Dir: Anthony Mann | Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J Cobb, Arthur O’Connell, 100min
Many westerns have explored the uneasy relationship between modern civilisation and the wilderness. Yet perhaps none have tackled this more persuasively and darkly than Anthony Mann’s Man of the West. A film that asks whether the civilising process really achieved its aims, and if so at what cost to the individual?
Man of the West references in Shakespearian character traits (King Lear and Cordelia) critically examines the masculinity of the hero and places its audience in stark landscapes, leading to a ghost town shoot-up (visually Man of the West anticipates the Italian Western and the revisionist westerns of Sam Peckinpah).
Link Jones (Gary Cooper) is travelling from his small home town to Texas to hire their first schoolteacher. His train is attacked by robbers. Link is left with Billie Ellis (Julie London), a saloon singer and Sam Bealy (Arthur O’Connell), a gambler. They go to the farm house where Link once lived. Here he meets not only the train robbers but his uncle Dock Tobin (Lee J.Cobb) who wants Link to re-join the gang for abank robbery.
Mann’s direction, assisted by Ernest Haller’s superb cinematography, makes for eloquent, tightly framed compositions. We feel a powerful sense of the characters’ pent up emotions being barely contained. Aided by Reginald Rose’s terse script Man of the West gives us moral complexity (Link will not only have to kill the gang but destroy his former surrogate family).
The staging of the Link’s dilemma is finely realised in two key scenes. Link and Billie have to share a bed in the barn. The drunken Dock enters the barn to sneer over and castigate them. Lee J. Cobb plays Dock as a raucous, deluded father figure. He’s a ghost of the past pressing down on Link’s conscience. Link thought he’d been redeemed for his life of crime. But now the exorcism must be played out. When violence erupts it is in the form of a beautifully choreographed fight between Link and gang member Coaly Tobin (Jack Lord). Jones beats Coaly and then pulls of some of his clothes. This is in reply for the night of their first meeting when Coaly forced Billie to partly strip for the gang. It’s a cathartic moment in a supreme psychological western, resulting not only in Coaly’s death but the accidental shooting of Bealy, the gambler. Link Jones has begun to fight back against his gang of ghosts and takes on the consequences – an innocent companion’s death.
Gary Cooper’s performance is magnificent. He conveys intense anxiety and repression as the mental cruelty piles on. For once Lee J. Cobb’s over the top acting works for him. Julie London, as she falls in love with Link, gives a very affecting performance. Issues are never properly resolved in Mann’s film. He is intelligently responsive to the contradictions that comprise any ‘Taming of the West’. The tragic Man of the West deservedly takes its place the ‘Top Ten Western Ever Made’ list of most film critics. Alan Price.
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