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New York Times (09/Oct/1983) - James Stewart recalls Hitch



James Stewart recalls Hitch

L.B. Jeffries, the inquiring photographer whose broken leg prevents him from doing anything more strenuous than gazing out his window, is back. And he's in very good company, or soon will be. He will be joined by John "Scottie" Ferguson, who loves one woman because she reminds him of another and who is paralyzed by his fear of heights; Dr. Ben McKenna, whose child is kidnapped as part of an international assassination plot; and Rupert Cadell, a professor who attends a party and solves a murder mystery in the same apartment, and on the very same evening.

These are the characters James Stewart played for Alfred Hitchcock, in "Rear Window" (1954), "Vertigo" (1958), "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956) and "Rope" (1948). Along with "The Trouble With Harry" (1956), these films have been out of circulation since soon after their initial release; Hitchcock controlled the rights to all of them and felt their value would increase if they became rarities. The director's death made it possible for the films to be reissued, and the re-release was launched at the New York Film Festival a week ago Friday evening, when "Rear Window" met with an enthusiastic reception. The greatest ovation was reserved for Mr. Stewart who, along with the audience, had just watched the film for the first time in 20 years.

"The wonderful thing about it is that so much of it is visual," Mr. Stewart marveled the next morning at his hotel. "You really have to keep your eye open in the film, because it's a complicated thing. And the audience was really with it, I thought that was just amazing. It just bears out the feeling that so many of us had about Hitch and his way of doing things."

The tall, courtly Mr. Stewart, now 75 and looking very dapper, was also reminded of his "Rear Window" co- star, Grace Kelly. "The wonderful thing about Grace was that she was just completely at ease with her lines," he said. "The emphasis was always in the right place, and this came from her. I remembered that very vividly, and it was really brought back last night. Absolutely fascinating woman. This was only her fifth picture."

Miss Kelly did her own most noticeable stunt work in "Rear Window," he recalled, in a role that required her to climb from a fire escape into a second story window. Mr. Stewart was himself called upon to fall from a window ledge, a shot he said Mr. Hitchcock made even more dramatic by raising the camera sharply as the actor fell. This meant that by the end of the film L. B. Jeffries had both legs in casts. "That wasn't in the script," Mr. Stewart recalled, noting that the always meticulously-prepared Mr. Hitchcock wasn't averse to last- minute improvisations. "On the day we were going to shoot, he came up to me and said, 'What would you think about breaking another leg?' " Mr. Stewart's casts had hinges on the bottom, so he could stroll the set between shots.

The most strenuous of his Hitchcock films was "Rope," said Mr. Stewart, citing the elaborate technical problems posed by the director's decision to film the one-set drama without any cuts at all; even the reel changes are disguised by actors walking in front of the camera. "It was the craziest, most difficult thing, it was completely new," he said. "Making it was so complicated that when I finished the picture I was talking to Hitch and I said 'You know, I think you missed the boat a little with this one-set thing. You should've built bleachers around it and soaked them five, ten bucks to watch us do this.' "

He added: "The last time I saw 'Rope,' maybe it was just my imagination but as the end of the reel came closer and closer I was conscious of everyone's getting sort of glassy- eyed. All of us were thinking, 'Oh God, don't let me go up on my lines now If I do we'll have to go back and do the whole thing again.' "Miraculously, Mr. Stewart said, that kind of slip-up occurred only once or twice during filming.

Mr. Stewart noted some of the technical breakthroughs the director accomplished on films in which he starred; the staircase shots that convey dizziness in "Vertigo" are among the most ingenious of the director's career. It was also on this film, Mr. Stewart said, that a crane shot moving in toward a hotel window proved too expensive to execute, and the second cameraman happened to mention a new lens he'd been trying to perfect, one that allowed a stationary camera to capture an image at closer and closer range. "It's the first time I remember ever seeing the zoom lens," he said. "They use it much too much nowadays, but at that time it was something new."

Mr. Hitchcock wasn't a director who spent much time discussing the fine points with his actors, Mr. Stewart said. "I'd just get a script, and read it, and say, 'If you want me to play this part, it's okay with me.' " On those rare occasions on which he did receive directorial instructions, he remembers Mr. Hitchcock saying, " 'Jim, the scene is tired.' And I'd know exactly what he meant, because it's a thing that I've had to watch myself on all the time. The timing isn't right, I get too slow."

Working for Mr. Hitchcock, he said, was not so very different from working for Frank Capra, who directed him in such warm and well-loved classics as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington." Though their films had little in common, Mr. Stewart said, the two directors "placed a lot of the emphases the same way. A lot of how they worked with actors and with the technical people was really very similar." Certainly these were the directors who captured Mr. Stewart at his very best, and who made the most of his supremely natural, seemingly effortless style. "Olivier told me once, 'I don't see anything wrong with this accusation that you're playing yourself,' and I don't either. He said, 'Every part I do, I figure I'm playing Laurence Olivier with deference to the character."

In "Rear Window" almost as much as in Mr. Stewart's Capra films, there is a strong sense of community; the elaborate set for the film depicts a number of apartments that share the same courtyard. The film's feeling of neighborliness and concern for one's fellows has been echoed in many of Mr. Stewart's other films, and he said this was not coincidental. "I think it's a logical, sort of inevitable thing that happens if you're in the acting business for a long time," he said. "You establish a style and in doing that you become conscious that the things you believe in, the things that you grew up with, are reflected in that style. As you read a script, these things are bound to influence your decision about whether or not to do it. There are things that you tend to do in stories that are part of you, that are what you believe in, and I've been most conscious of that when I departed from it. When I got off of this thing people thought of as a style, I'd get letters saying they'd been kind of let down, that this wasn't the type of thing they wanted to see me in. In 'Anatomy of a Murder,' when I held up the girl's underwear at the trial, there were people that didn't like that and they told me so."

Mr. Stewart still cites some advice he received 40 years ago from the comedian Ted Healey, with whom he shared a ride to a location one day. "He told me, 'Be very conscious of your audience, but never treat them as customers. Always treat them as partners.' I never forgot it."