The Rear-View Mirror: James Stewart (1908)

Each Friday we travel back in time, one year at a time, for a look at some of the cultural goodies that may appear closer than they really are in The Rear-View Mirror. Join us on our weekly journey into the past!

When I think of James Stewart, I think of his everyman persona, not too dissimilar to that of, say, Tom Hanks. I think of him as the perennial regular Joe, the guy next door. A decent man. Exasperated, perhaps, but fundamentally good. So it always comes as something of a surprise when I watch one of his films – Vertigo, obviously, but even Frank Capra’s Christmas evergreen It’s a Wonderful Life – and find something more interesting, more complicated.

See, I think it’s exactly Stewart’s perfection of the everyman trope that makes him so effective when he is cast in a way that adds shadings and nuances to the trope. It’s something that I only realised on rewatching these films: Stewart’s characters may be the protagonists, but they are by no means too-good-to-be-true heroes. Look at It’s a Wonderful Life‘s George Bailey and you obviously find a fundamentally decent man, but also a man capable of despair, resentment, an anger that expresses itself outwardly as much as inwardly. In the end, George Bailey is all the better a man exactly because he has this potential for darkness inside of him – just as we see an alternative Bedford Falls, we also see glimpses of an alternative George, and it’s not an entirely flattering look.

And there’s just no way around Vertigo, where Stewart plays the character who should be the hero, who wants to be the hero, but who is entirely implicated in the fate that befalls “Madeleine” (Kim Novak). He is obsessive, manipulative, and almost wilfully blind to what is happening. In a different film, Stewart’s Scottie could have been the villain – but the genius of Hitchcock and Stewart wasn’t to have the actor play entirely against type, or to play Stewart’s nice-guy role as a cover for something darker, it was that they found the potential for that darkness within the everyman archetype. They made Stewart unsafe. Has Tom Hanks ever played a role that did anything comparable?

The Rear-View Mirror will return every Friday, looking further and further into the past. Fasten your seatbelts: it may just be a bumpy ride.

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