James Stewart, the man with the hands

“You need to see James Stewart’s films without subtitles that cover your hands.” It may seem like an exaggeration, but Luc Moullet was right. The first time the actor appears in Frank Capra’s ‘Knight Without a Sword’, the lyrics cover up the gesture of this unknown man who is about to become a senator. He clenches his hands, interlocks his fingers nervously, and we understand the leap it takes for him to move from his small town to Washington.

This is just one of the many resources that Moullet draws to propose something like the common denominator of Stewart’s interpretive style. He does it in ‘The politics of actors’, a book that was published in 1993 but was not translated into Spanish until last year, thanks to the Athenaica publishing house.

In those pages, Moullet approaches the field of interpretation with an analytical gaze, reeling off the performances of four classic Hollywood greats: Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Cary Grant and James Stewart, whose death is commemorated this Saturday 25 years ago . About the latter, he affirms that he “allowed to reconcile deep America with the ‘intelligentsia'” by playing the average man but also the exceptional citizen.

The actor as possible author

For the French critic and filmmaker, “film actors are always anathematized.” While the estimation of a director falls on the artistic value of his films, that of an interpreter is linked to the commercial value of those titles. So much money, so much worth. The actors, moreover, have been relegated by film critics to the background.

Scene from ‘Knight Without a Sword’

In this book, Moullet seems to compensate for this inattention with a detailed analysis that allows him to avoid the commonplaces with which, perhaps due to ignorance, perhaps due to lack of tradition, interpreters are often dismissed. In promotional posters we are used to reading ‘masterful performance’, ‘unforgettable character’, ‘tour de force’, expressions that seek the headline but are somewhat hollow inside.

Moullet does the opposite and goes to detail, to the minimum unit: it can be a tic, a way of looking, a posture or an accent that, due to its recurrence, gives way to a style, to an interpretive tendency. In what percentage the actor participates in the creation of a film, how much of his work is he aware of or what ideas correspond to the director and what are acting proposals is something impossible to quantify, but it reminds us that cinema is a collective art.

In his study, he also pays attention to the public perception of the actors to understand how this feeds back into the type of characters they embody. If we talk about James Stewart, one fact seems decisive: his participation in the Second World War, within the aviation, draws him as a loyal American and committed to his country, a trait that further strengthened the dignity that his protagonists used to give off, many of them linked to the legal, journalistic or order field.

Next, we review four key titles in his filmography to break down those gestures that he resumed throughout his career and that create unexpected communicating vessels between works by different directors.

Frank Capra, 1939

swordless knight

This is the second movie Stewart has shot with Frank Capra. A scene stands out in which the protagonist, Mr. Smith, a man with ideals, recently appointed senator, meets a woman. We don’t see his face, only how he handles his hat: he drops it, crushes it, loses it again, hesitates… For Moullet, Stewart’s hand movements are original, precise, and allow him to speak without using the word, here not even the face. Brilliantly, just from that object, the crooked hat, we understand that Smith has fallen in love.

George Cukor, 1940

Philadelphia stories

In this classic screwball comedy, Stewart plays a romantically naïve journalist who displays some of the mannerisms that Mr. Smith already had. Here he shares a shot with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, which places him on a level with the rest of mortals, something he takes advantage of to emphasize that aspect of the average citizen, an ordinary and perhaps simple man, who belches, stammers, hiccups and sings. detuned This may not surprise us now, but in the 1940s, when a more polished or stellar type of acting was rewarded, it was striking

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alfred hitchcock, 1954

rear window

In reviewing his career, Luc Moullet detects that many of James Stewart’s characters suffer from a moral and a physical handicap, a defect that gives him a past and complexes. A paradigmatic example of this premise is ‘Rear Window’, where the actor plays a photographer with a broken leg and confined to a wheelchair. For Moullet, Stewart, who was “the actor most capable of acting without moving”, was the best choice for this role. So much so that he talks about “manual acting” in the scenes he shares with Grace Kelly.

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John Ford, 1962

The man who shot Liberty Valance

Once again we find Stewart playing a man of the law, first a lawyer and then a senator, someone who opposes violence even though it stands as the inevitable outcome. He wears an apron and washes dishes; John Wayne sports a hat and a gun. The two faces of America, past and future, seem to clash. A twilight and disenchanted western in which both justice and victory are bittersweet. With Stewart in between, the epic becomes human, he has folds. As Moullet puts it, “he is an ordinary man who tries to reach the myth, but will never succeed.”

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James Stewart, the man with the hands