Jimmy Stewart's career is sort of incomprehensible by today's standards. This incomparable actor became a symbol of the wholesome, all-American guy that we all rooted for. He was the insecure and vulnerable everyman who could make classics out of It's a Wonderful Lifeand Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but who you'd also believe is an adventurous photographer with fears of commitment in Rear Window and an obsessive creep in Vertigo.  

Stewart also did something no one had done at the time—he enlisted in World War II and went and fought. He put his career on hold and did what he thought was his patriotic duty. He rode out the storm into being considered one of the greatest leading men of all time.

He did this by playing heroes, but it took him playing more villains to change the public's perception of him and send him into eternity. 

Check out this video from The Royal Ocean Film Society, and let's talk afterward. 

Jimmy Stewart Actually Played a Villain a Few Times (and Crushed It)

Jimmy Stewart came up through Hollywood, being made famous in Frank Capra movies like You Can't Take it With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

As we mentioned in the opening, Stewart rose to become one of America's leading men, but he put it on hold to be a pilot in the Second World War. He became a colonel in the Air Force, and when he came back, his first role was in It's a Wonderful Life. As legend has it, that movie bombed and would go unappreciated for many years. 

But it also let Stewart act out of type. He was still a good guy, but he was crumbling. The role landed him Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, where Stewart changed his career by beginning a long line of morally ambiguous characters. Rope let him hide a body and showed he could pervert the everyman role into something more. 

Of course, Stewart always had this range. He played a killer in After the Thin Man, one of his first roles ever, but few people saw it. By the time 1950 rolled around, he would embark on a remarkable stretch that allowed him to play a villain more than once. 

I'm talking about his six-film collaboration with Anthony Mann, starting with Winchester '73. The movie is a Western starring Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, and Stephen McNally. It was written by Borden Chase and Robert L. Richards. 

The film is about the journey of a prized rifle from one ill-fated owner to another and a cowboy's search for a murderous fugitive. But it redefined Stewart's persona and allowed him to shed boyish charms to become a hardened character haunted by lingering trauma.  He's not a moral center, but a character who we judge as they act throughout. 

The next movies he did with Mann reflect the same journey, and they allowed Stewart to edge closer to—well, the edge. 

That's where Hitchcock comes back into play. Having seen Stewart's range, and loving him in Rope, Hitch put Stewart in Rear Window and Vertigo. He allowed him to shift the everyman persona even more and really dig deeper into something toxic and feral under the surface. He's a controlling voyeur in one, and the audience wants to change his ways. This act of casting genius allowed Stewart to be villainous as the leading man, with a turn in Vertigo that plays on these psychoses to the bitter end. 

In the end, Stewart's career has way more range than people give him credit for, and it's what made him such a wonderful actor with such a rich legacy. His willingness to take risks, play on and against type, and his depth of emotion and reliability have caused audiences to embrace him even years later. 

Let us know what you think in the comments.

Source: The Royal Ocean Film Society