The Far Country (1954) Anthony Mann

James Stewart’s dark side is on full display in this upper north western. As usual with an Anthony Mann western the landscape plays an important part, the Canadian Rockies are majestic, though here the landscape is a combination of the natural beauty and artificial backlots whereas Mann’s other westerns were filmed entirely on location. This gives “The Far Country” a more ethereal tone that fits in with Stewart’s character, Jeff Webster, a man who isolates himself from all others in the film except for Ben Tatum, Walter Brennan’s old timer, whose death will trigger him into action.

Stewart’s Jeff Webster is a loner by choice, anti-social, he lives by his own code and depends on no one. “I don’t need help, I take care of me,” he tells Ben, the only person in the film he lets in anyway get close to him. They have been good friends for many years and Ben is very fond of Jeff. Yet, like the Canadian landscape, where much of the film takes place, Stewart remains cold and isolated from everyone else. Continue reading

The Tall Target (1951) Anthony Mann

“The Tall Target” takes place almost one hundred percent of the time on a train. Anthony Mann has created an enclosed, claustrophobic, moody thriller set just days before the inauguration of President Abraham Lincoln. It’s difficult enough to make a great thriller but when your audience already knows your target is going to survive, well it just makes it all the much more or a challenge. Mann, I am happy to say was up to the task.

Dick Powell, who by 1951 had already made the transition from song and dance man to the dark lit streets of hardboiled film noir, is New York City policeman, John Kennedy. Kennedy has discovered a plot to assassinate the newly elected President. His superiors in the department do not take his findings  seriously; Kennedy soon resigns in disgust. He arranges to be on board the night train heading to Washington D.C. in an attempt to intercept the inaugural train in Baltimore and expose the plot.

On the train, Kennedy’s world is one of paranoia, darkness and confrontation from forces wanting to prevent his interference. His attempts to investigate and expose the assassination plot are continually met with suspicion and disbelief. Multiple efforts are made on his life. Friends and strangers alike become enemies. No one can be trusted. Every passenger on the train seems to be in a very tense state. A mixture of Yankees and Rebs, both sides are outspoken about their views on the new President and with each other making for quite few potential suspects. Continue reading

The Man From Laramie (1955) Anthony Mann

This review contains spoilers

The 1950′s is arguably the finest decade for western films with not only the work of Anthony Mann, but fine work from John Ford (The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, Rio Grande) , Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo) , Fred  Zinnemann (High Noon)  and Delmar Daves  (3:10 to Yuma, Broken Arrow, Cowboy) among some lesser known works. “The Man from Laramie” was the final collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart and the first in Cinemascope culminating a brilliant artistic partnership with one the finest westerns of all time.

James Stewart gives another mesmeric performance as Will Lockhart, one more in the line of Mann obsessed cowboys on a revenge seeking mission. Here Stewart’s character is looking for the man responsible for his brother’s death, a soldier in the Calvary whose unit was wiped out by repeating rifle toting Apaches purchased from white men. Three men become Lockhart’s prime suspects, land baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), his hot headed insecure son Dave (Alex Nicol) and the head ranch foreman Vic (Arthur Kennedy).

Like past Mann/Stewart characters Will Lockhart is not your typical machismo cowboy, he’s unsure and remains vulnerable at times, similar to lead characters in “Winchester ’73″ and “The Naked Spur.” Mann’s other male characters in this film display signs of stunted masculinity. Papa Alec overly protective of his uncontrollable son Dave (who reminds me of the John Cassavetes role in the 1958 film “Saddle the Wind”) struggling to meet the stature of his father, acting more like a spoiled child who cannot get his way than an adult, and then there is Vic the foreman who has been like the son Alec never had. Vic will come to realize that no matter what Alec has promised him he will get when he dies; Dave is his blood and will get everything. A sense of tragedy hangs over Alec who was once the most ruthless and powerful man is now forced to face his own vulnerability, he is going blind and with it goes his strength.

