James Stewart had an impressive career spanning 60 years. He was a major Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer contract player, who was known for his distinctive drawl and down-to-earth persona. It was his persona that helped him connect with the American middle-class man as he often played characters who were from that background and struggling with some sort of crisis.
His films included Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Harvey (1950), Rear Window (1954) among others. However, there’s one film that is of particular interest. One that stands out like a sore thumb. This is Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece released in 1958.
The James Stewart who acts in Vertigo, isn’t the loveable, soft-spoken, all American Man that the viewer could identify. The James Stewart in Vertigo, is a manifestation of the anxieties, complexities, and toxicity of masculinity. Going into Vertigo, the viewer is convinced that the character played by James Stewart is the good guy, because James Stewart always plays the good guy in films. He has a kind smile, warm eyes and a sense of authority. One can not help but trust him.
Hitchcock used James Stewart’s persona to his advantage, and allowed Stewart to tap into that hidden side to him, to play against the character he was so used to playing. The result is the best performance Stewart ever gave.
When the audience are first introduced to James Stewart as John “Scottie” Ferguson, a retiring cop, it is during rooftop pursuit. When Scottie ends up hanging on for dear life, after nearly falling off a roof, the viewer sees something they haven’t quite seen before. They see a weakness and vulnerability in James Stewart.
This is brilliantly captured in Stewart’s facial expression, his kind warm eyes are now wide and full of horror. His expression is reminiscent of a shell-shocked soldier, frantic and wide-eyed, someone who has looked into the face of death and has lost their mind as a result. His eyes almost roll back into his skull, his face dripping with sweat. How can this be the same brave man who spoke up against corruption?
This is a nervous wreck of a man who when faced with a terrible life or death situation, breaks completely. It is a powerful opening, and a great introduction to the main character who the viewer will spend the majority of the runtime with. This simple two-minute opening helps to deconstruct everything about the persona of James Stewart, and sets us up for everything else that is about to come.
Of course, the film’s plot kicks into action when Scottie is asked to follow Madeline (Kim Novak), whose Husband is concerned about her odd behaviour. As Scottie begins to know more about Madeline, he starts to become obsessed with her. Stewart manages to capture a man struggling to control his sexual urges, and this is brilliantly captured in the scene where he takes Madeleine back to his apartment after saving her from an apparent suicide attempt.
When Madeleine comes around and awakes in his bed, she rightly asks him what the hell is going on. He has undressed her and placed her in one of his dressing gowns. From the dialogue, Scottie is trying to be his usual calm, collective and authoritarian self, stating things in a matter-of-fact manner. However, Stewart’s facial expressions and body language give away the inner turmoil and conflict of the character. His eyes dart away, as if he’s unsure where to look. He blinks a lot too. His body language is too formal and rigid, as if he’s afraid to let his guard down.
Events though he’s telling Madeleine the truth of what happened, he gives across the impression that he is lying. It’s a brilliant, subtle act by Stewart which helps to reinforce the idea that the character of Scottie isn’t the good guy that he claims to be.
When she goes to sit beside the fire, he leans against the wall, in an attempt to be more relaxed and casual. However, he doesn’t smile, and his questioning is direct. With the camera looking down at Novak and presenting her as small and vulnerable, Scottie’s authority is reinforced. James Stewart was 50, compared to Novak’s 25 years of age. Knowing their age difference, only reinforces the feeling of unease for the viewer.
Stewart delivers his lines to Novak, as if she’s a child. Direct and steady. Later, when Madeleine and Scottie have their first kiss, Stewart seems stiff and rigid still, again capturing this contrast in ages, and power dynamic between the two. This isn’t a love story, but one about possession and manipulation.
Stewart’s finest scene comes during Judy (Novak) becomes Madeline. When Judy returns after having her hair dyed blonde, Scottie’s reaction is less than enthusiastic and his expression is very stern-faced. Again he tried his hardest to remain calm and act casual by scratching his head. However he stands at a distance away from Judy, exerting his authority and looming over her, which we see reflected in the mirror. He reaches out to touch her hair, which causes Judy to turn around quickly.
His sudden movements are quite unsettling, and we see just how controlling he has become. When Judy returns from the bathroom, there is a look of disbelief on Stewart’s face. His expression quickly melts into one of smug satisfaction as he goes to embrace Judy; he’s finally got what he wanted.
In the end, Vertigo would go on to bomb at the box office. It earned significantly less than any other of Hitchcock’s films. Naturally, Hitchcock blamed James Stewart for this, due to his age. Audiences couldn’t believe that 25-year-old Kim Novak would fall for a man double her age. Although, James Stewart never got the recongintion he deserved for his performance in Vertigo, in recent years critics have acknowledged his hard work and effort. Vertigo may be Hitchcock’s masterpiece but it is also James Stawart’s masterpiece too.