The Westerns of Anthony Mann
Mann of the West
I began my recent essay on the Westerns of Delmer Daves (click the link for that) with this paragraph:
If I described to you a noted film director who was born in the first decade of the twentieth century in California, made his first (pro-Indian) Western in 1950, used James Stewart as his star, made his last Western towards the end of the decade with Gary Cooper in the lead, and in between made some first class pictures; though never Oscared, a director who composed his pictures beautifully and was noted for the cinematography; whose Westerns were uncompromising and tough, well, you’d probably guess I was talking about Anthony Mann.
Indeed, Mann’s and Daves’s Western careers had striking similarities and went in many ways in parallel.
It’s time to do a retrospective of Mann’s Westerns, to have an overall look at his œuvre (posh people call it an œuvre). Then we’ll review each of the pictures individually.
The first thing to say is that Mann was one of the very best directors of Western movies. In anybody’s top twenty Western films ever, Mann movies will figure, maybe even more than once. Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, these were fine Westerns by any standard. Mann is up there certainly with Daves, Budd Boetticher, Clint Eastwood, William A Wellman, Henry Hathaway, but also with John Ford, Howard Hawks or Sam Peckinpah. Anyone remotely interested in the Western genre has to watch Mann movies.
Mann’s Westerns were released from 1950 to 1960. This was the golden age of the oater. No era has ever produced more, or better cowboy films. And if Anthony Mann could shine in this decade, he must have had something extra.
Of course, part of it was his leading men, notably James Stewart (who starred in five of the eleven) but he also had none other than Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper, not to mention such superior Western players such as Glenn Ford and Robert Taylor. These were all very good, if not great Western actors. But it wasn’t luck. When Mann first came to Hollywood from Broadway, at the behest of David O Selznick, he was tasked with doing screen tests (for huge pictures like Gone with the Wind) and as a casting director. Then he served his time as an assistant director on B-movies for Paramount. He learned his trade. He knew what he was doing. And he was an artist.
He made his name, in the late 1940s, as a director of gritty films noirs. He first came to notice with pictures like Desperate, T-Men and Raw Deal. They were low-budget movies which he learned how to improve, with picture composition, camera angles, lighting and pictorial story-telling, until they were far better than their budgets, screenplays or (often) cast warranted. And when in 1949 he moved over to that even more American of genres, the Western, he brought all those film noir techniques to bear.
Relatively little is known of Mann's early life. He was born, possibly Anton Bundsman, son of two schoolteachers, in California c 1907. His family moved to New York when he was about 10. He became fascinated with theater and when Anton was at high school his father died and Anton sought work there, as an actor, production assistant and director. The name Anton Mann can be found on Broadway cast lists in the late 1920s. In 1938 or ‘39 Selznick invited him to Hollywood to be a talent scout. His film career started there. Straight away, he understood that movies were not a case of filming stage plays; they were a different game altogether.
As I said above, we’ll be reviewing each of the Mann Westerns separately, so here just a little on each one.
His first Western – the first he made, though not the first to be released – was for MGM, and it received little critical or box-office success at the time. It was superb, though, and later audiences and Western fans have appreciated its quality. It was Devil’s Doorway, released in August 1950, a black & white, noirish tale of racial prejudice and violence set in Wyoming (but shot in stunning Colorado locations).
It starred an excellent Robert Taylor, in possibly his best Western role. Mann asked for Taylor and got him. It also, interestingly, had a woman in a strong, central part – Paula Raymond as the lawyer who, herself having been discriminated against, bonds with the Shoshone war hero (Taylor) who is struggling to hold on to his land because he is not, officially, a US citizen. It’s a fine, powerful film, and redolent with almost Greek tragedy. The inter-racial romance was quite daring, even more so than the one in Daves’s Broken Arrow because in Devil’s Doorway it was an Indian man and a white woman, considered at the time more shocking. In both pictures, though, the awkwardness is resolved by the death of the Indian partner.
The same was true of Mann’s first Western to be released, The Furies, for Paramount, based on a successful novel by Duel in the Sun-author Niven Busch. This one, which came out in July 1950, starred Mrs Robert Taylor (Barbara Stanwyck) and though something of a torrid ‘family saga’, was stunning in its power. Once again the luminous black & white cinematography, this time in Arizona locations, the jarring camera angles, the compositions, the silhouettes on skylines, the night scenes and the dark, oppressive interiors all combined to make the sinister, brooding atmosphere at which Mann excelled.
Devil’s Doorway had been photographed by old Mann hand John Alton, whom the director also requested from the studio; The Furies was shot by Victor Milner, who had worked on The Plainsman and Union Pacific for Cecil B DeMille, and, uncredited, Lee Garmes, who had done the film version of Duel in the Sun and would soon do The Lusty Men.