Unlike other Mann westerns I have written about so far this film has two female characters instead of one. First there is Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), Alec’s niece who runs the General Store. Barbara has no love for her callous Uncle Alec as she watched him cheat his brother, and her now dead father, out of his share of land. Like other Mann heroines she is in love, at least in the beginning, with the “bad” guy in the story, in this case Vic. The other main female, and the more important role, is Kate Canady (Aline McMahon), the only rancher not afraid to stand up to the Waggoman’s greed, though she does shares a secret with Lockhart, that she has been in love with old Alec for years. With his oncoming blindness and sense of helplessness she will finally get her man.

“The Man from Laramie” struck me as one of the more sadistic westerns I have come across, two scenes in particular stand out, first during Lockhart’s first altercation with the Waggoman empire when he and his men are surrounded by Dave and some ranch hands for “stealing” salt from the Waggonman’s flats. Lockhart was told by Barbara Waggoman he could take the salt claiming nobody cared. Lockhart discovers otherwise when he quickly finds a rope around his waist and is dragged across the flats. Dave then orders Lockhart’s wagons burned and his mules shot. The second scene is even more unsettling. After being wounded with a gunshot in his hand in an earlier shootout with Lockhart, Dave gets his revenge when his boys capture Will. They hold Lockhart down and with Mann’s camera up close in Lockhart’s face Dave puts a bullet in Lockhart’s shooting hand. While you do not see the gun shot on screen, the scene is so powerful you wince more than once feeling the pain.

Another interesting aspect of this film are the dreams land Baron Alec Waggoman suffers. He wants Lockhart out of town and is even willing to pay to get him out. We find out the this is due to a fear from  a continuous dream Alec has experienced two or three times a week for a long time where a tall, lean stranger is going to come to town and kill his boy. The old man wants Lockhart out. In the end the old man’s dream is deadly to his son as anticipated but only partially correct.

The film is based on a short story by Thomas T. Flynn that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post with a screenplay by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt. One problem I had with the film is the lack of motive given to the son Dave for selling rifles to the Indians. It does not do him or his family any good, in fact it is probably was a dangerous move since the Apaches it is assumed would use the weapons against them. One other minor thing is that the film’s title is a misnomer. While he came from Laramie with goods that he initially was delivering in the wagons, Lockhart states later in a conversation with Barbara Waggoman that he has no home and is basically a drifter.  

*****

Devil’s Doorway (1950) Anthony Mann

 

This article may contain Spoilers

From his very first western Anthony Mann gave us complex adult narratives. Mann’s characters are too complicated to be just good or bad, like real people there are all shades of gray in between.  Released the same year as Delmar Daves “Broken Arrow”, “Devil’s Doorway” tells us a story or proud people who through laws, white man’s laws lose their land, their dignity and ultimately their lives.    

Lance Poole (Robert Taylor), a Shoshone Indian returns home from serving in the Union Army during the Civil War where he rose to the rank of  a Sergeant Major and more importantly, a Congressional Medal of Honor recipient. He comes home believing the world has changed and that and he and his fellow Indians will be treated fairly no longer subject to prejudice. Five years later Lance has built a big cattle ranch in a water abundant area and has become a rich man which we soon find out some local white folks resent.  With the new Homestead Act coming into force, under the law an Indian is not considered an American citizen but rather a ward of the federal government, subsequently as a non-citizen Lance is not entitled to file a claim on the land that is his own. He will lose everything. Lance seeks the help of a female lawyer (Paula Raymond) but each of their attempts to secure his land or keep the peace between incoming sheepherders and the Indians is instigated by Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern), a shyster lawyer with big aspirations in his head and racism in his heart. It all leads to a climactic battle where there are no winners.

Along with “Broken Arrow”, “Devil’s Doorway” was a major change in how Native-Americans were portrayed on the screen. Instead of the stereotypical savage whooping it up, Mann and his screenwriters, portray  Lance Poole as a three dimensional character with dignity and pride. As with most of Mann’s characters Lance is a complicated individual, a good man who wants justice but can be unjust at the same time, for example when he is not willing to share the land with the sheepherders becoming almost as responsible as the others for the forthcoming  violence.

