Sunday, December 10, 2006

Book Break: “Jimmy Stewart: A Biography” Movies: "Rope" "The Far Country"

Author: Marc Eliot 2006
Directors: Alfred Hitchcock 1948 Anthony Mann 1955
When Jimmy Stewart returned home from World War ll, he was understandably a changed man. The actor had flown 20 bombing missions over Germany, an experience that left its mark. Even “It’s A Wonderful Life” shows a darker side to Stewart’s persona—it starts, after all, with Stewart’s character contemplating suicide and questioning the meaning of his small town life.
Post war, Stewart embarked on a series of remarkable performances, often guided by the same directors. He made four films with Hitchcock (“Rope,” “Rear Window,” “The Man Who Knew Much,” and “Vertigo”). Eight with Mann, including five memorable westerns noted for the toughness—even cruelty--of Stewart’s characters. Throw in 1959’s “Anatomy of a Murder” (Otto Preminger), a role that should have won Stewart his second Oscar, and you have a resume any actor would envy.
Marc Elliot’s biography is thorough, often fascinating. Stewart, like George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” was a small town boy, in his case the town was Indiana, Pa. His father owned a successful hardware business. Stewart went to Princeton, where he abandoned architecture for acting. As a young man struggling on Broadway, he befriended another young actor named Henry Fonda. Despite their political differences—Stewart’s conservative, Fonda’s liberal—they remained friends until Fonda’s death in 1981.
After Hollywood beckoned, tall, gangly Jimmy Stewart became quite a ladies’ man, romancing many a star, including Ginger Rogers and Marlene Dietrich. He didn’t marry until 1949. He was 41.
“Rope,” his first for Hitchcock, was based on a play clearly inspired by the Leopold-Loeb case. There is one set, an elegant Manhattan apartment. Hitchcock experimented by shooting the movie in uninterrupted, 10-minute takes. Ten minutes was the maximum amount of film in the camera. There are no edits, save awkward ones when it’s clear the ten minutes are up and more film has to feed the camera (Fifty-eight years later, there is a cut right out of “Rope” in “Mission: Impossible: lll”—it comes at the 50:17 minute-mark on the DVD, if you’re really interested in such things). Despite Hitchcock’s efforts—or perhaps because of them—the film is static, interesting for the excellent acting and none-too-subtle hints that the killers are gay (this was 1948, remember).
“The Far Country” is not the best of the Stewart-Mann westerns, but it’s a solid example of the genre, notable for breathtaking, on-location shooting in the Canadian Rockies. Stewart’s character has little use for people—until, of course, the climax. If you’ve never seen a Stewart-Mann western, start with “Winchester ‘73” or “The Naked Spur” or “Bend in the River.”
Stewart died in 1997. The New York Daily News front page used a picture of Stewart as George Bailey. The headline read: “A Wonderful Life.”


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