Man of the West Review
For fans of the Western genre, choosing your favourite Anthony Mann Western is as difficult as singling out a favourite Hitchcock, such is the richness of the pickings. For his A Personal Journey Through American Movies Martin Scorsese opted for The Furies and The Naked Spur; in collating the BFI 360 list, archivist David Meeker selected The Man From Laramie. Despite a great fondness for Winchester 73, I’m inclined to agree with the choice included in the BBC 100 (a list of one hundred classic films which were screened by the BBC in 1995 to celebrate the centenary of cinema), namely Man of the West. Made just prior to his disappointingly turgid retelling of Edna Ferber’s Cimarron, this was Mann’s penultimate Western as he approached the end of a decade long dalliance with the genre begun in 1950 with Devil’s Doorway.
Before moving into America’s past, Man produced a series of contemporary thrillers told through varying shades of noir. Rarely breaking the 80 minute barrier, the likes of Desperate, T-Men and Two O’Clock Courage were linked by a tautness that the director would continue to employ once his interests moved elsewhere; not just in the Westerns but also his superb Korean War pic Men in War and even the pair of epics made for Samuel Bronston, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, which still rank amongst the very best. Indeed, by the time he came to make Man of the West Man had perfected his talents to such a degree that he seems almost entirely relaxed in his handling of the plotting (early on an inevitable hold-up is quite knowingly delayed by an unrushed, good humoured conversation) and instead focuses more intently on the characterisation.
In a nutshell Man of the West concerns Gary Cooper’s ageing ex-outlaw. A train journey with wholly good intentions results in his meeting up with Lee J. Cobb, the man he used to run with and who now has a new, much younger gang. This newer contingent are of little interest to Mann, however. Rather, as with James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy in his earlier Bend of the River, he is more concerned with the two sides of same coin with Cooper and Cobb represent and the tensions this brings. As the former puts it “you either grow up or you rot”. For Cooper this has meant a transition into folksiness, politeness and an amiable clumsiness; for Cobb self-loathing, insecurity and possible insanity.
Of course, things don’t remain quite so clear cut (after all, with the film focusing so heavily on the characters it wouldn’t survive if they did) and Mann infuses the picture with an undercurrent of uneasiness. Cooper remains ambiguous throughout, especially as any information of his past, both before and after his reformation, comes almost solely from his own lips. It’s also interesting to compare the way he is usage with that of Mann’s more prolific Western star James Stewart (the pair worked together on five occasions). Both start out their pictures as figures of integrity, yet whereas Stewart would head into often hysterical obsessions, Cooper’s psychoses seem more interior, more withdrawn. This undoubtedly prompts links with High Noon, Cooper’s most famous Western role, but here he’s less obviously heroic even when dispatching of villains. The major turning point comes when Cobb delivers a monologue revealing the pair’s violent past which is genuinely shocking to anyone with an imagination. From hereon in we’re never sure whether Cooper’s hitherto gentle act is simply that, an act, yet Mann refuses to supply any easy answers.
Cobb’s speech is also important insofar as it tells us as much about his character as it does about Cooper’s. Here we have a man who is going “soft in the head” and living in his past glories, or at least that’s the way he would see them. As with Cooper getting less homely as the film continues, this infuses him with a vulnerability and perhaps even a modicum of sympathy. Indeed, such is the grandstanding of Cobb’s performance (which works perfectly, acting as it does in complete contrast to his co-star) that during his final scene screaming atop a rock face it’s not impossible to recall King Lear, the landscape reflecting his state of mind as we’ve progressed from an inviting, heavily populated typical Western town to an abandoned homestead to a desert ghost town.
Yet despite its themes and ageing leads (this was one of Cooper’s final films before his untimely death in 1961), Man of the West lacks an air of fatalism. Cooper’s character may have an antecedent in Clint Eastwood’s William Munny from Unforgiven (and perhaps even Josey Wales), but this is no ‘end of the West’ example of the genre. This is unsurprising to a degree given the healthy state of the Western in the late fifties (a time when The Big Country, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Horse Soldiers, The Left-Handed Gun, Rio Bravo and The Tall T were all made), but also because Mann’s focus is much narrower. It may hit all of the correct generic buttons and prove hugely enjoyable as a piece of action cinema, yet what remains is an expertly drawn portrayal of two deeply troubled men and their outlaw culture.
Whilst it’s undoubtedly great to be able to see Man of the West in its original ‘Scope frame (screenings on the BBC over the past decade have cropped it to 1.78:1), it is still hard not to be somewhat disappointed with MGM’s treatment of the film. Beyond the anamorphic transfer, this is a film in need of a restoration. Time has not been especially kind to the print used here and whilst there is little in the way of overt damage, the colours still look a little too muted (especially during the interiors) and image a little too soft. The soundtrack fares better with a two-channel mono mix that offers no particular problems but then also does little to impress. And as this is a back catalogue release, it perhaps goes without saying that MGM are releasing the film without any extras.