James Stewart – perhaps Hollywood’s best ever ‘everyman’ actor – had a film career of over half a century, from a supporting role in 1935 crime movie The Murder Man to a voice part in 1991 animation An American Tail: Fievel Goes West. In between he starred in some of the biggest and most important movies around, so on what would have been his 111th birthday, here’s a list of his 10 best.
10. Destry Rides Again (1939, George Marshall)
James Stewart appeared in several Westerns throughout his career; it was a genre he especially enjoyed. This was his first – and it’s often played like a comedy. He stars as Tom Destry Jr, an unconventional lawman who takes on a criminal gang but refuses to carry a gun. Marlene Dietrich is top billed as the local saloon owner and gets as couple of songs to sing. Other decent Westerns starring James Stewart include two films directed by Anthony Mann – the episodic Winchester ’73 (1950) and the predictable but well made The Man from Laramie (1955) – as well as…
9. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962, John Ford)
A classy team-up with director John Ford and his favourite star, John Wayne. In the late 19th century, US Senator Ranse Stoddard (Stewart) arrives in a low-key town to attend a funeral. The bulk of the film is then a flashback to 25 years later, showing Stoddard’s first visit to the town during which he encountered and stood up to a savage local thug. There’s a good supporting cast – Vera Miles as the love interest, Lee Marvin as the heavy – as well as effective themes about how memories and myths can’t always be trusted.
8. No Highway in the Sky (1951, Henry Koster)
A character part for Stewart here, as he plays an aviation engineer who fears that a new fleet of commercial aircraft will fail. His character, Theodore Honey, has a razor-sharp intellect and a passionate determination – but is also a befuddled widower who forgets where he lives. This fun British film has a smart, understated script and some terrific production values. Marlene Dietrich, Glynis Johns, Jack Hawkins and a young Janette Scott co-star.
7. Harvey (1950, Henry Koster)
A delightfully breezy comedy about a man who has an imaginary friend in the form of an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit. Elwood P Dowd (Stewart) is a benign eccentric, but his sister attempts to have him committed – which leads to a farce-like plot of misunderstanding, whimsy and humour.
6. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939, Frank Capra)
This social satire sees Stewart as a naïve man elevated to the US Senate by cynical political operatives; they think they can manipulate him into voting their way, but don’t count on his guile and decency. The plot peaks with a grandstanding sequence where Jeff Smith (Stewart) filibusters for 25 hours to block a dodgy bill passing through the Senate, but there’s also lightness and romance along the way too. (This was the second of three times Stewart worked for director Frank Capra.)
5. Rope (1948, Alfred Hitchcock)
The highlights of James Stewart’s career were often his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock; the two men made four films together. In the decent The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Stewart plays one of his classic everyman roles – a husband and father who gets caught up in international espionage. But his first character for the Master of Suspence was Rupert Cadell, a sly university professor who attends a party hosted by two of his former pupils. Slowly it dawns on Cadell that the men have done something dreadful: they’ve murdered a friend as an intellectual exercise, hidden his body in a trunk, and then invited his loved ones round for drinks… The movie, famously shot in long takes, is absolutely gripping throughout. Click here for a full review.
4. Anatomy of a Murder (1959, Otto Preminger)
A courtroom drama shot like a film noir with a jazz score by Duke Ellington. Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, a small-town lawyer who takes on the defence of a man accused of killing a love rival. It’s a dark film, cynical and seedy at times, but so engrossing that its long running time (160 minutes) is never an issue. Part of the reason for its success is, like all great legal dramas, the details of the case are investigated with such precision; part of the reason is the strong cast (George C Scott as the prosecution lawyer, Ben Gazzara as the defendant, Lee Remick as the defendant’s girlfriend); and part of the reason is Stewart’s endlessly watchable performance as Biegler, a melancholic character who likes fishing and playing the piano.
3. Rear Window (1954, Alfred Hitchcock)
Stewart’s second role for Hitch was, like Rope, in a concept film. This time he plays LB Jefferies, a photographer who’s housebound due to a busted leg. During a heat wave, from his apartment window, he watches life going on outside – and then comes to belief that he’s seen his neighbour committing murder. The camera never leaves Jefferies’s side, so we see events totally from his point of view. It’s a spectacularly effective piece of filmmaking. Click here for a full review.
2. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, Frank Capra)
For a long time, there was a cliché that was often pedalled about It’s a Wonderful Life: that it’s an overly sugary, sentimental film without much depth – the very model of a ‘feel-good’ movie. But it’s now become just as much a cliché to point out that that’s not the case. Yes, there’s a stunningly upbeat ending – an explosion of joy and positivity and happiness that has no equal in cinema. But before we get there, this is a dark, shaded drama about a good, decent man who’s driven to the point of suicide. Stewart excels as small-town guy George Bailey, a role that allows the actor to display his astronomical charm and comic timing but also show us what a great dramatic performer he was. George is in virtually every scene and you feel every setback, every dent to his dreams.
1. Vertigo (1958, Alfred Hitchcock)
James Stewart’s final role for Alfred Hitchcock was in a movie that has sometimes – such as in Sight & Sound’s most recent big poll of experts – been called the greatest ever made. A twisted, seductive story about obsession, Vertigo sees the actor as Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop who’s hired to keep an eye on a troubled woman. When she dies in front of him, Scottie is racked with guilt. He then becomes unhealthily focused on the dead woman, and later happens to see another woman who looks uncannily similar… Alfred Hitchcock shows a masterful command of both form and feeling; Stewart carries off an enormously complex performance throughout.