Study guide: Rear Window

Rear Window minor characters

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Stella doesn't mince words with her boss

Stella

Stella is at first sight very different from Lisa. She is plain, middle-aged, working class and married. However, from the beginning of the narrative, she champions Lisa’s efforts to get Jeff to commit to their relationship. “I’ve got two words of advice for you: Marry her.” Like Lisa, Stella sees marriage as being about physical attraction and desire and not at all about conformity: “When l married Myles, we were both a couple of maladjusted misfits. We are still maladjusted, and we have loved every minute of it.” By identifying the capsules Miss Lonelyhearts has laid out by their colour, Stella reveals that she (like Lisa) is good at what she does. What is more, her practical/professional understanding of the human body gives her a greater capacity to envisage the bloody reality of what the dismemberment and disposal of a body might entail. Jeff and Lisa are in turn repulsed by Stella’s pragmatic comments about bloody bathtubs and body parts. Like Lisa, Stella works in a job that requires continually moving around and meeting new people. They both share their knowledge and intuition with Jeff who gradually recognises the value of their perspective, and they end up forming a team actively pursuing clues, while Jeff can only watch. When he concedes the women are the ones “taking all the chances”, the pair agrees to vote him into the group.

Stella, like Lisa, is gradually drawn into the narrative that Jeff has created around his neighbours. She is initially introduced policing Jeff’s voyeurism – catching him out on her first appearance and then again at the end of the scene. (The fact that Jeff, and the viewing audience, hear Stella before seeing her, heightens the impression that Jeff has been ‘caught out’.) She makes her disapproval more than clear and correctly predicts the trouble Jeff will bring by looking out the window and seeing things he shouldn’t. The irony is that not only does Stella become increasingly implicated in Jeff’s point of view, she ends up joining Lisa in actively assisting him in his process of surveillance. Through this trajectory, Stella represents the audience’s compromised perspective, as she moves from a morally-driven awareness of the tawdriness of Jeff’s voyeurism to keen interest. In fact, the last thing we hear from her is a question – about what was in the hat box – a final reference to and reminder of the physical reality of the murder.

Tom Doyle reports on his investigation

Tom Doyle 

Doyle is everything Jeff isn’t: calm, measured, concerned to do everything by the book. The implication is that Doyle is a grown-up aware of the rules and responsibilities of his job. He responds to Jeff’s frustrated desire for Thorwald’s apartment to be searched by reminding him (“at the risk of sounding stuffy”) of Thorwald’s Constitutional right to maintain the privacy of his home – a hot topic during this era and a reminder of Jeff’s failure to respect private space. Doyle’s stance towards Jeff’s eager desire to play “amateur sleuth” builds on the representation of Jeff as struggling to maintain a sense of power and control without the authority that comes from his work. Doyle lectures Jeff using reason and the institutional authority of the law, an approach that leaves Jeff appearing irrational and over-emotional and reinforces Jeff’s feelings of powerlessness. When it emerges that Doyle and Jeff know each other from their time flying together in the war, the audience is alerted to the different ways that the friends have chosen to live their post-war lives, with Doyle working in an unglamorous job and settling down with a wife and family while Jeff is free to travel the world. Doyle’s reference to the part he played in helping Jeff take the photos that won him “a medal, and a good job, and fame, and money” adds a subtext of envy that adds further complexity to this examination of post-war masculinity. As does his fascination with Lisa’s overnight bag which reveals a suburban narrowness out of place in the bohemian neighbourhood of Greenwich Village.

Apartment dwellers

Each neighbor is not a random supporting character, but a carefully-chosen representation of a possible future for Jeff. [1] 

A number of the apartment dwellers have their own narrative arc which reaches a conclusion in the final scene – a scene that highlights the limitations of Jeff’s perspective and perception. As with all the important information in the narrative, Jeff misses out on these revelations.

Lars Thorwald in the film's climax. Beware of spoilers!

