Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
In 1972 I took Jim Kitses' UCLA film class on The American Western, which transformed the way I thought about western movies. Kitses' book Horizons West spent most of its length examining the films of Sam Peckinpah, Budd Boetticher, and a particularly interesting fellow named Anthony Mann.
Columbia TriStar's dazzling new DVD of Anthony Mann's The Man from Laramie brought Kitses' lectures back to full memory. Laramie holds a special place at the end of the 'innocent' era of American Westerns.
Will Lockhart (James Stewart) is searching for the man who sold rifles to the Indians who killed his brother, a U.S. Cavalryman. He tries to raise some cash in Coronado by hauling salt from the flats outside of town, but the psychotic Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) comes along with a dozen riders and accuses him of trespassing on his family's vast ranch, called The Barb. Lockhart apologizes but gets dragged through a campfire. His wagons are burned and his mules shot. In town, he learns the score from the storekeeper Barbara Waggoman (Kathy O'Donnell) and spinster rancher Kate Canady (Aline McMahon): Crazy Dave is the son of wealthy rancher Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), whose vast spread is really run by foreman Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy). Everyone wants Lockhart to leave town: Vic brawls with him, wandering ne'er-do-well Chris Bolt (Jack Elam) tries to knife him and Alec Waggoman tries to buy him off. Nearly blind, Alec has a recurring dream that a stranger will come and shoot his beloved son. Beaten up and thrown in jail, Lockhart must undergo a terrible ordeal before he discovers the identity of the gun smuggler.
Anthony Mann began as an over-achieving B-Movie director. He moved up from PRC and Eagle-Lion with a string of impressive no-budget films noir that includes Reign of Terror, Raw Deal and T-Men, and with his stellar cinematographer John Alton graduated to MGM to continue with Border Incident and Devil's Doorway, uncompromising films about race injustice. In his time, Mann was noted (sometimes condemned) for his unflinching violence: in Raw Deal a dirty fighter tries to jam the hero's eyes into the antler points of a stuffed deer; in T-Men and Border Incident government agents are forced to witness the gruesome murders of their comrades. One of them is horrifyingly dismembered by a piece of farm equipment. In 1950 Mann began an association with James Stewart on Winchester '73 at Universal. Stewart negotiated one of the first Hollywood profit-sharing deals with MCA, U's parent company, and needed a solid vehicle and a tough-minded director to begin a new career playing hard-bitten, neurotic Western leads. Winchester '73 was the most successful Western made to date. Its solid script was structured like a sagebrush La ronde, following the varied owners of a prized trophy rifle stolen from, and eventually returned to, crack shot Stewart. '73 introduced signature scenes of Mann violence. Fistfights are staged amid the kicking heels of panicking horses, and a gunfight in which sharpshooters ricochet their shots off boulders billiards-style, to hit men hiding out of the line of fire.
With MGM's The Naked Spur beautiful Technicolor location scenery was added, along with nasty rope burns and faces gouged with silver spurs. In '73 Stewart had a simple problem with an outlaw brother. Here, after being cheated and fleeced by a woman, he's become a borderline psychotic incapable of trusting anyone. Returning to Universal, Mann and Stewart did two more Westerns, the somewhat similar Bend of the River and The Far Country; the corny oil-drilling adventure
Thunder Bay and the celebrated musical biography (and the last film shot in real 3-Strip IB Technicolor) The Glenn Miller Story. The team moved to Paramount and VistaVision for Strategic Air Command. Since all the movies were successful, Mann and Stewart were probably studio-hopping to sweeten their financial deals. They came to Columbia for The Man from Laramie which boasted Technicolor, CinemaScope and stereophonic sound. 1
In their military dramas and musical biographies, the Mann / Stewart combo verged on hardcore '50s kitsch that now appeals mostly to lovers of big airplanes and big band swing music. But Mann's affinity for genre grit made his Westerns as edgy and sadistic as mainstream movies were allowed to be in 1955. The Man from Laramie manages to be simultaneously conventional and boldly unusual. On one hand, it is stacked with stock situations and characters that on paper sound pretty lame: the mysterious stranger come to town to settle the hash of friend and foe alike (Shane); the prim heroine; the Ponderosa-like monster ranch and its aging patriarch (Duel in the Sun, Giant, The Furies, The Big Country); and the plot device of (yawn) selling guns to the Indians (more oaters than you can throw a buffalo at). But Anthony Mann elevates the mythic elements with a visual flair that would serve him well in his later epics: El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, even The Heroes of Telemark. Will Lockhart faces down the mounted, charging Alec Waggoman in a confrontation that prefigures El Cid. In one of Mann's most brutal and traumatic scenes, a frantic, writhing Lockhart is held fast, his hand outstretched, so that the insane Dave Waggoman can shoot a hole through it.
