Friday, July 17, 2009

The Far Country

"The Far Country" (Anthony Mann, 1954) During the 1950's, James Stewart had two close director collaborations: one with Alfred Hitchcock (producing "Rope," "Rear Window,""The Man Who Knew Too Much," and "Vertigo") and Anthony Mann, with whom he made four westerns ("Winchester '73," "Bend of the River," "The Naked Spur," and "The Man from Laramie") that explored Stewart's range as an actor as he approached middle age, bringing a psychological depth to a genre that usually had the depth of a layer of dirt. Stewart's characters became practical men of dubious moral strength who would have their sense of loyalty and justice tested by circumstances, their balance frequently upturned by a burning desire for revenge.

When we meet Jeff Webster (Stewart), he's just finished bringing a herd of cattle to Seattle for his partners Ben Tatum (
Walter Brennan, without his teeth this time) and perpetual souse Rube Griffin (Jay C. Flippen). They're booking passage to Skagway, Alaska to deliver beef to the prospectors looking for gold. There's just this little problem of Webster having killed two of his wranglers over the course of the trip, which has the interest of the Seattle police who want to detain him for questioning. Some physical hi-jinks and the intervention of fellow passenger Rhonda Castle (Ruth Roman) and partners and cargo are heading up the passge.

But once in Skagway, they run afoul of the local constabulary in the form of Sheriff-Judge Gannon (
John McIntire, showing just how great he could be given a meaty part), who maintains an absolute authority over the territory—nothing gets done without his say-so, and that's just the sort of thing that can make Webster angry and defiant, two things not tolerated in Gannon's jurisdiction. You just know people are gonna get hurt, and there's only so much a Stewart character can take "before a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do."

Anthony Mann was a director who filled his screen, whether he was making intricately-shadowed film noirs, or here, where the mountains and glaciers fill the screen, providing a dramatic backdrop for the power-plays being carried out in mid-close-up. His westerns with Stewart featured a dangerous West, where the rules were whatever someone with power determined them to be.*** And Stewart's characters were loners who played by their own rules, the conflicts with the power-brokers escalating into a frightening violence when the stakes got too high. Mann and Stewart were pioneering a new frontier in exploring the psychology of coming to grips with the new territories and their struggles for civilization in which the spaces and emotions were untamed.

"The Far Country" also benefits from early appearances by Harry Morgan, Royal Dano and Jack Elam, all distinctive character actors able to play good or bad.

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