Posted by gregferrara on September 15, 2013
Today on TCM, Jimmy Stewart shines in three Alfred Hitchcock classics, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much (unfairly maligned as a collection of great scenes without being a great movie – balderdash, it’s a great movie – watch it again), and Vertigo. They were made and released in 1954, 56, and 58 respectively and were hits for Hitch and Stewart. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Stewart plays the more familiar Hitchcock character, a man involved in something that puts he or his family (in this case, both) in danger’s way. As in so many Hitchcock films, the lead character gets placed, quite against his will, at the center of conspiracy, intrigue and crime and must fight his way out. But with Rear Window and Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart created two unlikely and unique characters for Hitch, the passive protagonist. In neither film is he in any danger, he’s just watching. Others get involved and put themselves in danger and eventually, as in the case of Rear Window, the danger does get to him, right at the end, for a moment. Until then, he only reacts.
The passive protagonist is generally frowned upon and if you google it you’ll find phrases like “major error” and the like for putting a passive protagonist in your screenplay. You will also find a pathetic list of examples (go ahead, google it, I dare you) ranging from Luke in Star Wars to Andy in The 40 Year Old Virgin. Nowhere could I find the examples above of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window and Vertigo which is shocking and sad and depressing because I can’t think of two better examples of passive protagonists anywhere in the history of film. Heck, in Vertigo, as Scottie, the retired detective hired to follow Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), he couldn’t get more passive. He’s literally being manipulated into watching someone he thinks is someone else simply to be a witness to her “suicide.” And that’s what he does, watch her. He not only doesn’t move the plot along – that’s all happening by Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore) rehearsing and manipulating Judy Barton (also Kim Novak) – he doesn’t even stop the action once it starts. When Madeleine/Judy runs to the top of the bell tower he tries his best to become active but fails. As her body falls by the window he, once again, watches.
It’s only at the end that he finally becomes an active protagonist, pulling the strings and forcing Judy to become Madeleine again. It’s at this point that the audience realizes it has not one but two passive protagonists! Two! How many movies can make that claim? While Scottie at least comes around to an active state at the end Judy is hopeless. Her entire story of life seems to be letting different men make her over into whatever they want her to be and never fighting back. Her character is not just passive but acquiescent. If she were just passive, going through life not instigating, only reacting, that would be one thing but here she is, dare I say it, actively passive. She makes a point to surrender, to not protest, to not put up a fight. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. If someone’s life is on the line (as with the real Madeleine Elster), hell, it still doesn’t change anything! She submits and goes along. If someone (Scottie) wants her to completely change her appearance and dye her hair and actually says the words, “it couldn’t possibly matter to you,” he’s right, it couldn’t! She dyes her hair. She becomes who he wants because she desperately wants to be accepted and loved. That kind of aggressive surrender only comes from a person who needs someone else so badly they no longer care about themselves at all.
But Vertigo presents an emotional passive protagonist. Scottie and Judy do much of what they do because they need each other so badly. Their passivity is understandable, to a degree. Scottie has seen a fellow police officer die on his watch (trying to save Scottie) and Judy saw a woman die that she was portraying for, what, money? Love? Acceptance? Whatever it is was truly for, surely the price never outweighed the guilt. So Scottie and Judy doing whatever they could to let others sculpt their worlds for them makes sense, to a point. In Rear Window, Stewart’s Jeff has no such excuse. He’s just bored and wants to know what everyone’s up to across the way. And when his girlfriend that a guy like Jeff in real life could never get, Lisa (Grace Kelly), and his housekeeper, Stella (Thelma Ritter), want to help out with his boredom by breaking into people’s apartments, he doesn’t exactly go out of his way to stop them. ”What’s that? You want to go into a suspected murderer’s apartment while I sit here and watch? Absolutely not. Oh, okay.”
Jeff does things like tell other people what he saw today and when they’re interested and want to help out he watches them help. Now, it’s true, he’s a bit more active than Scottie but that’s not saying much (most extras are more active to the plot progression than Scottie). He does instigate the actions of Lisa and Stella to a degree and by the end does a great job of flashing bulbs at the murderer (Raymond Burr) until he falls off the balcony but Jeff is, let’s face it, a neutered male. When Scottie is hanging off the building at the beginning of Vertigo, his faces shows terror and anxiety. When Jeff is hanging from the much lower to the ground balcony at the end of Rear Window, his face looks like he’s about to cry, or at least cry out, “Where’s Lisa?! I need her to beat up this guy for me.” Also, and not for nothing, I’ve had a couple of friends with broken legs who managed to go to work on crutches. Jeff can’t get out of a wheelchair and, I sadly imagine, has Stella man the bathroom duties when nature calls. This guy isn’t passive, he’s useless.
And the way I just made that description sound, you’d probably agree that a passive protagonist is indeed something to avoid but you, and I, would be wrong. The cinema has seen some amazing passive protagonists (I just mentioned another great one here recently, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) in The Third Man) so it should come as no surprise that, occasionally, screenwriters like to employ one for a change of pace. It just depends on who plays it and who directs it. And if those two names are Jimmy Stewart and Alfred Hitchcock, you’re probably good to go.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Art in Movies Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Blu-Ray Books on Film British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Film Composers film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes movie flops Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller TCM Classic Film Festival Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies