[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

Four hands: another contagion effect (No Highway in the Sky, 1950)

James Stewart appeared on the firmament of the film world in 1938 with Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You, which won the Oscar for Best Picture. This celebrity comes about awkwardly: first of all, Stewart has only the fourth role in the film, after Lionel Barrymore, Edward Arnold and Jean Arthur. More importantly, even though he is the prototype of the indolent dreamer, his character belongs to the world of the rich, while his fiancée lives in a family of outcasts, among whom he feels totally at ease. The interest is thus centred on the conflict between the heads of the two families, Stewart putting them in contact with each other. His role could’ve been stronger had his character reproduced the mentality of the rich, whereas it’s the opposite here.

This shakiness is aggravated by the fact that Stewart hasn’t yet found his line as an actor. With his co-star Jean Arthur, he copies Cary Grant (and she, Katharine Hepburn) as he moves across the restaurant, stuck behind her to hide the ridiculous inscription she has on her back, some months after the similar—and more successful—scene from Bringing Up Baby. The second film he makes with Capra, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, contains some shots—notably during the turbulent meeting with the press after the publication of an article ridiculing him—that relate him to his great friend Henry Fonda: his hair falls over his forehead and comes close to his cheeks, making his face look very thin. We perceive in him the hunted, rebellious man of You Only Live Once. At one point in You Can’t Take It with You, he has, on one part of the forehead, the famous little lock of hair of Gary Cooper, the protagonist of the first Shopworn Angel that Stewart just remade. Moreover, Mr. Smith, with Capra’s help, is a close cousin to Mr. Deeds.

This proximity can be linked to the fact that Cooper, Fonda and Stewart are all Tauruses. I had the greatest contempt for astrology until the day I realized that most great actors (Fonda, Welles, Gabin, Fernandel, James Mason) were born under this sign. It’s too good to be a coincidence, especially considering that Capra was born on the 19th of May, a day before Stewart, and that Borzage (who gave JS the leading role in Mortal Storm) belonged to the same vintage: it’s really a great family…

From You Can’t Take onwards, Stewart’s individuality starts to manifest itself: his novel play of hands often has a precise signification. So the dance of his fingers on the table constitutes a direct allusion to the guests who are enjoying themselves at the house of his future father-in-law. The work on repurposed gestures is very successful: he raises his hand toward the boy employed by his father, as though to slap him. He abandons his primitive impulse, and regains his gesture in a way, so as to not look like an idiot: in the continuity of the movement, he goes on… to brush his jacket.

This work on hands is quite good in one scene of a film made slightly later, Made for Each Other (1939): he informs his mother that he is married to the girl next to him by pointing his thumb alternatively towards the girl and himself. In the same film, we find an identical principle, but with the head this time: he lets the viewer know that he has understood his wife’s allusive speech suggesting that she is pregnant, simply by lowering his head four times in a twitchy manner. Before this, we weren’t sure of the real meaning of this speech. This sharp movement, mixed with emotion, helps us understand everything. Great art consists of doing away with speech, of saying everything through gesture, especially when it involves important events: a marriage, a birth.

In You Can’t Take, his stubborn way of keeping his mouth open without speaking is particularly audacious. This trait allows us to better place the character: it’s the Capraesque Naïf, dazed and out of sync with reality. This perfectly suits Stewart, who displays the temperament of a dreamer in real life and whose physique, with his wide cheeks somewhat depressed towards a visible chin, midway between Jerry Lewis and Eddy Merckx, and his lanky figure, give the impression of ingenuousness.

Succeeding the rich Naïf of You Can’t Take, with whom we can hardly identify, is the Naïf from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, closer to common morals whom we can easily sympathize with, all the more so because now he is a victim whom we want to see overcome adversity. He is, in the literal sense of the term, a boy scout, now nominated senator, whose naiveté and incompetence will undoubtedly make of him the perfect yes man. But he plays along and, during his marathon intervention before the Senate, torpedoes a scandalous construction project founded on a conspiracy hatched by another senator, whose protégé he is.

This new film is infinitely better than You Can’t Take where, owing to lack of emotion, the demagogy was too evident, limited to itself and welded to a theatrical material full of tricks. The emotion here is strengthened by the evolution of the character—something that didn’t exist in You Can’t Take. Demagogy is certainly present in Mr. Smith implicitly, but it’s almost erased by the director’s and actor’s brio. Good still prevails over Evil, but the final victory—obtained at the price of a long and uncertain struggle—leaves a fainter trace in the viewer’s mind than the long revelation of skulduggery and human reactions it brings about.

Stewart’s Smith constitutes one of the most successful examples of overplaying in cinema, but this excess in performance is not comparable to that of Murnau’s Jennings in Letzte Mann or that of Brando in Missouri Breaks, films where the character accomplishes entirely ordinary tasks, which could’ve called for a sober or somewhat withdrawn performance. Smith breaks the record for the duration of intervention in the Senate. He does a routine to influence his audience. He is thus mounting a show, an exceptional one. More questionable is the characterization of the very naïf Smith at the beginning of the film. In front of the journalists at Washington, he imitates the cry of birds, which is quite successful with the media as well as the viewers of the film. But this caricatural aspect is amended by the evolution of the character towards seriousness. The initial overplaying is thus related to Smith’s futility, to his lack of maturity. We might say that it’s abandoned soon after it’s milked for its advantages.

Early style: Stewart as a standard young dandy (The Shop Around the Corner, 1939)

A hick lost in the Senate, Smith mumbles frequently. He stammers. In the first session, he starts with a “Be… because”. A little later comes “But… but”. In front of a full senate, after a “Jeez” unbefitting of such a place (it means something between “Good God” and “God Damnit”), he stumbles on a somewhat rare word from the judicial vocabulary, “to convene”, that he repeats with a very amusing lack of assurance. Later, the stammer will have an altogether different reason than stage fright or lack of experience: fatigue of the marathon speaker. The same principle—stuttering—refers then to two successive stages in the Smith’s evolution. We find variants of this double effect in the trembling, fluctuating voice [1] with which this intimidated man talks of a “law proposal” and in the broken voice with which he ends his exceptional vocal performance towards the end of the film. To complete the evolution, he becomes a magnificent orator, one who is very convincing thanks to his sincerity. There is here, of course, something to flatter the viewer watching the film: it means that anyone, without training in eloquence, can become the best orator in the world if he believes in what he says.

In fact, Stewart systematically uses all the possibilities offered to him by the role and the evolution of the character: he plays on his breathing, which we hear very clearly at times, he makes himself hoarse to the point of coughing, he wears very long clothes that make him look even more ridiculous, he sports a stubble even when his speech in the Senate is not that long, he modifies his hairstyle—plain in the beginning, then romantic like Fonda, ruffled at the end, where he is even unkempt—which is enough to transform Smith completely. He is first ramrod straight, then, with fatigue, he assumes positions that are increasingly slanted, fractured or twisted, like a Gary Cooper who has become Cary Grant. He often tilts his head towards the right, using his hand at times. We find this predilection for the right in most of James Stewart’s films. He raises his hand, first for the pledge and then many times towards the chairman of the session; if Cary Grant was the actor of the outstretched finger, James Stewart is the actor of the outstretched hand, which amplifies a line, announces a protest, an accusation, or a swearing in. For this reason, great public halls (the electoral assembly of Liberty Valance) or trial courts (Anatomy of a Murder) will be very favourable to him.

Despite this shape-shifting expansion over two hours, Stewart never gets tired: he alternates his routines with shots of complete stability. During the businessman Edward Arnold’s speech, he remains rigorously impassive (which corresponds to a precise reality: Smith is trying to understand) and does everything to help his co-actor, who hams away to glory. This throws Stewart into even sharper relief when he stands up again at the end… imitated by Joseph Walker’s camera that generally refrains from accompanying such minimal movement. Capra even leaves him in the shadows for a good while during the glasshouse scene.

