Tag Archives: James Stewart

Rear Window (1954)

Alfred Hitchcock was no stranger to the optical point-of-view shot, inserting a camera into the heads of his characters in nearly every film throughout his career. The Master of Suspense knew that this shortcut to conveying a character’s experience could be a powerful tool if used artfully. In Vertigo, this artfulness resulted in one of the greatest POV shots of all time, the discombobulating push-in-zoom-out (technically a “dolly zoom”) that simultaneously suggests our hero’s unbalanced frame of mind. More importantly, Hitchcock routinely tied these POV shot choices to significant narrative moments. In Vertigo this served to heighten the most intense action scenes by placing us directly in the action; elsewhere, the POV shot served to convey vital information, revelations, twists and — you guessed it! — suspense:

With Rear Window, Hitchcock structured an entire film around this single technique. It may not register on first viewing just how much of the movie is comprised of true POV shots, mostly because there’s a consistent pseudo-POV gaze out of Jeffries’ (Jimmy Stewart) apartment toward those of his neighbors. Insofar as such a thing can (or even should) have one unwavering, concrete definition, this analysis will define a “POV shot” as one that is truly mirroring the vantage of the character. There are a number of sweeping pans during Rear Window in which we see much the same thing Jeff is seeing, but many of these end up incorporating Jeff into the shot and are therefore technically objective, “false” POV shots.

Continue reading Rear Window (1954)

Advertisements

Face Off: Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

Motion State Face Offs pit two films, franchises, or television series against each another for no reason other than because we can.

The original Flight of the Phoenix is sort of an unsung classic. Sure, people still watch it a half-century later, catch it on TCM, and it was at least popular enough for somebody to remake it in 2004. But take even just a quick look at the incredible  cast and try to tell me Flight of the Phoenix has the popularity it deserves today. Jimmy Stewart! Richard Attenborough! Ernest Borgnine! Peter Finch! George Kennedy! Ian Bannen, for chrissake! It’s the ensemble equivalent of Age of Ultron except all of the actors are good and are playing characters instead of cardboard cutouts.

Here’s the trouble: in terms of plot, the 2004 remake is one of the most faithful remakes ever remade. It’s nearly beat-for-beat as far as the major story points are concerned, and even some of the lines of dialogue propelling those story points are simply lifted from the original and plopped back down here. Sure, new people are saying those lines and being influenced by those story points — but then again it’s just the actors that are new, not the characters. Those, too, are transplanted in near-entirety. One imagines an archeological expedition to the bowels of the 20th Century Fox studio costume shop under a banner that says Let’s See What We Can See emerging victorious with the costumes and props from the 1965 Flight of the Phoenix still covered in authentic desert sand. “Now all we need is new people!”

Continue reading Face Off: Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and Flight of the Phoenix (2004)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

The holiday season is filled with food, family, presents, and, of course, movies. Most of the movies people routinely watch during the holiday season include such classics as Frosty the Snowman, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Santa Clause, and even Elf. These Christmas movies are exactly that: novelty movies made just for the 25 days leading up to the holiday. Hardly any of these movies hold any weight as great films outside of the holiday season. However, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life does what these other movies could not by transcending the Christmas movie genre and becoming a classic film in its own right.

The 1946 movie, which is based on the 1943 short story “The Greatest Gift”, tells the story of George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) which takes place in the form of flashbacks at the beginning of the film so that his guardian angel Clarence (Henry Travers) can understand the man he has been called on to help. It is clear from the beginning that the only thing that outweighs George’s lofty ambitions is his true care for everyone around him. At a young age, he saves his younger brother Harry from drowning and keeps his boss, pharmacist Mr. Gower — who is distraught after receiving news that his son had died in World War I — from accidentally delivering poison pills.

Continue reading It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

The passing of cinema giant Richard Attenborough has prompted a return to some of his greatest and most overlooked films. Be on the lookout for reflections on his acting, his directing, and on the occasional documentary film if and when I confuse him with David Attenborough.

Robert Aldrich’s The Flight of the Phoenix remains a masterclass in ensemble filmmaking. The big names — James Stewart, Peter Finch, Ernest Borgnine, Hardy Kruger, George Kennedy, and Attenborough himself, among others — promise more than enough entertainment during the opening credits. It’s the characters, though, that impress past the set-up, and each and every man is drawn to be a unique and interesting person. Consider:

-Jimmy Stewart is Captain Towns, ostensible main character and old-timey pilot who believes his know-how to be worth more than any technical mumbo-jumbo. He’s essentially Waldo Pepper a decade before Redford was Waldo Pepper.

-Attenborough and Kruger arguably share second fiddle. The former is the lovable drunk who could have been a pilot if not for his addiction, and thus has been relegated to the duties of a navigator. Kruger’s Dorfmann is the stubborn and brilliant plane designer, holding a secret that he doesn’t even realize. Both are endlessly watchable.

-Finch, Borgnine, Ian Bannen as “Ratbags” Crow, Ronald Fraser as Sgt. Watson — usually this tier of an ensemble cast is in there just to fill out the field, to inform the “real” characters in the tiers above. But Borgnine’s oafish Cobb, for example, ends up having a deceptively complex character arc; Finch’s Captain Harris ventures out alone to find help, refusing the assistance of Cobb on the basis of his poor physical condition (and, it’s implied, his pathetic mental capacity). Cobb can’t comprehend this and defiantly charges into the desert after Harris, only to die in the heat. He scrawls one final message in the sand in his final moments: his name, “Cobb”, one of the only things he’s sure of.

-George Kennedy isn’t an Academy Award winner at this point, and he has very few lines throughout the course of Phoenix. But his downtrodden face and his futile punches at his own leg when a fellow passenger succumbs to death early in the film still provide a major insight into his character — and that pain comes full circle when the makeshift aircraft finally roars to life at the climax of the film, Kennedy roaring along with it.

-Even those who die in the initial crash — occurring less than ten minutes into the 2.5 hour film — are memorable and complete, are inhabited much more so than any supporting characters in today’s ensembles. Bill has his ouzo and Tasso has his bouzouki, both shown as men with things that they love. Both are then shown crushed in the wreckage, the dripping ouzo bottle and the demolished instrument inches from their still hands. These aren’t throwaway characters (“we loved you so, so-and-so”); their deaths have an effect on Stewart’s Captain Towns, as he feels responsible, so we feel their deaths are important as well. And in less than ten minutes!

So take Last Vegas and Expendables and other “ensembles” and forget them (oh, you already did?). Consider, too, that this isn’t the kind of ensemble connected by the whole six-degrees thing, wherein films like Crash and Babel and Love, Actually posit that the cast is intertwined by themes and experiences that are common instead of experiences that are actually the same. In the tradition carried on by the likes of Murder on the Orient Express and Traffic years later, The Flight of the Phoenix is an ensemble film in the truest sense of the phrase, and because of that is wildly entertaining.