Monday, September 10, 2007

Monday Movie Review: Man of the West

Man of the West (1958) 10/10
Link Jones (Gary Cooper) takes the train to El Paso to hire a schoolteacher for his homesteading community. But when the train is robbed and Link and fellow passengers Billie Ellis (Julie London) and Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell) are stranded, Link leads them to his old home, where he confronts his outlaw past in the form of his uncle (Lee J. Cobb) and the rest of the gang who robbed the train. Directed by Anthony Mann.

The conventional wisdom is that Sergio Leone launched a new kind of Western with A Fistful of Dollars and his subsequent "Spaghetti Westerns;" a dark, dirty Western of gritty violence, betrayal, and rape. But before Leone there was Anthony Mann and the "psychological Western." Beginning in 1950 with Winchester '73, Mann explored the psyche of men who were torn between the evil they had done and would do, and the goodness in their hearts. Most of these movies were made with Jimmy Stewart, but the last of them, Man of the West, was made with Gary Cooper.

I've seen three of the Stewart-Mann Westerns, and I've loved them all, but nothing prepared me for Man of the West, which was less reminiscent of Mann's earlier movies than it was prescient of Leone's. I mean there's dark, and then there's dark.

Or, to put it another way, Man of the West blew my mind.

Link Jones, brilliantly played by Cooper, is a complex man, overwhelmed by the longings and fears within, so much that he is not so much silent by nature as driven to silence, forced there by his frequent inability to voice a simple truth; his truths are all so complex. At first he seems awkward, almost goofy, but gradually we understand he is nervous and struggling with self-restraint. He carries to El Paso all the money that all his fellow homesteaders have saved to hire a schoolteacher (who will require a year's salary in advance in order to relocate to such a remote settlement). He is nervous with the money—too nervous; the inside man on the train job takes notice—and then he is despondent when it is taken. With nowhere to go, he returns to the home he abandoned long ago, but the train robbers have beaten him there. He and his companions are taken prisoner, and the rest of the movie is played out as a tense hostage situation. Can Link free his fellow passengers? Can he avoid returning to the life of crime he despises?

The tension is brilliantly drawn, and the ugliness of the crooks (Cobb, Jack Lord, and John Dehner chief among them) is stunning. There's a brilliant scene where the bad guys try to force Billie to strip for them. Brilliant in the sense of disturbing, frightening, even nauseating. In a sense, this scene epitomizes everything that's great about this movie. Link is heroic but ineffectual. The bad guys are crude, nasty, and without limits. Billie is a real woman, not "the woman," and her humiliation is all the more real for it. The whole thing is startling.

And it just keeps up like that. Link trying to think his way out, and the rest, very aware that's exactly what he's doing, but needing to keep him alive anyway, thwart him at every turn.

If you've been keeping up with my reviews, you know I've been on a Western kick for a while, maybe a year now. I don't know why I've never heard of this one before, why so many other Westerns are more famous, and this masterpiece is collecting metaphorical dust.

(Cross-post of the West)