I’ve saved the bravura piece for the last. One of the major ideas of the film is that Smith, when he is in love, fiddles with his hat.

An idea that seems stupid at first, but one that turns out to be of a rare efficiency. It recalls the synecdoche—part standing for the whole—so dear to Lubitsch, in whose films the opening of doors, the contents of plates (cf. Angel) express character emotions more than faces or bodies do. The prerequisite for the efficiency of the method is, clearly, that emotion be expressed solely by the object, never by the face, which would be redundant. It’s up to the viewer to guess the deeper meaning of the movement of the hat. There is this magnificent shot, thirty-seven seconds long, where, as soon as Smith looks at the senator’s daughter, we see, in a tight shot of the object and in a continuous movement (a technical tour de force), Stewart’s hand collecting the hat and putting it behind him for no reason. The hat falls, the camera follows. James Stewart picks it up, fiddles with it again, puts it on the head, catches it again when it falls, the whole illustrating an anodyne dialogue. It’s not until the next-to-last of these eight movements that we perceive, in the space of an instant, Stewart’s head. It proves clearly that it’s Stewart who is acting out the scene, and not a body double. And, notably, this makes a direct reference to the true subject of the shot, Stewart, ironically evoked in a quarter of a second, while the false subject, the hat, is the only one visible all through the thirty-seven seconds. One could certainly say: it’s too tiny a bravura piece. But our pleasure before this virtuoso’s jugglery is extreme.

And, moreover, the complicity between the film and the viewer is sealed: we’re proud of having understood all by ourselves, without the help of dialogue, just by watching Stewart’s play of hands, that Smith is in love, which this stupid Smith doesn’t even suspect. This call to the viewer’s pride might appear trivial, but it nevertheless reinforces our participation in the film, as well as our emotion, which constantly develops until the last shot, with tears at times.

Here we should mention the important role that hats play in classical American cinema. We have already had a glimpse of it with Cary Grant. The choice of hats enables the instant definition of a character. In his book James Stewart [2], Doug Headline mentions that, before Two Rode Together, during the first meeting between the two men, without any warning, Ford had started by showing Stewart not the script but the somewhat ridiculous wide-brimmed hat the actor had to wear… I’d almost say that the hat is chosen first, then the actor. The manner of wearing it in each sequence can also impart diverse shades to the same character. If the hat is large and lowered in front, a part of the face remains in the shadow and that makes the character, as we have seen, an idea, a myth more than a human being in flesh and blood. Show me your hat and I’ll tell you who you are. The problem is that the collapse of the hat market has meant that, today, we aren’t sensitive to every psychological nuance stemming from a play with the prop. One could even draw wrong conclusions from it: the kepi of legionnaires, with its anti-solar canvas band, looks funny in 1993, whereas it commanded respect or admiration at the time of Morocco. Finally, it can be said that the only unfortunate thing, and at the same time a terrible catastrophe, produced by the disappearance of the habit of wearing headgear is not the bankruptcy of the hat industry and the unemployment of its workers, but the loss of an essential resource of dramatic art, accompanied by a huge gap in the understanding of our heritage.

The first great meeting (The Philadelphia Story, 1940)

The saga of the hat continues from one film to the next: in Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner, made the same year, Stewart starts fiddling with his hat for a few seconds when he sees Margaret Sullavan at the café. The viewer who has seen Mr. Smith automatically deduces that Stewart is in love—without knowing it—with Sullavan, whom he’ll marry in the last reel. Here is a good example of the American private joke, no less frequent than the private joke of the Nouvelle Vague, but less accessible to us due to the spatial, and now temporal, remove from it. Private joke as an initiative of the actor more than the director. Thus, the coin (inherited from Scarface) with two heads and no tail decides the fate of the same Thomas Mitchell in another Hawks, Only Angels Have Wings, and then, three months later, filmed upright at the centre of an extreme closeup in Mr. Smith, where it now has a head and a tail.

Lubitsch’s film is made of rather lengthy shots, which allows for a quick shoot, with an average of three minutes and forty-five seconds of useful film per day. As opposed to Wayne, or Cooper, who might have had difficulties in retaining all his lines, Stewart, an actor from the theatre, is completely at ease in a long shot or a sequence shot, which gives him an edge. He can hesitate, move between lines, which makes him very human. During his first meeting with Margaret Sullavan, there is a static shot of more than one minute [3].

We will find this airiness of the long shot in the scene at the café, where, at one point, we notice a very novel principle: seated at separate tables, Sullavan and Stewart speak with their backs to each other, slightly turning their heads when delivering a line, before Stewart comes to sit in front of her. The whole exchange takes place in two long shots linked to one another—thanks to an almost invisible cut made in the middle of a line, which really gives us the impression and tension of a sequence shot. I think that it’s this excellence in long shots, among others, that will prompt Hitchcock to choose James Stewart for Rope, where the average shot length is seven minutes, the third-lo-last shot running for ten minutes and six seconds. Truth be told, the performance is reduced by half for the actors here, since Hitchcock shows us certain actors in the first part of the shot and others later. It was nevertheless an unprecedented thing for which he would’ve been stupid not to call James Stewart, the most talented American actor in this regard. Later, we find, among other things, a surprising 1’33” in Anatomy of a Murder, and the famous 4’09” in Two Rode Together, a static shot of a long conversation with Richard Widmark, which the technicians filmed from the middle of a river.

Capra’s film was centred on the performance of Stewart-Smith. In contrast, in the Lubitsch, even if he is still the main character—in terms of appearance and in the credits—JS remains much more integrated into the film. The real subject is not him, it’s the life within a small enterprise. A reflection, then, on capitalism at once laudatory and ironic, like in Capra. The most interesting character is not Stewart’s, model employee turned boss, but that of Rudy, an adolescent at once a naïf and a social climber with whom Lubitsch identifies.

What is strange in the film is the choice of Stewart. Here is an actor who personifies America, the average American, to the point of caricature, with his drawling voice from the back of the throat, at times strongly nasal, his very sharp tonic accents that constantly punctuate his naïve and indignant surprise: he always believes to be in the right, and gets carried away when his good faith is questioned, like in the affair with his counterfeit signature on a real estate bill (Mr. Smith). The grand champion of naïveté and Yankee self-sufficiency plays, in Lubitsch, a Hungarian in Hungary…


With The Mortal Storm, made in 1940, Borzage takes the train running: JS becomes, this time around, a German fighting against Nazism. He continues to speak English as if it’s normal in these two films, just like his co-actors in The Shop. This systematic Americanization of the protagonists happens frequently in Hollywood cinema. He lowers his tone just enough and avoids highly accented syllables that could reek of “USA”: in The Shop, his voice borders on murmur, while remaining very audible.

The strategy is a little different in The Mortal Storm: J. S’s co-actors speak a very dry, very hard English, supposedly to evoke the roughness of the German language and the inhumanity of Hitlerism. In their first appearance, James Stewart and Robert Young enter the frame from below. The Nazi Young gets up in one shot, ramrod straight, like a robot. After a few seconds, Stewart gets up softly and naturally. A distinction—clearly very artificial—is established between bad Nazis with a Germanized American and good anti-Nazi Germans like James Stewart, who speaks an almost caricatural American. Or at least one that sounds like that in this Germanic context. In short, instead of finding good Germans standing against bad Germans, we have good Americans…

The Mortal Storm is perhaps the film where JS is most integrated into a group. The hook of the film is: can Stewart become part of the Roth household despite the Hitlerites? No salvation outside the family. This young Stewart, part of the familial (You Can’t Take it With You, It’s a Wonderful Life, and The Man Who Knew Too Much later) or professional group (The Shop Around the Corner), contrasts with the individualist Stewart who is born in Mr. Smith and will dominate the mature years (in Mann, Ford etc.). We find a curious paradox here, offered by this star who appears after ten minutes and disappears completely in the middle of the film for over half-an-hour (like Wayne in Red River) without discomfiting us. And when he is present, we see him often at the centre of the shot, immobile, silent, amidst agitated side characters. As a group performance, it’s the complete opposite of Grant’s technique. Stewart remains very discreet, while Grant continues his super routine, and his co-stars too. It’s also the opposite of ordinary Stewart, a show-off—a genius show-off, but a show-off nonetheless. This fixity in an exceptional position turns out to be very expressive: we understand that he is not at ease within a Nazi-dominated group. James Stewart catches up with a rather Cooperian acting style. He attracts attention—of the Hitlerians, of the viewer—all the more so because he does nothing. This reserve, this softness, this drawling discretion—which are the proofs here of the humanity of the character—could’ve unsettled the audience. But the end of the film offers a compensation, since it almost makes a hero of Stewart: with the woman he loves, he tries to brave German bullets during an escape on skis. He recalls then the Fonda of You Only Live Once.

