A CENTURY OF JIMMY STEWART
James Stewart: The Western Collection (A-)
U.S.; various directors, 1939-1966, Universal
James "Jimmy" Stewart (1908-1997), whose centennial we observe this week, was perhaps the most widely loved and genuinely lovable of all the great Golden Age Hollywood move superstars. He was the ultimate small town guy and everyday hero, a sometimes stammering and shy, sometimes wily and devious, sometimes brave, sometimes vulnerable chap who reflected the depths and contradictions of the common American character better than almost any of his colleagues, including his lifelong best friend Henry Fonda. They were pals to the end, even though Stewart became a staunch conservative Republican and Fonda an equally true-blue liberal Democrat.
Stewart was far from average, though. He was an authentic American WW2 war hero, a bomber pilot and later a brigadier general in the Air Force reserve, though he always refused to talk about his war experiences. And he was a great, trend-breaking actor who chose his parts well, and made numerous classics, for the great directors who admired and repeatedly picked him, like Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor, Billy Wilder, Anthony Mann, Otto Preminger and his most congenial collaborator of all, Frank (It's a Wonderful Life) Capra.
Here are six Stewart westerns that showcase Jimmy the Western star, all good, and several great -- Destry and the Mann pictures, written or co-written by Borden Chase. By the way, I interviewed him once and he was just as splendid a raconteur and as terrific a guy as we remember from the movies.
Destry Rides Again (A)
George Marshall, 1938
The great comic western from Max Brand's story, Destry has the shy, gunless Jimmy memorably cleaning up a wild west town and winning the heart of that magnificent barroom gal Marlene Dietrich ("See what the b0ys in the back room will have.").
Winchester 73 (A)
Anthony Mann, 1950
One of Stewart's greatest westerns: this one is about the stolen Winchester rifle passing from hand to hand (Stephen McNally, Dan Duryea, John McIntire) with original owner Jimmy in hot pursuit. Costarring Shelley Winters and in small roles, Rock Hudson and Tony Curtis. Intended for Fritz Lang, it became the first of the Stewart-Mann classics.
Bend of the River (A)
Anthony Mann, 1952
Another masterpiece and the most typical of the Stewart-Mann cycle, this is a wagon train quest saga with a classic hero-villain friendship between Jimmy and Arthur Kennedy.
The Far Country (A-)
Anthony Mann, 1955
Jimmy, Walter Brennan, McIntire, Corinne Calvet and Ruth Roman star in a Northwestern, just a cut below the other Manns.
Night Passage (C)
James Neilson, 195
Intended as another Stewart-Mann western, this film begins with another Chase script, and a plot pitting good brother against bad (Audie Murphy). But it works well enough under uninspired future Disney helmsman Neilson. Bonus: You get to see Jimmy playing his accordion.
The Rare Breed (B-)
Andrew V. McLaglen, 1966
Jimmy, Maureen O'Hara, Brian Keith (too much!) and Juliet Mills make bull-breeding pretty entertaining.
Like his buddy Fonda, Jimmy is irreplaceable.
James Stewart: Columbia Screen Legends (A-)
U.S.; Various directors, 1955-9, Sony
Jimmy Stewart shows more of his range in this re-released Columbia set, which includes another terrific Mann Western, with Kennedy and Donald Crisp; the underrated supernatural romantic comedy Bell, Book and Candle, from John van Druten's play, with an amazing cast (including Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs and, as the witch-in-love, Stewart's Vertigo costar Kim Novak; and one of the all time great film noir/trial dramas, Otto Preminger's movie of (real life judge) Robert Traver's Anatomy of a Murder, with Lee Remick, Ben Gazzara, George C. Scott, Army-McCarthy counsel Joseph Welch (as the judge) and an original Duke Ellington score, partly played by the on-screen Duke. Includes: The Man from Laramie (Mann, 1955, A-), Bell, Book and Candle (Richard Quine, 1958, B), Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, 1959, A).
Happy birthday, Jimmy.
CO-PICKS OF THE WEEK
The Willow Tree (B)
Iran; Majid Majidi, 2005, New Yorker Video
The story of The Willow Tree seems like a sentimental trap: A blind professor named Youssef (Parviz Parastui), who is also a loving husband and father, suddenly regains his sight and has his life greatly changed. But Majid Majidi, writer-director of the modern classic, The Children of Heaven chooses an unexpected dramatic line.
Instead of thanking God or his friends and family, Youssef suddenly becomes aware of all that he's missed during his years of blindness, and he becomes selfish and demanding. He chases a pretty young student, abandons his studies, and makes life hell for his wife, mother and children, who have long sacrificed themselves to help him. Youssef's adjustment to a new world of color, scenery and images has a lyrical grace; his slide into self-destruction has a sometimes appalling force. The ending is shattering.
This is another excellent little realistic film from Iran, a country whose film industry is far more humanistic, modern and liberal-minded than its leaders. (In Farsi, with English subtitles.)
Night of the Living Dead (A)
U. S.; George Romero, 1968, Weinstein/Genius
Something has gone radically wrong in Pennsylvania, as a cross-section of people are trapped in a farmhouse by a previously unimaginable menace.
All around them are the dead, infected with some hideous virus or mutation, who have abandoned their graves and are attacking the living, who in turn become infected and join the army of mindless, marauding zombies. The besieged farmhouse survivors, led by a plucky African-American (Duane Jones), surrounded by the ravenous walking dead, try to flee, to fight, then simply to survive -- as the dead keep coming on and all options gradually close up for them.
