If Alfred Hitchcock brought evil to a prosaic town in Shadow of a Doubt, then in Rear Window, he brought the prosaic evil to the big city. Photographer L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is trapped over a sweltering hot summer in his Greenwich Village apartment after breaking his leg on the job. Confined to a wheelchair with only part-time companionship provided by his model girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly), and his nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), Jeff wiles away the hours by spying on his neighbors. And while Stella complains, “We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms,” Jeff’s new hobby seems harmless enough. He learns enough about his neighbors to grant some of them nicknames — Miss Torso (Georgine Darcy) for the constantly flexing dancer and Miss Lonelyhearts (Judith Evelyn) for the woman he observes entertaining imaginary dates.
Jeff can see across the courtyard into the block of windows opposite his own, and there’s nothing unusual in any of them. He observes that the salesman (Raymond Burr) across the way possesses a nasty temper when he rudely rebuffs a neighbor who tries to talk to him while he waters his rosebushes in the courtyard below, but he also sees that the man has his hands full with an invalid wife who fills her own empty days with nagging her husband. But then a scream pierces the darkened courtyard and Jeff watches as the salesman leaves with his suitcase in the dead of night, only to return and leave again, and his suspicions are aroused. The next day, the salesman’s wife is gone. Jeff becomes convinced — and manages to convince Lisa and Stella — that the woman is dead, murdered. His suspicions aren’t based on any real knowledge, just on what he observes through his rear window — suspicions that Jeff’s cop friend, Doyle (Wendell Corey) dismisses as the imaginings of a bored man.
Hitchcock never shows the actual murder in Rear Window. The salesman’s act is merely implied by his actions — his nocturnal comings and goings, the way he wraps a knife and saw in newspaper and washes down his bathroom walls. It’s not until a little dog has its neck broken that the neighbors realize there is some kind of malevolence in their midst. Even then, except from Jeff’s viewpoint, it could be any one of them. The dog’s owner so much as says so, implying that evil can manifest anywhere, even in a neighborhood full of ordinary people. And the salesman is resolutely ordinary. When he confronts Jeff at the climax of Rear Window, he’s more petulant than vicious, wanting to know what Jeff wants from him — why is he picking on him?
Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s most satisfying thrillers as the suspense drives the film inexorably forward, even though virtually nothing happens on-screen. Jeff is a sitting duck, trapped in that wheelchair. More than that, though, Rear Window brings the idea of murder to everyday life and the idea that any life, no matter how normal and mundane, can be touched by murder. Like Shadow of Doubt, Rear Window shows that no matter how well we think we know our friends, family, and neighbors, that doesn’t mean they (or we) are incapable of the unthinkable. Shadow of a Doubt and Rear Window are among Hitchcock’s best, because they demonstrate the evil in the heart of man — and that man is Everyman.