Tag: james stewart

The Man Who Knew Too Much

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
★★★ / ★★★★

After attending a medical convention in Paris, Dr. Benjamin McKenna (James Stewart) decides to vacation in Marrakech, Morocco with Jo (Doris Day), his wife, and Hank (Christopher Olsen), his young son, before they return to Indianapolis. While on their way to the hotel, a Frenchman named Louis Bernard (Daniel Gélin) befriends the tourists and offers to take them around the city and recommend must-see places. All appears to be fine, with the exception of Jo’s nagging suspicion that they are being followed, until Mr. Bernard is stabbed in the back. Before he dies, he manages to whisper important information about a possible assassination in Dr. McKenna’s ears.

Based on the story by Charles Bennett and D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, before “The Man Who Knew Too Much” immerses us with its suspense and thrills, it works like a travelogue. The decision to allow the first part of the story to take place in Marrakech is not wasted because it gives the McKenna family, as well as the audience, a chance to interact with their foreign surroundings.

The camera consistently pulls itself back and features places like the marketplace: the amount of crowd that shops on a typical day, the scent of vegetables and spices emanating from their respective containers, down to the sweat and grime of the vendors whose bodies are sprawled on the floor despite the blistering heat. I was surprised that I even had the opportunity to learn how to eat properly in a Moroccan restaurant.

Since the mood is somewhat lighthearted for such an extended period of time, when the shift in mood and atmosphere occurs, it feels sudden even if elements that hint that something is going to go wrong eventually never step out of the shadow. The direction by Alfred Hitchcock is felt in scenes where uncertain paranoia evolve into a real fear.

For instance, as characters panic, the camera remains motionless as if it dares us to absorb every tiny emotion that radiates from the tragedy. When Jo and Benjamin’s son is taken, it is natural that we feel sympathy for them. But, with the aid of Stewart and Day’s sublime acting, I caught myself feeling angry for them–angry because they are helpless, confused, and, perhaps most importantly, anybody could have made the same mistakes they did.

Furthermore, I admired that the screenplay by John Michael Hayes places emphasis on the partnership between husband and wife. It might have easily been about a hellbent father who is willing to hurt anybody if it meant getting back his only son. Instead, there is more depth in what is unfolding. Since both husband and wife are given equal things to do, it almost feels like their quest to get their son back is an act of attempting to conceive another child. This is neatly tied to a scene in the beginning about Jo wanting to get pregnant again. In a way, the trial they attempt to overcome is an opportunity for a rebirth as a couple and as parents.

“The Man Who Knew Too Much” is a title dipped in irony. It is not a cerebral experience. It is about the emotions that we and the characters go through rather than an evil plot.

Destry Rides Again

Destry Rides Again (1939)
★★★ / ★★★★

Claggett (Tom Fadden) has just won a couple of hands against Kent (Brian Donlevy) and his corrupt buddies, so he feels very confident that his ace is good enough to win the high stakes final round of their card game. Just when they are about to reveal their hands, Frenchy (Marlene Dietrich), a singer at the saloon, spills coffee all over Claggett’s lap and surreptitiously switches his top ace for a measly deuce. Not only does he lose all his money on the table, he also bet his farm minutes prior.

When Sheriff Keogh (Joe King) investigates the sham, he is shot and left to die. That very night, Mayor Slade (Samuel S. Hinds), aware of the land-stealing scam, appoints the town drunk, Dimsdale (Charles Winninger), as the new sheriff, convinced that he and Kent will have full control of Bottleneck. But Dimsdale is not a typical alcoholic. Equipped with a strong sense of justice, he designates Thomas Jefferson Destry Jr. (James Stewart), son of a legendary lawman, as his deputy.

“Destry Rides Again,” based on the screenplay by Felix Jackson, Gertrude Purcell and Henry Myers, executes its comedy with sly wit and irony. Because of its glowing energy, the laughs make an interesting contrast against the expected straight-faced western genre where macho men with guns dominate the establishment.

Destry is an enigma worth looking into. He is a deputy sheriff but he is not keen on using guns. He prefers to solve problems by talking to both sides and then deciding which course of action both parties should take in order to arrive at a peaceful but fair negotiation. And yet although he is an idealized person of the law, only a few of the residents respect him for his methods. For instance, there is Frenchy, initially rather boorish and off-putting, who becomes inspired to do the right thing for her community. Meanwhile, the majority of the townsfolk give Destry a hard time, calling him names like “lady-fingers” and laughing in his face for not being rough or macho enough.

Through Destry, the townspeople’s behavior toward a person who wants to treat them right–and hoping to inspire them to want to be treated correctly–say a lot about them as a community: they have become inured to being pushed around by those in power. When a person comes in who does things a little differently, as a group they are at a loss on how to respond. So, they default to animosity.

