Wednesday, January 25, 2012

James Stewart: A Walk on the Dark Side

by guest contributor Classicfilmboy

Alfred Hitchcock had a knack for bringing out the worst in the best of actors.

And I mean that as a compliment. He could take likable leading men, cast them as dark characters and draw great performances. Think of Cary Grant’s Johnnie in Suspicion (before the studio re-edited the ending), Joseph Cotton’s Uncle Charlie in Shadow of a Doubt and Robert Walker’s Bruno in Strangers on a Train.

Perhaps the best example of this was how Hitchcock used James Stewart, whose image was the “aw shucks” guy next door. As Hitchcock biographer Patrick McGilligan suggests, his heroes began to deepen with Grant and then with Stewart, and those films deepened as a result.

But as much as I love Grant, he has a particular on-screen persona that became part of almost every performance he gave starting in the late 1940s. Meanwhile, as Stewart aged, he pushed away from his all-American persona and began playing dark and conflicted men, looking less and less like the characters audiences loved in the 1930s and early 1940s. Frank Capra tapped into Stewart’s dark side in 1946’s It's a Wonderful Life, with the actor playing a man who is contemplating suicide, forced to stay and work where he never wanted to and bitter that he never had the opportunities that others enjoyed. According to McGilligan, Stewart told Lionel Barrymore that his air force experience during World War II made him question acting, resulting in Stewart searching for stronger parts.

Rope (1948)
It makes sense that Hitchcock would pick up on Stewart’s newfound attitudes. Yet, oddly enough, Stewart’s first film with Hitchcock was 1948’s Rope, in which Stewart is very much playing off his good-guy persona. Stewart does his usual fine job, but both he and Hitchcock learned from this for their future collaborations.

But first came some fine roles that would eventually comprise a decade of marvelous work from Stewart, starting with 1950’s Harvey. As the gentle Elwood P. Dowd, Stewart plays someone who’s not in touch with the rest of society, which in itself can get you labeled as mentally disturbed even if that’s not the case. Stewart mines the dark comedy in playing a man who would rather be friends with a large imaginary rabbit that with any humans, and it takes a special actor to make this character resonate rather than becoming too cute or too disturbing.

Stewart’s early 1950s westerns also brought out a toughness in character. Just look at The Naked Spur, with Stewart as a bounty hunter in a tale that predates some of John Wayne’s more conflicted Western characters.  

Rear Window (1954)
Stewart’s second pairing with Hitchcock is 1954’s Rear Window which is my favorite Hitchcock film of the 1950s. It’s rare to think of Stewart as having a sexuality on screen, yet here Hitchcock fully taps into it with Stewart’s character, Jeff, having an open affair with Grace Kelly. It’s rather shocking to see Mr. All-American, in a leg cast and wheelchair, clearly in lust with the lovely Ms. Kelly. Yet it works, bringing Stewart down to our level. Yes, he’s still the hero, but he also has desires and doubts like the rest of us. The fact that our hero likes to spy on all of his neighbors adds an unsettling dimension to that character, because the audience is right there with him, knowing it’s wrong but unable to do anything but indulge.

How better than to have your audience identify with a peeping Tom than have that man played by Stewart. He’s a flawed man, and one that Hitchcock and Stewart brilliantly explore together.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
It’s worth noting that Stewart was cast before screenwriter John Michael Hayes started his work, so the role was tailored to Stewart.

Stewart and Hitchcock were both friendly and business-like to each other. More importantly, they understood each other. Stewart re-teams with Hitchcock a third time in The Man Who Knew Too Much, although in the first half of the movie Stewart relies on his aw-shucks persona too much. It isn’t until the latter stages when Stewart’s Ben MacKenna is desperate to save his child.

But Hitchcock fully taps into the dark side of Stewart in Vertigo, their fourth film together. Stewart’s Scottie may be afraid of heights, but that’s the least of his problems in light of his sexual obsession over Kim Novak.

R.D. Finch does an outstanding job of discussing Stewart in his Vertigo post from earlier this month during The Lady Eve’s Vertigo event, and there’s no need to repeat what he wrote. What’s worth noting is the unsettling, frightening darkness to Stewart’s character. 

