No Highway in the Sky (1951)

All boffins are a bit crackers but I suppose he’s the worst. Theodore Honey (James Stewart) is an apparently eccentric mathematician and aeronautical engineer charged with discovering what caused the crash of a ‘Reindeer’ airliner, a newly designed carrier for the Royal Aircraft Establishment. As he travels to investigate, he realises en route that he’s flying on the very same type of airplane. He believes that after 1,440 airborne hours the metal in the tail will bend and fall off, causing the plane to fall out of the sky. But he can’t persuade the captain Samuelson (Niall MacGinnis, bizarrely uncredited). Convinced it will suffer a similar accident, he deliberately sabotages it once it lands, and soon finds himself defending his sanity in an English courtroom. Fortunately, a sympathetic actress Monica Teasdale (Marlene Dietrich) and a stewardess Marjorie Corder (Glynis Johns) both believe his desire to prevent certain death and come to his defence People must be someone else’s concern – I can’t let it be mine. Stewart is cast as a kind of mad scientist, complete with a young daughter Elspeth (Janette Scott) who cares for him rather than the other way round, forgetting which of the lookalike tract houses he occupies despite living there 11 years. This adaptation of Nevil Shute’s 1947 novel is so interesting after a protracted set up simply because it expresses so much of the time in which it was made:  the post-war era, jet engine propulsion, families torn apart by WW2. And in the centre of it are two very different kinds of femininity – the international jet setter movie star played by Dietrich (who else?) and the no-nonsense, efficient and kind Johns, woman now working in the air but who has a background as a nurse, another casualty of WW2. Typecasting always works and it’s one of the pleasing oddities of this story that they’re not exactly in competition, rather both support Theodore. The fear that a plane will just … fall out of the sky is the kind of catastrophising that typifies most of our intercontinental journeys and it’s the explanation as to why this could happen that provides the drama and tension as well as characterisation – Stewart is fine as the befuddled man who nonetheless gets it right but at a cost, with terrible publicity and a potential future in the lunatic asylum. Metal fatigue can lead to mental fatigue, it seems. Lending great support are Jack Hawkins as company man Dennis Scott and Kenneth More as Dobson, the co-pilot, also uncredited, like the other pilot! Written for the screen by R. C. Sheriff & Alec Coppel & Oscar Millard, Shute probably wrote his story as a kind of purge – he had been an aeronautical engineer, involved first with the de Havilland company and then as a constructor with his own firm, the British government created a vehicle in direct competition with one of his designs which ended disastrously. He knew whereof he wrote. Directed by Henry Koster who of course directed Stewart in his previous film, Harvey, and they would work together again on Mr Hobbs Takes a Vacation and Dear Brigitte, also starring Johns. We never walked out on one of your pictures

Magic Town (1947)

Magic Town

The air becomes charged with electricity around desperate men. WW2 vet Lawrence ‘Rip’ Smith (James Stewart) is looking to find a way to beat fellow pollster George Stringer and his military colleague Professor Frederick Hoopendecker (Kent Smith) tells him about Grandview, a town that offers a precisely representative model for the entire United States. Rip promises a client a result within 24 hours that Stringer has been working on for a long time and he and his team arrive in the town posing as insurance salesmen. He has to deal with Mary Peterman  (Jane Wyman) who is trying to persuade the Mayor (Harry Holman) to build more property and give the town a civic centre – which would alter the demographic. It forces Rip to address the town and they side with him, not Mary who writes an editorial about him in her family newspaper. While they are attracted to each other, he is gathering information as well as coaching the school basketball team. When she overhears him calling a client, she writes another story about the reason for his being in Grandview and a national paper picks it up and Rip’s mission is made known in the ‘public opinion capital of the U.S.’ … Okay now. You’re a typical American – act like it! Robert Riskin’s script is rather reminiscent of a Frank Capra film – but then he wrote most of them, despite Capra’s self-aggrandising public line that his was The Name Above the Title. And yet this isn’t directed by Capra, but by William Wellman. While it readily captures much of the kind of atmosphere and social concerns of Riskin’s pre-WW2 work in that partnership the shifts from comedy to drama aren’t managed in the same way – with Riskin as producer from a story he wrote with Joseph Krumgold and Wellman directing, the sharp ends of the story are confronted directly, suggesting the compromises the screenwriter might have been making prior to this production. Rip wants money, Mary is after a good story with a political edge. This exists almost in inverse relationship to Riskin’s previous narratives, with the kinds of conversations that Capra softened into sentiment given a much tougher emphasis here (underlined by the Roy Webb’s score). So it’s the same type of material as before but given a much different treatment, although it all comes together in the end with the people creating their own destiny.  This as ever with Riskin is a blue-sky picture asking people what kind of country they want the United States to be and to make it happen democratically – but he never takes his eye off the ball, locating the peculiar way in which families run towns and thereby society as a whole. Fascinating as a prism through which to view Stewart’s stuttering post-war career (It’s a Wonderful Life was also a box office failure) as well as clarifying what Riskin had done for Capra now that they were separate entities. That’s Mickey Rooney’s dad Joe Yule as the radio comic. How do you like your fancy beautiful circus of a town now?

