ANTHONY MANN-A PURE CLASSICIST

Mann directed some intelligent minor Thrillers and Film Noir before hitting his stride with a number of the greatest Westerns of the 1950s, the decade which celebrated the adult Western’s coming of age. Mann’s list of films speaks for itself: Devil’s Doorway (1949) was regrettably overshadowed at the time by the greater publicity and reviews given to Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow as a ground-breaking, enlightened attempt to redress the treatment of  the Native American on film. The Mann film actually came first, and presented a more complex and tragic view.  Mann’s career ended in a blaze of glory with epics of mythic grandeur and deep formal beauty (El Cid, the first half of The Fall of the Roman Empire).

 

Beginning with Winchester 73 in 1950, Mann enlisted James Stewart in a  string of intelligent, adult Westerns: Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country,  and The Man from Laramie. My own first encounter with these films was The Far Country (1953) with Stewart on the lam from his enemies in the Yukon. He clambered aboard a paddle steamer and Ruth Roman obligingly pulled him into her bed and cuddled him close while they searched the cabins. Even at the ripe old age of 10, I thought it the sexiest scene I’d ever witnessed. Remember, this was the early 1950s.

 

THE MAN FROM LARAMIE

This ambitious western concerns a corrupt landowning family who finally disintegrate when an outsider, (James Stewart in his best role for Mann), is drawn into its closed world. Mann’s dramatic presentation, partly set in some striking New Mexico locations is, as in most of his middle to late 50s westerns, Shakespearean in its power and intensity. Mann’s widescreen compositions of the 50s are among the best uses of that then fresh format when people were still exploring its possibilities. His New Mexican landscapes create a superbly configured canvas against which the conflicts are played out. King pin land-owner Donald Crisp is the family patriarch, Alec Waggoman (going blind in more than just a physical sense) who is preoccupied with dynastic succession. His natural son (Alex Nicol) is a  vicious psychopath who, early in the film, overturns and brutally burns Stewart’s trading wagons, shoots his mules and has him roped and dragged through the dirt, all in a pitiful  bid to assert his authority in front of his men. In a later incident, he shoots Stewart’s hand at point blank range, as if castrating him (a violent and shockingly potent sequence). Crisp’s foreman and surrogate son (Arthur Kennedy in a fine performance) feigns worthiness but plots to usurp the succession and betray his father-surrogate. Stewart as catalyst and protagonist, fulfils his own quest for justice and revenge with an obsession/pathology bordering on madness. Strong stuff!

 

MAN OF THE WEST

Director Anthony Mann’s compositions for the frame always tended towards classic simplicity and uncluttered spareness, even in epic forms like El Cid. In Man of the West, they are pared back to the bone, mostly to a single claustrophobic interior and a journey through a barren desert landscape into a ghost town (ironically called “Lassoo”). Gary Cooper, in one of his most expressively laconic late performances, plays Link Jones, a former outlaw long gone straight and respectable, who through an unhappy chain of circumstances that bring him, Julie London and Arthur O’Connell together, falls afoul of his old gang, which includes notable heavies Jack Lord, John Dehner and Royal Dano, and is presided over by ranting father/mentor figure Lee J Cobb, in a grandly theatrical role tailor-made for his volcanic outbursts. The most extreme of Mann’s exploration of dysfunctional families and betrayed friendships, Man of the West encompasses sexual and physical humiliation (there are two remarkably nasty parallel scenes involving, respectively, Julie London and Jack Lord, and Gary Cooper and Jack Lord), as well as madness and fratricide. Gary Cooper functions very differently from James Stewart in their respective westerns for Mann: while Stewart’s demons are generally unleashed from within or through a contemplation of his alter ego in another strong protagonist (Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie), Cooper’s are re-imposed from without (the accidental meeting up with his old partners in crime). The film ends in tragedy: Cobb’s death at the hands of his erstwhile “son” Cooper is staged with a grandeur that is consistent with Mann’s proposal to film a western version of King Lear with John Wayne, a project sadly interrupted by Mann’s sudden death. This is one of the great westerns.

 

EL CID  is Hollywood’s most  important epic film by a long margin . Epics were fashionable between 1953 and 1963 which aimed through their spectacle and technology at getting bums back into cinema seats after the damage TV had done to business. Anthony Mann’s 50s westerns with James Stewart were among the mythical, psychological and visual highpoints of that most mythical of genres . All Mann’s virtues as a director of westerns were transferred to this lofty story of medieval Spain . Charlton Heston was probably the only actor of his time with the authority and physical grace to carry with complete conviction and credibility a role of such heroic weight -this is far and away his best screen performance (bigger and better than Ben-Hur). Mann’s imagery resonates through its clean, classical lines and stately compositions (and its precise of colour-predominantly greys , whites, blacks, and browns with outbursts of strong reds). The close up battle scenes are among the greatest ever filmed, and Miklos Rosza’s intelligent score , based on medieval Spanish themes, lends the appropriate gravitas to complement Mann’s visual imagination. Philip Yordan’s necessarily stylised screenplay conveys the film’s thoughtful mix of action and reflection. Sophia Loren is exquisitely lovely as the complex Chimene whom El Cid woos and then loses when he is forced into a duel (of honour) to the death with her father . Their road back is told tenderly, and resolves itself amidst the great epic detail, but only Heston could have carried off the thrilling and uplifting finale where as a corpse strapped to his horse, he stirringly rides into legend-and the glory accorded all mythical heroes .

 

In summation, from his emergence as a key player in shaping the history of the  “golden age” of the Western from 1950 until his death  Anthony Mann is the purest classicist in American cinema exploiting both Greek models and Shakespeare in both visual and dramatic senses-his best films from The Furies to El Cid make my blood race with their cleanness and precision both stylistically and thematically.The James Stewart westerns and Man of the West are among the finest exemplars but the power and visual cleanness of all his work after 1950, even in relatively minor works like The Tin Star and The Last Frontier, leave me gobsmacked.

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