James Stewart

James Stewart Playing a Morally Ambiguous Character

We’ve all been there. Watching James Stewart Play one do-gooder after another. Mr. Smith, the father from It’s a Wonderful Life, and so many others. Hell, he even managed to play an inflexible do-gooder in a film where he was an obsessive running a manhunt.

We finally get rid of that in The Naked Spur.

This is the film where Stewart supposedly grows up in front of our eyes… and like puberty, it’s a bit painful to watch. Not so much because I enjoy excessive do-goodism, but because Stewart, at this point in his career just wasn’t very good at not being one. It’s easier, apparently, to be the moral compass than to give a believable portrayal of a flawed character. Of course, the critics and history disagree with me, which it’s why I watch the movies and review them for myself.

And there are reasons to like this film if you can bet past Stewart’s struggles. Technicolor might not be great for noir, but I really prefer Westerns to be in color if possible. The outdoors just works better that way, unlike the means streets of your average city which are pretty much black and white from the getgo.

Also, the plot is decent, although, again, the moral quandries of the characters are not exactly realistic, and certainly not as deep as the ones in The Ox-Bow Incident. The mistrust between the cast, which I didn’t particularly like, makes the second half of the movie–until the final shootout–a lot less entertaining than the first.

Still, it’s not one of those plodding Westerns. Stuff happens and you have plenty of shooting (as always, those who feel that art from seventy years ago should uphold modern sensibilities will probably want to look away during the scene where the Indians are killed).

So I guess the verdict on this one is mixed. It’s not bad, but its attempt to give the characters depth stops just short of being effective, and muddies the waters. Entertaining, but perhaps not utterly memorable.

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose latest novel is a monster adventure book entitled Test Site Horror. You can check it out here.

All About a Gun… Kinda

Winchester '73 Film Still - James Stewart

So we’ve reached the 1950s, and that means Westerns.  Lots and lots of Westerns.

While I don’t normally enjoy the Western as a genre, probably because it was a TV staple when I was a kid (anything that wasn’t a cartoon was considered, by 5-year-old me, to be a waste of air time but Westerns were particularly odious because they go so slow), the ones on the 1001 movies list are purported to be essential watching, so I’m giving them a fair shot.

We’ve had a few in there before, some good, some really, really bad, but the one thing that will shock modern audiences is the reason for the ever-present sense of danger whenever anyone is traveling from one place to another: them there hills are full of indians.  Always.

In a way, I’m glad the 1001 movies list I have dates from 2004.  Though I haven’t checked, I’m pretty sure any new editions would remove any film with a “Cowboys and Indians” theme for reasons of political correctness (it might be interesting to see what else would get removed.  I doubt Birth of a Nation would survive).  That is, of course, modern audiences’ loss, since some of these films are true gems.

Perhaps the constant threat of indians waiting to strike at any moment is what made me hate them as a kid (I loved the gunfights on horseback, of course, but not waiting for them).  Westerns could pace the action in a leisurely way because adults never knew when the attack would come.

Winchester '73 Movie Poster

The plot of Winchester ’73 doesn’t center around the indian threat.  It’s about two men who have a history between them and the pursuit of one by the other.  It also deals with a gun, the Winchester of the title, which changes hands a surprising number of times, and is used as the key to making men show what they’re truly made of.  But the big battle scene is basically a standard “brave cavalry surrounded by masses of indians” stock trope.  It’s a good fight, and it is necessary–if not central–to the plot.  I suppose you couldn’t have a Western without it.

The film is tense for other reasons, too, with a cast of villains and morally ambiguous characters (including the leading lady), serving to contrast with James Stewart‘s inflexible do-gooder.

If you can set aside your modern sensibilities for a while, this one is worth watching.  Not hugely memorable, but certainly an entertaining hour and a half, and better than most Westerns.

The funniest aside on this one is what the lead actress thought of the movie.  Shelley Winters basically said that she could have walked off the set and no one would have noticed, as the movie was about a bunch of men pursuing the perfect gun and paying very little attention to the beautiful girl.

She may have been right but, like the indians, the plot would have suffered had she not been there.  The balance was just right for this particular film, which is why it earned its spot on the list.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer who has hundreds of short stories in print (even a Western / Scifi / Monster mashup, his only Western).  His literary fiction is collected in Love and Death a series of linked tales that make up a single narrative.  You can buy it here.

Tense and Almost Brilliant – A Hitchcock Near-Miss

Rope Film Poster - Alfred Hitchcock

Rope is a film I hadn’t heard of.  Among the Hitchcock classics, it is apparently a cult piece as opposed to one for the general fans.  Rear Window, or The Birds are much more well known today.