 Perhaps this is why the film wasn’t much of a success when it was released. In Rope, Rear Window and The Man Who Knew Too Much, Stewart eventually overcomes his weaknesses, although with some struggle. In Vertigo, the weaknesses are debilitating, and maybe that’s what audiences simply don’t want to see in Stewart or accept from one of his characters.

But Scottie should be a disorienting figure in a film where dizziness is both literal and figurative. For me, Stewart’s casting is genius, because it adds another level of disorientation. I doubt another actor could have carried this off. Sure, others may have given strong performances, but Hitchcock and Stewart knew what they were doing. It’s that extra push, the expected screen persona that’s built into the audience mindset before the film begins that ultimately shocks them in the end. 

 As a result, Vertigo is an enduring, disturbing tale. Over four films, Hitchcock and Stewart worked well together, and the great director elicited from Stewart some of his best work, perhaps none as disturbing as Scottie.


Brian, aka Classicfilmboy, developed a love of classic films at a young age with the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz on CBS (which he partially blames for his tornado phobia). As a kid growing up in a small Midwestern town, access to classic films was limited, which made their mystique even more enticing. Brian later spent 10 years as a film reviewer and now writes, although he wishes he could devote more time to his blog. He specializes in pre-1970 film history, and for fun he teaches noncredit film appreciation classes at his local community college in suburban Chicago.


  1. "For me, Stewart’s casting is genius, because it adds another level of disorientation. I doubt another actor could have carried this off."

    Love this. Brilliant observation, and such an important part of the character and the movie. Great job.

  2. Some great insights, Brian!
    I have to agree with your take on Stewart not usually being thought of as having any sex appeal, but if you cast your mind back to IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, you may recall the "phone sex" (sort of) scene with Donna Reed. Stewart was reportedly very uncomfortable with the whole set-up, and more generally, as you note, with his return to the screen after seeing too much horror in WWII. Very young Donna threw herself into the scene with abandon and althought it's tough to carry on a hot stuff moment when your dialogue contains any reference to upstate New York cities like Elmira, the intense result was sooooo steamy, we actually only see a clipped version of it--Capra had to scissor out the REALLY hot part. Rats, I say! And to boot, this extraordinarily erotic scene was done in ONE TAKE. Wowser! That boy can kiss! Thanks again for this lovely addition to the mix, Brian. Well done! Kay

  3. Brian, I like that you discuss all four film collaborations between Hitch and Stewart. It is interesting to see the evolution of this relationship--Hitch starts small, pulling back the layers bit by bit, and then finally he gets his Scottie--a character so far removed from the Jimmy Stewart brand that it is disorienting. Nice article.

  4. Brian, a great opening sentence to a post that just gets better as it progresses. I like the way you discuss all four films Stewart made with Hitchcock. That nicely sets up your discussion of his Scottie in "Vertigo." You talk about "the expected screen persona that’s built into the audience mindset." That's something only the best and best-loved actors (or "actor-personalities" as Andrew Sarris calls them) like Stewart and Cary Grant are able to create. But it takes a brave actor indeed to play AGAINST that persona and still maintain it, as Stewart does in "Vertigo" and, as you mention, to a certain extent in "Rear Window" (perhaps in some ways a trial run for "Vertigo"). I think seeing someone so familiar behaving so strangely--and with no pulling back from the consequences of that behavior--is what's so disturbing (a word you purposely use several times) about "Vertigo" and helps explain why audiences didn't embrace the film in 1958.

    Hitchcock seemed very sensitive to audience acceptance of his pictures. When he felt he'd done something to alienate the viewer (like killing the little brother in "Sabotage" or the false flashback in "Stage Fright"), he made sure never to repeat it. When he had a flop, he usually did something safe the next time out, a filmed play or after "Vertigo," "North by Northwest." It's my own favorite Hitchcock movie. But it's in many ways the ultimate expression of a subject he'd taken on many times before, a surefire audience pleaser with a surefire star whose character had no rough edges or hidden depths.

