The problem with listing the five best James Stewart films is that there are many more than five. But this month’s theme at my website is the “5 Best” and I’ll stick to it. I don’t like it, though. One of my all-time favorite movies, Anatomy of a Murder (which features a superb Stewart performance), wound up as an honorable mention. And I am ready to incur the wrath of fans of The Philadelphia Story.
1. Vertigo – Stewart did his best work in the 1950s, often playing down his natural charm to portray obsessive, driven characters. His finest acting came in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece, where we watch a typical Stewart “nice guy” evolve into a man obsessed with an illusion. Contrast Scotty’s (Stewart) playful banter early on with Midge with his climactic confrontation with Judy—his eyes ablaze with confusion, hate, and something akin to love. It’s a brilliant and chilling transition.
2. Rear Window – As injured photographer “Jeff” Jeffries, Stewart played a character that seems like a the start of natural progression to Vertigo’s Scotty. Jeff is charming and likable, but his “hobby” of spying on his neighbors masks a subtle obsession with voyeurism. Stewart explores the shadows of Jeff’s personality, but never goes too far. We may question Jeff’s motives, but we always root for him.
3. It’s a Wonderful Life – Its frequent showings may have diluted its impact and Stewart’s brilliant acting job as George Bailey. However, Stewart’s post-World War II performance revealed a new maturity and depth that enable him to capture George’s desperation and passion. Those elements were present in earlier Stewart films, in particular Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but not to the extent that the actor channels them here.
4. Winchester ’73 – Any of the five Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns could fall into this slot, but I opted for Winchester ’73 simply because it was the pair’s first collaboration. In all of his Mann films, Stewart plays a loner with a dark past who is redeemed by love, friendship, and/or community acceptance. These grim, hard men are a stark contrast to the easygoing Tom Destry from Destry Rides Again and proof again of Stewart’s acting versatility.
5.Harvey – Playing a much older character, Stewart shines as the eccentric Elwood P. Dowd, whose best friend is a 6’ 3.5” invisible rabbit (well, technically a pooka). As evidence of Stewart’s mastery of the role, I ask if you imagine anyone else saying this line: “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’—she always called me Elwood—‘in this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”
Honorable mentions: Anatomy of a Murder, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Destry Rides Again, and The Shop Around the Corner.
What’s your favorite James Stewart performances? Sound off in the comments!
Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café (http://classic-film-tv.blogspot.com/ on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Classic-Film-and-TV-Cafe/136423960949 and Twitter @classic_film ). He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!
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