But it was really Winchester ‘73, made after Devil’s Doorway and The Furies but released first, on June 1, which made Mann’s name in the Western genre.
This was the first Western Mann made with James Stewart. Stewart actually helped get him the job because Fritz Lang was slated to do it but pulled out at the last moment and Stewart had seen and been impressed by Devil’s Doorway. Stewart was looking to redefine himself as a tough-guy hero. He had in fact already made Broken Arrow with Delmer Daves but Fox were holding back on release until after Winchester had tested the waters. No one was quite sure how Mr Smith in Washington or Elwood P Dowd (or Destry come to that) would play in a hard-as-nails adult Western. They should have had more confidence. Winchester was a smash.
It is in fact one of the great Westerns of all time. It was way more than a ‘gun biopic’ such as Warners’ juvenile Colt .45 of the same year. It was a gritty, violent, adult film with superlative acting, exciting plot and, above all, Mann’s visual and pictorial power. And it made Stewart one of the Western stars, to rival Wayne, Peck or Fonda.
The picture was the top-grossing Western of that year (unless you count Annie Get Your Gun, but I mean proper Western) and sold 8,490,566 tickets.
It was an incredible start for Mann in the genre. Three Westerns of such quality in one year.
Bend of the River
Mann’s fourth essay in the genre was perhaps The Tall Target, but I say perhaps. It was an excellent 1951 noir with Dick Powell about the thwarting of a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. I like this picture and it has definite Western cred here and there. But really, I suppose, Mann’s fourth true Western was Bend of the River in 1952, again for Universal and again with Stewart. Already, Mannish Western themes were beginning to establish themselves. Once again Stewart is a man with a secret, a man with a past, this time slightly shady, and once again he is more than determined: he is driven.
This time the scenery is not the baking South-Western terrain but the cold and mountainous North-West, and in color, yet still the harsh land is a backdrop for the harsh realities the hero faces. And once again there is the notion of a journey: a journey through space and time but also one in which the central character develops and changes. It’s a fine Western, well written and acted, and equally well photographed and staged.
The Naked Spur
And then, the year after, came The Naked Spur. This time Stewart is more than driven, he is manic, borderline psychotic. Mann’s villains were often anti-heroes, bound to the central character by blood or history and representing ‘the dark side’ of (usually) Stewart. In The Naked Spur Mann had the huge good fortune to have Robert Ryan in that role and Ryan is absolutely magnificent as the charismatic, almost charming, yet manipulative and even sadistic figure.
Is Spur is the greatest of all the Mann Westerns? It's tempting to think so. Certainly the almost 100% location shooting, in rugged San Juan Mountains locations (and a very small cast set in this vast wilderness) give us a remarkable and memorable picture.
The Far Country
There was a brief pause then, for Thunder Bay and The Glenn Miller Story (both still with Stewart), before returning to the Western in 1955 with The Far Country, based on Ernest Haycox’s novel Alder Gulch. Almost Bend of the River 2 in some ways, this one too was set in the cold North-West – even more so, in fact, because we have moved over the border into Canada. Just as Bend of the River told of a man at a turning point on his journey, so The Far Country featured a cold, hard man who is distanced from society. Mann’s Western titles could have inner significance of this kind.
There are differences now. There are more interiors and studio work. The tone is slightly lighter, the hero less psychotic, and there is even a dash of humor, especially with Walter Brennan doing his cranky old sidekick act. And the three elderly saloon ‘gals’ singing to the new piano are positively hilarious. Still, though, it’s a tough story of an outsider, a story Camus might have recognized (I wonder if he saw it? I wouldn’t be surprised).
In this one too the villain is splendid – different, but splendid. It’s John McIntire as a faux-charmant crooked hanging judge in a silk hat, in a stunningly good performance.
The Man from Laramie
Another Western pause, this time for Strategic Air Command (with guess who) and then, later in the year, what many (and I may be one of them) regard as Mann’s masterpiece, The Man from Laramie.
Back in the South-West (New Mexico), it was the first in CinemaScope, which suited Mann very well. He was able to do mega-close-ups and isolate characters in vast landscapes (the salt flats are especially well done). It was also the first with Columbia (the other Stewart pictures had been with Universal) and that perhaps meant a very slightly weaker cast. But it was the last with Stewart, although neither Mann nor Stewart knew this at the time. Mann in fact later said of the movie, “I wanted to recapitulate somehow my five years of collaboration with Jimmy Stewart: that work distilled our relationship,” and in many ways Laramie is the sum of all the parts.
It is a powerful, intense drama. Stewart was never better. Written by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt from a TT Flynn short story in the Saturday Evening Post, and photographed by the talented Charles Lang, with Mann ‘composing’, it was one of the best Westerns ever made. Only the support acting let it down: Alex Nicols overacted as the spoilt-brat son, Donald Crisp was too ‘English’ to be convincing as a rancher (he couldn’t manage a Western ain’t for the life of him) and even Arthur Kennedy as the adopted son wasn’t nearly the villain that the other movies had featured. Cathy O’Donnell was also too ‘tame’, quiet and domestic to be of serious interest.
