Man of the West (1958), directed by Anthony Mann, is a gritty western that finds all-American hero, Gary Cooper, stepping into the shoes of the morally ambiguous Mann protagonist from his 1950s Westerns that usually starred James Stewart.
1950s is considered the decade when Westerns finally came of age. The simplistic White hat\Black hat, cowboys vs Indians Westerns of the previous decades gave way to more psychologically complex character studies and exploration of serious socio-political issues within the existing template of the Western genre. Director, Anthony Mann was at the forefront of this Western renaissance. Mann started his career in the ’40s making dark B-Noirs, and when he started directing Westerns in 1950 with the likes of “Winchester’73” and “The Furies,” he brought a Noir-like aesthetic of dark subject matter, complex plotting & characterizations and dynamic visualization to the genre. During this time he formed a successful creative partnership with star, James Stewart; they did eight films together, of which five were these path breaking westerns. They were actually making a sixth one named “Night Passage” together when they had a falling out, and Mann made his final two Westerns of the decade, “The Tin Star” and “Man of the West” without Stewart. “Man of the West (1958), Mann’s final Western in this decade (and perhaps Mann’s final Western, period!; he would do a remake of “Cimarron” in 1960, but that was less a Western and more of a melodrama and one of Mann’s weakest films) starring Gary Cooper in the lead role is perhaps his best. The film, with a very generic Western title, is the grittiest and darkest Western Mann has ever made. This film showcases all of Mann’s pet themes: the morally conflicted hero who is determined to the point of obsession to do things his way, family feuds resulting in fratricide, events marking the end of an era and the beginning of the new etc. The film also has one of Cooper’s finest performances, even though he, being 57 at the time, is a little too old to play the lead character who is supposed to be in his 30s. Stewart, despite being not on good terms with Mann, like the role so much that he lobbied hard for it, but Mann persisted in casting Cooper. This ultimately proved to be the right choice because the role required Cooper’s quite strength and dignity rather than Stewart’s neurotic energy.
In the film, Gary Cooper plays Link Jones- a former outlaw who is now a honorable citizen; honorable enough for his community of ‘Good Hope’ to trust him with all their savings and send him out to Fort Worth to hire a schoolteacher. Link boards a train from Crosscut, Texas and aboard the train he gets acquainted with comely saloon singer, Billie Ellis (Julie London) and a card sharp, Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell). On the way, the train is held up by the Tobin gang- the gang that Link use to ride with in the past, consisting of his kinsmen, Coaley Tobin (Jack Lord), Trout (Royal Dano) and Ponch (Robert J. Wilke), who attempt to rob the train. In the ensuing firefight, Link, Billie and Sam are thrown from the train; not only that the gang steals Link’s money and rides away. Now stuck in the wilderness, where the nearest town is miles away, Link leads his companions to a nearby farmhouse where he used to hole up during his outlaw days. Upon reaching the farm, Link is shocked to find that the entire Tobin gang, including its leader, Link’s uncle Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) is holed up there. Link was raised by Dock to be the best among them, but then one fine day Link decided to go straight, as he had enough of the killing and robbing, and abandoned Dock.
For the sake of his own safety and the safety of his companions, Link convinces Dock that he is back to rejoin the gang. For further assurance Link promises to join the gang for a bank robbery that they have planned in the town of Lassoo. Dock, though an evil guy, still loves Link, whom he considers his favorite nephew and disciple, and hence accepts Link back into the fold. But Link’s cousins remain skeptical and hostile: a drunken Coaley even holding Link at knifepoint and forcing Billie to strip. When she is nearly undressed, Dock steps in and ends the situation. He tells everyone to go to sleep and sends Link and Billie to sleep in the barn. Claude Tobin (John Dehner), another cousin, arrives the next morning and is displeased at finding Link there. Tobin rejects the suggestion of Claude and Coaley that it would be best to kill Link and the others. They all depart on the four-day trip to Lassoo in three wagons and two on horseback. On the way, Link gets a chance to avenge his and Billie’s humiliation, as he brutally beats up Coaley in a fistfight and then strips off his clothes. An angry Coaley tries to shoot down Link, but Sam interferes and takes the bullet. Coaley is in turn shot and killed by Dock. Once they reach Lassoo, they realize that it’s a ghost town. The bank is deserted and except for some Mexicans, there are no inhabitants. Link uses this opportunity to kill off his evil cousins one by one, and then gets ready to finally confront his dastardly uncle Dock who, after raping Billie, has managed to escape to a nearby cliff with Link’s money.
Anthony Mann always wanted to do a Western adaptation of Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”- you can understand why, the play is filled with family feuds, betrayals and a tragic patriarch at the center. At the time of his death in 1967 he was planning just such a venture, but he died before he could realize his plans. Mann has made a loose “King Lear” adaptation with his 1950 Western melodrama “The Furies,” starring Walter Huston and Barbara Stanwyck. “Man of the West” could be considered another loose version of “Lear”; it’s a dark Shakespearean tragedy in three acts. And each act has its own tone, visual style and even its own genre. While the first act plays out like light comedy with Cooper’s Link behaving like a fish out of water in the town of Crosscut; it’s after a long time he has set foot in town, and is understandably very gawky and uncomfortable in the midst of all the hustle & bustle. This portion is the most colorful and vibrant of all the three acts, with Leigh Harline‘s music at its most cheerful. The entire second half set in the ramshackle farmhouse plays out like a claustrophobic horror film, with Dock and his gang emerging out of the woodwork like ghosts to torment the good guys. This entire section shot in a dark grey palette and underscored by ominous music is so eerie that one can trace the origins of films like “Halloween” and “Evil Dead” to this. The scene where Coaley has a Knife pointed at Link’s throat and forces Billie to strip is the most disturbing sequence in the film that mixes elements of horror, torture porn and Noir, with the blood slowly spurting out of Link’s neck creating an eerie parallel with the clothes coming off Billie’s body. The third act set in the ghost town of Lassoo feels like a post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi movie, where it appears that the last of the human beings are locked in a deadly fight for survival in a futuristic wasteland. This is also where the film acquire elements of a traditional Western, with Gary Cooper finally strapping on that pistol belt and acquiring the appearance and attitude of a Western hero; though the gunfights featured in the climax are more down and dirty and not the classical ‘walk down the street’ shootouts one usually see in a traditional Western.
