Rating: The Good – 88.1 Genre: Comedy, Romance Duration: 112mins Director: George Cukor Stars: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart
Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart form a golden trio for this definitive comedy of manners. Hepburn is the iron clad “goddess” with an inside made of bronze, Grant is the ex-husband who resurfaces on the eve of her next marriage to one of the “new money”, and Stewart is the working writer sent to cover the wedding for a celebrity gossip magazine. The three way relationship is bang on perfect thanks to the three titans of cinema and the deliciously worded back and forths present in Donald Ogden Stewart’s magnificent adapted screenplay and Philip Barry’s original play.
Hepburn is immense as the quick witted socialite, Tracy Lord, who has learned to repress her more compassionate side. In any other movie, she’d own the entire thing but with Grant and Stewart in top form they share the spoils equally. Grant is at his most charming as C.K. Dexter Haven and, while only really coming to the fore in the second hour, he’s responsible for most of the film’s emotional thrust. As the one more responsible for the movie’s straight comedy, Stewart’s Macaulay Connor is the perfect foil for Tracy’s playful cynic and indeed the funniest moments are the product of their dynamic. There’s a fine support cast on show too with John Halliday in great form as Lord senior.
George Cukor does an exemplary job in coaxing the drama from the more constrained parameters of the stage and onto his luscious monochrome while simultaneously keeping the quick repartee as the primary driver. The Philadelphia Story is one of those rare immortal comedies in that it’s lost none of its sophistication as the years go by. In fact, with the relative dumbing down of the modern romantic comedy, it has only grown in stature.
Rating: The Good – 90.3 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 80 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger
Alfred Hitchcock’s cerebral thriller is strangely compelling given its disturbing subject matter. Loosely based on the real life Leopold and Loeb case, it begins with the murder of a young man by two killers who proceed to throw a dinner party immediately afterwards to which, amongst others, the victim’s parents and girlfriend have been invited. John Dall and Farley Granger play the two murderers who are eager to put into practice Nietzsche’s ideas that murder is justified when the victim is an intellectual inferior. The action is shot in real time and involves ten long cuts (with a few sneaky ones hidden in between) disguised as one and the major effect the then revolutionary technique had (along with the off-screen/off-mike conversations) was to immerse the audience in the apartment’s atmosphere as the two men’s intelligent former mentor (James Stewart) picks his way through the clues. Dall gives a chilling portrayal of a sociopath with delusions of grandeur as his every word and in particular every gesture reflects his inner cold blooded precision. Granger provides a decent foil to that cold calmness while Stewart is in his typical scene-stealing mood. Rope concludes in a highly satisfying fashion given that the action never leaves the apartment. Moreover, the sense of time passed and internal disquiet you’re left with is testament to the genius of Hitchcock’s unparalleled ability to manipulate our perceptions and generate that darkest of tension.
Rating: The Good – 85.3 Genre: Western Duration: 123 mins Director: John Ford Stars: James Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin
John Ford didn’t do one dimensional westerns and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is certainly no exception. James Stewart plays a senator who returns to the town where he made his reputation by killing a local villain years earlier. The film then jumps back to that time as he beings to recount the tale of how he made his name and of his complicated relationship with the one man who the outlaws were afraid of (John Wayne of course!).
The early scenes are beautifully crafted and set up the sentiments of the back-story in a touching and patient manner. There’s a wonderful sense of familiarity as we’re brought back to the time when the now booming town of Shinbone was ruled by gun law. Stewart is terrific in the lead and Lee Marvin made a mean outlaw but John Wayne is the most memorable as the fearless gunfighter forced to make a sacrifice.
As most of the action takes place in the town, we don’t have the wide sweeping shots that defined Stagecoach and The Searchers. However, this is still a great looking film as Ford gives Shinbone a character of its own through his trademark staging and use of light. All told, this is a more pensive and slow burning Western than we typically see but no less rewarding.
Rating: The Good – 70.7 Genre: Film-Noir, Drama Duration: 112 mins Director: Henry Hathaway Stars: James Stewart, Richard Conte, Lee J. Cobb
Another one of those 20th Century Fox thrillers that were rolled out in an attempt to cash in on the success of the great films-noir of the early forties. Rarely fitting snugly into the noir category, these films were strong on plot but nothing more than solid in the screenplay and direction department. This one is much the same although with James Stewart, Lee J. Cobb, and Richard Conte in the starring roles, the standard enough script was made extra effective. Conte is the blue collar mug sentenced to life for the murder of a police officer but proclaims his innocence. Stewart and Cobb are the investigative reporter and editor respectively who attempt to lift the lid on the case eleven years later only to find evidence of corruption and stonewalling.
Stewart brings his usual five star presence and sharpens it with just enough cynicism to carry the film’s tension square on his shoulders. Alongside him, Cobb and Conte bring a level of professionalism to the film that gives it a personality it might have otherwise struggled to achieve given that Henry Hathaway shot this one with a level or greyness that leaned more towards the traditional noir aesthetic but without the intrigue of shadowy contrasts.
