|James Stewart in Vertigo. Click to enlarge.|
As far as I understand, Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart were not close friends. The link between them was Lew Wasserman. Both Hitchcock and Stewart had been liberated from their long-term contracts in the late 1940s, Hitchcock from his David O. Selznick contract, and Stewart from his MGM contract. They then became freelancers under the successful guidance by Wasserman.
James Stewart became one of Alfred Hitchcock's two major alter egos. Whereas Cary Grant became Hitchcock's idealized romantic alter ego, most prominently in North by Northwest, James Stewart got to project inner agony in Vertigo. Stewart had already played an invalid with Schaulust (scopophilia) in Rear Window. On the other hand, Stewart had gotten the male lead in Hitchcock's only remake, the highly personal The Man Who Knew Too Much, where he is not a sick man but a doctor, and where the suspense is not based on what happens to the protagonists personally but on their anxiety for the fate of their child. In the first Hitchcock-Stewart collaboration, Rope, Stewart had been the professor who realizes to his horror that his students are interpreting his teachings on Nietzsche and der Übermensch literally.
During WWII James Stewart had become the first major Hollywood star to wear a uniform. He had joined the U. S. Army Air Corps (reorganized as U. S. Army Air Forces in 1941). Stewart was an experienced flyer who flew cross-country to visit his parents and possessed both a private pilot certificate and a commercial pilot certificate. He had been born into a family with a long military tradition and started his own military career during WWII early and unobtrusively, advancing from private to colonel during the war and being promoted to major general when he retired in 1968. He ended his military career as an observer in Operation Arc Light missions on a B-52F Stratofortress in Vietnam in 1966. "He held the highest active military rank of any actor in history" (IMDb).
Stewart flew in dozens of dangerous combat missions on the European front. He hardly ever spoke about his wartime service and refused publicity about his military life, but he knew about war trauma having killed many people and seen many friends die. He also knew about the responsibility of the officer in sending men to missions with a high death count.
Because of the war Stewart interrupted his successful Hollywood career for five years. After Ziegfeld Girl (1941) his next film was It's a Wonderful Life (1946). He considered ending his acting career but when he decided to go on he was committed to become the best. Cary Grant commented that Stewart mastered natural, mumbling, stuttering, overlapping dialogue long before Brando. Stewart was so natural that it was easy to ignore that he was a great actor. His approach was so unobtrusive and unpretentious.
Stewart's scope widened. Hollywood usually celebrated the American Dream of success, promoted winners and steered the narrative to a happy end. Stewart also chose projects and roles with sympathy for the loser, and an insight in madness, obsession, and mental breakdown, even suicide as a real alternative.
No actor has portrayed agony, torment, pain and suffering more grippingly. Of his two main directors in the 1950s Anthony Mann seemed to sense this particularly well. But Vertigo is the culmination of this current in James Stewart's development.
John Ferguson is presented to us as a lawyer and a policeman with career ambitions to become chief of police. He is known as "the hard-headed Scot" with little patience in the irrational.
On a dangerous police mission, however, during a chase on the San Francisco rooftops, John and his police partner fail to catch the criminal, John slips and is left hanging on a rooftop gutter, and his partner falls to his death trying to help him.
John survives, but he becomes mentally unstable, suffering from acrophobia and vertigo and a guilt complex having failed to prevent his partner's death.
As a private investigator he accepts an assignment from his school friend Gavin Elster to observe the strange behaviour of his wife Madeleine. Because of his fear of heights John is unable to follow Madeleine to a bell tower from which she jumps to her death. John experiences a mental breakdown. Beside his former problems he now also suffers from acute melancholia which renders him catatonic. He is taken to a mental hospital.
It takes a year for him to recover. Still obsessed by Madeleine he meets a woman, Judy Barton, who vaguely resembles Madeleine, and starts to make her over until he realizes that she is the same woman who had been employed by Gavin Elster in a plot to murder his wife. The final revelation takes them back to the bell tower where a shadowy figure moving in the darkness so scares Judy that she falls to her death. The film ends in the desolate image of John having lost everything for the third time.
Anton Kaes has written a book called Shell Shock Cinema; Weimar Culture and the Wounds of War where he studies Weimar cinema as a coming to terms with the post-traumatic shock of the war.
I would argue that some of James Stewart's post-WWII roles from It's a Wonderful Life to Vertigo can be seen on one level as shell shock cinema - coming to terms with a condition we now call a posttraumatic stress disorder. In such roles Stewart lives the parts of ordinary men facing extraordinary challenges which can break them physically and mentally. Stewart lets himself become a medium, a conductor, a personification for processing overwhelming pain and failure which may lead his characters to ask if life is worth living. In such roles Stewart proved to be a great tragic actor. In tragedy, the protagonist has potential for greatness, but due to a fatal error or weakness he fails. The feeling of grandeur in a tragic masterpiece such as Vertigo is based on the fact that we are asked to expand our consciousness enormously, to rise to a higher level of seeing the full extent of the devastation, to achieve transcendence which can provide catharsis. James Stewart had range from comedy to tragedy. In Vertigo he was at his tragic best.