Man of the West (UA, 1958)
Mann of the West
Man of the West, shot in February 1958 and premièred in September of that year, has an unusually ‘generic’ title for Anthony Mann, one that could really be applied to pretty well any Western when one thinks about it. But it was a fine example of the genre - because of Mann, yes, but chiefly because of its star, Gary Cooper.
Mann had worked with actors of the caliber of Robert Taylor, Henry Fonda and of course James Stewart, but Coop was the equal of (or superior to) all these. This picture, his The Hanging Tree for Delmer Daves the following year and They Came to Cordura in 1959 too (if you count that as a Western; it probably is) were his last. He was not well, and he was to die of cancer, aged 60, in May 1961. It was in many ways the Western career. From stunting and extra-ing on silent oaters of the 1920s, then leading in them from 1927, his wonderful Virginian in the early talkie of 1929, through the 30s and 40s working for the likes of Cecil B DeMille, The Westerner for Wyler in 1940, those Warners Westerns of the 50s, the high point of High Noon in 1952, Garden of Evil for Hathaway, Vera Cruz for Aldrich, and then these late ones for Daves and Mann, it was a marvelous record. And even when the films themselves were not top-notch, always he was Coop, tall, tough and taciturn, under-acting, saying it with his eyes, one of the greatest Western actors there ever was.
It was a kind of culmination for Mann too. He only made one more Western, Cimarron, after Man of the West (review soon) and that was an artistic and box office failure, and hardly even a Western at all in many ways. We have to judge his achievement from the three 1950 pictures Devil’s Doorway, The Furies and Winchester ’73, through Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie, his last with James Stewart, The Last Frontier with Victor Mature, The Tin Star with Henry Fonda and now Man of the West with Cooper (click the links for our reviews of those movies).
It is true that Man of the West was named one of the ten best films of the time by Jean-Luc Godard, which could be the kiss of death. The critic said, “I have seen nothing so completely new since - why not? - Griffith.” Despite this wildness, however, it really was a splendid Western.
Jeanine Basinger in her Anthony Mann calls it “one of the greatest westerns ever made” and “Mann’s final statement in the genre in which he found his fullest creative flowering.”
There are, though, those who say Cooper was miscast. He plays Link Jones, a former outlaw trying to make good, wanting to live down his past. So far, so Mann. But the gang he eventually reunites with, despite himself, is so loathsome and vicious that it is hard to imagine Gary Cooper, of all people, ever being part of it. Furthermore, the patriarchal elderly head of the crooks, Dock Tobin, was played by Lee J Cobb, who was actually nine years younger than ‘his nephew’, Cooper. So maybe the naysayers had a point. Brian Garfield, for example, a huge Coop fan, wrote in his Western Films that Cooper was “far too old to be believable” and said that in his opinion “it’s one of the least of Cooper’s movies.”
I don’t agree with that. I do think the film has its flaws. Cobb could never resist chewing the scenery. Fortunately he manages (or Mann managed) to keep the worst excesses in check and he comes across as a once-powerful pirate, still venomous but now aging and declining in physical and mental powers. But I think Julie London did really well as the dancehall girl Billie, I liked Arthur O’Connell as the tinhorn gambler Beasley, and John Dehner, always top class in Westerns, was in my opinion excellently malevolent as Tobin’s heir apparent Claude. And towering above them all was a steely, implacable Cooper. Who cares how old he was?
After a light, even comic start, the ‘lightest’ since Bend of the River and accompanied by jolly music, with Cooper taking a train (he is too long-legged to fit into the small seat, and never having ridden a train before, he is startled by it), the picture gets dark fast. He is making a typical Mann journey, physical and psychological. Nominally, he is searching for a schoolteacher (that classic symbol of the civilizing West) for his town. He is in a suit and has a carpet bag. In fact, of course, this journey will inevitably bring him, however unwilling, to a confrontation, and climactic battle, with his past.
And indeed, there is a train robbery, he finds himself stranded at the trackside, along with saloon gal Billie and gambler Beasley, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s only a walk away from his former gang’s lair. Billie is tough and quite cheerful under duress, vaguely like Shelley Winter in Winchester ’73, while Beasley has more of a gabby old man role, vaguely reminiscent of Walter Brennan in The Far Country. So the second part of the journey is on foot, to the shack the outlaws use as a base.
Now, in that classic Gary Cooper way, he removes his jacket, gallantly handing it to the girl. That’s a symbol, as it was in High Noon, of putting away civilized Eastern ways and facing peril as a tough Westerner – in a leather vest. He is indeed a man of the West.
The music gets more ominous. A sudden switch from bright sunlight to the dark and oppressive interior signals the coming danger. From now on Mann plunges us into an entirely different ambiance, one of violence and threat. We are back in Mannish noir-land. The (first-time) audience, deceived by the light-hearted intro, don’t know yet but they are about to learn about Coop’s dastardly past.
Nearly a third of the film’s runtime is now devoted to the cabin. Close-ups in lamplight reveal the robbers – for it was of course Tobin’s gang that had held up that train. As well as the evil Tobin and Link’s cousin Claude (Dehner) there are also the deaf Tout (Royal Dano) and the thug Coaley (Jack Lord). An intense theater piece now plays out as Link’s past and the present gang villainy are revealed. Coop’s character is stripped bare.
