Study guide: Rear Window

Rear Window characters: Lisa

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Lisa and Jeff struggle to agree on the terms of their relationship

Rear Window characters: Lisa

Lisa is both a woman with a career as well as a woman of privilege. This gives her more power and authority than any other female character in Rear Window. However, within the parameters of the conventional romance narrative, what Lisa has going for her would not make up for what she is missing out on – Jeff’s commitment. But in keeping with Hitchcock’s approach to other familiar narrative elements, Lisa is never represented as someone who is lacking. Instead, her active and successful public life is placed in contrast to Jeff’s confinement to his apartment and obsession with the private worlds opposite. When Lisa describes a day of work, it is jam-packed with activities and meetings, with the fact that much of her work involves connecting with others, highlighting that she is an extrovert in contrast to Jeff, who is quite the opposite. Her work also takes priority -- Lisa visits Jeff in her spare time and waits until the weekend to actively engage with the mystery that has captured Jeff’s imagination.

Costume plays a large part in expressing how different Jeff and Lisa are and in demonstrating Lisa doesn’t belong. Lisa’s designer frocks are artfully coordinated while Jeff never changes out of his pyjamas. The power of Lisa’s presence and of her taste and privilege are communicated through the invasion of the upmarket New York restaurant 21, and her off-the-cuff dismissal of Jeff’s well-worn cigarette case and determination to replace it with her simple – and expensive – choice. 

By the same token, Lisa is in many ways very similar to Jeff. She is also committed to having her own way and is just as reluctant to change. Both Lisa and Jeff are self-centred individualists, used to getting their own way. The implication is that Lisa’s interest in Jeff is piqued by the challenge he represents. It is worth taking a look at the discussion they have about her potentially going on the road with Jeff – it is not really a conversation as she refuses to take what he says seriously in the same way as he refuses to contemplate her plans for him to become part of her world. In fact neither of them really listens to the other – and during the first and the second acts, Jeff is also less interested in looking at Lisa than he is looking out his window. As Lisa tries to take control of his life as well as express her desire for him, Jeff reassures himself he is still powerful and in control through his voyeuristic gaze at the neighbours.

When Lisa looks out of the window, she offers her own interpretation of the meaning of what she sees. From her point of view, Lisa perceives Miss Torso as having to manage the unwanted attention of the wolves in her apartment, rather than as the sexualised temptress that Jeff sees. She is also able to identify with the loneliness of Miss Lonelyhearts, and build a connection with Mrs Thorwald. Lisa’s curiosity is piqued when she becomes aware that Mrs Thorwald has been separated from her handbag, jewellery and, most disturbing of all, her wedding ring. For Lisa this is evidence that something is wrong, a deduction drawn from her alternative perspective as a woman that marks the point in the narrative when Jeff acknowledges her subjectivity and pays respectful attention to what she has to say. At this point he recognises the value of Lisa’s expertise as a woman who knows about other women -- an expertise that he has previously dismissed.

Once Lisa also becomes interested in getting to the bottom of the mystery, she moves into action. While Jeff watches and speculates, Lisa heads out of the apartment to gather more information and, as a result of Lisa’s observations based on her understanding of female behaviour, Jeff contacts Doyle, his former army comrade who is now in the police force. At this point, Lisa with some help from Stella takes on the role of heroic protagonist who solves the mystery through action and adventure. Typically, in Hollywood films made in the 1940s and 1950s, the defenceless victim is female, and it is the job of the active male protagonist to rescue her. In Rear Window, Jeff becomes the defenceless victim – something that is highlighted by his ineffectual use of the flash bulbs. After his fall, Lisa cradles him in her arms and he tells her how much he admires her for her actions and deeds -- a reversal of the classic Hollywood romance in which the hero proves through his deeds that he deserves the love of the heroine. In this case, the resolution to the romance narrative involves Jeff’s acknowledgment of Lisa’s adventurous spirit.

The conclusion/epilogue/coda (that harks back to the opening scene) has generated a great deal of critical discussion, as in some ways it is almost a ‘choose-your-own-adventure' with viewers having the opportunity to decide how the narrative has actually been resolved. It is apparent that Lisa has changed out of her designer frocks into jeans, shirt and loafers and she is reading a book about the Himalayas. She glances at the sleeping Jeff to make sure he doesn’t catch her reading Harper’s Bazaar. This surreptitious glance suggests a meekness that is out of character for the feisty and determined Lisa. Has Lisa has decided to give up her life to fit in with Jeff’s? Maybe the excitement of investigating Thorwald has made a life on the road more attractive.

For those with an alternative interpretation, Lisa’s casual outfit seems far from convincing. It is very stylish – the carefully turned-up jeans reveal Lisa’s slim ankles, her shirt is silk and the shoes are made from expensive leather. It could be regarded as a costume, rather than a commitment to a life of adventure and hardship. Within this scenario, the book is a prop that is part of her performance. Once Jeff is asleep, she can get back to work -- remember that, for her, Harper’s Bazaar means business. Moreover, however surreptitious, her glance at the sleeping Jeff positions her in the text as the character with the final look. In a film focusing on the power and significance of the look, this placement of Lisa suggests, according to Elise Lemire, that she “has garnered the power to watch over [the sleeping Jeff].”[1] That Lisa has achieved her goal of getting inside Jeff’s life and emerges triumphant is further reinforced when the last word heard in the film is her name, sung as part of the composer’s song.

[1] Elise Lemire, “Voyeurism and the Postwar Crisis of Masculinity”, in John Belton (ed.) Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, CUP, Cambridge, 2000, p. 81.