisa maintains a “love conquers all” perspective. Jeffries is a magazine photo journalist who frequently goes to remote parts of the world on assignment. His line of work often places him in danger as can be seen by his broken leg which he got standing in the middle of an auto race track during an actual race in order to get a great picture. Lisa on the other hand is a fashion model and lives in a world of pampered comfort. She models top line clothing for world renowned designers. Her work is lucrative; his is modest. But he is a pragmatist who sees no possibility of Lisa roughing it as would be required of anyone who would travel with him. In his opinion she can’t handle the pressure and she’s not a daredevil type. But she is a romantic and is undaunted by the adventure of his profession. In her mind she can adapt to life in any environment no matter how remote or how wild as long as she’s with him. In addition to this conflict, she also resents this neighbor watching pass-time of his because it diverts his attention from her. Yet in the midst of all their tension he shares his murder theory with her. She reacts angrily thinking that it’s absolute nonsense and her frustration with him further plays out as a conflict over this murder obsession of his.
One of the major turning points in the story is when Lisa, looking out the window, suddenly sees Thorwald tying a large trunk shut with a rope in his apartment across the way. She abruptly stops chiding Jeffries about his theory and becomes convinced of what he thinks. The scene is a powerful change of direction and attitude for her and from this point on the bickering couple become real partners. Once she realizes the real possibility of a murder we see no more of their conflict.
Jeffries in his observing of Thorwald saw him make a phone call apparently trying to sell a wedding ring. Lisa stated that no woman would go away without her wedding ring. If she could just find that ring that would be proof of murder for sure.
At this time Jeffries calls his old friend Detective Thomas Doyle (played by Wendell Corey). Jeffries tries to convince Doyle of his theory and dutifully Doyle checks it out, but he approaches this in his experience as a police detective from a stance of doubt. As he runs down clues he grows more firm in his skepticism. It is interesting to note the relationship between Jeffries and Doyle. They served together back in “the war” and remained good friends after returning to civilian life. The movie came out in 1954 and the men are established in their careers so it is too soon to be the Korean War; it was undoubtedly World War II. Therefore they have been friends for at least eleven years. It appears that Doyle will do anything for Jeffries but he is very very skeptical that there has been any sort of murder. Nevertheless as police inspector he follows up on the leads that Jeffries gives him albeit reluctantly. He is in conflict between his friendship with Jeffries and his investigative intuition, both honed by years of experience. We get the impression that Jeffries’ friendship with Doyle keeps the case from going cold, because every lead that Doyle follows up on turns up nothing.
Doyle has learned something about the case and shares it with Jeffries and Lisa. As he looks wistfully out the window he makes one of the most important observations in the entire movie, “That’s a secret private world you’re looking into out there. People do a lot of things in private they couldn’t possibly explain in public.”
After following multiple leads and coming up empty Doyle developed a theory about what happened. His theory is that the missing Mrs. Thorwald went away to the country. Clues he had found supported that scenario and as he investigated further he found enough to convince him that there was nothing to see here. He states that “Lars Thorwald is no more a murderer than you or I”. He persuades Jeffries and Lisa that no crime has been committed and he leaves. Then Jeffries launches into a discussion with Lisa questioning his own ethics. He wonders if it’s ethical that he watches his neighbors as he does; would he object if they were watching him? He answers his own question that he would not mind if they watched him. Jeffries and Lisa are disappointed in Doyle’s conclusions about the crime or lack thereof. Lisa says, “you know, if someone came in here they wouldn’t believe what they’d see; you and me with long faces plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife, we’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known.” Shortly afterwards Lisa announces that the “show’s over for tonight” and she closes the blinds. There will be no more neighbor spying for Jeffries that night. This act of closing the shades symbolized and reinforced the conclusion that Doyle delivered. The movie does indicate that Doyle is thorough, but there is just nothing there to work with. Under normal circumstances the case would have been closed. Case closed!
A short while later the peaceful night air is interrupted by a scream. Lisa reopens the curtains. The scream came from the neighbor who owned the little dog because the dog was lying dead in the yard. Miss Lonelyhearts went out to see the dog and reported up to that neighbor that indeed it was dead. She placed it in the basket and the owner lifted its lifeless body up to her apartment. This neighbor then makes an impassioned speech about neighbors not caring for one another. Though the neighbors come to their windows and listen they soon return to their own apartments. Jeffries notices that all but one neighbor came to their window. Only Thorwald didn’t come, but he was there; the camera shows the lit end of his cigarette glowing in his darkened apartment – case reopened! “Why would he want to kill a little dog?” Lisa asks. Jeffries soon discovers the answer to that question. The dog had been digging around in Thorwald’s flower garden. Jeffries compared two photos he had taken of the flower garden and discovered that two flowers were shorter in the later photo. His conclusion was that something is buried there. The little dog had naturally been investigating so Thorwald killed it. With a twist on the old cat cliché it may be stated that in this scene ‘curiosity killed the dog’.
