22 June 2008

No Country For Nice Men

On the plus side: Jimmy Stewart stars, Anthony Mann directs, it's shot in Cinemascope. On the minus side: plot holes big enough to drive a truck through. Final score, a seven out of ten. A few lousy plot holes are not enough to trip up The Man From Laramie (1955), the sixth and final Mann-Stewart collaboration. Though not on a par with their fine work in The Naked Spur, this is a fine film, benefitting from wondrous wide angle looks at the rugged countryside of New Mexico.

A good cast was along for the ride featuring the ubiquitous Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Wallace Ford and Aline MacMahon. (Ms. MacMahon is most familiar to me for films made 20 year previous, notably Gold Diggers of 1933 and Heroes For Sale.)  Here she's about as far out of the hard knock city life as you can get, being a ranch owner in 19th century New Mexico.

As in many of his Westerns, Stewart is not the affable bloke we're more familiar with from such films as Harvey, You Can't Take it With You or The Shop Around the Corner. No, this Stewart is a tough hombre with a dark past. Though he'll not hesitate to use a gun, Stewart, as always, remains on the right side of the law.

The Man form Laramie is unflinching in its look at the men of the Old West and the means by which they survived and prospered. Treachery, murder and vengeance trump civility, legalities and negotiation. Love is hard won, not given freely, but can be returned quickly and easily. The land is just as precious and just as fickle. 

Stewart portrays a man looking for a mix of justice and vengeance who'll not be bought nor forced to back down. Stewart played such characters as convincingly as anyone in Hollywood. Mann's direction is as always good and his use of the landscape as a central theme to a the story evokes John Ford. Besides black hat wearing bad guys, there are those darn "Injuns," too. This time:  Apaches, a favorite whipping boy of Hollywood.

There are incidents in the movie that don't make sense, characters whose motivations and actions are left unexplained, and one character who's ultimately left unaccounted for. But the central themes and the manner the story is told more than make up for these defects.

The Man From Laramie is what you’d expect from Mann and Stewart, a darn good Western.


rdfinch said...

Did you watch this on TCM? That's where I saw it the other night. The Western genre is one that I have neglected in my movie-viewing education, and in the last year or two I have been making an effort to address this deficiency. John Ford directed the best that I've seen ("Stagecoach," "My Darling Clementine," and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"--I haven't made up my mind yet about "The Searchers"). But I found his "Yellow Ribbon"-"Fort Apache"-"Rio Grande" trilogy a bit samey and a bit too sentimental for my taste. (The best, I would say, was "Yellow Ribbon.")

Of the Mann-Stewart works, I've seen only "The Far Country," "Bend of the River," and "Laramie." I found "Laramie" the best of the three, although all were most entertaining and--with their more cynical take on violence, lawlessness, and mean-spirited self-interest--better than the Ford Cavalry trilogy, although not quite of the caliber of the three Ford masterpieces I named. The high desert landscapes in "Laramie," with their sun-drenched, muted colors and barren atmosphere, were visually stunning. (Did Charles Lang ever do anything less than a fantastic job of cinematography?) I have to say that I didn't notice as many plot holes as you. I did find the psycho son, while very entertaining, to be rather unsubtly interpreted. Was the character unaccounted for Wallace Ford? For the record, two other outstanding Westerns I've seen recently are "Ride the High Country" and "Lonely Are the Brave." Both of these are quite close in quality to the best Ford Westerns.

TCM is showing "The Naked Spur" this week, and I'm looking forward to it, as it's thought by many to be the best Mann-Stewart Western. I find Stewart's character in the Mann films to be akin to the frustrated and obsessive characters he played for Hitchcock in "Rear Window" and especially "Vertigo." They're also in some ways like the depressive side of his George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life", but without the self-pity.

Richard Hourula said...

Agree about the trilogy. Lot to like about them but they are a tad bit overly sentimental. I'm looking forward to watching The Naked Spur too. I've just seen it once but one thing that sticks out is Stewart's strong performance.
Thank God for TCM