Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Man from Laramie

The Man From Laramie (Anthony Mann, 1955) "Hate's not becoming on a man like you." Hmm.  Then, they shouldn't have put this star and director again, as hate, obsession and (sometimes) disfigurement were the order of the screenplay. The last of the James Stewart-Anthony Mann pairings (the others being Winchester 73The Far CountryBend of the River, and The Naked Spur, all superior disturbing Westernsthat pushed Stewart's psychological boundaries in the Old West by pushing the traditional physical boundaries in the Old West.*

Stewart's Will Lockhart rolls into the town of Coronado with his small transport business delivering merchandise to the general store.  Along the way, he stops from his day job to indulge in his hobby—seeking revenge for his younger brother whose cavalry unit was ambushed by Apaches who were brandishing repeating rifles, too many to be acquired on raids.  The Apaches are another story.  He's after the man who sold them those rifles.

Coronado, though, is hardly welcoming.  He can't take a few steps into the street without being warned to leave the town the same way he went in—under his own power.  That advice, with intentions good or bad, stems from the town's controlling interest, a cattle baron by the name of Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), one of those autocratically protective father-figures who like things the way they are, are suspicious of any changes, and is a bit blind to how others see it.  He's particularly near-sighted when it comes to his entitled son Dave (Alex Nicol, in a thankless performance, rather dimly performed), a bully who's next in line to run the ranch—probably into the ground given his business acumen—and (as John Wayne used to put it) "if he lives."  To prevent those eventualities Waggoman has installed the only picket-wire he might approve of, his chief ranch-hand Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy, who often provides the counterbalance in the Mann-Stewart westerns) as a nanny to keep Dave under control.

But Vic, with so much responsibility to the Old Man, always seems to be a day late and a dollar short, unable to keep Dave from single-handedly destroying Lockhart's business, burning his wagons and killing his mules, a rather contrary manner of getting him to leave town, by destroying the means.  And, of course, it just inspires Lockhart to get all-cussed and motivates him to stick his nose in everybody's business and his fists in Dave's mid-section.  Things don't get any better when Lockhart decides to take a job ranching for Waggoman's rival Kate Canady (Aline McMahon), a crusty woman-rancher who won't give an inch on territory or principle, or one hoof of cattle to the larger concern.

From any angle Lockhart is caught in the middle, guaranteeing a rise in tensions and an escalation of grievances.  And if the elder Waggoman wanted peace and quiet, he should have looked for the anarchy running wild in his own midst.   So, there's that familial element running through it.  And Mann and Stewart, through their collaborations, were exploring psychological depths that weren't mentioned between the gun-shots in the standard shoot-'em-up. All of their westerns involved Stewart's character going through a trial by fire—he's actually dragged through a campfire in this one—facing humiliation and crippling at the hands of the Waggoman's, the confrontations with the clan making up the best part of the film, with only Stewart's rather half-hearted interplay with Waggoman's neice (Cathy O'Donnell) seeming like time wasted, although it provides one more conflict for Lockhart to be distracted by.  Mann's use of location shooting is always imaginative and compositionally interesting, and he uses the Vistavision format to get as much horizon into the frame as possible.  Certainly worth a look-see, just don't go expecting Shakespeare.**

Maurice Thomas' Stewart portrait for some of the film's poster art.

  * The two also worked on the non-westerns Strategic Air Command and The Glenn Miller Story.

** Curiously, Shakespeare is on a lot of people's mind when they see this film, comparing it to "King Lear."  Um, okay, not the "King Lear" I'm familiar with, although there's a thematic string in there (actually there's a Shakespearean string in just about everything, isn't there?).  Actually, there's more "King Lear" in "Bonanza" than here (except that everybody gets along).   And, of course,  the movie Legends of the Fall has more than a bit of both in it.

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