This prompts a decision by Stella and Lisa to investigate the garden themselves and an especially suspenseful series of events begin to unfold. Jeffries, Lisa and Stella become an investigative team and for obvious reasons Jeffries directs from his wheelchair vantage point. Jeffries placed a phone call to Thorwald saying that he knew what he did with his wife and offered to meet him, but that was just a diversion to buy time for Lisa and Stella. When Jeffries distracts Thorwald away from his home Stella and Lisa go to check out the clue in the flower garden. Finding nothing there, Lisa goes off script and climbs up to the second floor to search Thorwald’s apartment over the unheeded objections of Jeffries. She was interested in finding a clue, specifically Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring, which would prove to her that a murder had been committed. Simultaneously Miss Lonelyhearts lays out a bunch of pills and begins to write a suicide note. Jeffries sees this and calls the police, but the music, the beautiful music from the composer stops her. With the police on the line Jeffries sees Thorwald approaching so he changes the intent of the call and states that a woman is being assaulted in Thorwald’s apartment. Lisa had taken a dangerous gamble and that danger was intensified when Thorwald returned and found Lisa in his apartment. Jeffries could only sit there and watch as his girlfriend fell into the clutches of this murderer. Fortunately before Thorwald could harm Lisa the police arrived. We know that they think they’ve apprehended a burglar, but we also know they saved her life. While the police are arresting Lisa she signals to Jeffries that she has found Mrs. Thorwald’s wedding ring but Thorwald saw her signal. He looks out to see Jeffries in his apartment across the courtyard and knows right then and there who’s been spying on him. Thorwald then determines to go confront Jeffries. Now Jeffries is in trouble. He is nearly defenseless in his condition and the police have departed with Lisa.
As Thorwald enters Jeffries’ apartment it is completely dark. Thorwald innocently asks, “What do you want from me?" Jeffries remains silent. Again Thorwald speaks "I don't have any money”. He then advances and Jeffries uses the one weapon that he has, flash bulbs. He shoots flash bulb after flash bulb momentarily blinding Thorwald each time. But the effect is only temporary. Thorwald wrestles with Jeffries to throw him out of the window.
As this is happening the police are returning. They arrive just in time to catch the falling Jeffries and to apprehend Thorwald. They get a full confession from him.
As the main story winds down so too do the subplots: Miss Torso after fighting off men receives her boyfriend home from the army.
As Miss Lonelyhearts considered her plight she heard something and it stopped her from the suicide plans she had. What she heard dovetails in with another subplot. The final scene of the composer’s subplot saw him come home to his apartment overjoyed his song had become a hit and he has friends who come to hear his song. It is that song that touches Miss Lonelyhearts in a way no other song has. It brings a smile to her face for it has soothed her sore heart and turned her despondency around. She goes to investigate where the song is coming from as it wafts out over the court yard and she meets the composer and they strike a friendship. Here, by the way, is an illustration of what neighborliness can do. That song is the theme song that we hear throughout the movie. Hitchcock has masterfully tied our experience in with the experience of his characters by means of this song.
In the closing scene Jeffries is depicted with two casts since the dramatic fall has broken the other leg as well. In the opening scene we saw the words “Here lie the bone of L.B. Jeffries” on his cast. But in the closing scene there is nothing written on the casts. So I conclude that they completely replaced the cast he had earlier. It is still terribly hot, but he has an appearance of contentment because he is in love, he is vindicated about his finding and most of all because he has a better perspective on Lisa. He has a “first day of the rest of his life” expression on his face.
