16 May 2008

Man of the West Is One of the Masterful Westerns

Man of the West (1958)
Directed by Anthony Mann. Starring Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Lord

I received my newly released DVD copy of 1958’s Man of the West on Tuesday and sat down to watch it last night. Because the movie has not been available on any digital format until now, this is the first chance I’ve had in many years to re-watch one of my favorite Westerns. (I refused to see it viciously cropped on VHS. You just do not do that to a CinemaScope film. That would be like sawing off both ends of Picasso’s Guernica so it will fit better in your bathroom.)

The film did not disappoint my grand memories of it. I’ve seen many more classic Westerns since my last viewing of Man of the West, and the experience has further deepened my appreciation for the feat that director Anthony Mann achieves here. Mann directed a string of superb Westerns during the 1950s, usually with his favorite star, Jimmy Stewart, as the lead. Man of the West is not only Mann’s best foray into the Western, but it’s his best film, period. When you consider that he also directed El Cid, Winchester ‘73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, Railroaded, The Fall of the Roman Empire, and The T-Men, that’s an impressive statement.

This was also the last great role for Gary Cooper, who steps into Jimmy Stewart’s place as the lead. Coop plays Link Jones, a quiet and mysterious figure whom we first see riding across the plains like any classic Western hero. But when Link reaches the nearest town, he stables his horse, dresses up in classy city-slicker duds, and boards a train heading for civilization. Our tough-looking hombre is really riding to the big city to hire a school teacher for the small settlement where he lives.

The first twenty minutes of Man of the West are a blind: a slick deception to get the viewer comfortable with the wrong ideas. The direction, photography, and performances indicate a staid, ordinary Western of the 1950s. Gambler and con-man Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) cozies up to Link on the train, trying to find out how much money he’s carrying. He introduces Link to pretty singer Billie Ellis (Julie London), trying to sell her as school teacher candidate. Are we heading toward some kind of light comedy about Link hiring Billie, and then finding out Sam swindled him? Maybe a love story growing out of antagonism from the misunderstanding?

No, not remotely. At the twenty-minute mark, the film crawls into a cobwebby corner and goes utterly mad. Anthony Mann’s adoration of Shakespearean tragedy seizes the reins, and results in the Western with the closest spiritual ties to the Bard’s most neurotic dramas. Mann approached overt Shakespearean elements in The Man from Laramie and tried for years to make a Western adaptation of King Lear called The King, but this is the closest he came to putting the spirit of the Elizabethan stage onto the sagebrush screen.

The train gets robbed at a refueling depot, and Link, Sam, and Billie end up trapped in the wilderness after the train hauls off in the confusion. However, Link knows this land, and he leads them to a rotting ranch that belongs to Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), the insane patriarch of a clan of thieves, the same ones responsible for the train robbery. In the long ago, Link rode with these men. He was Dock’s favorite “son,” and when Link strides back through the door, Dock imagines that the good ol’ days have returned, and he can finally commit the huge bank robbery he’s always dreamed of. The rest of Dock’s gang, including hotshot psycho Coaley (a very young-looking Jack Lord) and mature Claude (John Dehner), aren’t happy to have Link around getting all the attention and increasing Dock’s dementia.

The situation for Link and his two companions amidst this family of murderers is extremely precarious. Link has to find a way out, but he also has to retrieve his stolen money from Dock—it’s his ticket back to the new life that he used to shut out this diseased older one.

As good as Cooper’s performance is, the real star of the movie is Cobb as the delusional Dock Tobin. Cobb is ten years younger than Gary Cooper, but looks far older on the screen in his character. Dock Tobin crosses the mad King Lear, searching for the right heir amongst his children to take over his “empire,” with jovial Sir John Falstaff, making one more stab at turning Prince Hal back into the good-time thieving rogue. As Link observes, Tobin has ceased to be human and rotted into something foul: “There’s a point where you either grow up and become a human being or you rot, like that bunch.” Dock now lives in a perpetual fantasy of a golden age where the booming town of Lasoo is waiting for him to plunder it. Actually, Lasoo is a ghost town, a lumber heap whose only inhabitants are a Hispanic couple living in the back room of the bank building. That sums up the reality of Dock Tobin’s universe. The movie charts the course of his mad plans that blossom into violence the more that Link tries to pull himself out.

The film’s most famous scene is the fight between Link and Coaley, which must count as one of the ugliest one-on-one confrontations in any movie. No simple fisticuffs here, these fellows fight dirty, gouging, choking, throttling, kicking, and wailin’ hell on each other until both hardly look human. You’ve seen classic films where the heroes never seem to get their hair mussed—this is the opposite. Eventually, the fight reaches a level of pure hysteria, where Link forces Coaley to strip to complete his humiliation and get revenge on the crazed outlaw for making Billie strip the night before. At this point, the dialogue turns into incoherent screeching and howling.

Man of the West will shock viewers who expect Westerns from the 1950s to be bland and pleasant, filled only with generic pleasures. It’s an ugly film, it’s the King Lear of Westerns in the raw manner that it strips its characters to nothing. And, as I’ve pointed out, it’s on DVD, so you have no excuse not to see it now.

If you’re interested in another excellent Western starring Gary Cooper from this era, check out Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz, which had a large impact on the later Euro Westerns.

Update: The film is now available on Blu-ray as well.