The Misfits Review

Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 2 release of Marilyn Monroe’s last filmThe Misfits. An underrated film with a fantastic final turn from Clark Gable gets an entirely average DVD from the underachieving MGM.

It’s inevitable that The Misfits has an air of doom about it, seeing as it was the last film of two screen legends; Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. It tends to be remembered as a misfire which has gained undeserved prominence from the deaths of its stars but it is actually a very interesting failure from two unique American artists – writer Arthur Miller and director John Huston. It doesn’t work in all sorts of ways but as a film about the poignant illusion of the American Dream, it’s thoughtful and ultimately very moving.

The story revolves around three “misfits”, men and women who can’t escape from the sadness of their past or find anything worth believing in the present. Rosalind (Monroe) has broken free from a loveless marriage in the hope of discovering happiness; Gay Langland (Gable) is a cowboy who is lost in a changing world and has forsaken the more traditional Western pursuits in favour of hustling a series of attractive women; and Perce Howland (Clift) is a rodeo rider who lost his father’s farm after his mother remarried. These three, along with ex-air force pilot Guido (Wallach), head for the plains outside Reno to catch wild Mustang horses which will be sold to dog food companies for a pittance. Rosalind hooks up with first Gay and then Perce but is unable to find any prospect of happiness with them and she is repelled by their macho violence, demonstrated in the heavily symbolic roping of the Mustangs. Gay doesn’t know what is expected of him anymore as his lifestyle becomes increasingly destroyed by progress and Perce drowns his self-loathing in alcohol. The visit to capture the horses is a turning point for all of them but there is no sense that anything will really change or that the characters will find the rootedness for which they yearn.

The overwhelming tone of the film is dark and poignant, in the manner of Miller’s best theatre work. In some senses it’s a modern Western – it certainly has similarities to Lonely Are The Brave and Peckinpah’s equally poignant Junior Bonner – but it’s also a poetic study of lost souls which was way ahead of its time in terms of Hollywood in 1961. Ten years or so down the line, this would have fitted very nicely with Alice’s Restaurant or Five Easy Pieces, both films which seem to go nowhere but in fact contain painful emotional journeys into the regret and sadness at the heart of a dream which turned out to be nothing more than that. What also surprises is how bleak the film is. Rosalind thinks she understands the men she meets but she is unable to compete with their self-pity and lack of compassion, and Gay loathes the women who he blames for domesticating the cowboy out of him – “You struggle, you build, you try, you turn yourself inside out for ’em, but it’s never enough. So they put the spurs to you.” Where does this bitterness come from ? If this is, as some writers believe, Miller’s comment on his decaying marriage to Monroe, then it’s a disturbing and sad one. It’s hard to separate the real Marilyn from the roles she played but the character of Rosalind is obviously as close to the genuine woman as any character she ever portrayed. Does Miller feel like Gay, a man who no longer has anything to hold onto, or Perce, drifting along, wearing his self-pity like a badge of honour ? On the other hand, there is an admiration of Rosalind here and she seems intended to represent what the men have lost; Gay says, “You have the gift of life Rosalind. The rest of us are just looking for a place to hide and watch the world go by.” It’s as if he wants to love Rosalind but can’t get past his inner misanthropy to make the leap. There’s an optimism to the ending, but this doesn’t ring true to me – it’s a panacea rather than a solution.

The performances are uniformally excellent. The honours are taken by Clark Gable, a marvellous and underrated actor whose relaxed naturalism comes out well in contrast to the studied method style of Monroe and Clift. He captures the conflicting emotions inside Langland beautifully and there’s a lovely moment at the end when he nails the essential tragedy of the man – “It’s like roping a dream now. You just gotta find another way to be alive, if there is one.” In the final moments, he points at the sky, picks out a star and tells Rosalind that the highway is underneath it that will take them home, but there is a question mark left hanging – aren’t we all looking for that star that will guide us home, and if so how many of us ever really find it ? Gable doesn’t have to say anything, his melancholic smile does the job perfectly. The knowledge that he died eleven days after shooting ended adds another layer to the character. Marilyn Monroe does a fine job, but this is a rather demeaning character for her and it doesn’t give her any chance to show off her comic talent, which strikes me as a waste. Montgomery Clift looks awful, understandably given his recent past, but this serves the character and he makes something out of Perce that isn’t really in the script. Good character work from the reliable Thelma Ritter – in her usual smart old broad mode – and the not so reliable Eli Wallach helps round out the film which is sometimes in danger of wallowing in self-pity.

John Huston directs with subtle, self-deprecating skill, serving the text and the actors while ensuring that the look of the film – the tacky glitz of Reno and the endless wastes of the Nevada desert – is sadly evocative of a lost time. Huston was one of the most maddeningly inconsistent directors of the last century, capable of great beauty in films like this, Wise Blood and The Dead and maker of some of the best films ever produced in America – The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon and the glorious The Man Who Would Be King – but also the perpetrator of cinematic crimes such as Annie and the bewilderingly popular Escape To Victory. This film shows off his talents very well – Huston’s famously larger than life, bullying personality encompassed a surprising capacity for indulging and understanding human frailty and he was always good at relationships between men and women. Arthur Miller’s script is less impressive. Line for line, it’s intelligent and sometimes poetic but the characters are too often paper-thin, relying too much on the actors to bring them to life. His symbolism is all too obvious – this is an area in which Huston tends to go overboard in all his films given a certain literal-mindedness. We know the trip to rope the Mustangs is a metaphor for male cruelty but we don’t need it spelt out in such a plodding manner. On a technical level, the film is just about flawless. The monochrome photography by Russell Metty – the man behind the extraordinary lighting for Touch Of Evil – is breathtaking and Alex North’s plaintive, if occasionally overblown, music score adds just the right touch of melancholy Americana. It’s a little too long and more than a little maudlin in places, but generally The Misfits is a brave, moving film which has become considerably more impressive with time than it must have seemed upon release.

The Disc

This MGM release is a pretty barren DVD but is boosted by a pretty good transfer which makes the film look as good as it ever has done for home viewing.

The film is presented in an Anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer. This is crisp and sharp, making the most of the atmospheric black and white photography with excellent contrast. There is quite a lot of print damage unfortunately with a lot of white speckles appearing. The soft appearance of the film is partly intentional although some scenes do obviously want more detail. Some grain is apparent throughout, especially in the later scenes in the desert, but there is no serious problem with artefacts. The print could have done with a good clean up but otherwise this is fairly pleasing.

The soundtrack is the original mono track. Entirely competent and pleasant to listen to. a

The only extra is the original trailer, a deliciously portentous compilation of stills and scenes from the film which gives virtually no idea about the movie its meant to be selling. This is fullscreen and in poor condition.

There are static menus and 16 chapter stops.

I certainly recommend the film as a quirky and surprisingly potent examination of the American Dream from the fag end of the Studio System. The DVD is nothing like the special edition it could have been but it’s generally adequate.

Mike Sutton

Updated: Nov 24, 2001

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