The film is not just about a cop who wants to set things right. It tackles the idea of a small change leading up to big changes. Over time, Frenchy learns that maybe she is worth more than being a crook who steals hardworking people’s land. She makes a proactive choice in no longer prostituting her morals. Appropriately, her evolution does not consist of big montages. Otherwise, it might have come off phony.

One of the most elegantly executed scenes involves Destry, fully aware of the illicit activities but needs more evidence to make a convincing case, visiting Frenchy to ask her some questions. While on the way out, the deputy sheriff reveals that he is onto her by suggesting that perhaps the entertainer ought to remove her make-up once she is off-stage so she will not lose track of who she is as a person. The scene could have unfolded in a one-dimensional, melodramatic way. Instead, there are layers to it. Like the rest of the picture, there is often a cheekiness in the dialogue and yet there is a stream of seriousness slowly coursing just beneath.

“Destry Rides Again,” based on the novel by Max Brand and directed by George Marshall, roots for goodness all the way through, but it does not let go of the possibility that goodness can be corrupted. Its key messages are wrapped in amusing exchanges and reliant on characters having to go through a defined arc, but the material is able to retain a freshness due to the strong performances and surprises that jump out when they are least expected.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
★★★★ / ★★★★

I could immediately relate to Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) because he saw the good in people above all else. His idealism was challenged when he was appointed by Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), a friend of his father’s, to fill a recent vacancy in the United States Senate. Smith looked up to Paine but was not aware of the fact that Paine was controlled by a powerful media figure named Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold). Despite the rotting corruption in Congress, it seemed as though nothing could destroy Smith’s loyalty to his country and ideals. I was so happy to have seen this film on the 4th of July because it had a truly touching scene about what it meant to have freedom. I’m referring to the scene when Smith talked to his cynical secretary (Jean Arthur) about the concept of liberty being buried in books and people taking it for granted and not realizing how lucky they are to have it. I have to admit I teared up a bit because it described how I was in high school. Despite our class talking about important U.S. historical figures and how the government worked, I found it really difficult to connect with the material because it all felt too impersonal. Watching Smith running around the capital while completely enthralled with all the monuments and the history of the place, it inspired me to always look the world from a fresh perspective. Stewart and Arthur made a killer duo because despite the two being completely different in how they saw politics, they found a commonality and worked from there to establish a very strong bond. I was touched with the way Arthur eventually revealed her softer, sensitive side without losing what made me adore her character in the first place: her sharp wit, dry sense of humor and sarcasm. Some viewers say that the picture might be a bit too romantic but that’s exactly what I loved about it. While it did acknowledge that there was an ever-growing darkness in the world and sometimes the good guys might not necessarily win, the movie’s main purpose was to instill hope. I don’t think the movie would have worked as well as it did if the lead character didn’t completely wear his heart on his sleeve. I was also impressed with the way it framed corruption by means of a politician’s silence which culminated toward the end of the film. Based on the screenplay by Sidney Buchman and directed by Frank Capra, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was astute, touching and, most importantly, still relevant today. It went beyond liberalism and conservatism. Its main focus was what it meant to be a true American.

The Philadelphia Story

The Philadelphia Story (1940)
★★★★ / ★★★★

When the sassy socialite Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) was about to marry a man (John Howard) who didn’t grow up from a family with money, Tracy’s ex-husband (Cary Grant) who still had feelings for her arrived prior to the big event to stir some trouble, along with him a reporter (James Stewart) and a photographer (Ruth Hussey). I instantly fell in love with “The Philadelphia Story” because of the effortless, magnetic chemistry between Hepburn, Grant and Stewart. The way they interacted with each other was so natural, I felt like I was listening to friends having a friendly banter and I couldn’t help but smile. I might not have gotten all the jokes because the comedy was a bit different back then but the bona fide feeling of the actors having a good time in their roles transcends time. I loved something about each of the leading actors. Hepburn played a plucky character with a distinct voice who wanted to show the world that she was strong but there were moments where she wore her weaknesses on her sleeve. Grant played a mysterious character who I found the most difficult to connect with but as the film went on, I felt his genuine love for his ex-wife and the pain and jealousy of seeing her with another man. As for Stewart’s character, my absolute favorite, he was charming, funny, and witty–such characteristics culminated when, ironically enough, he was drunk out of his mind. I was surprised with how much I was invested in the characters because some synopses I read described the picture as a screwball comedy. Perhaps I just had bad experiences with movies labeled as “screwball comedy” but I thought the movie was so much more than that. Not only did it have real moments of sensitivity and a little bit of romance but it did not settle for the obvious. I could see why Hepburn’s character was torn between her husband-to-be, her ex-husband, and the reporter because they all have positive and negative qualities about them. I also admired George Cukor, the director, for being efficient with his time. Not one moment did I feel bored or that the movie was going too slow because he kept the lead characters talking and he let the quirky supporting characters in and out at just about the right moments. I especially enjoyed Virginia Weidler as the nosy kid who wanted attention and the way she would act as if she was one of the adults. “The Philadelphia Story” is known as a classic comedy and I believe rightfully so.