Anthony Mann is among the key American filmmakers who brought a strong psychological note to the postwar genre film, beginning with very distinguished films noirs such as T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), Side Street (1950), and especially the extraordinary He Walked by Night (1948, credited to Alfred Werker but shot largely by Mann, and obviously so). But Mann’s psychological insights are most on display in his Westerns, made, with a few exceptions, with actor James Stewart. Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Man from Laramie (1955), and The Far Country (1955) are among the genre’s most innovative and distinguished contributions, raising more questions as to the moment when the “revisionist” Western actually appeared (certainly before the Sixties).
Mann’s films were overshadowed by prestige Westerns of the period, such as Shane (George Stevens, 1953), High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952), The Searchers (John Ford, 1956), and Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks, 1959), with Mann’s work taking second billing or shown at drive-ins. The notion of disintegration appears in two of these more famous films, affecting the hero (The Searchers) and the community (High Noon), but it is Mann, working on a smaller scale, who most efficiently captures the sense of despair entering this conservative genre, one that pretended, in its classical phase, to turn the conquest of America into a utopian narrative. Mann made insightful use of Freud, the Bible, the German Expressionist cinema (the doppelgangers in Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River) and Shakespeare in all of his films – he wanted to film King Lear, and elements of the play appear in The Furies (1950), The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie, and above all Man of the West (1958). Robin Wood noted that Man of the West, Mann’s triumph, his unqualified masterpiece and the capstone to his cycle of Westerns, is Mann’s Lear, with its sense of emotional whirlwind, and an older order crumbling (1).
Man of the West is an unsettling film to me – now and when I saw it as a youngster in 1958. Several sexually-charged scenes, two of which suggest both rape and castration, are overpowering, so much so it is a wonder that they escaped the Production Code. But the film is unnerving principally because of its profound subversion, its assault on expectations, its attack on the American civilising process and all of the conventions of the American Western that sustained popular assumptions about the “settling” of the West. On its surface Man of the West, like several Mann films (notably Bend of the River), is a tale of redemption, as a man confronts his outlaw past. But Man of the West allows few consolations. We are asked to consider the essential monstrousness of the hero, and whether redemption is a tenable idea. The noble frontiersman is made the Other, and one not very deserving of sympathy, a savage whose past ghoulishness seems unimaginable. As Wood also noted, the film looks down the road to the contemporary horror film – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974) and The Hills Have Eyes (Wes Craven, 1977), with their savage clans and desiccated American wasteland, are not far away.
By 1958, James Stewart had a falling-out with Mann that was most fortuitous for Man of the West. Although he was ill for much of the Fifties (he could hardly lift Grace Kelly for a scene in High Noon), Gary Cooper, the screen’s original incarnation of the strong, silent type, was cast as the film’s lead. Thus one of the cinema’s central icons embodying American strength, fair play, and essential naïveté (Americans want to cling to the latter) is torn to ribbons, made into one of film’s most problematical characters. In his best performance, Cooper is simultaneously the quiet hero, the gangly rube, and – most surprisingly – the outlaw as fiend. Complaints have been registered about the casting, since Lee J. Cobb, playing Cooper’s perverse “uncle,” was ten years his junior. The controversy strikes me as specious, since both actors are superb in knowing precisely what they must accomplish. Cooper’s physical infirmity, the constant sense of confrontation with suffering and death, especially in scenes where he must endure humiliation, serves the film superbly. Cobb’s typical scenery-chewing fits the outsize character created by screenwriter Reginald Rose.
