Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Man of the West (1958)


In 1958 this movie was panned by critics for its melodramatic overtones while fans of the director weren’t happy by Mann’s decision to replace his regular collaborator Jimmy Stewart by Gary Cooper. Today many think this is Anthony Mann’s best western.


Gary Cooper is a seemingly respectable citizen who is stranded in the middle of nowhere after a train robbery, along with two other passengers, a cardsharp and a dance hall girl. He takes them to a ramshackle farmhouse, the only shelter he knows for miles and miles around, but the train robbers have taken the same place as their hide-out ... 


We had already noticed that Cooper was secretive about his identity, and now discover why: his real name is Link and he has a shady past as a member of a vicious gang of outlaws. The gang was led by his criminal uncle, a man called Dock Tobin, who told him everything about stealing and killing - the only things he knew as a kid, and the farmhouse was the very place where he grew up. And of course the train robbers who have taken the place as their hide-out, are no other than Dock Tobin and his criminal sons ...


With a subtext of sexual desire, jealousy and rivalry among relatives, we seem to have arrived in a typical Mann universe, but unlike the Mann-Stewart collaborations this is not a tale about a man seeking revenge or redemption. The hero from this movie, has already redeemed himself as a citizen of a town called New Hope: his fellow citizens have trusted him with their money and asked him to go looking for a school teacher. But the focus is not on the hero, but rather on the villain: it’s Cobb’s demented patriarch who’s at the centre of events. Dock Tobin is a person who virtually lives in the past: He thinks Link has returned to join the gang and therefore wants to rob the bank of the prospering town of Lassoo, a plan he had given up long ago, but of course it’s too late, the once prospering town has become a ghost town ...


Cobb was in his mid-forties and eleven years younger than Cooper. Lots of make-up were used to turn Cobb into an old man, but the effect is a little grotesque. I wasn't too fond of Cobb's performance, but Mann uses the contrast between Cobb's theatrical, and Cooper's more restrained acting style to great effect. The movie also has a very good supporting cast, including John Dehner, Jack Lord (as Cooper’s haywire cousin) and Julie London (as the dance hall girl). Lord and London are  involved in the movie’s best remembered (and most intense) scene, with Lord holding a knife to Cooper’s throat and ordering Billie to take off her clothes. Because Cooper is the only one who can protect her, London has no choice but to give in.


Mann of the West is the director's darkest vision on the West: a fistfight between Cooper and Lord is unusually gruesome and people who are hit by bullets don’t just die, but slowly bleed to death, suffering terribly pains. It’s also Mann’s darkest vision on the human condition: None of the characters will ever have what he or she wanted: Link was the son Dock Tobin never had, even if he raised him; his own sons stayed with him, not because they loved him, but because they were afraid to leave him. Even Billie, the dance hall girl who is coveted by all, is a lonely person: she feels attracted to Link, the first man who respects her as a woman, but she knows that Link is not able to return her affection because he is a respectable man and he has told her that he’s the father of two children.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ out of 5

1958 - Director: Anthony Mann - Cast: Gary Cooper (Link), Julie London (Billie Ellis), Lee J. Cobb (Dock Tobin), Jack Lord (Coaley), Arthur O'Connell (Sam), John Dehner (Claude) - Screenplay: Reginald Rose (based on the novel The Border Jumpers by Will C. Brown) 


  1. I'm brilliantly unqualified to say if this is Mann's best Western or not. And I really had to look up the trailer to recall this one. I gotta say they don't show it on TV much so I'd have go looking for it. But if I had to pick any Mann Western I'd go for 'The Man from Laramie'.
    But you sorta can't lose with either Coop or Stewart.

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