Like most of Mann’s westerns this is a dark film, one in particular that retains the  film noir characteristics of his earlier works. The DP was John Alton who worked with Mann on many of his earlier atmospheric film noirs in the 1940′s (Border Incident, Raw Deal, T-Men). Alton’s camera and lighting are evident in many scenes including a harshly lit barroom brawl between Lance and one of lawyer Verne Coolan’s thugs.  This scene is filled with tight close-ups, dramatically effective lighting, including lightning and thunder, all contributing to the noirish quality. Also note the exquisite black and white landscape photography shot on location in Colorado. This is one of the most beautifully photographed westerns made, visually stunning reminding me of Ansel Adams photographs. Sadly, this would be the last collaboration between these two men.

One of the stumbling blocks in the film is the need to get over Robert Taylor portraying an Indian. His facial structure just looks different from the other Indian characters in the film (some actors were actually Native-Americans) whereas Taylor just seems to have an overly sunburned face. That said, he handles the role admirably for an actor I have always considered limited in his abilities.

Like the female lawyer who attempts to help Lance keep his land, both are outsiders, he an Indian and she a female in a man’s profession out west trying to hide her identity by hanging a sign that reads A. Masters. Lance exposes his own prejudice when he first enters her office and realizes she is a woman. He practically runs out, then suddenly stops and returns, a telling moment. Masters on the other hand is concerned on how handling an Indian’s case will affect her already shaky standing in the community. They slowly come to “trust” each other. When she helps fill out the form so Lance can file a claim she discovers he fought in three major battles during the war and received the Congressional Medal of Honor. Little do both realize at the time his biggest battle was still to come.

Mann is also more daring in attempting to reflect a sexual attraction between the two outsiders. When Lance wants to know how much she really trusts and likes him, he puts his arms around her and pulls her close daring her to kiss him. The desire is there but she holds back from going “all the way.” The sexual frustration is evident on her face.  After the final battle is lost, a badly wounded Lance surrenders to the soldiers, he gives up wearing his Army uniform with the Medal of Honor on his chest. He receives a salute from the Captain. He salutes back and falls forward dead.  

Though the treatment of Native-American’s was dealt with more respect in “Broken Arrow” than earlier films it remained a traditional western and became a major hit. The James Stewart character is himself attracted to the Indian Squaw (played by Debra Paget) this certainly would reflect a more acceptable romance for the masses than a white woman’s attraction to a male Indian as portrayed in Mann’s more risky film. “Devil’s Doorway” was released later in the year, a less traditional film it died a quick box office death.

****1/2

Winchester ’73 (1950) Anthony Mann

This review contains Spoilers!

Was it his personal war experiences that changed James Stewart? Did he come back a changed man, most men do.  Many of Stewart’s post World War II roles began to take on a darker side with haunted ambiguous characters motivated by revenge or other desires. Maybe a steady diet of Frank Capra’s Capra-corn did not have enough substance anymore, after all life was not that simple (Stewart’s darker side was touched upon slightly in “It’s a Wonderful Life” but he is soon back to his sweet genteel self).  “Winchester ’73″ was the first Mann/Stewart collaboration, a joint effort that would produce some of the most mature westerns ever made.

Fritz Lang was originally on board to make this film however soon bowed out. After a screening of “Devil’s Doorway” Mann’s first western with Robert Taylor, Stewart agreed to work with Mann.   The Winchester of the title was a special, “one of a thousand” type made in 1873. President Grant owned one so did Buffalo Bill and now Lin McAdams (Stewart) wins one in a 4th of July celebration shoot out exhibition in Dodge City. His closest competitor is Dutch Henry Brown (Stephen McNally), his brother who shot their father in the back, though we do not find this out until toward the end of the film. For most of the story we never understand why Lin is so determined in going after Dutch.