A man like everyone, running up against the most mundane problems (It’s a Wonderful Life, 1946)

During this scene, we particularly notice the horizontal wandering of his worried eyes towards the left, then towards the right, a Stewartian leitmotif inaugurated in Made for Each Other—we only see the eyes emerging from the sheets—and which will show up frequently in the future, especially in The Man Who Knew Too Much, helped by colour which makes the blue of his iris stand out, and The Spirit of St. Louis, when Lindbergh finally sees land…

It must also be noted that, in Borzage’s film, Stewart is a student, but also a peasant, which reassures the American public. There is indeed a paradox at work with Stewart: his standard character of the average American, simple human being, clumsy, imperfect but always in the right and triumphant in the end, with whom Mister Brown or Mister Smith—of course—could identify themselves (a similarity which gives him an edge, without it being too obvious, since the positivity of Stewart’s character comes out softly, slyly even, through many ordeals where it’s seriously challenged), well this banal character is at the same time an exceptional man, a man of the East (as against Cooper and Wayne, born in the West), an intellectual, a highbrow (he has even read Crime and Punishment in The Shop), which doesn’t go down well in the United States. Stewart’s charisma helps him to combine and reconcile deep America with the intelligentsia. He is a student (Mortal Storm), he is a professor in the delicious Vivacious lady (Stevens, 1938), in Rope and in the television series Jimmy Stewart Show (1970). He is a journalist, a journalist who is sometimes a poet, in ten films, including the very first The Murder Man (1935) until Rear Window (1954) and Flashing Spikes (Ford, 1962) going through Call Northside 777 (Hathaway, 1947) and The Philadelphia Story, to which we will come back, since it follows in the chronology of the two films from Mitteleuropa I just talked about.

We had the habit in the fifties of being very happy, and very laudatory, when we found commonalities between multiple films by the same director. It proved that the director had vanquished the Hollywood machine, and that allowed us to get noticed through our gifts of observation and synthesis. Today, since no one thinks of denying the auteur status of great American directors, I wonder if we shouldn’t take a step back and consider these leitmotifs in the work of a director or an actor as products of laziness and rehash, dictated by producers and the box-office. I had this painful impression for the first time seeing El Dorado after Rio Bravo. Stewart as a journalist works well with Hitchcock or Cukor, but becomes tiring elsewhere. It must nevertheless be said that JS’s volubility and his many hesitations—corresponding to the fumbling and the scruples of the journalist in his investigation—help the reporter he plays quite a bit.

Almost all the parameters of Stewart’s art are to be found in Mr. Smith, and they will be taken up again in most of the future films, particularly Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story (1940): the stammer, the principle of keeping the mouth open without speaking, and the hesitations. There was a very nice hesitation scene even in The Mortal Storm, when he searches his pocket in vain for the text of his speech, but finally turns out to be more convincing while improvising. It’ll continue throughout his career, until the long, sweeping stares that he inserts between two lines of his text (The Man from Laramie, 1954), not to forget the “what… what happens to you” in the scene from The Far Country (1953) with Corinne Calvet, or the “a dress… you’ve to have a dress… she… she…” at the end of Two Rode Together (1960), when he tries to make the ex-squaw Linda Cristal dance at the ball of good Americans steeped in racism. And I have fifty more examples in reserve. But he goes quite far in The Philadelphia Story. The clumsiness of his vocal and physical expression was clearly justified in the character of the intimidated peasant at the Senate in Washington, but it’s less so when it concerns the journalist portrayed by Cukor, or the apparently more dignified characters of subsequent works. This kind of acting was, and still is, frowned upon in acting schools of the Simon Course style or in the writings of critics. Today, in France, an actor who stumbles on a syllable is made to start over again… Well, James Stewart, benefiting from his reputation acquired with Capra’s films, successfully imposed his audacity on the entire world. It’s not just the Grand Duduche Smith who stammers. It’s every human being, like in real life, and like it isn’t seen in cinema. And it’s funnier when it’s someone important, an advocate or a sheriff. Of course, there are some alibis, like drunkenness (at the end of the Cukor or in Liberty Valance). Stewart’s real triumph will come in the latter film, in the scene where he is in the cook’s attire, carrying a revolver, when the others begin to stammer too… Final instalment of the contagion.

But it isn’t just that in The Philadelphia Story: he burps, he has hiccups, his voice is coarse, he puts his tongue on the cheek, he sings out of pitch, he whistles, he exaggerates his Pennsylvanian accent: “she was yarr…” He says: “A le’ll” and Cary Grant corrects him: “a little”. He delivers his lines chewing gum, fifteen years before the Actors’ Studio. Later in his career, he’ll speak while eating (It’s A Wonderful Life) or with a thermometer in the mouth (Rear Window) or munching on peanuts or smoking a cigar (Anatomy of a Murder). He’ll constantly torture the verb in every way. Most importantly, he begins to broach another taboo: he speaks when his co-star Ruth Hussey is still on her line.

The body language, too, evolves: he tries to catch a glass of champagne, and fails. He opens up his arms when he extols Katharine Hepburn’s beauty. One gets the impression that he’ll take her in his arms. But he doesn’t take her right away. He waits for the next shot to do it. He constantly runs in search of a lighter, which he ends up stealing in a flash. Classical American cinema is often founded on one prop—another lighter in Anatomy of a Murder or matchsticks in Only Angels Have Wings—that the hero always borrows from his co-actors, but which he’ll successfully have on himself in the final moments of the film, which allows to concretise his psychological evolution. At times, one finds a comparable play, not with a prop, but with a gesture (cf. Cooper’s salute in Morocco, taken up again by his co-star at the last minute).

The gauntlet of the mask or the supreme challenge for a Star: to act without showing your face (The Greatest Show on Earth, 1950)

This festival is enabled by the help that Cary Grant brings. Since it’s the only film where Grant and Stewart come together, one could say that The Philadelphia Story is the pivot of this book. Stewart will get into other similar associations later, which won’t be possible for a Gary Cooper. That’s because Stewart is more malleable than the others. His particularities make sure he can work will with other great male stars (Wayne, Fonda), complementing them, without there being any hindrance for them. Here, it could be said that Grant sacrifices himself, with an admirable fair play, in favour of Stewart. They have divided the roles between themselves thus: Grant has his name on top in the credits, and it’s he who marries his ex-wife Katharine Hepburn at the end of the film. But these external advantages are largely compensated by the fact that Grant, during nine-tenths of the film, appears repulsive, and that Stewart plays an adorable journalist, hung up because he is obliged to work with a kind of American Minute, a marvellous, very funny, romantic and naïve man in love.

It’s hence Grant who gifts his Oscar to Stewart, who finally remains, despite the novelty of his acting style, the most awarded of our four musketeers: besides this Oscar won at the age of thirty-two, he was part of two films crowned by the Oscar for Best Picture, You Can’t Take it With You and The Greatest Show on Earth. For Mr. Smith, he received the Prize of the New York Daily, that of the American Critics and especially that of the New York Critics, which he’ll win again for Anatomy of a Murder, which got him the Volpi Cup at Venice.

