(On TV, December 2017) I’ve always liked James Stewart, but after the one-two combination of The Shop around the Corner and It’s a Wonderful Life, he has now ascended even higher in my own pantheon of actors. It’s hard to resist the charms of his performance in It’s a Wonderful Life, as central as he is to the film’s success. After all, on paper it sounds like a snore: A man being shown (by an angel, no less) the impact of his life? Not promising. And yet, after a rough start that goes all-in on divine intervention, the magic starts happening as we follow Stewart’s character as he ages and develops. Writer/director Frank Capra was a veteran at the time of the film’s production and his skill is evident throughout. It’s a Wonderful Life has that elusive scene-to-scene watchability, as we can’t resist wanting to know what will happen next, even though we can certainly guess the outline of the plot before it happens. Much has been said about the film’s inspirational quality, and despite my skepticism the film does deliver on these promises—so much so that, midway through the movie, I paused it and made a difficult (but important) phone call that I’d been putting off for a while. All part of trying to measure up to James Stewart’s character. While I have issues with many of the film’s more maudlin moments (and suspect that I’m opposed to a few of its major themes), I’m rather pleased to report that It’s a Wonderful Life worked as well on me as it worked on several generations so far. Far from aging, it has become quite an amazing time capsule. Plus, hey, James Stewart.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) It takes a long time, indeed a very long time for The Shop Around the Corner to come alive. Set in Budapest (perhaps daringly, given the way World War II was going on at the time), mostly in a downtown shop, this is a film about the timeless concept of differences between inner and outer selves, as a salesman falls for the written words of a pen-pal who turns out to be his insufferable co-worker. (If this is familiar, consider that the film was very loosely remade as You’ve Got Mail in 1998.) Margaret Sullavan plays the pen-pal, but it’s James Stewart, in all of his youthful likability, who steals the show as the salesman. Stewart’s character is terrific, and only he could manage to make audiences fall for his mixture of competence, arrogance and good intentions. But it takes a while for the film to come around to its romantic climax—first, we have to learn far more than we’d ever imagined about the inner workings of a Hungarian shop before getting to the dramatic engines of the film. It builds steadily, however, and hits the right notes right on time for the Christmas Eve climax. Definitely a film of its time, and yet still accessible today, The Shop Around the Corner warrants a look, especially as a Christmas movie.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) I distinctly remember the cymbal climax of The Man Who Knew Too Much from boyhood memories, so technically this would be a second viewing … but given that I only remembered that, let’s not pretend that I’m revisiting it. After all, watching it today I’m more interested in seeing another Alfred Hitchcock movie starring James Stewart and Doris Day. The result is in line with expectations, although I’ll note that overall, and compared to other Hitchcock movies of the same era, The Man Who Knew Too Much feels more average than it should. It’s overlong, with some sequences milking the same emotions to diminishing return. It takes much longer than it should to get started, and the “Que Sera, Sera” climax, while effective, is extended far too long after the cymbal moment to be as satisfying as it could be. Even Stewart, as good as he is, seems to be coasting on an average performance in an average film. Some of the plot curlicues are suspiciously convenient (such as having Day’s character being a retired yet still famous singer) but that’s to be expected. Still, for all of what’s not so good about The Man Who Knew Too Much, it’s still a Hitchcock film from the director’s competent period, with likable smart leads in Stewart and not-so-icy blonde Day. The suspense is well handled and if the film feels lacking today, it’s largely because it has set the standard through which modern thrillers are examined. As an entry through Hitchcock’s filmography, it’s a painless enough viewing.
(On Cable TV, December 2017) My understanding of James Stewart and John Wayne’s screen persona is still incomplete (especially when it comes to Stewart’s latter-day westerns), but as of now, “James Stewart and John Wayne in a Western” tells me nearly all I needed to know about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence’s plot. The clash between Stewart’s urbane gentility and Wayne’s tough-guy gruffness isn’t just casting: it’s the crux of the film’s nuanced look at the end of the Western period. The film’s classic set-up (an eastern-trained lawyer comes to town, becomes an enemy of the local villain) becomes an examination of Western tropes when the easy fatal solution is rejected by the protagonist as being against his values. When John Ford’s character steps in as a necessary conduit for violence, this deceptively simple film becomes a thought-piece questioning an entire genre. I surprisingly liked it upon watching (save for an extended sequences in which American democracy is slowly explained) and liked it even more upon further thought. Stewart is terrific in a role that harkens back to his more youthful idealist persona, while Ford is impeccable as a somewhat repellent but ultimately heroic figure. (I find it significant that my three favourite Wayne movies so far, along with The Searchers and The Shootist, have him willing to play roles that are critical of his usual persona.) Under John Ford’s experienced direction, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence acts as an epilogue to the Western and a hopeful examination of American values that emerged from the period.
(On DVD, January 2008) Even sixty years later, James Stewart is still The Man: As the lead in this semi-documentary drama about a journalist working to free a man unjustly accused of murder, he’s the mesmerizing rock upon which everything else depends. His impassioned speech at the end of the film evokes memories of other great Stewart performances, but it also stands on its own. Six decades later, it’s easy to be amused by the dramatic devices in what must have felt like a techno-thriller back then: The lie detector, the photographic processes, the remote transmission process: yeah technology! But the film itself is solid: Even if the film shows its age, the characters are interesting, the rhythm compares well to other films of the time and the look at then-Chicago has its own charm. But most of all: James Stewart. The guy isn’t one of the greats for nothing.