The rifle itself gets passed around throughout the film becoming almost a character, or a link, in the film as it moves on from Lin, who won it in the shooting contest, to Dutch who steals it in a fight with Lin, to  an Indian gun runner, to an Indian Chief (Rock Hudson) to the cowardly fiancé (Charles Drake) of Lola (Shelley Winters) the only female in the cast, to gunfighter Waco Johnny Dean (Dan Duryea) then back to Dutch and finally back to Lin.

Just about every male character in the film drools over the perfect piece of equipment, an obvious symbol of virile masculinity. The men who possess it show it off and the men who want it are envious. Guns in general are seen as phallic symbols. Later on, as they successfully defend against an attack by Indians Lola returns to Lin a pistol he gave her to defend herself during the attack  with the understanding that the last bullet she should use on herself rather than fall into the hands of the Indians. Returning the gun and the bullet Lin suggest she may want to  keep the bullet. Without hesitation she says “I want it!” leaving no  uncertainty in her tone and look that she is talking more about sex and a life with Lin than just an old bullet. 

Though the story is fiction, original screenwriter Robert L. Richards, later Mann brought in Borden Chase to do a rewrite in the first of their collaborative efforts, surrounds the story in real western mythology; Dodge City where an elderly though respected Wyatt Earp (Will Geer), Doc Holiday and company run a tight ship allowing no one to carry guns while in town. The Civil War has recently ended and General George Armstrong Custer was most recently overrun at Little Big Horn all of this invoking a strong sense of time and place in history.

This was the only western collaboration of Mann and Stewart filmed in black and white which may account for some of the noirish lighting in a few scenes, particularly in the fight between the two brothers in the hotel room where Dutch and his boys take the Winchester from Lin and beat it out of town.

As with “The Naked Spur” the theme of revenge is significant in this film as it motivates Lin in going after his brother. Family or the sense of family is also important here, the two brothers whose family was destroyed by the actions of one. Also between the prostitute Lola who is thrown out of town by Wyatt Earp, and the cowardly Steve. Both are outcasts who attempt to have a life together. Finally, and most prominently in Dodge City where an older Wyatt Earp is the friendly but strong willed patriarch (no guns allowed in town) who oversees the family friendly 4th of July celebration where the shooting contest is held with the winner getting the Winchester ’73.

This western is far from the type generally made at the time, more psychological, character driven with a conflicted dark hero. An excellent example occurs early in the film in Dodge City, after Lin surrenders his gun to Wyatt Earp, he enters a bar and finds his nemeses and brother at a card table. The reaction of both brothers to seeing each other is to crouch down and draw their guns. Thanks to Earp neither man has a weapon and a shooting is adverted but it is a disturbing scene as we watch the “hero” react in a way no better than the villain. Still, there is plenty of the standard action audiences would expect, Indian attack on the Calvary, cheating at cards, gunfights, Indian gun trader, a planned bank robbery and a woman in distress.

With this film Anthony Mann found his own John Wayne in James Stewart. Stewart collaborated with other directors (Hitchcock and Capra notably) but in Mann he found his alternate mantra that of an ambiguous hero verging on obsessed, unhinged, psychologically driven behavior.  Ford’s heroes were generally more straight forward white hat types though late in his career Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers” and to a lesser extent Tom Doniphon in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” are certainly characters who struggle with life’s complexities and Edwards specifically is a man driven by traits that are both good and bad.

Stephen McNally as Lin’s evil brother is convincingly evil and just about as driven as his sibling. Noir favorite Dan Duryea also is adept at playing a malicious outlaw who hooks up with McNally for a bank robbery.   Look for newcomers Rock Hudson as the Indian chief who for a while is in possession of the Winchester and another unknown actor at the time , one Anthony “Tony” Curtis who has a small role as a Calvary solider prominently seen during the Indian raid scenes. James Best also has a small role.    

