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John Huston was never more than one film away from a big success or a major flop, but he sure could launch some impressive projects. 1961's The Misfits is a quality production packed with star names and star talent, written by a dean of the theater expressly for his legendary spouse, Marilyn Monroe. Arthur Miller's story may have artsy goals in mind but it's dead-on accurate about a certain kind of man of the west left behind by the steamroller of progress. Unlike other 'death of the west' tomes, which are really about the death of the American Dream, Miller doesn't overload his story with proclamations about the evils of society or go overboard with the symbolism and value judgments -- no Spartacus of the sagebrush is run over by a load of toilets, as in Dalton Trumbo's overly schematic Lonely Are the Brave.
Huston embraces the characters and rides his actors pretty hard. All rise to the challenge set by the material and by the director. For once (and maybe only once) Marilyn Monroe plays a part that resonates with the "Earth Mother" woman she perhaps would want to be. MGM legend Clark Gable perhaps put too much of himself into the story, in terms of physical exertion. For he and Ms. Monroe, The Misfits is both a triumph and a career tombstone. The movie is about death and dying on more than one level, and its eerie conclusion seems almost psychically aware of the sad fates of its three above-the-title stars.
The Misfits is basically a rodeo picture, after the rodeo's gone sour. Cowboy Gay Langland (Clark Gable) is too old to compete and rodeo circuit tramp Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) is half-batty from too many brain-rattling injuries. Their pal is Guido (Eli Wallach), a veteran flyer who owns an old biplane and is getting by working as a tow truck driver. Reno is a beehive of unattached, confused women, and the boys waste no time latching on to a beautiful but slightly disoriented new divorceé, Roslyn Taber (Marilyn Monroe). Roslyn and her friend Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) kick around town with the boys until Gay and Roslyn shack up together, borrowing Guido's half-constructed house in the desert. Roslyn seems to be recovering from her personal sadness until she accompanies the men on an excursion to round up wild Mustangs in the Nevada mountains. When Gay breaks the news that the animals they catch will be sold for dog food, she falls back into an emotional depression. Her protest brings to the surface what the men know already -- their way of life has been swept aside by the cruel forces of progress, and if they keep at it they'll only be betraying themselves.
The titles equate the characters of The Misfits with puzzle pieces that don't fit, but this time John Huston has all the right ingredients for a powerful picture. Each cast member couldn't be bettered; the story seems constructed from the tragedies of the star personalities involved. Montgomery Clift's punchy Perce is badly battered after only a couple of years on the Rodeo circuit. He even mentions that his face has healed so his mother might recognize it -- precisely the actor's predicament after his bad car crash. Marilyn Monroe's overly sensitive Roslyn is committed to the wellbeing of flowers, dogs and bunny rabbits, and can't stand the idea of seeing anything harmed. That puts her in a precarious position among a group of self-destructive men who can only put their skills to use by risking their lives or killing animals they love.
The older Gay's positive attitude masks a stubborn man grieving for his estranged family. We could easily believe that Arthur Miller originally intended for Gay to have some character traits assigned to Guido, to own the desert house and to mourn the wife who died "because of just plain bad luck." As it is, it seems very generous for Guido to let Gay use his house to move in with Roslyn, the girl "he saw first". Clark Gable's life and on-screen personality is of course overshadowed by an almost identical personal tragedy, from twenty years before.
The Misfits needs all the levity it can get to avoid becoming The Lower Depths in the sagebrush. Miller's dialogue is full of funny character observation, and it's certainly amusing to see the men buzzing around the man-bait Roslyn. We honestly expect some galoot in a Reno bar to tell her, "You look just like Marilyn Monroe." The wonderful Thelma Ritter is around to brighten things up, state the obvious that needs to be stated and to warn Roslyn about the wild kind of man she's getting involved with. When the show takes a break from its heavier content we're treated to the spectacle of Marilyn emerging from a desert lake, or winning $140 batting a paddleball for a bar-full of admiring spectators. With Marilyn going this way and that at 45rpm, nobody's watching the ball. Interestingly, Huston manages to make this voyeuristic material emerge from Roslyn's character, as opposed to the need for sexy images for the film's marketing. Roslyn is a mixed-up club dancer who can't totally understand that her audience appreciates her as a fantasy, not as a woman who needs to express her emotions physically. She isn't even that concerned that a guy is grabbing at her rear end during the paddleball exhibition.
The men consider Roslyn to be needy, when the fact is that all three of them are wounded ducks circling around little Miss Life Force. Gay and Perce are only a few steps away from becoming bums, and all of their inner hurts are revealed when they drink. Unlike reality, nobody becomes abusive or violent when drunk. Guido flew a lot of bombing missions and "broke a lot of dishes", and his fatalistic attitude comes out in impatience and a lack of humor. Perce mourns the loss of his father and his inheritance, when he's coherent enough to think. Gay hangs on tightly to his illusions but is the most relaxed of the three and has retained enough spirit and self-worth to attract Roslyn. Gay has the most to give her.
