Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958)

by The Acolyte/Blaise Bienvenue

Man of the West by Anthony Mann is a gritty, intense, unpredictable western with beautiful locations, art direction, and sets.  It was shot in California. It lives in desert, in forest, in shadowy cabins. It has soft, earthy hues. It successfully takes me to another place and time, to its own special vision of the mythic American west, which here is occupied by some real creepy bastards.

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It is the last of many westerns directed by Mann in the 1950’s. Most starred James Stewart and forever solidified that actor in my mind as equally a complex, dark, troubled badass as he was ever a stammering everyman in It’s A Wonderful Life. The last three of Mann’s fifties westerns did not star Stewart. Man of the West stars Gary Cooper, who was in his fifties throughout the decade, and whose unsure and hesitant but ever-capable presence is perfect for his role here as Link Jones, a quiet man with a sack full of money, a gun, and a mysterious past who is on a mission from a very small town and has never seen a train before. He boards one and soon meets a pair of would-be con artists played by Arthur O’Connell  and Julie London, but when the train is attacked by bandits, the three find themselves left behind and forced to walk hundreds of miles of wilderness. It is immediately apparent that Jones is the one of the three who knows the best way to do this, but before they can get far, he leads them to a dwelling occupied by a family of outlaws who soon turn out to be the men who robbed the train. They are played quite effectively by, among others, Jack Lord, Royal Dano, and Lee J. Cobb. They are scummy and crazy and have as much in common with characters in Deliverance as with typical western bad men.

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It is impossible to talk about Man of the West without giving some spoilers because the first act of the film is so meandering, seeming to establish itself as one thing, then going somewhere else, that to give even the barest synopsis will ruin some surprises. In this way, Man of the West is like a culmination of something Mann began in his first western of the decade, Winchester ’73, which is a gleefully circuitous joyride through a sack-full of western tropes that plays like several movies rolled into one. Man of the West seems to start several movies, only to keep wandering to the beginning of yet another (it works in the film’s favor, as it is done convincingly and keeps things unpredictable and engaging), then finally settling on a premise and a plot. This plot involves Link’s mysterious past as it is revealed to have intertwined with that of the family of outlaws, which is led by a crazed and deceptively senile but also shrewd and dangerous elder played by Cobb and called Dock Tobin. Tobin’s right hand is the smart, hateful, dangerous Claude, who is played by John Dehner. Royal Dano plays an apparent mute named Trout who speaks only with the rifle butt he uses to jab people and the barrel he points at them; as such, he is quite chatty. Mann is said to have placed great importance on the need for human motivation in all his characters; one version of the story of how he abandoned the film Night Passage and had his falling out with Stewart (1955’s Man From Laramie, another excellent Mann western, was their last together) is said to have involved this need as it related to that film’s script. All of the characters in Man of the West have a human motivation and a human weakness. Dock’s weakness is Link. Claude’s weakness is Dock. Jack Lord’s character’s weakness is his own shitty attitude. All these actors are great in their roles. Mann understood what all great directors of westerns in the fifties did: the top-billed are nothing without a good supporting cast. Man of the West has one of the best.

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The fifties are often cited as the last great decade of American westerns. Though there were great ones yet to come, I am inclined to agree, since later decades’ classics have been few and far between. So many of the fifties films, made by Mann, Budd Boetticher, Delmer Daves, John Sturges, and Henry King, were small, uncluttered, gritty, and exciting. Sometimes, they were shocking. Man of the West covers all these bases. It deals with rape, though in implied fifties fashion, and the violence in the film goes as far as mainstream Hollywood during this era would. Trout’s death scene is one of the most disturbing things I’ve seen. The gun battle preceding the climax of the film, which involves some porch boards and two men who can’t see each other, is possibly the best ever filmed by Mann.

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Man of the West is worthy of its position as Anthony Mann’s last western of the decade. It contains a lot of what he’d already done and is fleshed out with more mood and grit than ever before. It does not star Stewart, who was like a De Niro to Mann’s Scorsese, but it does star Gary Cooper, who will always be an icon of fifties westerns for his role in High Noon.  The  film ends on a note of unrequited love and age-seasoned wisdom that is quite atypical. The whole film is atypical, even as it is palpably a Western, with trains, hats, horses, bandits, gun battles, and secrets from the past. The tropes are all there, but they are part of the landscape; they weren’t placed, they grew. Anthony Mann made genre films live and breathe while simultaneously making them unmistakeable as anything other than what they were, films noir, westerns, historical epics. He was a master of his craft. Man of the West is a must-see for anyone who loves westerns, and also for Mann fans. I will be revisiting it very soon.

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– The Acolyte

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