Link Jones (Cooper) rides on horseback to a junction called Crosscut, where he takes a train to Fort Worth, carrying the savings of his adopted town of Good Hope. The citizens have entrusted him with finding a schoolteacher – thus bringing them civilization. Link ends up accompanied by Crosscut’s prostitute, Billie (Julie London, her character rendered, typically, as a “saloon singer” [at least she isn’t the Western’s standard “dance hall girl”]), and a smarmy but affable cardsharp, Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell). When Link’s train is robbed, he finds himself alone in the wilderness with his two companions. He takes them to a remote valley with a tumbledown shack at its base, a dead tree and an animal carcass in its yard. Link obviously didn’t just stumble upon the dwelling. He tells Billie “I used to live here once”. Billie asks: “When you were a boy?”, to which Link answers with a most evocative line: “Oh, I don’t know what I was”. After hiding Billie and Beasley in a barn, Link enters the dark, expressionist shack, where he is confronted by several outlaws, the loutish Ponch (Robert Wilke), the mute hysteric Trout (Royal Dano), and the sadistic Coaley (Jack Lord). A curtain is suddenly pulled aside, revealing a grizzled old man wrapped in a scarf. He is taken aback by Link’s presence. Link, it seems, is the long-gone prodigal son. The old man extends his hand: “Shake hands with your Uncle Dock Tobin.” Tobin (Cobb) is a notorious outlaw of the past, mentioned earlier in the film when an unprepossessing but alert old sheriff (Frank Ferguson) confronts Link in Crosscut, asking him if he “ever heard the name Dock Tobin,” to which Link shakes his head “no” unconvincingly.
The reunion between Link and Dock sets up the film’s central ideas, which effectively unravel the premises of the Western. Dock Tobin (the spelling is correct, as he takes pains to inform us – he “docks”, so is a castrator) is at first awed that his old charge has returned, but his mood turns sour when he recalls when Link left him (“You were my right arm!”), his humour combining with his monstrousness (“I could’ve pushed your guts right outta your back, and I’d have done it too!”). Dock then goes into a reverie as he recalls his favorite moments with his prize adopted son, the scene becoming Gothic, reaching almost operatic status to the dark chords of Leigh Harline’s score as Dock cackles as he barks his memories: “The glory of Uvalde and Saltillo and Black Fork… God forgive us we painted the walls with blood!… we murdered old Ben Scull together – you held him, I took the top of his head off!” Dock is the overseer of a degraded civilisation. Dickens is invoked; Dock is a Fagin of the frontier, gathering up the discarded children of a society too ambitious to care for them. It is important to note that Link is not just the long-lost child of the old murderer; he is remembered as the most vicious, the most unstoppable and cruel.
Dock’s world is spinning out of control (the Lear element is constant). He is contemptuous of his current, addled-brained gang members, except for Coaley, the brutal young pretender to Link’s position. This is a key point: the Tobins are a family, one of the all-male clans of myth, history, and folklore (the Earps, the Clantons). Such clans are male since they need to make war on the feminine, explicit in Coaley making Billie do a striptease (the implication is gang rape), his knife at Link’s throat (the threat of castration), the whole moment authorised by Dock to make Link know he’s still boss, if a bit infirm. Dock is the Primal Father, presiding over sexual activity, tormenting Link. When Link goes to bed with Billie, pretending “she’s mine” to keep Dock away, Dock enters the filthy barn that is the marital bedroom, poking Link with a stick. Link’s eventual murder of Dock avenges his rape of Billie (while the gang raids Lassoo, the outlaws’ final score), but it is mainly the film’s most Oedipal moment. The sexual degradation surrounding the film’s conception of family is most stunningly portrayed in Link’s savage fight with Coaley, Link’s eyes flashing madness, conveying his “old” self, culminating in Link tearing the clothes off of his youthful rival (in revenge for Billie’s forced striptease), something only marginally resisted by the defeated Coaley in the most homoerotically-charged scene of the American Western. Dock observes the scene with relish (“I never seen anything like that in all my life!” he tells Link approvingly, slapping him on the back, assured that his favorite son has indeed returned). Coaley, humiliated (“You can’t make fun of me!”), tries to kill Link, but is shot by Dock, his death, in the film’s many plays on our emotions, perhaps the most wretchedly sad.