The Misfits has some splendid examples of method acting. Montgomery Clift's conversation-monologue on a pay phone encapsulates his character in just a few short sentences. Wallach nails his drunken speech in the car, asking Roslyn to say "Hello Guido" -- he seems to want her to prove to himself that he exists. The only speech that is unnecessary is Clark Gable's, when he explains why he almost killed himself recapturing a horse, only to let it go again. Gable's entire performance has already shown us the answer, and the lines are redundant. As for Marilyn, her screaming fit is appropriate for the character, but Huston chooses to keep it at a fifty-yard remove... perhaps Marilyn just looked foolish doing all that emoting closer to the camera.
It's too bad that viewers mostly remember the wild horse hunt, as those scenes give the movie some action but also bring in Arthur Miller's big message-equation: obsolete cowboys equal doomed wild horses. But the horse hunt never degenerates into bald symbolism. The horse behaviors show us the life force that Roslyn is committed to defending. When a colt kicks at it's mother's neck as she lies hog-tied on the ground we remember that Roslyn mentioned the possibility of having a baby. The brave equine 'family' deserves a break to survive as best it can, even if some other opportunistic, hungrier hunters might get them all sooner than later. Roslyn shows Gay what he already knows, that choosing the side of Life is the right thing to do, no matter what the cost ... it can be the first step in a bond between people. He'll have won her.
The Misfits is a unique picture. Huston doesn't improvise scenes or take the movie in new directions, but his cast is certainly committed. He and his cameraman Russell Metty get the most out of what became a pattern for the director -- isolate the cast and crew in a location free from distractions, and magic may result. Plus, anything but actual locations would erase any hope for the film making its intended effect. The characters talk about how the desert smells, how it seems to go on forever. Deserts and beaches have far horizons that on film always suggest eternity, and make it easier for a story about lost souls to maintain our attention.
And what about that ending? If you pay attention, the last dialogue augurs well for Gay and Roslyn. He's come through for her and retained his pride as well. Of course, if one believes that Roslyn's influence will put Gay into a downward spiral starting with a demeaning regular job, maybe it isn't a good thing. But that's what hope is all about. The Peter Pan idea of following a star to find one's way home could be a positive sign or a negative fantasy. But the last notes of music go a bit strange, and the abrupt fade-out with no traditional finish is stranger yet. The Misfits wasn't a commercial success, and I think part of that may have been that people walked out of theaters with question marks on their faces -- that non-ending is not satisfying, not even in a downbeat way. It's as if the film is waiting for the other shoe to drop -- for an action that wasn't complete until the obituaries came out. In Gable's case that had already happened months before the movie was released. The 'strange' editing must be Huston's way of acknowledging the passing of a legend.
DVD Blu-ray of The Misfits looks very good indeed, as do many classic B&W pictures in HD -- the textures, shading and contrast are excellent. We only wonder some of the night exteriors on the desert should be darker. It looks like people are bedding down in the late afternoon until Guido points to the sky and we get a cutaway to a starry sky. We also see what may be evidence of Marilyn Monroe's contribution to the shooting -- a close-up on her that's only partially in focus (at the breakfast scene with Gable). Most accounts of the film report that Ms. Monroe drove cast and crew to distraction by showing up to the set ridiculously late, or not at all. Sometimes she couldn't remember her lines, or just couldn't pull herself together. Huston may have not been able to get a Take 2.
The disc is formatted in the no-menu style that starts by playing the feature, and repeats it when the show is over. As happens with all MGM videos, an unwelcome Leo logo pops up right after the weird fade-out that ends the movie. This is very bad form. The immediate intrusion of the logo breaks the film's spell. The right thing to do would be to give the screen 4 or 5 seconds of black, to let the darkness and silence settle a moment, or simply for the company to stop plastering Leo Logos wherever they can, like corporate graffiti taggers. The same darn thing happens with other MGM movies that are meant to finish on strange, "What, it's over?" notes, like Ladybug, Ladybug and On the Beach. Now, if I were King of the Forest ...
There is no menu, but hitting the pop-up menu button gets access to tracks (English, Spanish, Castillian, French, Portuguese & Italian) and subtitles, (ditto except that the English is SDH). There's also an original trailer, even though none is listed on the disc package (Sh! It's a secret!). The trailer hits the class-product angle for all its worth but makes sure to show some sexy shots of you know who. Smart move.
That trailer is the only extra. PBS viewers will remember a very good documentary called Making the Misfits that I reviewed almost ten years ago (gulp). It's way, way out of print by now. I used to show it because the film clips from the feature were transferred far better than the MGM/UA Home Video put out on an earlier DVD. The picture of the filming communicated in the docu's interviews is as interesting as the movie itself: "Éthe superstar siren lost and depressed, her writer husband caught between art and frustration, the aging King of the Movies taking risks with his poor health, and the emotionally confused young method actor who ends up being the most reliable actor on the set. And don't forget the director who gently and patiently pulls it all together, while losing a fortune each night gambling in Reno." It's too bad the feature and the docu couldn't get linked up in a Blu-ray package, Criterion-style. Then again, I'm very happy to have John Huston's movie available in such a good HD transfer. This is a very welcome disc release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Misfits Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.