Category Archives: James Stewart

James Stewart: The FBI Story

As its title suggests, The FBI Story is not about one person, but an army of intelligence agents and analysts in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It is about the department’s growth from a disorganized arm of the federal government to a powerful crime-fighting force under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover. But it is also about, or tries to be about, Agent Chip Hardesty, a fictitious agent who fights the KKK, hoodlums, gangsters, and communists while struggling to keep his marriage and family intact.

He’s in the thick of all the action, but he’s not the brains behind it. As director Mervyn LeRoy (Little Caesar, producer of The Wizard of Oz) flips through the landmarks of FBI history he does not ascribe much to his lead character, played, of course, by James Stewart. Okay, he does take the lead in the earlier episodes: arresting KKK members in Tennessee, investigating the murders of Native Americans in Oklahoma. But once the dangerous 1930s roll through Agent Chip is a side-player, hopping onto half-finished cases, firing one gun of many, and following rather than leading the charges.

This is realistic, but it makes for an odd narrative, and an odd James Stewart movie. The shooting and arrest of Babyface Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger, and Ma Barker among others is played out like TV dramatizations. Apart from the Native American murder mystery, none of the cases are explored in enough depth to be intriguing.

It feels like propaganda, especially when Stewart’s voiceover tells us American communists “betrayed their country”. In the opening sequence Stewart narrates the investigation into a plane explosion, taking us into the labs of FBI scientists and criminologists. Praise is heaped on these men and women, the real heroes of the story, throughout the film. Hoover himself is shown only in shadow or from the back like Seinfeld‘s Steinbrenner. He apparently picked Stewart personally for the role and forced LeRoy to reshoot several scenes.

LeRoy invented the 1930s gangster picture with Little Caesar. From: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_bpdWsOrotV0/TLZYFmJoV5I/AAAAAAAADjc/c1OMARoasSg/s1600/mervyn+leroy+1.jpg

Stewart was an engaging, even menacing, protagonist in Anthony Mann’s Westerns and Hitchcock’s thrillers, but here he bumbles through his sappy relationship with his patient wife Lucy (Vera Miles, also better with Hitchcock). When he’s making arrests he takes a backseat to a conveyor belt of interchangeable FBI agents. His one companion Sam (Murray Hamilton, who co-starred with Stewart in The Spirit of St. Louis) is shot by Baby Face at Spider Lake, Wisconsin.

The real shooting took place at Little Bohemia Lodge. Michael Mann’s Public Enemies renders this scene and Dillinger’s death outside the Biograph Theatre in more detail.

Stewart’s character is neither interesting nor especially integral to these proceedings. I found myself thinking of this film in the larger context of the actor’s career. Released in 1959, The FBI Story is post-Vertigo (a film coolly received upon release) and pre-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (also under-appreciated). Stewart has reached his 50s and can no longer convincingly play younger men – though they tried their damnedest in The Spirit of St. Louis. You know an actor’s career is winding slowly down when the film he stars in don’t seem to need him after the ad campaign.

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James Stewart: The Spirit of St. Louis

It’s odd that a biopic on Charles Lindbergh – aviation maverick, Nazi sympathizer, anti-Semitic quasi-White supremacist – should portray its hero as a wholesome country boy from Minnesota. It’s odd that James Stewart should play Lindbergh (producer Jack L. Warner blamed him for the picture’s financial failure ), and it’s odd that the most difficult thing about the first transatlantic solo flight is staying awake.

Critics have largely agreed that Stewart was miscast in the leading role. He may not be a good Lindbergh, but he fits the overall tone as loose and easy as a glove. Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity, Some Like it Hot, Double Indemnity) made a safe, comfortable biopic, taking on the relatively noncontroversial issue of anti-flightism. We find Lindbergh sleepless the night before his journey. At 47, Stewart isn’t the picture of youth as the 25 year-old Lindbergh.

We get to learn a little about our aerial Mozart’s past, his offhand genius for flying, and his stints at a Flying Circus and US Air Mail. This is essentially a one-man film. Stewart occupies all our screen time. There is no romantic interest, only a woman (Patricia Smith) who lends him her makeup mirror for the plane’s compass. Luckily Jimmy is at his homely best, pouring all the can-do American enthusiasm left over from Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington (1939).