A lot has been printed about classical allusions in Mann's films. Laramie reminds very strongly of King Lear mixed with Greek tragedy -- the ill-fated inheritance, feuds and broken romances that stretch across decades. The proud patriarch goes literally blind after years of turning a blind eye to the shortcomings of his only heir, and cursed nightmares foretell the coming of a killer who will pull a dynasty down into the dust. That the film works so well with this classical baggage is a testament not only to Mann's skill but to the talent of writers Yordan & Burt and the fine actors that breathe life into what might have been a pretty unbelievable pack of characters. Stewart plays terrorized, neurotic anguish with a skill equal to the extremes found in Rear Window and Vertigo. Donald Crisp is unusually forceful, especially this late in his career, and Alex Nicol is memorable as a spoiled psycho baby with a six-gun (he always comes across like Aldo Ray's evil twin). Arthur Kennedy was especially good in Bend of the River, and in this show makes his character's bitterness and frustration seem very real and sympathetic. As is usual, the villain and provides the moral complexity lacking in Stewart's character.
The Man from Laramie has its share of '50s conventions and attitudes. As in the rest of the Mann / Stewart films, the West is pictured as a grand frontier of limitless idealism, marred only by the aberrant actions of 'a few bad apples,' to borrow the flatly-stated moral that bogs down Bend of the River. Laramie is also no Devil's Doorway in that it has a rather retro idea of how to present Native Americans. Lockhart doesn't disguise his contempt for the treacherous Indian who works in Barbara's general store. Dialogue establishes that the big landowner Waggoman bought his ranch from the Apache tribe, exposition planted to undercut a possible justification for their unprovoked depredations. Likewise, the rightness of patriarchal authority is taken for granted. Spurned lover Kate Canady is ignored and insulted by Alec Waggoman for 4/5 of her lifetime, yet when he cries for help from his sickbed she responds with a subservience that would shame a dog: "He needs me!" The Barb's cowhands obey any order they're given by the Waggoman princes, no matter how wrong or sick-minded; it's a feudal simplification that the script never questions.
The best of this team's films benefit from the friction between Mann's anarchic brutality and Stewart's old-fashioned, sentimental screen persona. Himself a military leader who often turned his movies into public relations vehicles for the armed forces, Stewart seems to have made sure that dialogue defending the honor and wholesomeness of the U.S. Cavalry found its way into the script, so that all of us spoon-fed '50s kids could be assured that the military way was 100% American. Yet, in his Westerns, Mann's disturbing violence shatters this complacent, tidy world. Mann seems to be saying there are cracks in the American dream, and if they ever split wide open, most of us couldn't handle what would come oozing out.
Anthony Mann made one more Western after The Man from Laramie, the visionary Man of the West (1958). Liberated from the Stewart/Eisenhower ethos, it let loose writer Reginald Rose's tortured heroes and insane villains in an appropriately corrupt, barren frontier of ghost towns and inbred evil, where meaningless killing and rape are everyday events. It was way ahead of its time. The Western genre would not develop further until Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone rode onto the scene.
Columbia Tristar's DVD of The Man from Laramie is a delight. Few video transfers vintage 1955 look this good, given the fading of film stocks that usually takes place. Only an occasional scratch and a reddish caste to a few scenes in Aline McMahon's house show any sign of aging. The prime visual joy of '50s Westerns was their broad panoramic vistas, so beautifully filmed at dawn and dusk, a pleasure that can't be understood in crummy 16mm on flat TV screens (which is how Savant had to watch Laramie for 25 years). The DVD is 16:9 enhanced, lending clarity to both azure skies and Stewart's nervous blue eyes. With its simple but rich stereophonic track, this disc turns a widescreen video monitor into an old-fashioned Technicolor Saturday Matinee.
The only extras are a poster graphic and a trailer that shows Stewart reading the source story from The Saturday Evening Post, and emphasizes the star's recent roles.2 The menus have nicely-recorded gunshot sounds and whistling wind noise. Language teachers take note: besides the Spanish language track, there are seven subtitle choices - English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai.
A superior big-budget western with James Stewart and director Anthony Mann at their best, The Man from Laramie is an entertaining drama with a violent streak that still has an edge after 45 years. It's the kind of Western that wins over people that don't cotton to westerns. Savant highly recommends it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Man From Laramie rates:
Supplements: poster, trailer
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: February 20, 2000.
1. The Anthony Mann / James Stewart arrangement was one of the most successful teamings of the 50s. Stewart hadn't had great success after the war (It's a Wonderful Life, Rope) but when teamed with Mann soon became one of the hottest stars in Hollywood, bigger than he ever was in his Philadelphia Story days. Mann had bounced up to MGM but had little chance to do a high profile picture in the shrinking studio system. Eight James Stewart pictures later, he was one of the biggest names around, and for a few years before his health gave out, commanded the biggest projects and budgets in the industry. Return
2. One of the films mentioned is the Anthony Mann directed Strategic Air Command, which Savant saw double billed with The Man from Laramie at a Mann retrospective at the L.A. County Museum of Art. Immediately after Laramie, a funny moment occurs when James Stewart runs into Alex Nicol for the first time in Command, giving the actor a broad double take. The whole audience laughed, as if airman Stewart would confront airman Nicol with, "Now, about those rifles you were selling to the Indians..." Return
Are Westerns your thing? Check out Savant's other Western - related articles:
Foreign Intervention and the American Western *
MAN OF THE WEST - A Western We Want To See *
THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE RESTORED *
A FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE - Another Leone Restoration *
Review: The Man With No Name Trilogy *
Review: Duel in the Sun Roadshow Edition.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 1997-2001 Glenn Erickson
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson