Films of the Week | 4th April 2022
I enjoyed this, and I recommend it, though Paul Merton, an expert on early twentieth-century American comedy, was incandescent with irritation when it came out because in real life there was no feud: Laurel and Hardy always got on. The performances are excellent.
This is Anthony Mann’s last Western, and it did not do well when it was released – too grim, perhaps, for it is sometimes categorized as Western Film Noir – but it has climbed and climbed, and is now one of the very few films to have a hundred per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Derek Malcolm considers it Anthony Mann’s finest film, and Jean-Luc Godard claimed it as the film of the year on its release. It is certainly one of Mann’s best, a powerful and sometimes disturbing film that is, like most of his films, a tale of redemption.
Mann had failed in his attempt to film King Lear in the West, with sons replacing daughters, though elements of Lear can be seen in several of his films (the blind patriarch in The Man from Laramie, for instance, with one deranged son, another adopted son who is finally more dangerous). The raving alcoholic Dock Tobin played by Lee J Cobb is another Lear. Family more than community or conviction tends to be the driving influence in Mann’s films. Chains bind these characters. Link (spot the name) Jones played by Gary Cooper cannot escape who he is, his past or his family, just as Billie Ellis (Julie London) cannot escape the perception that she is a slut because she performs in public, which makes her vulnerable to abuse. Link is drawn back to his family, his uncle and his cousins, like an iron filing drawn to a magnet. But what seems like a fatal journey, as he is drawn back to the father figure who taught him to kill, offers a way out, through violence, to redemption.
Link searches the bodies of the men he has killed, and it is only when he finds what he is looking for right at the end that we realise that he is looking for the ‘link’ that represents his commitment to his new life, and to his wife and two children back in his new home town.
It is a marvellous performance from Gary Cooper, from aw-shucks clumsiness and naivety in the opening scenes at the railway station, though showing that he is not all that he seems by misnaming both himself and the town he comes from, to the violent avenger that lies beneath what we now find to be a mask, his features shot to look as craggy as the desert mountains behind him*. Lee J Cobb was ten years younger than Gary Cooper, who was playing his nephew, and is his usual over-the-top self. Julie London is marvellous (it was her favourite film), and the supporting actors equally so.
The film is a dark Western, dark and sometimes troubling in subject, dark in visuals; unusually for Anthony Mann, a lot of the film takes place at night or in shadowed interiors. Whether it is because the colour is by De Luxe, or whether it is intentional, the hills around the outlaws’ settlement are a poisonous, evil green, like the moral swamp that it contains. The depraved family clan, isolated in a poisoned desert, looks forward to some of the horror films that were to follow, like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The Hills Have Eyes (1977) was shot in the same Mojave Desert. Later, the action moves to the bleakest and rockiest of deserts, and the final sequences take place in a ghost town: the West reduced to empty houses, a bank that has no money and cannot be robbed.
The film has one of the least glamorous, most distressing fist fights in all of Westerns, as the old conventions of the Western are extended and explored. Punches hurt. Bullets cripple. Wounds bleed. There is an intensity about the action that shows that the West wasn’t glamorous at all, and that if to kill someone is messy and cruel we are forced to consider the morality of it (there are no moral issues in the bloodless slaughter of baddies and Indians in the usual Western fare, just pinball play). There is a heart-breaking moment, brief and almost missable, when the last inhabitant of the ghost town goes in search of his wife, Juanita. It happens at the edge of the frame as he calls her name, and steps into a house where we know she lies dead.
We are left reflecting on the ironies of the title. The title sequence shows Gary Cooper on horseback, an icon of Western heroism, but by the end we wonder who is ‘The Man of the West’. Link? Dock? And what is the West? The Frontier? Violence? Depravity? Is this what the West means? American history might well have been different had the implications of the end of the film been understood rather than the simplifications of the beginning.
*Cooper was suffering from cancer, and his drawn and preoccupied performance may be related to the cancer that was to kill him three years later. There is a thesis to be written about the relationship of cancer and acting on film, John Wayne and Franchot Tone in In Harm’s Way, for instance.
Best wishes, Bill.