On this front, then, Stewart has a clear edge over the greatest actor in the history of cinema, Cary Grant, who drew a blank (comedy, minor genre…). And John Wayne, who got his Oscar only at sixty-three years for a film of modest merit. One could suppose, as in the case of Henry Fonda, that the honour really went to the Academy, which reinforced its own importance through Wayne’s crowning.

A dialectic progression, once again: Stewart, who plays imperfect, hesitant, modest, insecure characters, was the only American actor of high renown to dedicate four years of his career to the Second World War. This aviation hero even became a general, a little before his definitive retirement. The exact opposite of Cooper, a war hero in his films, but who limited himself to putting up shows for the troops in New Guinea.


As always, while watching It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), it would be difficult, and a little stupid, to try to separate the actor’s performance from the film itself. It’s the third time Stewart works with Capra, on the same subject, taken up for the fifth time by the director, who practically didn’t deal with any other subject between 1936 and 1948: the hard struggle of an innocent man against the machinations of money or politics, overcome at the very end. Here, it’s the good Samaritan, loved by every citizen of his small town, who is practically driven to suicide following a theft committed by an evil businessman. The effect of repetition threatens the film, Capra, and Stewart at once. Capra comes out of it at a point by renouncing his habitual realism to incorporate an angel and Paradise, where the film opens, into his story. This allows him to attain, more than in Mr. Smith, a very high level of emotion, amplified by the dramatic stakes: the boy scout Smith risks losing, at the most, his senator post. Here, it’s the life of a perfect man that’s in question. It’s also Capra’s swansong: we’re very close to the Tarpeian Rock. Had I seen It’s a Wonderful Life before other Capras, I’d probably have called it an ultimate masterpiece. But, if we see the films in chronological order, the repetition compromises our pleasure. Even if we’re overwhelmed by the rhythm and the tension Capra imposes, it must be recognized that Stewart—formidable as he is—doesn’t bring much new to his manner of working. He emphasizes his distress a little more than before, not because of fatigue like in Mr. Smith, but because of the explosion of adversary forces: ringed eyes, dishevelled hair, hallucinated gaze, all kinds of cries. It’s possible that James Stewart borrowed a little from the memories of his youth, in a comparable small town, around a small familial business. Like in The Shop, Christmas night is the ideal dramatic frame. The most beautiful scene in the film is the one where, at an old fixed telephone with one receiver, which facilitates promiscuity, he hears, at the same time as the girl of the house, Donna Reed, the economic grievances of his faraway fiancée. He gradually gets closer to the receiver and to Donna: he needs this warm physical presence to compensate for the coldness of his promise. He nearly embraces Donna… whom he’ll marry. He also has some beautiful gestural ideas, which are especially efficient given they remain brief and discreet: as he takes leave of the odious dealer, he wipes his hand after the obligatory handshake. Drunk, he covers his mouth with the hand when he speaks to the angel, as if the latter could smell the alcohol.

Capra, c’est fini: the magical formula had run its course. And, after State of the Union, he’ll fall from the top. Producers tried to rekindle the magic through veiled remakes like Pot o’ Gold (1941) and Magic Town (1946), written by Riskin, Capra’s alter ego, but Stewart, in both cases, failed on every front. Harvey (1950) barely fared better, but this variant of Deeds and of the happy outcast played by Barrymore in You Can’t Take it With You offered James Stewart great public success for thirty years, as much on stage as on screen, radio, and television.


Separated from his favourite filmmaker, unable to play silly juveniles at forty, Stewart tries to find his feet again. Like his idol Gary Cooper with Pride of the Yankees (1942), he plays, under the direction of the same Sam Wood, a famous handicapped baseball player in The Stratton Story (1948), where he substitutes Cooper’s heroism with the depiction of the smallest details from the everyday life of a man who’s finally someone.

While biographies of famous men played by Cooper can be brilliant (York, Wassell, F. L. Wright in Fountainhead), those offered by Stewart always come across a little disappointing (Glenn Miller, Carbine Williams) or disastrous (Stratton, Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis). James Stewart’s love for music or aviation (cf. Strategic Air Command, No Highway in the Sky) made him commit some blunders. That’s because Stewart is not at ease playing exceptional men. To parody the famous saying on Corneille and Racine, Stewart is man as he is, Cooper is man as he must be.

Amazing uprightness of this long body, bookended by unexpected, opposing slants (Bend of the River, 1951)

Look at the attitude of their characters faced with European dictatorships: Cooper voluntarily chooses death (For Whom the Bell Tolls) while Stewart flees (The Mortal Storm). Cooper stands calmly, without any protection, on the roof of his giant building (The Fountainhead) while Stewart can’t even climb the short staircase of Vertigo. Look at the incredible chasm between the sheriff of High Noon and that of Two Rode Together. Billy Mitchell accuses the army, but the journalist of Rear Window remains hidden behind his binoculars.


The identification with Cooper doesn’t work, after some new wanderings (You Gotta Stay Happy, Malaya), Stewart finally finds his new way. It’s probably Hitchcock who helped him find it: the professor of Rope (1948) once made the enormous mistake of attracting his students’ attention on the perfect crime, which they will commit for real. A mistake in his character’s past or simply a hidden element from the past: Stewart’s brother killed their father, whom James Stewart wants to avenge, but we don’t know that until the end of Winchester ’73 (1950). The same year, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth combines both elements: the clown Buttons hides behind his mask because he is wanted for euthanasia.

Borden Chase, the writer of Winchester ’73, will reprise this pattern, thanks to the success of the film, through Bend of the River, where McLyntock is an old bandit, and The Far Country, where Jeff is wanted for two murders. Other screenwriters will follow: Carbine Williams is convicted for murder at the beginning of the film. The protagonist of The Naked Spur is an odious bounty hunter disguised as sheriff. In Night Passage, the railway worker James Stewart loses his job for helping a thief escape. In Flashing Spikes, he is accused of bribing. For the major part of the film, we don’t know that the man from Laramie is acting to avenge the death of his brother. From 1950 to 1957, in almost all his films, Stewart seems to demand that his character have a troubled past, with hidden elements. So it’s the opposite of It’s a Wonderful Life, where we see him save the life of his little brother (he’ll kill his brother in Winchester ’73), and of a stranger who was about to die due to the pharmacist’s mistake.

Oh, sure, we learn during the course of the film that these misdeeds aren’t as serious as all that: there is a judicial error, the thief turns out to be his brother, the men killed are in fact ones who stole his cattle, euthanasia is not a crime today anymore, there were really no bribes given… which allows to reconcile the Hays Code with the sympathy of the audience. That doesn’t prevent Stewart from starting off with a moral handicap.

This, at times, is bundled with a physical handicap (which is often, in Christian civilization, the symbol of a moral handicap): the slight limping of Rope, announced already in The Shop Around the Corner (is it because he finds it hard to perform with his legs that James Stewart uses his hands so much?), the wounded leg of Naked Spur succeeding the amputation of The Stratton Story, or the two plastered legs at the end of Rear Window, or again, the worst that could happen to this actor who performs, first and foremost, with his hands, wounded, he can’t use his fist anymore (The Far Country, or, less seriously, The Man from Laramie and the end of Rope). Note that, besides being two films about handicap, The Far Country and Rear Window follow each other chronologically. Physical handicap is sometimes linked closely to moral handicap. It’s not just a symbolic link: at the beginning of Vertigo, Scottie walks painfully with a cane because, following a dizzy spell, he had a fall that a police officer died trying to save him from—a death for which he is then the cause.

This handicap recalls Wayne’s theme. But, in Wayne, the physical flaw (old age) chronologically precedes mental handicap of inanity. In Stewart, it’s more logical: juvenile naïveté is followed, in mature age, by physical handicap. The handicap, like in Wayne, attracts sympathy: we hope that the hero will overcome it.