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)

The Greatest Show on Earth

Under the big top only two days count – today and tomorrow. Brad Braden (Charlton Heston) is trying to keep the world’s biggest railroad circus on the road but the backers want to curtail the current run to ten weeks. He has to demote his girlfriend trapeze artiste Holly (Betty Hutton) from the centre ring to make way for returning high flyer The Great Sebastian (Cornel Wilde) who immediately sets out to seduce her, ignoring former lovers Angel (Gloria Grahame) from the elephant act and Phyllis (Dorothy Lamour) who’s in a South Seas performance. Concessionaire Harry (John Kellogg) is duping the customers while Buttons the Clown (James Stewart) hides behind his cosmetics but a visit from his mother in the crowd suggests he is a former doctor who mercy killed his young wife ten years earlier even if he explains away his first aid skills as wartime experience. Elephant trainer Klaus (Lyle Bettger) is fired when jealousy gets the better of him and he nearly kills Angel during his act. He decides to take revenge when the circus is travelling again … I send her for a doctor and she comes back with an elephant. Sly banter, fantastic characterisation and plain old-fashioned good against bad make this splashy Cecil B. DeMille spectacular an evergreen entertainment that mixes romance, action, crime and disaster storylines with panache. Extraneous attractions to the main narrative are real-life performers from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Circus’ 1951 troupe, obstinately glum children in the audience and the tent being raised, a high-wire act in itself. There’s Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in one shot, presumably to ogle Lamour; while Hutton gets to belt out some lively numbers amid a rousing score by Victor Young. The shifting love triangles between Heston, Hutton, Wilde and Grahame are smartly managed with nifty dialogue. Walk me off – do not rob me of my exit. The train wreck is justly famous even if it looks a bit Dinky Cars these days. They’ll never find me behind this nose. The mystery with Buttons is nicely sustained with a terrifically ironic payoff and Heston gets to go on with the show. Lawrence Tierney has a nice supporting role and there’s a satifsying reveal at the end, showing us exactly who’s been narrating this tall tale. Expertly written by Frederic M. Frank, Theodore St. John, Frank Cavett and Barré Lyndon aka Alfred Edgar with uncredited additions by Jack Gariss. You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll hurl! Classic. The only net I use is in my hair

Night Passage (1957)