Wilder and Wendell Mayes’ (writer of Anatomy of a Murder, Von Ryan’s Express) screenplay has its moments, all of which are lightly charming:

People are always impressed when you call ’em long distance. Especially in New York.

And when Lindbergh gives an uncoordinated priest a disastrous flying lesson:

PRIEST: When I’m up there I feel closer to God.

LINDBERGH: I’d say you’re closer to God when you’re landing.

But Wilder and Mayes can’t get any deeper into the characters, or character, since there is only one focal point. Why does Lindbergh like to fly so much? When his circus co-performer Bud Gurney (Murray Hamilton – he played the mayor in Jaws) asks:

BUD: What is it? What makes us go up there?

LINDBERGH: Oh, you tell me.

Like a lot of biopics, The Spirit of St. Louis takes its hero’s deep-seated motivations for granted. All we see of Lindbergh’s family life are a handful of pastoral flashbacks in which his parents are stock country bumpkins – although his father once served as a Congressman. Apparently his youth was easy, unproblematic. Tortured backgrounds should not be mandatory in the life of every luminary (biopics often assume this), but everyone has some bumps along the way. Not this Lindbergh. Obtaining a $15,000 bank loan to buy a plane? Speeding up the manufacturing of the aircraft to beat rivals Nungesser, Coli, and Chamberlin? Not too difficult. It’s clear skies until he actually gets off the ground, which is when the film also gains more engaging altitude.

Lindbergh somehow takes off from the rain-drenched ground of Roosevelt Field, flying out of New York, over Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and into the lonely stretches of the North Atlantic. For the next 33.5 hours he fights off sleep and ice-laden wings. Before he reaches Ireland and subsequently Paris, we are stuck with Lindbergh and his memories. Since Stewart has reserves of natural charm deeper than South African gold mines, and because his facial takes up the battle against sleep valiantly, we are blessed with an entertaining companion. To convey Lindbergh’s psychological processes Wilder has inserts interior voiceovers, though these verge more on the comical than reflective (a wanton fly in the cabin takes up a lot of screen time).

According to the DVD jacket (from the James Stewart Signature Collection) Stewart is in “his role of roles”. It’s an admirable performance considering the weakness of the film, but it shows none of the neurotic complexities Stewart brought to his Westerns or his work with Hitchcock. Wilder is not in his film of films either. He’s neither as funny or incisive as he could be…but this is a safe sturdy biopic, not making any transatlantic journeys. Just domestic.

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James Stewart: The Naked Spur

This is the type of plot where everything hinges on who is carrying the guns and where said guns are pointing. In Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur, none of the characters brandishing Colts are entirely trustworthy, including the usually folksy James Stewart.

Stewart plays Howard Kempe, a bounty hunter who picks up wanted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), but has to contend with a prospector (Millard Mitchell) and dishonourably discharged soldier (Ralph Meeker) who want a cut of the $5000 reward. Vandergroat slyly manipulates his uneasy captors, playing them off each other and using his companion Lina (Janet Leigh before Psycho) as visual distraction. All the ingredients are here for a taut “seige” picture of moral dilemma not dissimilar to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Unlike Huston’s film there are not many redeeming morals for the story’s proceedings. A peaceful encounter with a band of Blackfoot natives turns into a pointless bloodbath; Millard and Anderson are both duplicitous, as is Leigh’s complicated Linda, who works for Vandergroat but begins to fall for Stewart. Stewart goes through most of the movie grunting and snapping at the other actors,  a growing anxiety under his carbuncular twang. His emotional collapse is startling (check out Johnny DiLoretto’s interesting piece on Stewart’s conflicted portrayal of mascunility).

Mann is an unfussy director, using the beautiful technicolor back drops of the Colorado Rocky Mountain Range and Bronislau Kaper’s menacing score to give the film a sense of space without losing its intense psychological focus on the five characters. François Truffaut calls Mann’s game “straightforward, he calls a horse a horse and doesn’t try to make us believe he’s shooting anything but a western.”

91 minutes.

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