Monday, December 24, 2007

Forgotten VHS #5- Anthony Mann's "Man of the West"

Anthony Mann’s harsh 1958 Western, Man of the West has been shamefully ignored since its initial theatrical release. The film barely had an opening and notoriously bombed, mostly due to its unrelenting brutality and its disfigurement of Gary Cooper’s wholesome image. Full of incredible compositions, second only to the work of John Ford in the genre, Mann’s film is the culmination of the string of tough Westerns such as Winchester ‘73 (1950), The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man From Laramie (1953), all of which revealed an extremely dark edge to Jimmy Stewart long before Hitchock’s reworking of Stewart’s clean cut image in Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958). Similarly, Man of the West presents a completely fresh take on Gary Cooper, as his character, Link Jones, a former outlaw attempting to go straight but inadvertently gets forced into joining up with his old gang, displays many sadistic qualities among his many moralistic, positive traits. In one particularly startling scene, Cooper’s character can be seen giving his cousin, Coaley (Jack Lord), an extremely intense thrashing. Link Jones crosses over into extreme territory in the violent fight scene, revealing hateful and vindictive aspects of Cooper’s range that are left untouched in most of his signature performances in films like High Noon (1952), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), Sergeant York (1941) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936).

The real star of the show, however, is Lee J. Cobb as the leader of the outlaw gang and Cooper’s character’s uncle, Dock Tobin. Cobb’s performance, though a bit sensational, is incredibly engaging. Cobb secures his position as one of the finest actors of the Classical Hollywood era with a masterful performance that approaches the level of his excellent turns in On the Waterfront (1954) and 12 Angry Men (1957). In addition to Cobb’s memorable performance and Cooper’s fascinating playing-against-type, the film’s worth in increased by the interesting way that it serves as an inverted counterpart with John Ford’s The Searchers (1958). In many ways, Man of the West presents a character arc in Link Jones that is the reverse of Ethan Edwards. Rather than a confrontation with civility and advancement by a generally outlaw-like figure, as with Ethan, Link’s journey is one from an attempt at assimilation to the temptations of criminality and reversion. The two films serve as excellent compliments to each other, revealing a brilliant dialectic relationship whose synthesis ultimately defines the Western genre.

Godard’s feeling regarding Man of the West certainly highlight this relationship in that while he felt “The Searchers” to be the greatest of Westerns, he claimed that Man of the West “revinvented” the Western, as can be read in the excellent piece about the film featured in “Godard on Godard,” an absolute must read (notice the Godard trend in the past couple of posts). Man of the West is sadly absent from any DVD shelves, mostly due to how it was ignored upon its initial release and therefore overlooked. However, it can be found for under $10 on VHS from Amazon.com and frequently appears on Turner Classic Movies. Good luck finding this marvelous Western from a true master of the genre, Anthony Mann.

by Brandon Colvin

1 comment:

expresso-expression said...

I borrowed the DVD from my municipal library (Melbourne, Aust). I was intrigued by the darkness of the vision that would eventually be explored more fully in 1960's and '70's westerns. Lee J Cobb is a revelation and Jack Lord playing a psychopathic role is fascinating as well. Notable too is the use of increasingly harsh landscape as the story approaches its violent climax played out in the appropiately named town of Lassoo.