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.”
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.)
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.
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.
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.”