An essay on Alfred Hitchcock, James Stewart, and a few other things. . . Won first prize!
The film was not very well-received at the time, partly because it did not have a strong love interest, but it was the first time that Alfred Hitchcock directed Jimmy Stewart, a collaboration which would arguably culminate in the 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo.
As a member of Generation X, I've always found Jimmy Stewart to be a somewhat unlikely hero. For a few reasons, not the least of which was his voice, (I'm not even sure how to describe it.), he always seemed to me more like a "swell guy" then someone you would want watching your back. Before World War II, he acted mainly in screwball comedies. After serving in the war, he had the ultimate "swell guy role" in the holiday film, It's a Wonderful Life. (That was a movie where his voice actually helped. "Atta boy Clarence!" is not much of a line out of context, but when delivered by Stewart it's a tear-jerker.)
Still, perhaps the problem is that after World War II, swell guys became America's heroes. After all, a whole group of swell guys had defeated Adolf Hitler and were now running the country, discovering vaccines for polio, and even had hopes of walking on the moon.
On the other hand, Alfred Hitchcock was not a swell guy. He was a creepy old man (who was always being seen in unexpected places) and he milked that persona quite well. Hitchcock was old enough to remember a time when it was acceptable for parents to take children who had misbehaved and arrange for the local pólice to lock them in jail. Thus, by the time the 50's came along with all its swellness, he remained quite cynical about what sort of immoral things people were capable of doing to each other. Still, he was smart enough to realize that this cynicism should be restrained if he wanted a successful career. It would not be until the 1960's that he would find the courage to show a woman getting stabbed to death in the shower and call it mainstream entertainment.
Back to Jimmy Stewart and his swellness. Was Stewart convincing as a controversial Harvard profesor? Well, yes, but that was part of the point of Rope. Harvard professors were expected to have radical views, but not actually act on them.
Was Stewart convincing as a Doctor who had lost his son in The Man Who Knew too Much? Absolutely. What profession epitomizes the swell guy persona more than Doctor?
Was Stewart convincing as a photojournalist in Rear Window? Possibly, but that illustrates another point about the 50's. Photojournalists were respected. After all, this was an era when virtually every household had a subscription to Life magazine. But early in the film, Stewart tells his girlfriend, Grace Kelly, that he has to travel to some not so swell places and live a not so swell lifestyle to get those photos. There was a certain amount of 50's denial in place. Of course, the whole point of that movie is that when you take the time to point a camera in your own apartment complex, you can find some things as disturbing as any far off war zone.
That brings us to Vertigo. Was Stewart convincing as a cop? It probably made sense in the 50's when cops were supposed to be the good guys who maintained law and order. It also helps that his character is a detective who has retired because he can´t deal with his fear of heights. This was not your typical law and order man, but a somewhat flawed personality. Still Vertigo turned out to be more than a movie about a detective who solves a crime. (Actually, it turned out to be a movie with a rather ridiculous plot, but that is not the point. The film works because of how artfully the plot is rendered.) Stewart starts out as a retired San Francisco detective who is asked to investigate the his friend´s wife, Kim Novak. As Stewart digs, he finds that Novak is descended from a mysterious woman in the days San Francisco was a wilder more dangerous place then it is now. Eventually, Stewart falls in love with this woman and then she gets killed. (Do I have to insert a spoiler alert here?)
Anyway, the rest of the film is even more bizarre as Stewart´s love for Novak becomes less chivalrous and more downright obsessive. By the film's conclusion, we get the feeling that Stewart is completely lost and will never get back his sanity. Less obviously, even though Stewart has solved the mystery, the villain remains at large.
The villain at large was reportedly the main reason that studio executives insisted Hitchcock shoot an alternate ending which he hated. The ending was included on the laser disk of the movie, and it shows Stewart standing around listening to a radio broadcast about the villain being chased down. The ending seems to suggest that Stewart has mentally recovered, but since he doesn't speak during the entire scene, it's a little hard to be sure.
Perhaps, the reason that alternate ending didn't work is that the movie is not about getting bad guys. (As I said before, if that were all there was to it, it would probably not be well-remembered because the bad guy's crime is so unwieldy, it's hard to take seriously.) It's about a typical 50's swell guy being turned into something not so swell by the side of humanity that nobody talked about in the 50's.
Today, Vertigo is considered one of Hitchcock's greatest films, if not his greatest. However, at the time, it was not a box office success. Hitchcock, interestingly, blamed this on Stewart claiming he was too old for the part. For his next film, the entertaining but less controversial North by Northwest Hitchcock insisted the lead be Cary Grant, who was actually two years older than Stewart but happened to look much younger.To me, Cary Grant did look (and sound) more like a typical movie hero.
Make what you will of that.