(Anthony Mann, 1958; Eureka!, 12)
Sunday 5 April 2015
Anthony Mann (1906-67), an ambitious master of genre movies, served a long apprenticeship in New York and Hollywood as an actor, assistant director and publicist, before a series of low-budget noir classics led to an eight-movie partnership (five of them westerns) with James Stewart in the 1950s, revealing his superb eye for landscape and the dramatic expression of inner conflict. In 1959 he was replaced on Spartacus by Stanley Kubrick and came to Europe to embark on a third phase in his career with the epics El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. He died while preparing a western version of King Lear.
Mann’s masterpiece (next to last of his 12 westerns) is Man of the West, based on a terse screenplay by Reginald Rose, author of 12 Angry Men. Jean-Luc Godard called it “quite simply an admirable lesson in modern cinema”. It stars an ageing Gary Cooper as Link Jones, a reformed outlaw on his way across Texas to hire a school teacher for his community, who accidentally meets up with the sorry rump of his old gang. They’re on their way to stage a final hold-up under their demented leader, Dock Tobin, Link’s surrogate father (the Lear-like Lee J Cobb). In order to save his own life and two other stranded travellers – saloon entertainer (Julie London in a non-singing role) and an itinerant con man (Arthur O’Connell) – Link must pretend he’s his old, ruthless criminal self.
The landscape they pass through – from verdant pastures to that ultimate symbol of broken dreams, the ghost town – reflects their desolate journey. As in all Mann movies the terrain is challenging, the violence painful, its consequences lethal. On the trail, Link must question whether in impersonating his former self he is in fact uncovering his true, death-dealing identity.
Man of the West was Cooper’s penultimate western and arguably his greatest performance, to which he brought a characteristic blend of decency, resolution and self-doubt. It was his only film with Mann, who thought his longtime collaborator James Stewart unsuited to the role. Apparently the two never spoke again.
This disc does full justice to Mann’s superbly composed CinemaScope images (it’s shot by veteran cinematographer Ernest Haller, co-Oscar winner for Gone With the Wind) and is accompanied by a booklet of useful articles and a full-length commentary.
Another great Mann western is The Tin Star with Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins. Just sayin'...