*****

The Naked Spur (1953) Anthony Mann

Anthony Mann’s “The Naked Spur” is a dark western that ranks up there with Ford’s “The Searchers”, Hawks “Rio Bravo” and Zimmemann’s “High Noon”, an exquisite study of character relationships, cynicism, betrayal and redemption with the added scenic beauty of a master painting.

The plot is simple, Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a bounty hunter running from his past is hell bent on bringing outlaw Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) in for reward money. Unwillingly he accepts the help of two men he meets along the way, an old out of luck prospector, Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and a dishonorably discharged unbalanced soldier, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker). When they catch Vandergroat, he has with him the pretty Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), the young daughter of a pal who professes her love for him.  On the long road back Vandergroat makes multiple efforts to divide up the loyalty of the three men splitting them apart and turning them against each other, hopefully long enough so he can escape.

It is Robert Ryan’s twisted outlaw Ben Vandergroat who drives the film and Stewart’s Howie that reacts. Vandergroat’s divide and conquer policy is relentless, the men switching loyalties, shifting sides. He entices the old man Tate telling him how splitting the reward money two ways is better than three. Vandergroat continually attempts to pit the men against each other and displays an almost superior arrogance at  times, for example when he smugly instructs the lone female character to “do me Lina.” While it is meant to rub his shoulder, it comes across as a more overtly sexual demand especially considering the salivating Roy Anderson is standing by watching.  Mann’s westerns are dark conflicted works with characters whose seem to be at a crossroad in their life.

Stewart’s Howard Kemp is an unhinged anti-hero determined to get the $,5000 bounty money on Vandergroat’s head so he can buy back the ranch his fiancée sold from behind his back. Still he cannot do it without the help of his two untrustworthy partners. Early in the film his attempt to scale a rocky mountain where Vandergroat is held up fails, burning his hands as he falls. He succeeds in capturing Vandergroat only with the assistance of the unstable but younger Anderson.

There is very little typical western action in the film except for an Indian attack early on in the film, yet Mann and screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom (who received an Oscar nomination) continuously keep the tension high through the characters interaction filled with mistrust and the constant threat for violence.  At one point Vandergroat get hold of a gun and Howard almost out of control faces him down telling him to come on and draw, knowing he can outshoot him. Vandergroat knows it too and does not take the bait, telling the enraged Howard he is going to have to shoot him in cold blood if he wants him dead.  Anderson yells out to kill him saying they’ll get the reward dead or alive.  The old prospector stops the mad chaos before a shot is fired.

All the men come to a violent end except for Howard. Greed does in the old prospector when he falls for Vandergroat’s story about sharing in a non-existent goldmine and is shot dead once he unties the outlaw’s hands. Anderson drowns trying to recover Vandergroat’s body in the wild river and the outlaw is deceived by Lina after she has come to grips that he is a murderer and gives Howard an assist in their final confrontation.

In the end Stewart redeems himself coming to grips with his demons after retrieving Vandergroat’s body from the river (dragging it like a beached whale); he breaks down realizing that the bitterness that has engulfed him has made him less of a person. We are left to assume he and Lina go off to California and start a new life together.

Mann magnificently uses the camera to isolate the partners depending on who is on whose side at the time. He also positions his camera in various scenes that guarantee you are certainly seeing the actors in the fight scenes and not stunt doubles. As with the black and white beauty of his film noirs this color production is beautifully scenic (mostly filmed in the Colorado Rockies), one of the most visually stunning westerns this side of John Ford. But the landscape is more than just scenic it becomes another character in the film. Mann’s west is a country of streams, mountains and wide open land. It is the landscape that determines the final destiny of Vandergroat and Anderson.

I love seeing James Stewart portraying such a multi dimensional character. Too often we think of Stewart as the guy next door yet later in his career he took on roles that challenged this perception with films like Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” and especially in the films he made with Mann. Check out this overview of Stewart’s career that was written by R.D. Finch over at The Movie Projector blog, he spells it all out for you a lot better than I can. Also check out at Wonders in the Dark Sam Juliano’s  wrap of the recent Anthony Mann festival at the Film Forum in New York.

*****