Archive for James Stewart

“You’ve Outlived Your Time”: Man of the West

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 3, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-12-01-16h54m37s244

Guest Shadowplayer Imogen Smith (a regular contributor to The Chiseler) on a late Gary Cooper movie which is also Anthony Mann’s last western ~

Elegy was always at the heart of the western, a genre born to celebrate a world already vanishing. In the late 1950s and ‘60s, this nostalgic mood was heightened both by the aging of Hollywood’s great western stars and by the radical, out-with-the-old changes that were reshaping architecture, technology, and pop culture. Movies like El Dorado (1966) and Ride the High Country (1962) draw attention to their heroes’ age, their gray hair, failing eyesight and creaking joints, but show them effortlessly outclassing callow, cocky youngsters—a put-down aimed at America’s exploding youth culture.

A far darker view of age, the burden of the past, and the west’s unbreakable cycle of violence appears in Anthony Mann’s harsh masterpiece Man of the West (1958). This was the third western in which Mann mined his obsession with King Lear (he contemplated but never produced a fourth, to be called The King). While Mann never made an outright adaptation of the Shakespeare play, he drew on its central figure, an all-powerful ruler beset by physical weakness and emotional blindness, and on the theme of greed, jealousy and infighting swirling around the declining monarch. In The Furies (1950) and The Man from Laramie (1955), the Lear figures are cattle barons who have usurped huge territories over which their children fight for control. In Man of the West the decaying monument is instead the leader of a gang of bandits. While the plot elements of Mann’s last western owe less to Lear than those of the two earlier films, Man of the West captures best the overwhelming flavor of waste and ruin, of senseless destruction (Kurosawa rightly titled his Lear film Ran, “chaos”), and of irrevocable loss that suffuse the play. Mann’s vision holds true to some of the play’s most famous and most devastating lines: “I am bound upon a wheel of fire,” and, “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

vlcsnap-2013-12-01-16h54m07s224

This mood would be diminished if a younger actor played the lead role. At 57, Gary Cooper was probably at least twenty years older than his character, Link Jones, is meant to be—for that matter, he was ten years older than Lee J. Cobb, who plays his foster father. Cooper already knew he had the cancer that would kill him three years later, and his gaunt, pain-wracked dignity gives moving depth to his portrayal of a reformed outlaw forced to relive the past he sought to escape. Cooper’s lambent beauty was already strangely expressive of some ingrown hurt in the silent western The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), and here his drawn, haggard face expresses just the right mute suffering. The part might have gone to James Stewart if he hadn’t had a falling out with Mann, but Cooper’s much more reticent presence, with none of Stewart’s effusiveness, suits the film’s austerity.

The opening scene contains the movie’s only light moments, as Link Jones boards a train for the first time in his life, on a mission to hire a schoolteacher for the newborn town of Good Hope. The bashful, taciturn Link is comically disconcerted by the jolting of the rails and the problem of how to fold his long legs into the cramped seats. But this innocent opening is soon shattered when the train is held up by bandits, and Link loses the money that was entrusted to him for the schoolmarm and finds himself stranded in the high plains, far from any town, with a saloon singer named Billie (Julie London) and an amiable, nervous, crooked gambler named Beasley (Arthur O’Connell).

He leads them to the only shelter he can find: a little grey farmhouse set in a valley of lush green grass. Lonely and sinister, it is also a haunting vision of long-lost Home. It’s the hideout of the gang who robbed the train, and Link knows this because he used to be one of them, before his conversion into a peace-loving family man. Inside, it’s dark and grimy like a cave, and there is a kind of primal horror laced with desire as Link re-enters it. In order to protect his companions, he pretends that he has come back to rejoin the gang, and claims that Billie is “his woman.” His dilemma is stark: if he kills the outlaws, he will sink to their level and return to the former self he wants to shed, but the vicious gang-members understand nothing except violence and the authority of their leader, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb).

Dock is crafty, and perhaps crazy; a blustery, infirm but still dangerous force of pure criminal mania. He raised Link, taught him to rob and kill, and still regards him as his favorite son. The past the film evokes for Link is of unspecified and unspeakable depravity. Dock Tobin and his boys revel in animalistic cruelty, yet they share a deep familial intimacy too, the fierce loyalty of outcasts who have no one else. (The screenplay, with its focus on group dynamics, honor, and the effects of violence, was by Reginald Rose, author of Crime in the Streets and Twelve Angry Men.)

vlcsnap-2013-12-01-16h52m46s162

Scenes of torture and bizarre methods of murder are a trademark of Anthony Mann’s movies, but nothing he filmed is more upsetting than the scene in which one of Dock’s gang, a bestial young punk named Coaley (Jack Lord), forces Billie to strip for the men, holding a knife to Link’s throat that draws a smear of blood on his Adam’s apple as he witnesses the violation he’s helpless to prevent. Billie undresses in a numb, out-of-body trance; Coaley and the mute, half-witted Trout (Royal Dano) watch lustfully; and Dock Tobin sits, feigning aloofness but really controlling the whole scene, demonstrating his power both by allowing Link to be humiliated, and by stopping the exhibition before it goes too far.