And for Billie, stripping bare isn’t just a metaphor. There is a grisly sequence in which sex and violence are combined as the outlaws force her to undress. Link later tells her, “I want to kill every last one of those Tobins. And that makes me just like they are.”
Now the third part of the journey occurs as the rest of the movie is devoted to a trip taken by the gang, with Link pretending to have rejoined the gang, to commit another crime. Here Claude, who knows full well that Link has not truly returned, emerges as the true villain. Dehner’s Claude becomes the ‘anti-Link’, just as Stephen McNally, Arthur Kennedy and Robert Ryan had been anti-Stewarts in earlier Mann Westerns. Actually, Claude has his own code of honor. Mann has him make the most noble speech in the film, when he describes his love for and loyalty to old man Tobin. He doesn't have the charm or charisma of other Mann villains but he does have a streak of the hero's nobility.
At one moment, Link seems to go back to his old violent self as he goads gang member Coaley into a brutal fight - Mann always had one – and then forces him to undress, as he and the others had forced Billie. Here poor old Beasley sacrifices himself, stopping the bullet Coaley meant for Link. This turns Link away from regressing into the violent villain he seemed to be becoming once more.
It was one of the hardest, most uncompromising Westerns to date.
Where the terrain from the train to the shack had been green and verdant, now it is barren, cruel and far more ‘Western’. Jamestown, California locations gave way to Mojave Desert ones. Gone is the austere black & white of The Tin Star; now we have again, as in The Man from Laramie, widescreen color as the sun beats down pitilessly on the few humans in the vast wilderness. We’re back to looming rocks. Dock stays back at the camp with Billie and Claude while Dano and Coop go forward to scout the town bank. The picture was shot by Ernest Haller – three silents and three low-budget Westerns only to his credit.
They come to a ghost town. The gang’s casing the joint has gone disastrously wrong: there is no bank there anymore. The place has been almost abandoned to the scorpions and the wind. A few poor Mexicans remain. Trout kills a Mexican woman and Link kills Trout.
This will be the theater for the final conflict between Link and Claude. It will not be the dramatic duel in the rocks of Winchester ’73 but an unballetic scurrying and scrabbling in the dust more reminiscent of the fight in the frozen mud in The Far Country.
Claude dead, Link returns to the camp to find that the repellent Dock has raped Billie. Link seeks out Dock for the final bloody retribution – once more in the rocks. It is over. Billie and Link ride back to civilization.
It was over for Mann, too. This was his adieu to the Western – the real Western, anyway.
The picture was written by Reginald Rose, who wrote 12 Angry Men, also with Cobb (though this and a 1967 TV movie were his only Westerns) from a novel by Will C Brown, The Border Jumpers.
The producer was Walter Mirisch, producer of some excellent Joel McCrea Western is the 50s and who had produced Coop in the semi-Western Friendly Persuasion in ‘56.
Frank Ferguson and Robert J Wilke have parts, so that’s good.
It came out on a double bill, with another UA picture Cop Hater, a B-ish crime drama. Howard Thompson in The New York Times thought Cop Hater was “a routine, makeshift little melodrama” but Man of the West, he said, was “a good, lean, tough little Western.” Thompson added, “Well-acted and beautifully photographed in color and Cinema-Scope, the picture has been directed by Anthony Mann like a stalking panther.”
Variety thought that “Cooper gives a characteristically virile performance, his dominance of the outlaws quietly believable, while London achieves some touching and convincing moments in a difficult role. Lee J. Cobb, a frontier Fagan of demoniac violence and destruction, and Arthur O’Connell, with whimsical grace and gaiety, add considerably to the picture’s interest.”
The picture made a decent return on its $1.5m budget, though it was the year of South Pacific, so…
Ms Basinger is probably wrong. Man of the West was not one of the greatest Westerns ever. But it is gritty, tough and Mannish. It was certainly a lot better than the Westerns Stewart was then doing. Jimmy must have rued his spat with Mann when he saw it. I bet he did see it. It’s a tragedy in three acts – the train, the farm and the ghost town – and Cooper was sublimely good at tragedy. Fellow cast members on set thought he hadn’t acted at all but when they saw the rushes they understood. With the slightest inflection of eye or turn of the face he could transmit every emotion. He really was a superb screen actor.
Mann was fascinated by Cooper’s blue eyes. Of course such eyes shone out of Stewart’s face too. “It’s all in the eyes,” Mann said. “The heroes, all the stars that the public loves, have very light blue eyes or green eyes. … The eyes reflect the inner flame that animates the heroes. The guys with dark eyes play supporting roles or become character actors.” Certainly Cooper (and Stewart) could show every kind of emotion in the eyes and close-ups had great power.
Carl Foreman of High Noon hated Man of the West. “I thought it was appalling – one of the sickest films I’ve ever seen.” Brian Garfield also did not care for it: “The picture has a sleazy flavor; it’s a distasteful story with mainly dislikeable characters.” I humbly disagree with both. For me Cooper is fine as a man seeking redemption, overcoming his past and his baser instincts, to retain, or regain, his integrity. The theme of impotent rage is supremely well handled.