It’s one of Hitchcock’s more experimental films in a couple of senses.  The first being that the action takes place entirely within three rooms of an apartment.  Secondly, it begins with a murder on camera, which means that the audience knows from the very first moment whodunnit, wheredunnit, whydunnit and with whatdunnit (the last one is the rope of the title).  Finally, the action takes place in, apparently, real time: the running time of the film supposedly coincides with the time that passes while it takes place.  This last one requires a little bit of suspension of disbelief, but it can be accepted if necessary.

james-stewart--alfred-hitchcock--farley-granger-and-john-dall-in-rope-1948--album

Unlike most experimental films, which fail because they were experimental.  I would say that 95% of this movie is absolutely brilliant, and that the experimental bits are firmly in the background.  The tension ramps up from the very first moment until it becomes nearly unbearable, and the philosophical underpinnings interesting, if extreme.

Then, at the very end, it all unravels.  The character playing “detective” (he’s not a real detective, just an intelligent observer, and one that should have been morally ambiguous, at the very least, flips over like a roadhouse flapjack and realizes that conventional morality is correct after all.

I assume this unfortunate turn of events was caused by the strictures placed upon filmmakers by the Hays Code, but it’s hard to swallow after such a masterly buildup.

This one is interesting, but ultimately deserves its status as a forgotten film.  I would recommend it to lovers of the art more than to those seeking a satisfying thriller.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose thriller Timeless has not been constrained by the Hays Code, by the bounds of good taste or even by common sense.  You can check it out here.

Millennials Will Probably Disagree with the Message Here

It's A Womnderful Life Movie Poster

We’ve been catching up on the 1001 Films to Watch Before you Get Run Over by a Number 3 Bus, and have reached the classic It’s a Wonderful Life.  Like many of Frank Capra’s creations, it’s a seriously sentimental flick, but it doesn’t seem that way while watching it for the first time (I was never a big fan of watching the endless run of Christmas movies the networks liked to show when I was a kid).  The reason is that, though the film itself is incredibly sentimental (guy can’t follow his dreams but makes everything better because of it), the individual scenes are lightened up with humor and thereby don’t drag on unnecessarily.  Capra’s screwball comedy past (including great stuff like It Happened one Night) serves him well and turn what could have been a spectacularly earnest and serious film into something generations of audiences have enjoyed.

I won’t bore you by telling too much about the film.  Literally hundreds of professional critics have discussed it already and most people have seen it.  Suffice to say that it is a typical early James Stewart vehicle: aw-shucks good guy takes up most of the attention and teaches us all the right way to act.  James Stewart was Mr. Rogers before there was a Mr. Rogers.

But I will take the time to say that this one is likely reaching the end of its rope.  Millennials, their children and the helicopter parenting generation will kill it off.  Why?  Because it’s the story of a guy who sacrifices and does the right thing, leaving aside his hopes and dreams for a life that, though frustrating to him, turns out to be, as the title tells us, a wonderful life.  Audiences until the eighties or so probably understood that.

But younger generations are taught that they are all unique (I’ve heard the term special snowflake a lot, and though derogatory, it does seem an apt description of newer generations) and that success will come if they only follow their dreams hard enough.  Don’t compromise, be passionate.

James Stewart and Donna Reed in It's a Wonderful Life

All of the above is good advice if you happen to be one of the über-talented or (in case you want to have a starring role in a Hollywood film) spectacularly pretty / handsome ones.  If you aren’t, you may soon find that the dream is just out of reach and that real life doesn’t care about your dreams.  What do you do then?

If you’re in Spain, you become an “indignado“, which was a young people’s movement that essentially said: we’re young, we have no marketable skills, and we don’t want to study while working a crap job, so the government has to give us money.  It later morphed into an attempt at socialist anti-austerity rhetoric, but most responsible socialists didn’t want too much to do with it.  It was a direct inspiration for the Occupy Movement in the US.

Whether one if for or against the western world’s capitalist system (whether it be a more American style free market or a more regulated European version), you’ll likely agree that having a plan to be a useful member of society is never a bad idea.  The current generation of young people have gone on record by radicalizing their unwillingness to do so.  Is it the entire generation?  Probably not, but a vocal few can ruin things for everyone, and then you get bloggers saying that you’ll probably hate It’s a Wonderful Life.

Of course, I might be wrong, and Millennials, as they mature, might be able to appreciate the message in this one.  I’m a Gen-Xer and was brought up with the motto “greed is good” and I enjoyed it, so perhaps there is hope.

In a film with such a huge cast, there were always going to be some members still up and around today, so I’d like to give a shout out to three I’ve been able to identify:  Karolyn Grimes, Jimmy Hawkins and Virginia Patton.

Also interesting was the presence of an Argentine Actress named Argentina Brunetti (it wasn’t unusual for people to name their children Argentina in that era).  Her career spanned all the way to an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, and yet I don’t think she’s at all famous in these parts.  I’d certainly never heard of her.

My verdict is that if you have to watch a sentimental film, this is a good one, but don’t expose your teenager, whom you’ve told countless times how special he is to this one.  The mixed messages will be confusing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose most recent novel, Incursion, was published in late 2017.