Lars Thorwald 

It has been argued that Jeff’s fascination with Thorwald relates to his own fears about marriage and having his life restricted by Lisa. At the very least, Jeff has come to believe that he somehow owns the lives that are lived in the apartments opposite, and that they have become part of a narrative that he controls. Because of this belief, it is not so much that Jeff cannot forgive Thorwald for murdering his wife, but that he cannot forgive him for doing it when Jeff wasn’t looking.

Within the murder mystery narrative that Jeff constructs, Thorwald is a two-dimensional villain. However, when Thorwald enters Jeff’s apartment and asks him: “What do you want from me?”, he becomes more than this. He is shown in close-up. Moreover Thorwald’s decision to head over to Jeff’s apartment and then throw him out of the window in front of all of the neighbours implies that a similar impulsive reaction led to his wife’s murder.

When Jeff spots Thorwald sitting alone in the darkness, the only person in the neighbourhood not to come out to see what is going on, Thorwald’s solitariness becomes analogous to the distance that separates Jeff from his fellow human beings and which has given him the detachment to recognise Thorwald’s guilt. The interconnection between Jeff and Thorwald that is explicitly played out in the scene where Jeff is talking to his editor about marriage reaches its climax in the moment where Thorwald looks straight back at Jeff. In staring straight at the camera, the character breaks the fourth wall something that film viewers are not typically prepared for and, in this moment, the audience’s connection with Jeff’s point of view is severed. The reorientation of perspective continues when Thorwald enters Jeff’s apartment and a series of point of view shots reveal Thorwald’s view of Jeff as each flash bulb is set off. By throwing Jeff into the space between his apartment and the rest of the community, Thorwald turns him into an object to be looked at by others.

 

Miss Torso

Even more than Lisa, Miss Torso would seem to be the object of the male gaze -- just think about the nickname Jeff has given her. In his eyes, she is defined by her brief clothes and seductive body, and her constant eating reinforces the emphasis on her body. In Jeff’s eyes, her dancing and constant movement are a form of private performance, but it could more accurately be viewed as the exercise and rehearsal required for her job. Just as Lisa’s gorgeous clothes are an integral part of her profession, Miss Torso’s body connects her to the world of work. In contrast to the sexually charged object it becomes when viewed by the voyeur, her continually moving body can be related to her professionalism as a dancer.

In the scene where the dog owner discovers her dog has been killed, Miss Torso is shown in close-up for the first time. Her empathetic response to the dog owner’s pain reveals that she is not the caricature Jeff has perceived her to be. Just as Jeff’s view of Miss Torso is filtered by his preconceptions and obsessions, Stella, Lisa and Doyle each view her through a lens based on their own experience of the world. When Stella looks at Miss Torso, she imagines her in middle age (“she'll wind up fat, alcoholic and miserable”); Lisa experiences a sense of fellowship seeing her as a beautiful woman fending off unwanted male attention; and Doyle’s mesmerised attention implies the allure of forbidden fruit. The joke in the film’s conclusion is that the love of her life barely looks at her before heading to the refrigerator. 

 

Miss Lonelyhearts

Miss Lonelyhearts is the character we learn most about and her story is almost fleshed out enough to be described as a subplot: her loneliness is established, followed by an unsuccessful search for love leading to self-destructive despair before salvation is achieved through the beauty of music. Her desire to connect opens her up to pain and unhappiness butalso challenges Jeff’sdesire to remain separate and emotionally disconnected from others. You probably noticed Miss Lonelyhearts shows her emotions on her face, almost as though she is in a silent movie, something that makes her vulnerable and unprotected. She is also the only character who actively reaches out to the dog owners when they discover their dog has been killed. She picks it up and tenderly lays it in the basket. It has been suggested that Jeff’s attention and emotions are captured by Miss Lonelyhearts because she is a woman who appears to need help and protection, restoring him to a position of strength and efficacy. When Jeff has the responsibility of warning Lisa of Thorwald’s return, his attention drifts instead to Miss Lonelyhearts’ apartment. Her potential overdose distracts him and Stella from the main game and they don’t get a chance to warn Lisa of Thorwald’s return.

 

[1] Jason Fraley, “Rear Window”, The Film Spectrum, 1 November 2011, https://thefilmspectrum.com/?p=241