    Finally, thanks for the kind words about my post.

  5. Brian, a great post. Stewart's work with Hitchcock certainly reflected his dark side, similar as you mention to Anthony Mann's westerns, not just THE NAKED SPUR but in BEND OF THE RIVER and THE MAN FROM LARIMIRE. I am sure it was unsettling for audiences of the day to see good guy Jimmy in such darker roles. I love his performance here in VERTIGO, though like you, my favorite Hitchcock film is REAR WINDOW.

  6. Brian ~ I think it is fair to say this blogathon has profoundly explored many aspects of the film, and your exploration of Jimmy Stewart’s role as an actor and as Scottie is an excellent contribution. I mentioned in my response to Michael Nazarewycz that my research on Bernard Herrmann revealed the composer initially found two faults with the film: the casting of James Stewart as John Ferguson and the use of San Francisco as the setting. He was incredulous that Stewart would feel the passion necessary for the role of Scottie. We know, from watching the film, how Stewart’s ordinary man persona acted as the perfect vehicle for his character’s downward spiral of obsession. I’m sure his very likeable early image was at odds with the darker roles, and it might have been easy to underestimate him. We can thank Hitchcock, once again, for his keen intuition and powers of observation. Thank you for your wonderful contribution to “A Month Of Vertigo” blogathon.

  7. Well done Classicfilmboy! Loved your piece on Stewart. I agree, there have been many people (at least who I've spoken to) who felt Stewart was miscast or wrong for the film, but honestly, could there be anyone else climbing those steps? Like everything about Vertigo, Stewart was a significant puzzle piece that fit so perfectly into the mosaic. Stewart's Scottie is indeed complex and the many flaws and faults he possesses makes him even more compelling. This is a man psychologically crushed, never throughout the film (except perhaps the very beginning) was I reminded that the man on the screen was not Scottie. It was a performance that went beyond "Stewart" as an actor and a persona. Its quite incredible. In my opinion, Stewart's performance is arguably one of the very best among Hitchcock's other characters. Although, I'm sure that is a debate with endless arguments. I like your evaluation of Stewart's gradual change in style and performance during his post-war period. He is indeed a great chameleon. And I do have the same feelings about Grant having a very "cary grant" character in basically most of his film portrayals. But I guess thats why we love him so much. :) Well done Classicfilmboy!

    - Brandon Kyle The Cinephile (@bkthecinephile)

  8. Great piece Classicfilmboy - an excellent summary of Stewart and Vertigo work so well together. It's interesting that Hitchcock used Cary Grant in North by Northwest - certainly a very different role but one that Stewart would have liked to play, or at least felt he wanted to continue working with Hitchcock. Perhaps that darker side in Vertigo would have spilled over in a part that Grant seemed so great for. Stewart didn't have Grant's sex appeal, but as an ordinary guy mixed up in a devious plot, he would have been great in that Hitchcock film also.

  9. Brian - this is a wonderful article! Stewart's evolution as an actor and his shift (a little) to the dark side as he got older is one of the most interesting things (to me) about his work. Now, there is nobody who loves Cary Grant more than I do (hear that, ladies? It's hard to type when I am beating the others off with a stick), but I doubt he could have done the tortured-man bit as good as Jimmy. He and Hitchcock teamed up at just the right moment in both of their careers and have us 2 perfect films. Great post!

  10. James Stewart is a star. He has shown that he can take on any kind of role and do it well. His career shows a growth in the types of roles he took on that is only equaled by a handful of others. John Wayne and Bette Davis come to mind.

    I certainly liked him in Destry Rides Again (1938), but Winchester '73 (1950) is a much better western with a much more troubled Stewart who eventually kills his own brother.

    Thanks for a great post on a real star.