No, I’m mistaken. Thinking about it, I realize that it’s not that at all. Stewart’s handicap (doubled by a moral deficit) doesn’t attract sympathy so much. It’s provisional, accidental, while Wayne’s decrepitude tends towards the definitive. It exists in order to give more consistency, more weight to the character, threatened by repetitive innocence and its insipidity.

Adding to the theme of handicap is the theme of the double: James Stewart has the idea of a murder that John Dall will execute (Rope), he is the good brother opposed to the one who turns out rotten (Winchester ’73, Night Passage) or to the one that didn’t have a chance (The Man from Laramie), or he is opposed to the double of the bad Stewart from the past (Bend of the River) or, changing completely between the beginning and the end of the film, he negates himself (The Naked Spur). It’s like an inverted symbol of Stewart’s negation across his career: he becomes once more a replica of the Capraesque hero after having been the villain. In fact, in the latter film, there are three successive levels: he presents himself as the sheriff. We realize later that he is a bounty hunter. Finally, we learn that he has come here because he had his ranch stolen. He tries now to appear tougher than he really is. He begins by concealing his mercenary side. Then, paradoxically, he tries to conceal behind his ferocity his natural generosity, the source of his despoliation, of which he is ashamed. Throughout the film, the character hesitates between two faces.

I just cited six Westerns made or prepared between 1950 and 1956 by Anthony Mann, who will work with him on three other films, Thunder Bay (1952), an adventure film around crude oil, and, in extension, two minor films, The Glenn Miller Story (1953), the life of a musician, and Strategic Air Command (1954), an aviation film.

Nine or ten films together—if we discount Night Passage, abandoned midway by Mann—including five Westerns. Isn’t there a risk of the repetition I talked about with regard to the work of Capra? No, for we see Stewart very little: he disappears for a good half-an-hour in the middle of Winchester ’73, the rifle being the real protagonist. We can compare this distant and intermittent presence with the background appearances in shots of Rope or even Malaya or, of course, The Greatest Show on Earth, a film where we never see Stewart’s face under the clown’s mask: a supreme challenge that the artist poses himself, comparable to the paralysed hand of The Far Country.

No film without a physical handicap (The Man from Laramie, 1954)

A performance perfectly integrated into the film, then, and not roles that dictate their law onto the film like in the times of Mr. Smith. Even the four remaining Westerns reveal a comparable integration: Stewart is only one among the quintet in The Naked Spur (1952), and, in these films, adventure, action and especially locales prevail over the protagonist, who is quite similar to that of many other Westerns. The actor is hardly needed for the shoot: in The Far Country (1953), when James Stewart and John McIntire fire at each other in the shadows, we only see the round-brimmed hat of one and the top hat of another. And we identify them very well by their headgear. The hat once again…

Until now, Stewart was the victim of others, of society, of Nazism, of his boss (The Shop Around the Corner) who sends him home after a rude misunderstanding. He experienced various kinds of violence. Now, in Anthony Mann, it’s he who is violent, tough, and pitiless. Furious, he wrings Dan Duryea’s neck before killing the other villain, his own brother (Winchester ’73).


Before filming Rear Window in 1954, it’s quite possible that Hitchcock thought: “Who should play this journalist who follows the unfolding of a murder at the opposite window from his wheelchair, where he is nailed down with his plastered leg? I must go for the actor most capable of playing without moving. That’s clearly James Stewart, the man of hands.” JS can say everything with nothing but his hands. I can only think of Jacques Rivette who can compete with him on this discipline, but JS has nothing to fear, since JR always refused—with two near exceptions—to become an actor.

Stewart has just spied on his neighbour, whom he is the only one to suspect of murder. Two shots follow, respectively of 44 seconds and 46 seconds in length, but which seem like just one shot: the cut, skilfully bridging a line by Grace Kelly during a fascinating conversation, and also obscured by a movement of the wheelchair at the beginning of the second shot, is hard to spot. I only found it in the third viewing. Kelly says that she doesn’t believe Stewart’s flights of fancy and gives precise arguments against JS, still seated in his wheelchair and framed waist up. What does he do then?

  1. He crosses his fingers, in a gesture of dejection, which seems to say that he is not getting into Kelly’s game.
  2. While the conversation continues, in order not to stop until the end of the double shot, he raises his finger for about a quarter of a second. He seems to thus react against Kelly’s denial (“do you think I consider it recreation?”).
  3. He spreads his fingers to show his surprise at the neighbour’s actions, which he enumerates.
  4. He points his hand, and his finger, towards the back, that is the exterior, the court, and the neighbour: he shows well where it all takes place.
  5. He raises his thumb while saying “does that make me sound like a madman?”, the beginning, perhaps, of a gesture towards the middle of the forehead, or does it simply mean: “alright, let’s stop everything”? Or does it underline a phase of his demonstration?
  6. The hand goes into a vertical position for an instant: he speaks of the ambulance that would come pick up the supposedly sick woman on the first floor—whence the vertical—unless this vertical suggests the exactness of the action, compared to future gesture 7. This realistic precision of acting is all the more symbolic because the entire action described is envisaged by Stewart as imaginary.
  7. The gesture 6 is transformed—by a rapid succession—into an enveloping curve of the hand that punctuates the sentence “a lot of things”, and clearly indicates a rather drawn-out action this time.
  8. He raises his hand towards the forehead, as if to wipe his face, a symbol of the face of a sick woman: he is saying that the sick woman needs to be constantly taken care of.
  9. The gesture transforms into a gesture of a part of the hand, towards the back, corresponding to the line: “no care” [4]. The gesture signifies more than the words, something to the effect of “they don’t give a damn”. Then comes the invisible cut.
  10. He thrusts his wheelchair forward with two hands. Not only do the hands perform all the narrative work, but they also have a real function in the situation, which is extremely rare: they move the actor, who walks not exactly on but thanks to his hands, which replace the legs. This move forward also corresponds to a critical reaction against Kelly’s point of view.
  11. Attempt by JS, who now tries to move the wheelchair back to get closer to the court and the neighbour, but Kelly, who is not convinced by Stewart, stops him midway.
  12. Attempt at a very, very short gesture towards the top: it’s perhaps the beginning of an effort to get up (a physically impossible action for Stewart, but the instinct remains) which is the only way for the hero to get into action since Kelly blocks the wheelchair.
  13. The preceding gesture transforms into a movement of the hand towards the court: the viewer must not forget where the drama is taking place.
  14. Another curve repeated by the hand—one of the two major figures of style of Stewart’s art—corresponding to an oral description of a succession of multiple actions.
  15. The two hands are placed flat, immobile: “there is no sign of life anymore.”
  16. “You tell me…”: he points his hand, and a single finger, towards Kelly.
  17. “…where is she?”, meaning, where is the victim? He begins a gesture towards the court, which he quickly cuts short: a marvel of concision. Everyone has understood.
  18. The hand comes back towards Kelly. He points four fingers towards her this time: the question is more pressing now.

It’s just after this scene that Grace Kelly totally changes her way of looking (another sequence-shot expressing psychological transformation), following another appearance of the murderer, but also and especially because of Stewart’s verve.

It must be added that—a supreme refinement—the scene begins, not on Stewart’s movement, but on Kelly who moves J. S’s wheelchair to prevent him from spying. This bravura play of hands is hence masked by the emphasis on the co-star’s movement at the beginning. Moreover, there is also an entire work on Stewart’s way of speaking, on his gaze (an adjoining shot shows us the blue of his eyes cutting through the night), and on the manner of mixing the result with Kelly’s performance.

The superiority of this segment over the hat routine of Mr. Smith is the actor’s work is totally integrated into the film, dissolves in it, becomes almost invisible. As for the rest, Stewart won no award for Rear Window, compared to three for Smith.

