Thursday, June 14, 2007

Man of the West (1958)

Directed by: Anthony Mann
Written by: Reginald Rose
Starring: Gary Cooper, Lee J. Cobb, Julie London

Color, 100 minutes

Grade: C+

Tony, baby, where did our love go? You burned me, friend, burned me bad this time around. I watched all five of the westerns you made with Jimmy Stewart, and I was in love. I was singing your praises to everyone, hell I even denounced Kirk Douglas for replacing you with Kubrick on Spartacus, and I love Kubrick. It was a bold stance on my part, but, you know, I didn't mind, because I believed in you. What went wrong here, pal? You got Gary Cooper, he's cool, I like him, he was Mr. Deeds, he was Will Kane, you know? You're working in CinemaScope, which is perfect for your vistas and landscapes and all that good stuff. Forgive my anger, but I just feel a little betrayed. I mean, Godard named this the best film of '58. The best film in a year that included Touch of Evil and Vertigo!! On top of that, he compared your work to Henri Matisse, which, you know, I'm not going to pick a fight with Godard or anything, but, come on, that's quite a leap. Maybe my expectations were too high, maybe it's a fault on my end, but I'm pissed regardless.

The problem, first of all, is there's no thrust to your story. Link Jones (Cooper) is a man with a violent past who has reformed his ways, and is now taking a train to find a teacher for the new school his town is building. There, he runs into a con-man named Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell) and singer/worldly woman Billie Ellis (Julie London), who just happen to take a liking to him. When the train is ambushed, the three of them have to high tail it cross country, and end up coming to the only house around for miles. And who happens to live there? None other than Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), Jones' uncle and former partner in crime, and his flunkies. Don't tell me. They're not going to try and coerce Jones into helping them rob another bank or something like that, are they? Yep, they sure. But first, of course, they have to light a fire under Jones' ass by shooting Beasley, and forcing Billie to strip. Now, you think Jones would go off the deep end, but what does he do? He takes it easy, and continues to play it cool. That is, of course, until we get to the bank and all hell breaks loose resulting in Billie's rape and a pile of dead bodies.

Now, your other westerns were never exactly plot heavy, but they had great performances. This shit here is all over the place. Cooper is one of the most boring heroes that I've ever seen. He mumbles too much, he plods around, and he doesn't seem like any sort of hardened criminal. We know he used to be a badass because everybody keeps reminding us, but we don't ever see it in his eyes. Stewart had the intensity for this kind of a role. He could let it all register on his face, but Cooper's not that good. He needs more to go on, and you don't give it to him, Tony. Maybe you were pissed because Stewart bailed on you, but you could have tried a little harder here. As bad as Cooper is, Cobb takes the cake. First of all, he's about ten years younger than Cooper is, and it's noticeable. There's not a chance in hell that he could pass for Cooper's uncle. I could overlook this, and maybe even forget it, if Cobb's performance was strong enough, but it's not. He chews up every piece of scenery that he comes in contact with, yelling in unintelligible tongues that make his dialogue indecipherable. This is a good actor's worst performance. For shame. London and O'Connell are minor annoyances, but minor enough to drag the film down that much further.

Now, I will throw you a bone here and there. Your eye has always been phenomenal, and you make the most of the dark interiors of the cabin and the wide open ghost town at the end. You've always been known for the way your landscapes reflect the psychological makeup of your characters, it's just too bad that your cast here doesn't have the ability to accurately display said emotions. I've never doubted your talent as a stylist, and the film was worth viewing for this reason alone. Unfortunately, you can't dig your way of this mess enough for me to enjoy it.

I don't get this screenplay. Is it supposed to be existential or reflective or something like that. I guess it could be, if one were to cut it a lot of slack. The symbolism is too much, though, even for a western. Link could be a cool name, but not when it stands for something. It's like Neo, I wouldn't necessarily name my kid that or anything, but it sounds cool, it's when you give it some kind of deeper subtext that you ruin it. What is it, a "link" between the old west and the new days of trains and high tech machinery, a "link" between the old violent ways when everybody carried a revolver and the new, more peaceful times? I admit, it's fairly clever, but it gets old. Blame it Zelda if you want to, but I think I have a strong case here.

Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on you. After all, you have provided me with some of the best westerns that I've ever seen, and some of the best work in Jimmy Stewart's career. We've had a long relationship, and I guess now that I think about it, this is first real spat. You're really not a bad guy, you certainly better than most of your contemporaries, and I do think you deserve more credit. Maybe when this film finally gets a DVD release I'll consider watching it again, with subtitle so I can tell what the hell's being said. Now that I've gotten it out of my system, let's just never mention it again. I'm angry, to be sure, but I'll cool off, and until then, Tony, I'll let Smokey's words sum up how I'm feeling at the moment: "I don't like you, but I love you."


H. Stewart said...

Sounds like a surprising disappointment, though I too have been let down by Anthony Mann--The Tin Star has Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins (a criminally underrated actor) and yet it's just weak, though it didn't inspire the ire that Man of the West has inspired in you! I also could imagine it being a lot worse had Mann not been at the helm; sometimes, perhaps, his contributions are hard to spot.

Gary Cooper is kind of boring, and he's best when a director plays off of that (like in Mr. Deeds...); I'm surprised about Cobb, though, he's usually On the Waterfront, but I could see him going overboard (like Rod Steiger, he's a hair away from ham) and I could imagine the acting styles not meshing and resulting in a mess. Does Julie London sing? She's got a great voice; have you ever seen The Girl Can't Help It? She's got a wearingly funny scene in it...and it's a fantastic film otherwise!

Clayton L. White said...

London doesn't sing, but after seeing this I don't think I'll rush to see anything else that she's done. I like Cobb a lot, and I was surprised how bad his performance was, Cooper too for that matter.

In the little moments that the film does succeed, you can tell that it's all Mann. He just knows what to do with a camera.

H. Stewart said...

Well, don't let Julie London turn you off from The Girl Can't Help It, it's only a cameo.

Clayton L. White said...

Fair enough.