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An All-American Degenerate: The Times James Stewart Played the Villain

Inside you there are two Jimmy Stewarts: an all-American everyman and a sneering blackhat.
Jimmy Stewart Villain Roles
By  · Published on January 6th, 2022

Welcome to The Queue — your daily distraction of curated video content sourced from across the web. Today, we’re watching a video essay about the films in which all-American everyman Jimmy Stewart played the villain.


Did Jimmy Stewart ever play a villain? It’s a genuine question if your contact with the actor is limited to his folksy turns in the likes of seasonal classic It’s A Wonderful Life and the righteously heroic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The short answer is that, yes, he did. But, more compellingly, the long answer tells several stories sure to pique the interest of both long-time Stewart fans and those looking to broaden their understanding of the actor’s talents.

I’ve argued elsewhere that every actor has one moment in their career tantamount to a thesis statement; a succinct summary of what, exactly, makes them a star. For Stewart, there’s a strong case to be made that his moment took place in 1936’s After the Thin Man, the second entry in husband-wife detective duo Nick and Nora Charles’ cinematic outings. In After the Thin Man (spoiler), it is ultimately revealed that Stewart’s David Graham “dunnit.” An unapologetic murderer, David is absolutely the most black-and-white villainous character Stewart ever played. And his confession—flecked with sweat, vitriol, and vulnerability—reveals a threat that will stretch across the actors’ filmography. Namely: a magnetic capacity for darkness, outbursts, and emotion grounded by an undeniable vulnerability.

After making a name for himself as a wholesome mainstay of the romantic comedy, Stewart’s post-war career took a compelling turn to cope with the reality that movie-goers weren’t as amenable to sunshine and rainbows. Under the direction of Anthony Mann, Stewart portrayed a string of morally murky desperados, not villainous per se but certainly unromantic, haunted, and bent on revenge. And, later, Alfred Hitchcock would make ample use of Stewart’s ability to humanize perversion and darkness in the likes of Vertigo and Rear Window.

Ultimately, as the video essay argues, these less wholesome turns in Stewart’s career weren’t examples of the actor playing against type. They were the fruition of the quality that makes Stewart such an enduring screen presence; wrenching humanity out of the darkness and portraying everymen who are also their own villains.

Watch “Did Jimmy Stewart Ever Play a Villain?”:


Who made this?

This video on the times actor Jimmy Stewart plays a villain is by Andrew Saladino, who runs the Texas-based Royal Ocean Film Society. You can browse their back catalog of videos on their Vimeo account here. If Vimeo isn’t your speed, you can give them a follow on YouTube here.

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Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a senior contributor at Film School Rejects. She currently runs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How'd They Do That?, and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found screaming about John Boorman's 'Excalibur' on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She/Her).