  11. A distinguishing aspect for me of all films that I consider truly great and memorable is that the writing, the setting, the music and the actors seem definitive. I wouldn't even want to imagine "Vertigo" taking place anywhere else other than San Francisco, and similarly, the actors have all, within my mind, become just the right part within a perfect whole. Of course, I realize that other performers probably could have fufilled their roles equally satisfactorily, although with an individual difference that might have unforseen effects. In the case of James Stewart I believe that, as you wrote, his earlier screen persona, an all-american, idealistic everyman (almost a portrait out of Norman Rockwell) provided Hitchcock with an image that he could put to creative use, or, as he was fond of doing, to subvert. Imagine "Mr. Smith Goes to the Edge of Reason". Obviously, Stewart had the talent and, more importantly, the courage to put his image at risk and show the darker layers of human nature. After the war america was struggling with a tattered idealism that found it's expression in film noir, abstract expressionism and other such forms, that revealed the nation's and the individual's dark night of the soul. Sometimes I see Scottie's loss of psychological balance as a metaphorical midlife crisis, where his entire former orientation was sent into a tailspin ("How 'Ya Gonna Keep Them Down On the Farm, After they've Seen Paree", or can Mozart ever bring you completely back after you've heard "Rite Of Spring"). One of the primary reasons that "Vertigo" will last and continue to grow in our imaginations is the brilliant casting of James Stewart, who had the vulnerability to bring to life this in-control character who now has to confront his well-ordered world being turned upside down. Stewart was perfect as Scottie because he expresses an extremely complicated, morally ambiguious character, and is still able to connect emotionally with the audience. In my mind I can imagine Stewart as the lead in "Spellbound", but I can't imagine Gregory Peck in "Vertigo". Great art is great talent, great skill and ambition, and probably helped along by great luck. James Stewart was the right guy in the right role at the right time.

  12. Thank you all for your comments and additional insights into Stewart and "Vertigo." And thanks to Patty for inviting me to write about one of my favorite actors.

  13. What I love about Hitchcock movies in general is how actors are tested and challenged with the roles they are playing, which in turn challenges and tests the audiences who view his films. James Stewart's performance in Vertigo, is I think, one of his very best, right up there with The Philadelphia Story and It's A Wonderful Life. What makes it so is that he is able to do away with his aw-shucks public image and challenge us to see the actor beyond the image, which he does so very well in Vertigo.

  14. Brian - Looking over Stewart's filmography following "Vertigo," it seems he played mostly good guys after. I'd imagine the more shaded characters he portrayed in his Hitchcock and Anthony Mann films must've been very fulfilling as well as challenging for him as an actor.

    An interesting aspect of Scottie Ferguson and Stewart's portrayal of him is how the character evolves in the course of the film. At the start he appears to be a "regular guy" who's had a terrifying experience and developed a crippling phobia he's struggling with. As he becomes enchanted by 'Madeleine,' he seems to be losing further ground. When he saves her from the bay, takes her home and undresses her, his fixation seems to have overtaken him. Essentially, Stewart portrays a man in the process of disintegrating. In the end, Scottie has achieved the hollow victory of conquering his vertigo - at the price of his soul and everything else. Stewart is magnificent in the role.

    A great profile, Brian, thanks for taking part in "A Month of Vertigo."

  15. But as much as I love Grant, he has a particular on-screen persona that became part of almost every performance he gave starting in the late 1940s.

    What kind of screen persona are you talking about?

  16. Whenever I see "Vertigo" I think it's Stewart's greatest performance. Then I watch "Anatomy of a Murder" and I think, that's it. Same for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "It's a Wonderful Life."

    So I can't pick and choose, but what's underlying all these performances is the angst simmering under the surface. "Vertigo" has the added layer of obsession. It's a brilliant performance.

  17. Awesome post. I have always thought Stewart was a perfect choice for the film and have often wondered.. what happens to his character Scottie, after witnessing three deadly falls.

  18. CFB,
    A true test to Stewart's acting abilities. He's just as good in thrillers/dramas as he is in comedies. (We'll just forget about Ice Follies for now)

    A nice write up on Jimmy!

  19. Indeed, the sickly murderous look Stewart gives Novak in the car on the last trip to the mission - he is positively terrifying. In conjunction with publicity stills where he is strangling Judy, it makes one wonder if Hitch was playing with staying faithful to the French novel's ending.