Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Man of the West (1958)

Director: Anthony Mann                                 Writer: Reginald Rose
Film Score: Leigh Harline                               Cinematography: Ernest Haller
Starring: Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb and John Dehner

It’s tempting to add another “n” to the title of this film, as Anthony Mann seemed to specialize in westerns during the fifties, most often featuring Jimmy Stewart. But he could be equally effective with other leading men, like Gary Cooper in Man of the West. Because the picture is filmed in widescreen Technicolor, it’s easy to forget that Cooper made this film a full eight years after High Noon, but he looks it. And that’s part of the Mann formula, aging gunmen past their prime, still battling it out in the old west. He’s been in the saddle so long he even gets nervous riding on a train. The film is based on the novel The Border Jumpers by Will C. Brown, and written by the great Reginald Rose, whose best known work is 12 Angry Men. The role had been intended for Stewart, but by then the actor had already moved on in his career. In 1958 he was working on his last film for Alfred Hitchcock, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and shortly after began making westerns for John Ford.

This film begins with Gary Cooper riding into town. He puts his horse up and tells the stable owner his name is Link Jones from Good Hope. He gets cleaned up and goes to the train station, and when the sheriff questions him he says his name is Henry Wright from Sawmill. He’s also packing a back full of gold and a gun. On the train to Ft. Worth to hire a teacher, he meets Julie London and slick talker Arthur O’Connell, and a suspicious looking Jack Williams. When they stop to pick up wood, however, bandit Jack Lord and his men rob the train and steal Cooper’s bag of gold, leaving him stranded with O’Connell and London. Copper leads them across the countryside until they run into an abandoned homestead. Unfortunately, that’s where Lord and his men are holed up, with Lord wearing Cooper’s gun. Inside he meets the real leader of the gang, Lee J. Cobb, who just happens to be Cooper’s uncle. Lord, it turns out, is his cousin. Cooper was a bandit himself once, taught by Cobb, but abandoned him to go his own way. Now the only way that Cooper can stay alive is to pretend that he’s going to join Cobb’s gang again and help him rob a bank. Before they go they’re joined by another of Cooper’s cousins, John Dehner.

Though the film received praise at the time from none other than Jean-Luc Godard, it is still typical of other Mann westerns, though only equaled by The Naked Spur with Jimmy Stewart. In fact, it’s a fairly straight-ahead plot, with Cooper biding his time through most of the film until the finale. What’s fascinating about this story is the idea of the fading West. Cooper and Cobb represent the old ways, a time that has passed them by. Cooper has moved on to legitimacy, however, while Cobb still wants to continue to rob banks and hold up trains. The setting of the finale, in the empty ghost town, is the perfect exterior symbol of that decay. There’s also an intensity to Mann’s westerns that is unmatched in most other films of the genre. In this one it’s the fight between Cooper and Lord that seems to go on forever. It feels as if Cooper is attempting to exact retribution for every moment of his upbringing. He’s exhausted--which is also very realistic--and yet he keeps on going after Lord. Cooper does a good job, but makes one wish for Stewart’s fiery intensity. Julie London plays the typical lady in distress, though as a saloon singer she’s tougher than most. And while Lee J. Cobb is a bit over the top as the aging desperado, John Dehner is terrific as the cousin who knows what Cooper is up to.

The essay by Jonathan Rosenbaum for The B List is actually an article written about a showing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago and was not commissioned for the book. The films reviewed at the showing all dealt with settings, and featured another Mann film, The Naked Spur. That film was done almost completely outdoors, while this film spends a good deal of time on a train, in a cabin, and in a barn before heading outdoors. Rosenbaum’s most interesting idea is the juxtaposition of characters, with Cooper representing the cowboy/farmer as rugged individualist and the card sharp and saloon singer representing civilization. There is also a nice reversal on the idea of family, with the criminals in Cooper’s past being his only relatives. Finally, there is the sense that the hero can’t simply run away from his past, that he must confront it and move through it in order to truly move forward into a future that he calls his own. Man of the West is another terrific western by Anthony Mann and a classic of the genre.

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