Night Passage

I’m beholden to you mister. Can’t we just leave it that way? Former railroad worker Grant McLaine (James Stewart) is making a living playing the accordion when he’s hired by boss Ben Kimball (Jay C. Flippen) to help transport the railroad’s payroll despite having left his former employ in disgrace. The train carrying the payroll has been robbed multiple times in the past by Whitey Harbin (Dan Duryea) and his gang and the workers haven’t been paid in months. Kimball hopes that McLaine can successfully guard the money from the robbers. But matters are complicated for McLaine when he finds out that one of the robbers is his brother, who is now going by the name of the Utica Kid (Audie Murphy) a notorious name in the territory and the brothers have a score to settle … Colorado may be big on miles but it’s kinda short on people. One of the most beautifully shot films of its era (courtesy of William H. Daniels), this was supposed to be directed by Anthony Mann in a furthering of his collaboration with James Stewart. However he withdrew due to his unhappiness with Borden Chase’s adaptation of the source novel by Norman A. Fox and was replaced by James Neilson. It lacks the psychological complexity of those previous auteurist pairings but Murphy is perfect casting as the under-motivated baby-faced younger brother to Stewart’s conscientious sibling, jaded and saddened by loss of love. Duryea has some fantastic scenes, Elam is his usually villainous self and there’s little Brandon De Wilde exuding star power carrying the mysterious shoe box. Elaine Stewart and Dianne Foster have finely drawn roles as the women who come between the brothers. You haven’t heard anything in movies until you’ve witnessed Stewart playing the accordion and trilling, You can’t get far without a railroad in a wonderful score by Dimitri Tiomkin.  If you was boss we wouldn’t do it!

The MacKintosh Man (1973)

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Put a bag over my head. I’ve been in prison for 15 months! Secret agent Joseph Rearden (Paul Newman) poses as an Australian jewel thief and is quickly convicted of stealing £140,000 of diamonds and imprisoned in order to infiltrate an organisation headed by Home Secretary Sir George Wheeler (James Mason) who organises Rearden’s escape along with that of MI6 intelligence officer Slade (Ian Bannen) who was gaoled as a Soviet mole … I don’t know about you, Slade; I’m not ready for death. The rest I’ll drink to. Adapted by Walter Hill (along with director John Huston and William Fairchild) from Desmond Bagley’s The Freedom Trap, this starts out quietly and continues that way for some time – tricking the susceptible viewer into believing that Rearden himself has been tricked by MI6 into taking the fall for a jewel heist and for more than a half hour it’s a prison movie. However the sleight of hand is revealed as it becomes clear Rearden has gone into deep cover to smoke out a dangerous organisation in this Cold War tale. Of course you will recognise the contours of the real-life story of George Blake, whose daring prison escape is the stuff of legend. For an action film and spy thriller this is a work of smooth surfaces and understated performances, especially by Newman, enhanced by the cinematography of the great Oswald Morris and a beautiful score by Maurice Jarre. The locations around Galway – Oranmore and Roundstone – were local to director Huston who spent much of the Fifties onwards at his house St Cleran’s. The palpable anger and keen sense of duty comes in fits and starts, usually at the conclusion of realistically staged action sequences, including a chase across an Irish bog and using banged up cars rather than Aston Martins. There are also some small gems of supporting appearances – Leo Genn as prosecuting counsel, Jenny Runacre as Gerda the nurse, Noel Purcell and Donal McCann in the Irish scenes. There are also scenes of misogyny and violence (even against a dog) that might shock in this more politically even-handed climate. The strangest character Mrs Smith, played by Une femme douce herself Dominique Sanda, gets an incredible payoff.  You might even say she has the last word. The cool, straightforward approach to treachery, duplicity in the modern state and something of a twist ending just raises more questions, making this a palpable pleasure, a film which tells one simple truth – trust nobody. Produced by John Foreman who had a company first with Newman and then made a cycle of films with Huston. Our deaths would mean little or nothing to anyone, anywhere – only to ourselves