To add to that, the hands are seen at the bottom of the frame, as is logical. They toy with this border, bringing something of the unexpected, a little bit of air into the sequence story-boarded to death by Hitchcock. I suppose that Hitch mustn’t have been very happy seeing this now-major element being busy at the edge of the frame, like in a crude reportage. But this natural quality intensifies the power of the artifice. We will have effects of this type in Anatomy of a Murder, where the hand gets back into the frame from the bottom during a conversation and assumes a particular importance—completely unusual in Hollywood cinema and which increases the power of the gesture.

That’s why Stewart’s films must be seen without subtitles, which gobble up the hands. Hitch, who thought of everything, but hated subtitles, hadn’t thought of that. The play of hands at the frame’s edge is even riskier. It doubles as a play with the space between the short words of the subtitles. The films of JS must perhaps be super-titled (on top of the image) instead of subtitled.

If we consider Stewart’s work of hands in this scene, we notice that it corresponds to eight completely different meanings. There is:

A—The hand in the situation (like when one brings food or a cigarette to the mouth). It’s more refined here, since he moves his wheelchair by placing his hands on its wheels. It’s the category from which gestures 10, 11 and perhaps 12 originate.

B—Designation of a co-actor, which can be a form of accusation, of criticism, or swearing in (gestures 16 and 18, gesture 10 also being a disguised variant of this type).

C—Geographical situation of a place, an action or an individual. The court, the murderer, the murder, the victim (gestures 4, 13 and 17).

D—Indication of personal qualms (gestures 1 and 3).

E—Protest (gesture 2).

F—Description of a precise action (gesture 8).

G—Situation of an action by its duration, long or short (gestures 6, 7 and 14).

H—Accomplishment of a symbolic gesture, evoking an action or a qualm (gestures 9, 15 and maybe 5).


I’m not sure about the attribution of certain gestures (which belong to multiple categories) to a particular group. The reader, I hope, will forgive me for these imprecisions and for any possible omission in the repertoire of gestures.

If one nevertheless wants take this as a definitive catalogue—which is far from being certain—one will see that the distribution of each of these eighteen gestures as they take place in the double shot, within each of the eight groups of meaning above, unfolds thus: D–E–D–C–H–G–G–F–H–A–A–A–C–G–H–B–C–B.

Stewart constantly jumps from one category to another, except for the three consecutive As (but which are doubtful—perhaps I should’ve written B–A–D—and contradictory with one another) and the two Gs which also contain a contrasting value between them.

Such richness, such variety in performance is stunning. And I ask myself: was Stewart conscious of all that he did? If it were the case, one could say that he’s really an orchestra-man, a monster of intelligence, especially considering all the other things he had to do in the shot. Truth be told, the question came to me by curiosity more than any noble motivation and remains on an anecdotal level. There is probably both calculation and improvisation here. Most of the gestures must’ve been inseparably linked to the words, without the intervention of the consciousness: one could suppose that JS is like that in real life and, at the same time, he must’ve been conscious when he invented a particular gesture like gesture 9 (no one cares about the sick woman) which is a gesture intended for an effect.

This kind of work occurs frequently, and it’s with a heavy heart that I had to choose between multiple examples, rejecting shots of comparable virtuosity in Anatomy of a Murder, which I had dissected in my notes. It was out of question for me to endlessly repeat this kind of analysis, a source of probable fatigue for the reader. I’ll limit myself to citing two shots from Anatomy.

In the 49-second shot with the daughter of the victim, which contains thirteen gestures—a real festival of cursive topology—Stewart tells his interlocutor that people are neither all good nor all bad. To express the bad, he has a very small gesture, a fourth of the shot, which clearly distinguishes itself from the gesture accompanying the word good: the hand is flat, with the palm below, and a little lower than the preceding gesture. The symbolism is facile, you’d say. But it’s performed in a quarter of a second, in the flow. A perfectly natural gesture before passing quickly to the next. Morality and pragmatism—topology or otherwise—are placed on the same level through body language. No hierarchy. All significations are equal.

The shot of one minute thirty-six seconds depicting the interrogation of the bartender, rich with twelve gestures as well as abundant dialogue, offers us:

  • a fan—Stewart’s first formula—hands and fingers spread out vertically and horizontally—which means that it’s not serious, that we stop here, or that it makes for a broad picture.
  • three winding curves carefully distributed (it’s Stewart’s second formula). The first expresses the notion of a holiday, the second refers implicitly to a Lee Remick that might allude to bums or breasts (both similar gestures, trivializing the second action to the level of the meaning of the first curve) The third introduces the concept of a merry-go-round (with a turn of a half-closed hand).

The winding curves here express feminine forms or a merry-go-round while, in Rear Window, they revealed a series of complicated actions or the versatility of a minimal action. In Vertigo, they’ll signify agreement—in the beginning, at the doctor’s—or, in the middle of the film, uncertainty.

A festival of play of hands (Rear Window, 1954)

The most amusing thing is that, in the middle of a shot, in order not to bore the audience—and also to emphasize a certain distance from the witness—Stewart… places his hands at the back for a dozen seconds like a pupil in the corner.

Similarly, again in order not to bore us, JS prolongs his play of hands with a rod that allows him to deal with his plaster cast, and which will imitate the successive “bloody footprints” he evokes, or with darts (Rear Window) or with a cane (Vertigo) or a chicken leg (Made for Each Other).

Does this unquestionable virtuosity bring anything to the film? We may doubt it in the case of Rear Window, since it’s almost invisible. But, in fact, it’s all the more efficient because it remains invisible. It gives shape to a cinema that’s as abstract as Hitchcock’s, it gives life to a character as static as this bedridden reporter. And, to do this, it uses hitherto unseen methods, or ones rarely resorted to, without the viewer suspecting their presence.

The virtuosity of the hand doesn’t exclude that of the face. A single example: much like how gestures are woven into a perfect series, Stewart’s smile will mutate without transition into a rictus when he sees the murderer approaching the dog.


Stewart ended Rear Window with a fall through the window and his two legs in cast. There is almost a direct connection with the beginning of Vertigo (1957), namely the fall from the top of a building and his difficult walk with a cane. This new film points to the essential character of Hitchcock’s Stewart: passivity. This constitutes a break with Mann’s Stewart, so active and so violent. Only in appearance. For, in Mann, Stewart refuses to be interested in the collective (cf. The Far Country). That’s not very different from Rear Window, where JS acts through agents sent into the courtyard (Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter), where he hides himself when he is susceptible to be seen, where the owner of the murdered dog accuses her housemates (including Stewart) of lack of solidarity. After all, Mann’s Stewart is violent and active mostly because he has a gun with him, and because he is the best shooter. In Hitch, Stewart is the average man, so he doesn’t have a gun, so he is prudent, timid, and passive. He has the idea of a perfect murder (Rope), but he can never kill. Stewart, in Rear Window, clearly has the excuse of a broken leg for his passivity, like he would have the excuse of vertigo when he isn’t able to climb the staircase of Vertigo to “save” Kim Novak. But is this good excuse, a little too permanent, valid for someone who pokes his nose into everything, and in particular into investigations he was never forced to be responsible for? Hitchcock’s Stewart is a man who directs the world by words, by thought, all the while remaining physically withdrawn. “Mind your own business”, is the motto of the average American, who at the same time conditions the way of the universe without wanting or realizing it. An image has become famous: of the New Yorker who doesn’t stop even if a body collapses next to him on the street. He might alert the police, and even that is not guaranteed.