This is one of the scariest and most influential horror movies ever made, shot in evocative, almost newsreel or documentary style black and white on a minimal budget in 1968. Endlessly copied, remade, ripped off and the subject of several sequels by Romero and others -- it's still never, never been duplicated. It can literally scare the living hell out of you. (Extras: featurettes, interviews.)
OTHER NEW AND RECENT RELEASES
National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets (C)
U.S.; Jon Turtletaub, 2007, Walt Disney
Nic Cage hunts for more American treasure, finding it at the box-office if not in this spectacularly loony movie. This sequel is really barmy show, with the most dubious dramatic use of a fictional U. S. President since Air Force One. I know, Helen Mirren is in it, but remember, I warned you.
The Cottage (C-)
U.K.; Paul Andrew Williams, 2008, Sony
This is a pretty gory, sometimes funny horror shocker about a dysfunctional family (headed by Lord of the Rings' Andy Serkis), who try to pull off an ill-advised kidnapping and get tangled up with a Texas Chainsaw-style serial killer. Only for those with strong stomachs.
Hamburger Hill (C+)
U.S.; John Irvin, 1988, Lionsgate
Here is a violent, fact based Vietnam battle saga, portraying the famed assault by the 101st Airborne. Scripted by vet Jim Carabatsos (Heartbreak Ridge); Hamburger Hill features a then-new cast that included Don Cheadle, Dylan McDermott and Courtney B. Vance. Intense, wearing, more realistic than most war films.
The Night They Raided Minsky's (A-)
U.S.; William Friedkin, 1968, United Artists
Before The French Connection, William Friedkin won a small band of admirers (including me) with this pungent, snappy, very well-acted little period romantic comedy, about the days of vaudeville and the accidental invention of the strip-tease. It's a sleeper; the cast includes Jason Robards, Britt Ekland (as the Amish girl who stumbles on the strip), Norman Wisdom, Harry Andrews, Denholm Elliott, Elliott Gould and (in his movie swan song) that old Cowardly Lion, Bert Lahr.
What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (B)
U.S.; Blake Edwards, 1966, United Artists
From the crackling '60s movie team of director-writer Edwards and screenwriter William Peter Blatty, Daddy is a mostly forgotten but superior World War II comedy about the Yanks invading and fraternizing with Italian townspeople. With James Coburn, Dick Shawn, Sergio Fantoni, Carroll O'Connor and (in one of his finest hours) Harry Morgan.
OTHER NEW AND RECENT BOX SETS
The Delirious Fictions of William Klein (Eclipse Series 9) (B-)
France; William Klein, 1966-1977, Eclipse/Criterion Collection
William Klein is one of the great American fashion and street photographers, and also a sometimes very good documentary moviemaker (Muhammad Ali: The Greatest). A lesser-seen side of Klein is his work as fiction film-maker; this set shows why it's lesser-seen. His three French fiction films, assembled here, are an erratic lot. Visually stunning and politically daring, they're also arch, obvious and way over-acted, even though the actors he uses -- including Philippe Noiret, Jean Rochefort, Delphine Seyrig and Andre Dussolier -- are mostly first-rate. (I've never seen the usually splendid Noiret as bad as he is in Klein's Mr. Freedom.) Best of the lot, by far, is Klein's sharp fashion industry satire Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? with Grayson Hall in a wicked parody of fashionista czarina Diana Vreeland. The Vietnam-era political send-up Mr. Freedom (which makes Michael Moore look like Robert Bresson) and the sci-fi mind-control/invasion-of-privacy parable The Model Couple are both wastes of time, only salvageable in a preaching-to-the-choir situation. Includes: Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? (1966, B), Mr. Freedom (1969, C), The Model Couple (1977, C).
Firefox/The Gauntlet/The Rookie (C+)
U. S.; Clint Eastwood, 1977-1990, Warner
One gem here: The Gauntlet is a hip, fast Eastwood crime/chase thriller, with C. E. as a raffish, hard-drinking Arizona cop transporting a feisty mob witness (Sondra Locke) to trial against the bloody, concerted efforts of both the gangsters and the law. Packaged with it are two of his lesser director-star efforts, the emotionally numb Russian super-plane Cold War thriller Firefox and the strangely creepy, sordid cop noir The Rookie -- which wastes not only Clint, but Sonia Braga, Raul Julia and Charlie Sheen. Includes: The Gauntlet (1977, A-), Firefox (1982, C+), The Rookie (1990, C+).
Every Which Way but Loose/Any Which Way You Can/Honkytonk Man (B+)
U.S.; Various directors, 1978-82, Warner
This Clint three-pack has his two hit comical outings as boxing champ and orangutan lover Philo Beddoe -- costarring Sondra Locke in her least sympathetic star role, and directed by two of his longtime crew guys and assistants, probably with some Eastwood assistance. Also included is his great, underrated country road saga, Honytonk Man, a heartbreaking ballad of loneliness and failure, with Clint as a dying alcoholic country and western singer and son Kyle Eastwood as his nephew/driver. Includes: Every Which Way but Loose (James Fargo, 1978, B), Any Which Way You Can (Buddy Van Horn, 1980, B-), Honkytonk Man (Clint Eastwood, 1982, A).