If the murder is the primary theme of the movie then the relationship between Jeffries and Lisa is the secondary. Throughout the story the theme is interwoven in every action that takes place. Jeffries’ broken leg is not his chief problem but just a temporary setback and an opportunity to address the biggest issue in his life - his relationship with Lisa. He sees no future for them being as they come from different social strata; there is no reconciliation possible for them in his estimation. So he stews there housebound with plenty of time to cultivate his pessimistic view of their future. Before we meet her we are slowly introduced to the concept of her. We see her face first as a photographic negative then on a magazine cover. We hear of her attributes from Stella the nurse as she tries to reason with Jeffries to get him to marry her. She tells him that Lisa is “perfect” and that is what he latches onto as her fault. He is in the odd circumstance of faulting perfection. When we do meet her Hitchcock introduces her in dramatic fashion, a close up of her face as she leans over to kiss the sleeping Jeffries. Then when he playfully asks who she is she introduces herself with flair by stating her first, middle and last name which each name accompanied by the turning on of a lamp – “Lisa…Carol…Fremont”. ( Link to clip here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gl0yPuI7EVs) When she orders dinner to be brought up she asks what he thought of it. He replies dejectedly, “It’s perfect” again grappling with that notion he has of her. He squabbles with her about the incompatibility of his work versus her lifestyle and concludes that their relationship has no future. He questions whether she could tolerate the rigors of traveling with him on assignment with what he considers to be her delicate constitution. In another instance she squabbles with him about his choice of recreation during this convalescence. She questions whether he is mentally sound watching his neighbors through binoculars and suspecting murder. As mentioned before, there is a turning point where she sees something in Thorwald’s apartment across the way. It is not just a turning point in the main story; it’s a turning point in their relationship as well. From that moment on there is no more squabbling seen between them on any issue and they begin to act as a team. The turning point occurs close to the middle of the movie. Throughout the second half of the movie Lisa interprets clues from a woman’s perspective and is very helpful in constructing a scenario of what must have happened. When she deviates from the plan and climbs up into Thorwald’s apartment we see a Lisa that does not fit the construct that Jeffries has formed of her, he having considered her to be pampered and ill equipped for adventure. She however is demonstrating innately a risk taking quality that he has never seen in her. Unintentionally and unwittingly she is auditioning for the role of Jeffries’ wife. Jeffries himself is highly stressed when Thorwald manhandles her, but when Stella asks him why she doesn’t turn Thorwald over to the police Jeffries’ response is, “She’s a smart girl.” He is seeing that Lisa does have the qualities that he had assumed she lacked. And when she cradles him in her arms after his fall out of the window, he says to her, “I’m proud of you.” His relationship reservations about her were over. In the final scene we see Jeffries in his wheelchair with two leg casts, but now with a smile on his face. His biggest problem, the relationship, was solved. Lisa is sitting across the room reading a book titled, “Beyond the High Himalayas,” but when she sees that he is asleep she trades the book for a Bazaar Magazine – she is capable in both worlds.
Lisa Believes - the Turning Point of the Movie
Hitchcock’s Journey into Suspense
This movie is a suspense thriller and Alfred Hitchcock takes us into our own emotions to produce the anxiety of suspense. First there are instances of startling such as when a scream pierces the night air, presumably the death of Mrs. Thorwald, and the discovery of the dead dog. Then there is the moment when Jeffries is watching as Thorwald is hurting Lisa. We can somewhat feel his anguish, his helplessness. We too can only watch from a distance.
The scene of confrontation between Thorwald and Jeffries also pushes on our emotions. Jeffries is wheelchair bound but it is dark and he is armed with flashbulbs. The darkness exacerbates the bulbs’ effect. But flash bulbs only slow Thorwald down- they don’t stop him. Jeffries has temporary solutions to permanent problems which causes Hitchcock have suspenseful, exciting outcomes. We don’t consider the matter from Thorwald’s perspective, but let’s do so here. He enters a darkened apartment and is met with silence. Each thing he asks is not answered. Then a question about the ring is finally answered. Then a flash bulb goes off and temporarily blinds him. For a split second he doesn’t know what that was – the flash from a pistol perhaps? But he heard no shot. Perhaps he thought the next flash will be a pistol. He is annoyed and not able to see well when he attacks. It is suspenseful, the fight – even some of the noises made are chilling and of course Jeffries’ fall out of the window is scary.
Earlier in the movie when Doyle gives his assessment that in effect Thorwald is innocent and then later Lisa questions why they should be so disappointed to learn that a woman has not been murdered, we are challenged to wonder the same thing. But Hitchcock has brought us to a state where we believe in Jeffries’ theory; we too believe that Thorwald is guilty. It’s not that we’re unhappy that no murder has been committed; it's because we still believe there has been a murder. We and Lisa and Jeffries only believe that Doyle has fumbled in his duty to justice.
An issue which was brought up by Lisa was whether Jeffries should be sitting there watching his neighbors with binoculars? What is the line between the peeping Tom and the nosey neighbor? In this instance a murderer was caught. Does that justify his activities? Is it Jeffries’ nature to watch the privacy of his neighbors or is it a hobby born out of the union of his profession and his boredom? The movie causes us all at one level to wrestle with these questions. And finally, is his voyeuristic hobby any worse than the rampant aloofness found in this neighborhood? There are two scenes which brought everyone to their windows. The first scene was when the woman who owned the little dog screamed upon seeing that the dog was dead. Using her balcony as a pulpit she castigated her neighbors for not caring for each other. The other scene which brought neighbors to their windows was when Jeffries was being thrown out of his window (we actually have a verb for that: defenestration). The woman’s plea is an important point. Proximity should breed some familiarity, but it no longer does. Stella makes the point early on that, “We’ve become a race of peeping toms,” but the opposite is also awfully true, often we don’t care enough about our neighbors.
In the concluding scene of the movie we see how the composer’s song touched Miss Lonelyhearts and perhaps saved her life. One final note of interest about that composer: The man who played that role, Ross Bagdasarian, was a composer in real life and he was the creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks.
At the time of this writing the man who played the newlywed husband, Rand Harper, is the only surviving member of this cast.
In many Hitchcock movies, Alfred Hitchcock himself makes a cameo appearance. This is one of those movies. He can be seen in the composer’s apartment at the beginning of the movie winding a clock.