Dock has never gotten over Link’s abandonment, and desperately wants to believe that his son has returned, even as he instinctively distrusts him. Link’s cousin Claude knows the prodigal-son act is a sham, and hates him for cheating the old man to whom he himself has remained blindly devoted. Claude is the man Link might have been. Unlike the crude young gang-members he’s strong, disciplined and quietly deadly; he’s sincere in his love for Dock, but he has the mindless amorality of a good soldier. Link grew up and learned to think for himself, while the others have rotted on the vine, and he fears being pulled back into his former life by his anger and hatred. He gets into a savage brawl with Coaley and avenges Billie’s honor by tearing her tormentor’s clothes off, leaving him so humiliated that he sobs with childish rage in his shabby long-johns.

vlcsnap-2013-12-01-16h52m28s211

The film’s denouement is set appropriately in a ghost town, a dusty little strip of derelict houses in the desert. The gang has come there to rob a bank, not realizing it long ago closed when the mining town went bust, an irony that drives home Link’s final condemnation of Dock: “You’ve outlived your time.” The expedition devolves into a spree of pointless, wasteful violence, which ends with Link wiping out the whole gang, though not before they’ve unleashed cruelty and death on defenseless women. Another film could have presented this as a happy ending, but here there is no sense of purgation or new beginnings. Link has finally erased his past, but reaffirmed his identity as a killer, and lost any peace he achieved in the town of Good Hope. Billie must lose him as he returns to his family, leaving her loneliness and yearning for love unappeased. Mann’s best films all end this way; his heroes seem hollowed-out by their experiences, having been pushed to an extremity from which they can never make their way back.

vlcsnap-2013-12-01-16h53m59s137

Man of the West is a grand, classical western, yet it also feels like the last western: by the end the elements of the genre have been so thoroughly stripped, spoiled and exhausted that it’s hard to imagine how they could be revived. Even the straightforward title becomes a troubling question: who is the “man of the west”? Is he the man who must destroy his past and wipe out his origins in order to move into the future? Or is he the man who has outlived his time, a decrepit remnant of a vanished world? One thing is certain: “we that are young shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

Imogen Smith

UK DVD: Man Of The West [DVD]
US DVD: Man of the West
Buster Keaton: The Persistence of Comedy
In Lonely Places: Film Noir Beyond the City

Here’s Howe

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , on February 11, 2013 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-17h46m20s5

William Powell accompanies Rob Loy, The Highland Rogue.

Fiona asked if I could recommend a good book and I thrust Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest at her. She plodded through it, not quite convinced — “I’m mainly enjoying his descriptions of different shapes of mens’ heads,” — but then expressed greater interest in The Thin Man, which she consumed with the same alacrity Nick and Nora devote to booze. So then she wanted to watch the film. Weirdly, I always seem to be watching the second film in MGM’s series, AFTER THE THIN MAN, the one with Jimmy Stewart in, and never any of the others. I’m not sure I’d seen any of them all the way through. So now we’re doing the whole set.

Note: easy to forget that the first two films are set and Christmas and New Year respectively, and follow straight on, one from one the other. Recommended light seasonal viewing if you want to avoid sentiment and saccharine.

MGM had a habit of starting movies too early in the plot, it seems to me, but there are, I suppose, solid reasons for doing so with Hammett’s book. A good deal of set-up is needed, backloaded in the novel by having characters talking about what happened before Nick the Greek came on the scene. The movie introduces us to this business firsthand, which is good for audience comprehension but very bad for interest — waiting for Nick and Nora is like waiting for Groucho, and the movie only starts once they appear.

The pleasures of William Powell and Myrna Loy’s interplay are well-attested. Powell in particular seizes any chance for a bit of interaction, and works his eyebrows like a slavemaster in his dealings with the supporting cast. Rather than Hammett’s somewhat hardboiled fellow who can drain oceans of liquor without visible effect, Powell relishes the chance to play drunk scenes. Loy isn’t that kind of show-off, so she comes across as the more efficient alcoholic, although Nora does get a hangover, something Nick somehow avoids.

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-17h42m01s237

Cedric Gibbons and his team conjure gorgeous art deco interiors, not the world I picture in reading Hammett but very much a movie world I love to hang out in. (I’m an invisible spectre when I hang out in these movies, so the fact that I’m not in my tuxedo isn’t a problem.) Better yet, the first film is shot by the great James Wong Howe — it has wonderful compositions of people and rooms, and a certain added distance imparts a trace of bleakness. The lighting is source lighting in a noir vein, but since the rooms tend to be creamy white, the shadows get bleached out and the whole thing resembles a faintly sinister Heaven.

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-17h44m55s207

Porter Hall’s glassy stare here clinches the odd mood.

As late as the second sequel, screenwriters Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett are still recycling the odd bit of leftover dialogue from Hammett’s original book, but the visual interest largely departs with Howe, although Dolly Tree keeps her end up with the splendid gowns. Van Dyke gets pretty sloppy, teleporting his cast about via the miracle of bad continuity, and the whole series is an odd mixture of “A” picture production values (with casts bristling with familiar faces) and “B” level ambitions, which I guess set in with any movie series. But throughout, the stars create perhaps the most enviable marriage in screen history.

I just wish the movies all looked like this –

vlcsnap-2013-02-10-17h43m23s12– perfect little pale boxes of people!

Composography, again

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 28, 2011 by dcairns

So, perhaps foolishly, I thought it would be fun to cut out Jimmy Stewart’s Floating Head of Death from the dream sequence in VERTIGO and insert it into a frame from the tunnels of light sequence in 2001. As you can see, I’ve lovingly preserved the bit of neck sticking out of Jimmy’s invisible polo-neck, and his weird billowing hair-tuft. Why? Well, why any of it?

Somehow dissatisfied with my strange efforts, I then cut out Eugene Pallette’s Floating Head of Death from the zany climax of Busby Berkeley’s THE GANG’S ALL HERE (badly) and stuck that into the dream sequence from VERTIGO. Well, it makes as much sense as anything else around here.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 362 other followers