Passivity, in Vertigo, is subtler than in Rear Window: the ex-cop Scottie observes events, without ever causing them. All through the film, he observes Kim Novak’s bizarre behaviour, and he records them without acting directly. It’s only when he realizes that he was tricked by Novak that he explodes in anger, like he did in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955) confronted with the injustice of kidnapping from which every good and honest American citizen must be protected. In the latter film, individualism is elevated to the familial level. Stewart worries only about the survival of his son, and doesn’t give a damn about the expected assassination of a politician. Here is a new form of Mr. Smith’s naïveté, without the ardour, which considers everything that is not American as bizarre, period: Morocco is firstly a country where it’s difficult to tuck one’s long legs [5] under little tables…

These are indecisive, cautious characters that Stewart plays now. The reporter of Rear Window is reluctant even to marry a very pretty girl who is in love with him, for he is afraid she’ll hinder him in his work. He is perhaps afraid of relationships in general. This kind of role is not necessarily advantageous. If, in Rear Window, it’s he who leads the action from afar, like a veritable small-time Doctor Mabuse, in contrast, in Vertigo, until the final minutes, it’s Kim Novak who fulfils this function. Stewart is merely an instrument. During the course of his own dream, we’ll even see him with his head separated from the body and dragged into a kind of mental whirlwind. It’s the only time that one of the great stars of Hollywood has been decapitated like this during the film, reduced to the level of pure abstraction.

Which means that, even if Vertigo is a masterpiece, it de-emphasizes Stewart, who, more than ever, is but an element, an ingredient of this extraordinary success. When we come to the very fascinating human reaction of Stewart, who falls in love, tries to remodel the new Kim Novak on the old one, and struggles between his hate and his love for this criminal who has cheated him throughout the film, we find it hard to integrate this sincerity into a story wholly based on artifice created by very skilled masterminds of a soulless and unbelievable criminal machinery. For it’s entirely possible that a man kills and cuts up his wife into pieces and that a bedridden journalist perceives this murder from the opposite window—only the timing of the events is a little too perfect to be believable—but it’s absolutely absurd that a man gets rid of his wife by resorting to such a complex and uncertain machination as the one in Vertigo. The film holds together magnificently thanks to the vast arsenal of the illusionist, the permanently bewitching music, and the haunting romanticism of dense colours, which conceal the mediocrity of the script. Even if Stewart’s final gestures move us—his hands that tremble when holding Novak’s refashioned face, the brief signal to the make-up person to indicate the final retouch to be done on the face—we can hardly reconcile a last-minute humanity with a pure construction of the mind, especially when the co-actor remains as glacial. Till now, Stewart and his films (Smith, Wonderful Life…) coincided. Here, it’s Vertigo against Stewart and his character, the quality of one being inversely proportional to the quality of the other.


Stewart’s body language predisposed him towards lawyer roles [6], a profession that he practices in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), Take Her She’s Mine (1963), the television series Hawkins (1974), after having begun at the bar a long time ago with Made for Each Other (1939). It’s the old Pavlovian reflex of producers: say architecture, pyjama or dynamites, Cooper comes to mind. Say octopus, it’s Wayne. A journalist or a lawyer? We call Stewart’s agent. No cliffs or keys without Grant.

A lawyer: the ideal profession for the man of hands… (Anatomy of a Murder, 1959)

It’s Anatomy of a Murder that contributed most to typecasting him this way. One could say that it’s too easy, that it’s too Stewartian a profession. Throughout Otto Preminger’s film, JS can point his finger, one by one, towards the accused, the public prosecutor, the prosecution witness, the defence witness, and the judge, with, of course, a somewhat different gesture depending on the emotion he feels towards the respective person. After many plays of the index finger, he even takes the liberty of pounding on the table in front of the judge. If he produces a curl towards the back, it means that something is being hatched in secret, that there is a hidden meaning. The curl also has a sexual signification: it evokes something that one can’t speak of precisely in a courtroom, owing to modesty. JS’s interventions seem to borrow a little from the famous speech of Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony: there is the same recourse to a piece of refrain-phrase, here the ‘good old Barney’, which refers ironically to the murdered rapist. But everything is not limited to a brilliant courtroom routine.

What surprises us, in this film centred on the work of a lawyer defending a man who killed his wife’s rapist, is the scope of scenes dedicated to the private life of the lawyer, notably his hobbies—fishing and music (which Stewart loves in real life)—and his friends. These ‘longueurs’ make the film run for two hours and forty minutes and were frequently deleted during TV telecasts (following these cuts, this courtroom film triggered other trials initiated by Preminger). But these scenes have the benefit of giving an image of Stewart the lawyer that brings him closer to the average American audience, which is a bit averse, as we have seen, to liberal professions and intellectuals, whose obligatory incarnation JS is, across twenty films. A lawyer is also a human being, and not just a clever mind. He is not a money grabber either like it’s often believed: he’ll be defrauded by the accused who, as soon as he is acquitted, flees without paying his already broke lawyer. There is here a little of Mr. Smith’s naïveté. It’s also his taste for fishing that wins him the respect of the judge, another great fishing enthusiast, and perhaps even a favourable outcome at the trial. The judge, in fact, notices that, during the trial, Stewart fabricated bookmarks that will double as fishing baits.

The most audacious figure of style in this film, which goes a little against the new negative image of JS, is the scene where, hidden by the massive silhouette of the prosecutor, he tries at all cost to get back into the foreground of the shot, first from the left and then from the right. We really get the impression of a ham actor, or a sidekick, who absolutely wants to be in the frame in every shot, and who thus displays an extreme awkwardness, destroying our credibility and belief in the story for a moment. But JS salvages this figure of style to his advantage, pretending that the prosecutor is preventing him from looking at the witness… a neat diversion that serves to break the continuity of the adversary’s speech with a comic interlude, making it fall flat.

After the three Capras, the Hitchcock quartet, the Mann octagon, before the final meeting with the brilliant Susumi Hani, we come to the Ford tetralogy. Indeed, General Stewart worked with Admiral Ford on Two Rode Together (1960), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1961), a short telefilm Flashing Spikes (1962) and a brief appearance in the middle of Cheyenne Autumn (1963).


It’s Two Ride Together that surprises us the most. Five years before, Ford had presented Wayne’s long and voluntary search for a little girl stolen by Indians (The Searchers). When sheriff Stewart is called for a similar search, he balks at it, looks for ways to make the most money out of the affair, arguing that he is underpaid as sheriff. It’s the typical example of reversal of myths in Ford, already evident in The Trial of Sergeant Routledge (1959) and discreetly afoot since Fort Apache (1947) in view of catching up with the new attitude, let’s say of the sixties, towards the Western and the Indians. Stewart blackmails the representative of the army. He bargains during the negotiations with the parents of kidnapped children. We have never seen that in a Western, especially coming from such a nice star. This venal sheriff passes his days stretched out in front of his office, drinking beer after beer, smoking numerous cigars whose ashes he doesn’t even bother to shake off: it’s too tiring. He has the habit of taking bribes. He is looked after by a woman, the owner of the saloon. He is “Mr. Ten Percent”. He blows cigar smoke on the army man Widmark’s face. Drunk, he imitates soldiers at attention in a very humorous and irreverent manner. We can hardly hear what he says, since he always smokes while speaking. New use of the famous hat: begging. When he doesn’t agree, he deafens his interlocutors with delirious tonic accents, like the “both” at the beginning, a practice that we find—albeit to a lesser degree—in all the films where he is scandalised. To be sure, he redeems himself a little at the end since he helps the white ex-squaw regain her dignity, faced with the intolerance of the small town, and since he is, ultimately, the butt of the joke (like in Anatomy), but the negative impression created by nine-tenths of the film remains dominant.


Cheyenne Autumn constitutes a variation on Two Rode Together. Here we see JS for about a dozen minutes, in a kind of interlude that has little to do with the rest of the film. Was this the result of the desire of the producer who wanted a superstar? Or Ford’s wish to record a new routine by Stewart? Probably both. JS plays Wyatt Earp, the heroic sheriff portrayed by Henry Fonda in another Ford, My Darling Clementine. Here again, a complete reversal of the myth: Earp becomes a very lazy sheriff who passes his time doing nothing, smoking and playing cards in an impeccable white suit, and who doesn’t like being disturbed at the table at all. Stewart exaggerates the pathology of his character with pleasure. It’s really a one-man-show in all its splendour.