But it’s a perfectly splendid film nonetheless.
The Last Frontier
As if two big Westerns in eighteen months were not enough, Mann now made another, the second for Columbia, The Last Frontier. Actually, though, this one, in my view anyway, was one of Mann’s weaker efforts – in fact with the last, Cimarron, I think it not a patch on the others.
This was despite the fact that it starred an excellent Victor Mature – an unlikely Western hero perhaps but his Doc Holliday in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine had shown that he was very, very good in the genre. He was also fine in a 1948 lower-budget Western, Fury at Furnace Creek. And Robert Preston was on the Last Frontier too, always reliably good, as a martinet US Army colonel. But both Mann and Yordan (it’s a Yordan screenplay again) had been slighting of cavalry Westerns and you feel that when they finally decided to do one, that showed.
It doesn’t really work. It’s the tale of a wild frontiersman (Mature) who seeks to enter civilized society, by joining the Army. He falls for Colonel Preston’s wife (Anne Bancroft, not so good this time). There was a cloying happy-ending, which Mann said was imposed on him and which doesn’t fit.
There is much to praise in the film, notably the pictorial composition and cinematography by William Mellor in Puebla, Mexico locations. It was not the “trashy big-budget junk” that the (usually impeccably right) Brian Garfield called it. But it wasn’t very good either. Well, you can’t win ‘em all.
Well, that was the end of the affair as far as the Mann/Stewart partnership was concerned. Mann was slated to direct Night Passage in 1957 but the two fell out. In an interview later Mann said, “The story was one of such incoherence that I said, ‘The audience isn’t going to understand any of it.’ But Jimmy was very set on that film. He had to play the accordion, and do a bunch of stunts that actors adore. He didn’t care about the script at all, and I abandoned the production. The film was a nearly total failure, and Jimmy has always held it against me.”
There are fans of this movie (who include some readers of this blog) but I’m not one of them. Mann said he did in fact direct the opening scenes but there is no trace of his hand that I can see and the whole thing was rather a dud – though Audie Murphy was quite good in it. The Wikipedia entry on this movie says, “Mann backed out of the project before production due to other obligations and a disagreement over the casting of Audie Murphy” but I don’t know if that’s true. No source or evidence for the comment is given.
The Tin Star
Instead, Mann made a Western with Stewart’s pal, Henry Fonda, The Tin Star. Several of Mann’s Westerns unjustly drew unfavorable comparisons with other movies – Devil’s Doorway and Broken Arrow, for example – and perhaps because of the title, the short story it was based on by a man named Kane, the theme of a sheriff not backed up by his town, whatever the reason, it was talked of as a High Noon-lite. This is quite wrong. The Tin Star, this time back at Paramount, is an excellent Western in its own right and in no sense a copy or a political allegory or anything like that.
It features, guess what, a man with a ‘past’, an alienated outsider (Fonda) on a journey, who passes through a town, and finds a green young sheriff (Anthony Perkins) whom he takes on as a kind of apprentice. It is pretty classic stuff for a Western. There is a town bully who wants to be sheriff (Neville Brand) and who whips up a mob to lynch two brothers accused of murdering the beloved old doc (John McIntire again but this time in a benign role). Fonda teaches Perkins how to handle a gun and how, in effect, to be a man.
Several of Mann’s Westerns made an attempt, sometimes only a token one, to re-integrate the outsider into society in the final reel. This time, though, you feel he has really succeeded. Fonda forms a family unit with other social outcasts, a woman (Betsy Palmer) and her young son by an Indian father. At the end, they leave the town to a now capable Sheriff Perkins and set off for that classic Western destination, California, which represents a new pioneering start, now that the present frontier has become ‘civilized’. They are still outcasts, perhaps, but will settle down, you are sure, as quiet ranchers somewhere to the West.
Man of the West
Anthony Mann’s penultimate Western (indeed, by some standards his last) was also one of his finest. It was Man of the West (1958).
Robert Taylor, John Huston, Victor Mature, Henry Fonda, James Stewart of course: Mann had enjoyed the great Western abilities of all these. But none of his stars was finer than Gary Cooper. Cooper was, in my view, the greatest ever Western actor and although he did not always get roles in great pictures (some of them were actually pretty weak) he always lifted the mediocre ones, and made the good ones great. He is the man of the West of the title of this picture and absolutely magisterial in it. It may be his greatest Western role after High Noon – that or Daves’s The Hanging Tree.