The notion of the Tobins as a family (everyone is a “cousin”, typical coding for an incestuous tribe in American popular narrative) adds pathos to the horror, bringing us around to the idea of the complicated norm, that is, the American family as horrific and a sanctuary. Dock is both monster and comforting father. When the gang packs their wagons to go to Lassoo, Dock says that they are “like a bunch of old settlers.” He asks Link about his diet during his years away (“You been eatin’ good? That’s the thing, you eat good!”). Ponch serves Dock his supper. Dock bundles himself against the night air and sits in a rocker by the fire. Claude Tobin (John Dehner), Dock’s second favorite, arrives at the homestead; he is angered by the presence of his elder sibling, less for his being in the area and arousing the suspicion of the Crosscut sheriff than for bitter memories. Claude, in a private moment, reminds Link that Dock cried the day Link left; Claude says, “I love that old man – I look after him”. If Man of the West is King Lear, Claude, a ruthless killer, is its Cordelia.
The notion of lingering family emotions is sustained. Link asks Claude: “Don’t ya talk anymore Claude? We used to talk, you and me.” At the conclusion, as Link is about to execute a wounded Claude, Link murmurs “it could have been so different”. Link’s own affection remains, even if he fumes earlier that he would “like to kill all those Tobins” (which he does, assuring us that the monstrous pupil still abides in Link).
Man of the West is an expansive film, commenting on the central ambitions of the Western, from the nature of the frontiersman to the goals of imperial conquest. Dock is preoccupied with robbing the town of Lassoo, the very mention of which sends the old man into ecstasy (“Like a bell ringin’ in my head… Lasssssooooooo!”). The town is the old man’s El Dorado, the symbol of empire achieved. Lassoo, supposedly the home of the biggest bank in the territory, is, of course, a ghost town, and a very surreal one, the sand-colored buildings blending into the streets, with twisted, impractical fences made of twigs, and an odd little shack in its middle (an outhouse?) propped up by stakes. The town’s only occupants are an impoverished Mexican couple; not surprisingly, the unhinged Trout kills the woman, and is in turn killed by Link. The moment is extraordinarily terrible and sad, as is Link’s awkward apology to the woman’s husband. The native population stands witness to white civilisation’s barbarism, only to be annihilated themselves. Trout’s death, stumbling down the dusty street, screaming as if in need of comfort from the absent father, is yet another of the moments turning Man of the West into a horror film – or melodrama. Link’s killing of Claude again complicates the film, giving it authentic sentiment as Link folds the hands of his once-loved sibling over his chest.
Link’s killing of Dock is perhaps overly staged, its operatics too gaudy, as the growling Dock’s ragged coat blows in the wind, the old man railing at his favored foundling – who has just wiped out the entire Tobin clan. (Perhaps this is the moment when Mann knew he was making Lear.) Link tells Dock “You’ve outlived your time and you’ve outlived your kind!” But Link’s face is fierce, his rage sparked by Dock’s rape and mauling of Billie, not a need to bring an era to a close. Link has affirmed his devotion to wife and children back in Good Hope; Billie acknowledges that there can be no future for them. As their wagon moves off into the desert, the main theme rising on the soundtrack, one realises that the film has adhered to formula (the good guy has vanquished all the bad guys) while simultaneously extinguishing the classical Western’s every assumption about American ideology. Link and Billie have developed a love that will be unrequited – Billie says she will go back to “singing.” Link returns to a family about whom we must now question his devotion, and the entire film leaves unanswered the central question it poses: is the man of the west (Dock or Link or both?) anyone worth our sympathetic interest? Link, after all, is wrong in telling Dock that his time is over. The monstrousness of American civilisation continues, often under the reasonable hand of a Link Jones.
I doubt if any student of film studies can write an essay about Anthony Mann without being influenced by Jim Kitses’ superb book, Horizons West. I have not picked up this book in many years, but I will state outright its importance to me and this essay, one of the very few works of film studies to have impressed me.
Man of the West (1958 USA 100 mins)
Prod Co: Ashton Productions Prod: Walter Mirish Dir: Anthony Mann Scr: Reginald Rose, based on the novel The Border Jumpers by Will C. Brown Phot. Ernest Haller Mus. Leigh Harline Art Dir. Hilyard Brown
Cast: Gary Cooper, Lee J. Cobb, Julie London, John Dehner, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord, Robert Wilke, Royal Dano,