This de-sacralisation of the idol Earp is nevertheless tempered by the final scene: Wyatt remains as nonchalant, but his calmness allows him to practice a surgical intervention with rapidity and virtuosity before his cigar has the time to burn out. A small positive touch that reduces the negativity of the character, like at the end of Two Rode Together. Perhaps Stewart wanted these adjustments, or perhaps Ford was afraid of going too far.

In any case, we’re far from the performances integrated into the film that characterize the beginning of his career or even Mann’s Westerns. Here, it’s Stewart who drives the film (Two Rode Together), or who is on top or by the side (Cheyenne Autumn).

At 57, Stewart finally accepts old age (Dear Brigitte, 1965)

We have there a very surprising trajectory: the naïve purity of young Smith created by Capra, who fought for the common good, then everyman for himself, the absence of all solidarity expressed in violence (in Mann) or adult passivity (in Hitchcock) and, finally, around the age of fifty years, cynicism and venality (in Ford). We have here a negative progression which contrasts on all fronts with the career of the other three greats. In becoming older, their characters hardly changed character. At the most, they moved from the status of a lover to that of a father. Here, it’s Mr. Smith who becomes, in Ford’s films, a double of his toughest adversary, the senator played by Claude Rains in Capra’s film. The average American begins by getting screwed over. In becoming old, he tries to isolate himself, and then ends up screwing others over. Is this an evolution dictated only by the abstract desire to renew his character one way or the other? Or is this the cruellest observation one could make on man in general, and on the American way of life?

This total counter-employment will be copied by his friend Fonda, some years later, in the Westerns he made from 1969 onwards for Leone or Mankiewicz, Once Upon a Time in the West or There Was a Crooked Man. This is even more aggressive, for Fonda is the symbol of America, Abraham Lincoln, the perfect juror, the good conscience of the left, the clarity of the honest man’s outlook.


In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Stewart is neither cynical nor venal. But he unintentionally steals from John Wayne—a consenting and masochistic victim—the great claim to fame of being the man who killed the dreaded bandit, ending up with a brilliant political career and the love of the woman coveted by Wayne as a consequence. We come to the second and final pivot point of this study, following the Stewart-Grant meeting in The Philadelphia Story: the Stewart-Wayne confrontation, rich in multiple meanings. It’s the man who has done his studies, the very skilled lawyer (Stewart), who despoils the perfect man of the West (Wayne) and takes over the reins for good: death of a certain America, of the Western, of all the old myths and soon of the reign of actors, of American cinema and of himself, which John Ford, aged sixty-six then, evokes or prefigures. A glorious era comes to an end. Ford’s bitterness is evident through the moral of the story: to become a great man, defending the great principles of the constitution, like Ransom Stoddard-James Stewart does, is of no use. You must kill someone…

In the figure of Ransom Stoddard, one can see the duality desired by a good number of Americans in their presidents, from Eisenhower to Bush, passing through Reagan: a modern businessman who doubles as a war chief, even an executioner.

More than in Stewart’s other films, there is an irony here with regard to the intellectual, who doesn’t take part in combat, or loses when he does: Wayne constantly mocks Stewart by calling him “pilgrim”.

This opposition between the two actors means that, more than ever, the theme of the double, already present in Mann, drives the film. If, one day in the far future, a copy of Liberty Valance without the credits is found in the scrap, one might almost suppose—the presence of fervent Hitchcockians like Stewart and Vera Miles providing additional support—that it’s the only Western by the great Alfred, the master of the theme of the double since Rebecca (1939) and even The Lodger (1926). That would be jumping the gun, for we’re dealing with a figure dear to Anglo-Saxon literature (Dr. Jekyll, for example) that influenced the entire world, including Hitchcock, who only marginally preceded John Ford, and Edward G. Robinson’s double role in The Whole Town’s Talking (1934). The most curious thing is that Stewart functions as a double (if we except Rope) only in the films not directed by Hitchcock.

But it’s very much possible that Hitchcock’s role creation had some influence here: at the very beginning, an aged Stewart appears in black suit with a large white hat—just like Wayne in the very long flashback that constitutes the crux of the film, and during which Stewart is generally bareheaded and in a somewhat ridiculous business suit (or in the attire of a dishwasher that is no less comic when worn by this 190cm tall, fifty-something). There is a relay in the appearance of the two men depending on the flow of time. When he decides to contest the elections, Stewart suddenly begins walking with great strides like Wayne would, while this actor of hands has almost never worked on his gait. Similarities that are thrown into relief by the dissimilarities evident in the beginning: in this film, John Wayne generally stands straight, like Cooper, when he speaks to others (who are almost always shorter than him) while Stewart bends over frequently to talk with his co-actors, to bring himself into their reach, just like Grant (but Grant does it for comic effects, like with the two little old women of Arsenic). The upright myth versus the curved man.

Wayne and Stewart are of the same age in real life. But Wayne is riddled with wrinkles while Stewart—in their scenes together—doesn’t even have one. That is also his rule for all his films till the age of about sixty. At fifty-three, in Liberty Valance, he plays a young lawyer, who will find love perhaps for the first time and who must then be no older than thirty. It’s the same problem as at the beginning of Wonderful Life: at thirty-nine years, he plays a juvenile… with the protection of long shots. In fact, in Ford’s film, during the flashback, Stewart doesn’t seem to be thirty years old, and even less fifty-three. He has a very smooth, ageless face that could portray fifty as much as thirty. I don’t know if he had a facelift or not, but it gives JS an outlandish quality, outside of time, that suits the character very well. Wayne speaks little, Stewart speaks a lot, like in all his films (“I talk too much”, he tells his girlfriend in Wonderful Life. And a passer-by shouts out to him: “Yes, kiss her”). Wayne drinks himself to death (like Ford), he smokes like a chimney—like in real life—alas for him. Stewart never smokes, except in the very last scene when he takes over the reins from Wayne. Wayne is dirty while JS always makes sure he is well-groomed.

While we often see Stewart in full light, Wayne is in the shadows for most of the time. The first time we see him, he isn’t in the shadows, but we briefly see him passing on his horse. More than an actor, it’s a mythical silhouette. It’s only in his fourth shot that we see him up close. This advantage of darkness, accentuated with the help of a large, more or less slanted hat, will be denied to Stewart. The shadow, as we have seen, represents the most evident mark of myth. It’s hard to play the average American, or the new upwardly mobile generation of white collars, like Stewart does here, and become a myth. For Stewart to be really mythicized, his function must be really recognized as such by everyone—the man of the West for Cooper or Wayne, even the great seducer for Grant. That’s not the case here. At the most, we can perceive a brand image, and a changing one at that we realize, in place of the myth incarnated by the other greats.

Stewart never has his face in the shadows, except when he moves forward into obscurity to try to kill Liberty Valance, the only moment he gets close to Wayne the myth. We can compare it to the shot in Rear Window where, afraid of being recognized by the murderer, he moves his wheelchair abruptly to get back into obscurity. It would certainly be an exaggeration to give a mythic value to all parts of the shadow, to every entry of the actor into the dark part of the frame. But darkness also has a higher value in the latter film: Stewart wants to see without being seen, he wants to become the transparent and omnipotent observer (which he’ll fail at, as the final defenestration proves), he wants to be God. In short, he wants to join the greatest of myths. Stewart is the ordinary man who attempts to become a myth, but will never get there.



[1] Which already produced neat effects in Born to Dance (1936).

[2] Ed. Veyrier, 1991, p. 297.

[3] We hardly find this sort of performance in Capra. It seems that, at times, he filmed shots of a certain duration, but he intercut them during editing using shots of other characters, which dissipated the tension founded on duration. Capra wanted to be stronger than the other directors by being faster than them, by inserting a maximum possible amount of action into a minimum amount of time.

[4] [Translator’s note] A few details in this section are incorrect, including this line, which actually reads “She demands constant care”.

[5] Long legs that JS played with in his first film, Murder Man, with his laboured exit from the trunk of a car.

[6] Gary Cooper will always be the accused.