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.
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 Classicfilmboy.com, 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.