Anthony Mann made a violent, hard-as-rocks Western, keeping Lee J Cobb’s scenery-chewing in check, eliciting fine performances from the likes of Julie London and John Dehner (he didn’t have to elicit anything from Coop; that went without saying) and making what was really a Greek tragedy in three acts.
Here, Cooper’s Link Jones doesn’t just have a slightly shady, alluded-to past; his former life as vicious outlaw is graphically described. Yet he clearly isn’t just longing to put it behind him, he is working, hard, to do that and utterly determined to succeed. It’s a story of redemption, against the odds, more so, far more so than Bend of the River.
Each time I watch an Anthony Mann Western (The Last Frontier and Cimarron aside) I think, no, this one is the best, definitely. OK, yes, probably The Man from Laramie was Mann at his peak, but you know, Man of the West comes close; it comes very close indeed.
Two years passed. Anthony Mann was becoming interested in other things. Perhaps he thought that he had said all he wanted to say as far as the Western was concerned. What could top what he had done?
But epics were now the thing. Probably in a last-ditch effort to combat TV, studios were throwing budgetary cares to the wind, impressing casts of thousands and trying to give the public what TV couldn't - big-screen spectacle. Anthony Mann had moved from noirs to Westerns in 1950 and now in 1960 moved from Westerns to widescreen epics (El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire were to come). Perhaps MGM thought that a big color remake of a box-office and critical smash (and Oscar winner) like the 1931 Cimarron was a sure-fire hit, and Mann a banker's bet. If so, they were wrong. It was a dud.
Mann did his best to interpret Edna Ferber’s pot-boiler novel into a big Western, notably by placing more emphasis on Glenn Ford’s part as Yancey, trying to make him the hero rather than just Sabra’s husband. But he was hamstrung at every turn. Despite the big budget, producer Edmund Grainger kept insisting on more and more studio settings, anathema to Mann who wanted an all-location big picture. In the end, Mann walked off the set and the movie was finished by a more obedient and uncredited Charles Waters, famous for Easter Parade. The film was a critical and box-office flop.
It’s a pity because it went down as Anthony Mann’s last Western. It was never a Western at all, really, more a dreaded ‘family saga’ that was only Western at the start. Yes, the land rush in widescreen was impressive but as a Western it never got better than that early scene. Let’s consider Man of the West as Mann’s last Western and go out on a high note.
Terrence Rafferty, in The New York Times at the moment of an Anthony Mann film festival in 2004, wrote, “Mann is, in fact, one of those Hollywood directors who, when he's really humming, is so good that he tempts critics and scholars to endow him with more thematic consistency than his movies can bear. You look at one of the terrific westerns he made with James Stewart -- Bend of the River (1952), say, or The Naked Spur (1953) … or the haunted, near-Gothic Gary Cooper vehicle Man of the West (1958), and you think, who is this guy? And if you're inclined (as critics and film buffs manifestly are) to ennoble your enthusiasms with sweeping assertions of the artist's profundity, you take your guns to town to try to bring in that Big Idea, dead or alive.” And I suppose it is tempting to endow movie directors with a continuity of theme. But I think it’s justifiable to claim at least that Mann had a ‘voice’, as it were, or a recognizable style, in the way that, say, Ford or Peckinpah did. Journeys, physical and spiritual, through rugged terrain, for example, mark out Mann Westerns. Driven, almost manic heroes and villains who are in some ways mirror images, populate his pictures. Even matters of camera angles. I don’t think this is over-intellectualizing his work.
Rafferty continued, “Mann was smarter, or luckier, than most. He turned to the western -- a genre ideally suited to his restless nature -- right away, and he didn't make the mistake of trying to follow John Ford into the high country of western myth; he stuck to the low road, where ordinary human beings scratched and clawed to survive, and often acted in ways they would come to regret.”
Certainly Mann’s Westerns are tougher than Ford’s, grittier, more stripped down, more violent, darker – more noir, in fact.
Bertrand Tavernier thought that the series with James Stewart was “ce que le genre a donné de plus parfait et de plus pur” (the Western at its most perfect and purest).
In her biography of Mann, Jeanine Basinger wrote, “He looked for stories that were in his own words simple and pictorial. He always considered himself a storyteller, and he endeavored to present his story to the audience as clearly and directly as possible.”
There’s an awful lot of pseudo tosh written about Anthony Mann Westerns, mostly by people named Jean-Luc, but in the last resort Mann’s oaters are classic 1950s examples, tough stories about tough people, and they are nearly all well worth re-viewing today.
Anthony Mann in the 1960s moved on to epics and then spy movies and passes out of our Western ken. In 1967 in Berlin, aged only 60, he died suddenly from a massive heart attack while on the set of A Dandy in Aspic.
But any Western lover will rank him as one of the greats of the genre, and he is doubtless now presiding over us all somewhere high on the Western Mount Olympus, probably up somewhere in the Rockies.