Lee J. Cobb’s Dock Tobin is the deranged King Lear figure here (with elements of Dickens’ ‘Fagin’ thrown in for good measure) heading a decadent family consisting of thieves and cutthroats. Cobb chews scenery with gusto in what’s a typical Cobb performance- big, outsized, hammy and very intimidating. Cobb was actually ten years younger than Cooper, who was playing his nephew, and the actor resorts to grey wigs and beard to look sufficiently old. Cobb and Cooper also come from very different acting background- Cooper being the classic Hollywood ‘personality’ actor, who stamps his personality on every role he plays, and also a master of subtlety who acts specifically for the camera, while Cobb is an alumini of the New York ‘Actor’s studio.’ and is more ornery and extravagant with his speech and mannerisms. But they work extremely well together, with their contrasting styles enhancing the generational conflict that’s at the heart of the film. Cooper is terrific as the conflicted Link- a pacifist who is pulled back into his violent past and tries to retain his moral integrity in the middle of all the chaos. Cooper’s trademark minimalist acting style fully complements the spare, stripped down style Mann has adopted for this film. The basic conflict in the film is between savagery and civilization, with Cooper forming the ‘link’ between the two (hence he’s given the name Link Jones). Like all Mann heroes, Link is full of internal conflicts- whether to succumb to his violent instincts or stay true to the new way of civilized life that he has chosen for himself. And, like all Western heroes, he has to resort to violence to redeem himself. He has to destroy whatever that’s left of his savage past before he can fully assimilate himself to the civilized present\future. The only issue with the casting of Cooper is that he’s too likeable and clean cut to be believable as the member of the Tobin gang. It’s hard to believe that once upon a time he was as depraved and murderous as Cobb’s Dock or any of the other gang members; and Link was supposed to be the best (or worst) of them.
The look and feel of “Man of the West” was a big influence on the Euro-Westerns that became famous in the 1960s. The final shootout in the ghost town seems to have inspired several gunfights in Sergio Leone’s Westerns, including the iconic opening scene in “The Good the Bad and the Ugly.” The film must also have been a big influence on Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven.” Both films feature violent criminals who are reformed after they get married and have children, but then is forced by circumstances to return to their violent ways. The dark and brutal tone of the two films are also very similar. But unlike “Unforgiven,” where much of the action (including the big climax) takes place in and around a modern town and hence, like many an Eastwood Western, makes strong commentary about the corruption and violence inherent in the modern American society, most of “Man of the West” takes place far away from civilization. Much like Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” the film has the hero undertaking a journey that, at every step of it, will take him further and further away from civilization, into the heart of darkness. After the first act, we never see a modern town again; the ghost town of Lassoo in the last act is in direct contrast to the bustling town of Crosscut in the first. The final confrontation between Link and Dock takes place in Mann’s favorite setting of rocky mountainous terrain, in a no man’s land. The film ends on an ambiguous note that’s equal parts optimistic and pessimistic. The final image of the film is that of Link and Billie riding back to civilization. By this time, Billie has fallen in love with Link, but Link, being a married man with a family, is not able to reciprocate her feelings. This means that even though Link will return to his community (and his family) and has a happy and prosperous life to look forward to (now that the very last vestiges of his violent past has been totally erased), Billie will have to return to her former life of a saloon singer (or even worse, that of a prostitute); a mixture of hope and hopelessness.
That’s the kind of complex ending that Mann likes for his conflict-laden Westerns. His films are far more tough & ambiguous and far less optimistic than the John Ford Westerns. Since Mann never got to make that Western “King Lear” adaptation, “Man of the West” should be considered Mann’s last word on the genre. After this he would graduate to making epic imperial period dramas like “El Cid” and “Fall of the Roman Empire,” where he would once again portray themes of family feuds, fratricides, warring lovers and brotherly betrayals on a much larger canvas and set against the backdrop of factual historical events, either in Ancient Rome or Medieval Spain. But their emphasis there is a little different from his Westerns; In Mann’s period epics, the complexities and conflicts are much more broader and on the surface- it’s not that nuanced or fully explored as in his Noirs and Westerns, while Mann expands on the scope and scale of his productions. He was always a great visual artist and these epics gave him a great opportunity to unleash his visual virtuosity to the fullest; “Cid” and “..Roman Empire” are two of the best-looking epic movies I have ever seen. Mann’s final film was the more intimate spy thriller, “A Dandy in Aspic (1968),” which was a return to his Noir roots. Mann died from a heart attack in Berlin while he was shooting the film, and the film was completed by the film’s star Laurence Harvey.