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

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You save that jiggle for your husband.  Semi-retired Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) takes the case of Army Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who murdered local innkeeper Barney Quill after his wife Laura (Lee Remick) claimed that he raped and beat her.  However a police surgeon finds no evidence of rape.  Over the course of a big trial, Biegler is the smalltown lawyer (and recently deposed District Attorney) who must parry with the new DA Lodwick (Brooks West) and out-of-town prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) to set his client free, but his case rests on the victim’s mysterious business partner Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), who’s hiding a dark secret.  Biegler has to prove Manion was suffering temporary insanity but will the jury buy it after Biegler discovers he’s a violent and jealous husband and he knows in his heart he’s got a very weak defence? … Producer/director Otto Preminger spent most of the 1950s baiting the censor with material for adults and this long engrossing account of a true crime is no different. Wendell Mayes adapted Robert Traver’s (aka John D. Voelker) novel based on his own experiences on a 1952 case in the state of Michigan.The matter of fact handling of the explicit physical details in the courtroom confirms that this is a film that has no cinematic tricks. It’s shot wide and flat in black and white with the only camouflage or disguise in the personalities presenting themselves. That applies to the legal team too:  Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) has to swear off the booze for the duration to assist Biegler;  Laura must drop the tight pedal pushers, don skirts and hide her wonderful hair;  Biegler’s bonhomie hides a finagling mind that doesn’t express great surprise at anything anyone says or conceals.   There’s a strand of humour running through both dialogue and characterisation that raises the game: the lightness of Remick as the bruised flirtatious beauty, with her wonderful companion dog Muff (Snuffy) who gets to provide his own witness statement in court, alongside Stewart’s jolly and wryly witty performance, makes this more pleasurable than the subject matter suggests. In fact the whole film avoids melodramatic excess and has a devious sinuousness that leads from Stewart. His banter with Joseph N. Welch [chief counsel for the US Army when it was being investigated for UnAmerican Activities in the McCarthy Hearings] about fishing provides a lot of enjoyment; Eve Arden as the reliable and seen-it-all secretary Maida Rutledge offers her typical scepticism in a film constructed from the cynic’s playbook. There are no histrionics or crazy closing arguments, just practice, rationale  and evidence (of witness-coaching). Now, Mr  Dancer, get off the panties – you’ve done enough damage.  Duke Ellington provides the film’s notable score and he appears uncredited as pianist Pie Eye and enjoys an exchange with Stewart. The great titles are by Saul Bass. This is elegant filmmaking, wonderfully crafted, telling a difficult story in the procedural vernacular very stylishly.  How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) attends the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a small Western town. Flashing back 25 years, we learn Doniphon saved Stoddard, then a lawyer, when he was roughed up by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As the territory’s safety hung in the balance, Doniphon and Stoddard, two of the only people standing up to him, proved to be very important, but different, foes to Valance. Stoddard opened a law office over the offices of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper which is run by a steadfast editor determined to expose the reality of the violence terrorising the territory and preserve the freedom of the press. Both Doniphon and Stoddard are in love with the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) who cooks in her immigrant parents’ restaurant and whom Stoddard teaches to read and write. When the newspaper prints a (mis-spelled) headline declaring Valance is defeated, he takes revenge – and then the peace-loving Stoddard takes up a gun … This is a film of polarities, exemplified by the civilising influence of Ransom opposed to Valance and Doniphon’s own belief in the power of the gun (which ironically opens up the possibility for bringing law and order to the place). Vera Miles is splendid as the illiterate love of both men:  What good has reading and writing done you? Look at you – in an apron!  An eloquent essay on the genre itself, this was not received warmly upon release. And yet its entire narrative provides the content for soon to be popular structuralist analysis of the western:  the East versus the West, old versus new, the wilderness versus civilisation, violence versus law and order, reality versus myth, the desert versus the garden. Never was a cactus rose deployed to such symbolic effect! John Ford made one of the great films but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson’s short story by producer Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah .

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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You sit here and you spin your little web and you think the whole world revolves around you and your money. Up in Heaven Clarence (Henry Travers) is awaiting his angel’s wings when a case is made to him about George Bailey (James Stewart) who’s thinking about jumping off a bridge and into a wintry river at Bedford Falls on Christmas Eve 1945. Clarence is told George’s story: as a young boy rescuing his brother Harry from an icy pond, to his father’s death just when his own life should have been taking off and he winds up staying in this loathsome little town running the bank and having his honeymoon with childhood sweetheart Mary (Donna Reed) ruined when there’s a run on the bank’s funds … and losing himself amid other people’s accidents, deaths and rank stupidity while the town runs afoul of greedy financier Potter (Lionel Barrymore). George is such a great guy with dreams of travel and adventure and the truth is he never leaves home and becomes a martyr to other people. I’ve always found this immensely depressing. What happens to him – the sheer passive aggression directed at him and the loss of all of his ambitions in order to satisfy other people’s banal wishes at the expense of his own life’s desires  – is a complete downer. Reworking A Christmas Carol with added danger it feels like a post-war attempt to make people feel happy with their very limited lot. Which is why I watch this very rarely and with complete reluctance precisely because its petty moralising is achieved so beautifully and rationally … So sue me! Adapted from Philip Van Doren Stern’s story by husband and wife team Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett and Jo Swerling and directed by Frank Capra.

The Glenn Miller Story (1954)

The Glenn Miller Story

My number’s Pennsylvania 6-5000. Glenn Miller (James Stewart) is a young impoverished trombonist who pawns the instrument every time he leaves his latest band because nobody wants to use his arrangements: he hears music in a certain way but hasn’t the means to achieve his own orchestra, at least not yet. He’s confident it’ll happen some day just as he is that Helen (June Allyson) the girl he once dated at college in Colorado will marry him so he buys her a fake string of pearls and gets her to see him for the first time in two years despite her being engaged to someone else. Then he disappears again.  When she agrees to meet him in NYC she marries him and while he falls in and out of jobs she gets him to form his own crew with the money she squirrelled away without his knowing and by 1939 he has one of the biggest swing bands in the US … This biographical film is just so good it’s hard to know where to start:  the transitions which are so brilliantly inscribed by visually expert director Anthony Mann, particularly in the early scenes when the pawn shop is so central to Miller’s whole life;  the ease with which we grasp Miller’s misery at not being able to translate the music in his head to live performance (the squirming during a showgirl’s bowdlerized delivery of Moonlight Serenade has to be seen to be believed); the simple way the adoption of their children is handled; and the depiction of friendship with pianist Chummy (Henry Morgan) and its significance to running a smooth band. If you’re a jazz fan you’ll get a shiver of recognition every time a familiar chord strikes up and kudos to arranger Henry Mancini (who had played with Miller and was part of the ‘ghost’ band made up of the original and the Army Air Force players when he died) who errs just the right side of easy. There’s another recognition factor too – watching Louis Armstrong and Gene Krupa perform is another plus;  as is the scene in London during a German bombing raid when the band play on in the open air – and the audience applaud once they get up again. Stewart is splendid in the title role and his resemblance to Miller doesn’t hurt. He was paired previously with Allyson in The Stratton Story and would work with her again in director Anthony Mann’s Strategic Air Command. This was the star and director’s fifth film collaboration  (out of eight) and the first non-Western. It was a huge hit, as was the soundtrack album and is a genuinely thrilling musical which will give real fans immense pleasure. There’s a great final scene with that little brown jug. Gulp. Written by Douglas Morrow and Guy Trosper.

Two Rode Together (1961)

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They’re expecting a Messiah, a Moses, to deliver them from their bondage – and I’ve got to send them you! Cynical Texas marshal (James Stewart) and conscientious Army officer (Richard Widmark) are deputised to rescue white people kidnapped by Comanches years earlier but only when negotiations with them succeed. They get two of them back to camp – some mother’s son and a Mexican woman – but find they have completely forgotten their origins and a massive culture clash ensues with the boy killing the woman who is convinced she is his mother and Elena ostracised by white society for becoming an Indian squaw.  The casting of this John Ford western is interesting as Stewart wears his talismanic hat from the Anthony Mann westerns and pours cold water on everything while Widmark always tries to do the right thing; Shirley Jones makes an impact as the girl who can’t get her missing brother out of her mind. Ford didn’t want to make this since he felt he had said all he needed to say about this sort of thing with The Searchers and he was basically correct. But his new star, Stewart, and the widescreen shooting make this worth a watch and the double act at its heart is genuinely interesting. Adapted by Frank Nugent from Will Cook’s novel Comanche Captives.