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and reviewed at DVD Savant.
Are there plans to release Man of the West (1958-Anthony Mann) on tape or disc in letterbox? This is a seminal work in Mann's career, the western genre and the use of CinemaScope. It anticipates and expertly phrases genre themes voiced in the 60's by directors like Peckinpah and Leone. A master visual storyteller, Mann was years ahead of his time in using every composition to convey his themes, much in the same way Antonioni would emphasize the plastic capabilities of composition to convey meaning. My cinematic pontificating is meant to counterbalance the relative obscurity of Mann's work and importance. I hope MGM will release this film letterboxed sometime soon! Please let me know....
You have struck a raw nerve with me. Savant is a huge fan of Man of the West and I never skip an opportunity to promote it, especially its lack of CinemaScope on video. At the moment the only real hope to see it this way is when Turner Classic Movies (TCM) happens to show it on cable. (They are said to be very receptive to requests).
What makes this film so special is its position at the true beginning of a grittier, more adult era for the Western, that would rise in an arc through films like One Eyed Jacks to the Italian Leone films. It ended with The Wild Bunch- which for style is probably the last truly original film in the Western genre.
Anthony Mann's previous Westerns, mostly with James Stewart, were physically brutal and pointedly raw-edged, but Man of the West eschews their simple moralizing. Cooper's Link Jones is not merely troubled like the idealized Stewart heroes, but a truly compromised character who once was a professional thief and murderer - and who comes to realize that the 'bad man' inside has never really left. In The Man from Laramie Stewart has his gripes but has no trouble asserting that 'he knows the US Cavalry', which would never shoot first in a confrontation with Indians. No matter how rough things get, the reassurance is always there in the Stewart films that a great Society is being built.
Man of the West leaves all this politcal conservatism in the dust. Society is almost non-existent and the glorious West has corroded into a cruel and barren desert. Cooper's desperate outbursts of violence are painful, unheroic, and tragic - the 'big shootout' scene starts with the senseless killing of a pathetic woman. The villains who Cooper picks off one by one die like animals, painfully, learning nothing and teaching no lesson. Man of the West is one of the strongest subversive statements in fifties' films - like Bigger Than Life it seems to say that something is wrong here, there is something Evil about America. Gary Cooper as Link Jones, is Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.
What has prevented a release of Man of the West in letterbox, and many another worthy unreleased video, is lack of public awareness. With few exceptions, titles chosen for home video release need to sell to an audience wider than, say, aficionados of Anthony Mann Westerns. It's a business thing, I suppose. As much as I agree with the 'cinematic pontificating' in the question above (I certainly added a heap of my own), arguments about seminal influences and compositional nuance don't play to the audiences in Blockbuster or Wal-Mart. It isn't that Man of the West is unpopular or undeserving. Attention just needs to be drawn to this remarkable 'adult' western to arouse interest for a widescreen video release.
My strategy to the video release executives would be that what they have is Unforgiven, only with Gary Cooper instead of Clint Eastwood, and to play up the psychological violence that Man of the West often uses instead of gunplay.
Honestly, when Unforgiven came out, I was impatient with reviewers who lauded the originality of its concept - to me it was almost a remake of the earlier film. Made 35 years apart, both have a similar problem with audience star preconceptions. Because of Gary Cooper's accumulated screen image as utterly moral, gentle, and decent, I think 1958 audiences had a hard time accepting that he could ever have been a murderous cutthroat, let alone worry that he might not overcome his little 'outlaw' problem.
In Unforgiven, I had a hard time picturing Eastwood's character as having once been good. I couldn't quite picture cold-blooded, cynical Clint settled down as the good husband and solid father that he seems to have become. Because the Man of the West - like elements were so familiar, I spent some of the film thinking about Unforgiven's dead wife - what kind of woman could have reformed killer Clint? This isn't criticism - we all read exasperating critics who fault filmmakers for making their own story instead of the critic's. Both of these pictures are superlative Westerns.
However, Eastwood's film is a celebrated crowd-pleaser and the Mann film has become largely unfamiliar. When I see Man of the West, I often wonder if the addition of scenes showing Link Jones leaving his family at the beginning, and then returning gratefully to them at the end, would have helped the film play better for general audiences. But, if writer Reginald Rose wanted his picture to have a standard structure, he would have written it that way. That the film still communicates so well to those lucky enough to have found it, is probably a more worthy thought. If the Western fans excited about Man of the West get to see it again in its CinemaScope glory, wonderful. The rest of the video audience? As Dock Tobin would probably say, they've had their chance.
1. A Savant-ish detail: Some theatrical prints presently in circulation for archive and revival screenings
have a curious audio flaw: When the mute Trout (Royal Dano) staggers downhill in the ghost town of Lassoo, he is silent. In the original, correct version of the film, Trout wails and howls like a dying dog, a memorable detail that MGM Technical Services will endeavor to correct in future 35mm prints. The pre-record MGM pan-scan VHS tape available of Man of the West does not have this flaw.
2. A letter from "John" about Man of the West and Reginald Rose:
this DVD is now available and has been
reviewed at DVD Savant.
Are Westerns your thing? Check out Savant's other Western - related articles: Foreign Intervention and the American Western * Review: The Man from Laramie * 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.
Text © Copyright 1998 Glenn Erickson