Hathaway was one of Fox’s preferred directors for these films perhaps because he knew how to shoot these stories and generally wasn’t drawn off task by an over commitment to aesthetic. He was solid as a rock. And while Call Northside 777 was competently shot, it still looked every bit the mainstream vehicle. For this reason, there’s a lack of edge to the tenser moments and the film’s overall progression but, as usual in these movies, it’s the story that wins out here. With strong arm police officers and shady witnesses at every turn, sniping lawyers, and even a touching romantic angle, this one has some great fundamentals and they tie together seamlessly. You’ll find yourself fully endeared to Stewart’s mission to clear an innocent man’s name and more than satisfied with the conclusion.
Rating: The Good – 87.7 Genre: Mystery, Thriller Duration: 128 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: James Stewart, Kim Novak
Hitchcock’s timeless mystery delves deep inside the psyche as private detective Scottie (Jimmy Stewart) is called into investigate the strange behaviour of his friend’s wife but ultimately develops a dangerous obsession with her. Hitchcock’s films are always remembered for his ground-breaking direction and edge-of-your-seat action but Vertigo is the finest example of both. It’s also his most aesthetically plush film where colour and theme play off each other in dizzying manner wrapped up warmly in Bernard Herrmann’s ultra audacious and seminal score. Stewart responds with a haunting performance that more than anything else grounds the often surreal story in reality while Kim Novak is a picture of ambiguity with the voice and poise to match and it’s difficult to imagine a more suitable Madeleine.
Though the movie has ascended to top of many people’s all time great movies list in recent years, there are some who believe that it’s not even Hitch’s best. It could be argued that the story is too drawn out in parts and that there is a tendency to disengage especially from the final act of the film. This renders it less enjoyable than many of Hitchcock’s other classics which never once lose the audience. That said, Vertigo is still head and shoulders above the vast majority of thrillers and the fact that so many back it as the greatest film of all time must count for something.
Rating: The Good – 90.2 Genre: Thriller, Mystery Duration: 112 mins Director: Alfred Hitchcock Stars: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter
One of the most innovative and entertaining of all films, this Alfred Hitchcock classic tells the story of an apartment-bound photographer who spends his days following the lives of his neighbours from the window at the rear of his apartment. However, while peering in on the intimate goings on the various personalities, he begins to suspect that one of them has done away with his wife. James Stewart is as usual eminently watchable as the laid-up free-spirit and he brings an enjoyable air to the proceedings. The excellent Grace Kelly is the love interest who hails from wealthy stock and for whom Stewart has mixed feelings. The real star of the show is of course Hitchcock, who’s meticulous crafting of the often explorative courtyard scenes (the area Stewart is peering out into) is a lesson in framing, tracking, lighting, and pacing. Notice how he lures one into the voyeuristic world that Stewart’s character is inhabiting by soundtracking the action with the various sounds and music that the neighbours produce as they go about their daily business. And how he uses that soundtrack to contrast the screaming of the victim against the natural hum of the real world. Rear Window is a fascinating watch because of this technical mastery but it’s also one hell of an enjoyable thriller thanks to a combination of it, John Michael Hayes’ perceptive script (based on Cornell Woolrich’s short story), and the acting from all involved.
Rating: The Good – 87.4 Genre: Drama Duration: 160 mins Director: Otto Preminger Stars: James Stewart, Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara
Anatomy of a Murder is a near flawless courtroom drama infused with lashings of charm and the most delicate touches of wit. James Stewart stars as Paul Biegler, the former district attorney of a sleepy Michigan town, who elects to represent the defendant in a murder trial involving the possible rape of a woman and the reprisal of her army lieutenant husband. Bemused by the inherent duplicity of both the alleged victim (Lee Remick) and her husband (Ben Gazzara) and eager to pay the bills, Biegler sets about constructing his defence. As the case wears on, the drama shifts increasingly towards the courtroom where he, the opposing district attorney, and a specialist prosecutor sent down from Washington D.C. (George C. Scott) engage in one clever duel after another.
Otto Preminger’s directorial class is all over Anatomy of a Murder. At 160 minutes, it should be a long watch but it never feels that way. The movie glides along from scene to scene as Duke Ellingtons jazzy score spirals in the background. The soft charm, cutting humour, and darker themes of jealousy and vengeance are seamlessly realised and, at all times, they are working towards the same end. The acting is pitch perfect from all concerned with Stewart and Gazzara excelling in parts that were fully complemented by their own unique charm and charisma. Remick is a delight as the mischievous party girl and Scott adds his usual commanding presence.
Wendell Mayes screenplay (adapted from John D. Voelker’s book) is of course the most powerful feature of the film and whether it be its sublime capturing of legal procedure and etiquette or its even more impressive ambiguity when it comes to Remick and Gazzara’s characters, it drives the tone of the film more than any other feature. One gets the feeling that it could have perhaps made better use of Scott’s intriguing character, although in Mayes’ defence, the story was pushing three hours as it stood and there’s not much that could have been sacrificed.
Anatomy of a Murder is a classic piece of cinema from a time when US film-makers were beginning to once again playfully examine the possible uses of the medium. The entire story plays out in a peculiar but completely satisfying manner and for that reason alone it should be seen by all film enthusiasts. The fact that it’s also a cracking legal drama merely adds to this rare quality.