The quality of John Huston's 1961 drama The Misfits is often eclipsed by its salacious backstory. The final completed film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, it was written for Monroe by her then-husband Arthur Miller while they were in the grip of a divorce. Shooting was difficult, as both Marilyn and co-star Montgomery Clift suffered from various addictions and mental afflictions. Both Huston and Gable were hard drinkers themselves, but their habits were nothing compared to their younger cohorts. The Misfits even fell into hot water with the studio, who couldn't make heads or tails of the film. If not for Gable, who had final script approval, standing his ground, who knows how the movie might have ended up.
As it stands, The Misfits is a marvelous motion picture, easily one of Huston's best (not an inconsiderable boast). If it was misunderstood in its time, it's because The Misfits was a couple of years ahead of the curve. Its tale of displaced loners looking for meaning in the Nevada desert grappled with the passing of time--and not in the sense of a ticking clock, but historically. These characters represented an age that was ending, a lifestyle that was fading. It was as much a metaphor for the oncoming demise of Old Hollywood as it was the disappearance of 1950s America. The aura of freedom the characters longed for, and the artistic license that Miller and Huston were grasping at, were just around the corner. In two years, Martin Ritt's Hud would be a big hit. Maybe existential cowboys were just easier to take when they were Paul Newman, or maybe 24 months really did make that much of a difference.
The Misfits opens in Reno on the day when Roslyn (Monroe) is going to court to finalize her divorce. Back then, Reno had the easiest divorce laws in the country, and wronged spouses moved to the littlest big city temporarily to establish residency and dissolve their union. (This was perhaps most famously portrayed in Cukor's 1939 production of The Women.) Getting her single life back likely paid off in terms of alimony, but it costs an emotional price for Roslyn, as well. Now that she's alone, she doesn't know what to do with herself.
Enter a cowboy. Gay Langland (Gable) is a rootless roughneck who has a way with the ladies. In his mind, the worst thing in the world is "wages"--that is, a regular job. When Gay meets Roslyn, he's looking to bug out of town and spend some time in the wild with his pal Guido (Eli Wallach), a war veteran and pilot. Guido actually saw Roslyn first, he met her and the woman she's staying with (the great Thelma Ritter) that morning to assess the value of Roslyn's car. That Gay moves in on the curvy blonde causes Guido much consternation. Both men have refused to settle down again since their last marriage--Gay is divorced, Guido a widower--but Roslyn has a way of inspiring men to make exceptions to their principles.
The quartet heads out to Guido's house on the outskirts of town, where they get loaded and flirty. Guido may know how to dance, but Gay wins the day, and Roslyn and he start shacking up at Guido's house. This is essentially Act I. Act II is hitting the rodeo to find a third cowboy to go mustanging. That is when they pick up Perce (Clift), another drunk who rides broncos and bulls. There is some intimation that he maybe has some mental problems, too, though which symptoms are caused by the booze and which by the blows to his skull are up to interpretation. Perce and Roslyn are immediately attracted to one another. If Gay is a kind of stable father figure, then Perce is a kindred spirit, a broken creature just like her. Seeing him tossed around a rodeo ring puts Roslyn on edge. She can't stand a living thing to be hurt. Earlier in the film, she even stops Gay from killing a rabbit who is stealing the lettuce from their garden.
Act III is the mustanging. Roslyn goes with the boys, thinking that they intend to capture the wild horses for riding. This is not the case. Nevada mustangs are rounded up for dog food. Once upon a time, there were thousands of them in the mountains, now the men head out there believing they will find at least fifteen; the actual count is less than half that, calling attention to how pathetic this whole scheme really is. Roslyn, of course, is horrified, and her reaction stokes the testosterone in the group. There is much male posturing. First, it's who will abandon the deadly quest fastest in order to placate her; then, as she rejects different members of the hunting party, who is the bigger man. Gay almost literally wrestles with a horse just to prove no one can tell him what to do. In the frontier days, he might have been applauded for this macho showing off. In the context of The Misfits, you end up sad for him--even if you aren't sure which way your pity should flow. Is it because he is so out of touch with the times, or because the times are so out of touch with him?
Arthur Miller's script for The Misfits is poetic and intelligent. The playwright never condescends to these characters; on the contrary, the writing shows tremendous affection for them. It would have been easy to make them purely comical, but the humorous moments come naturally, they aren't forced or born of ridicule. (The drunk antics when they all return home after the rodeo are as hysterical as the preceding scenes are heartbreaking.) There is a layer of metafiction here that is hard to avoid: these freaks getting boozed up and tearing each other apart out in the middle of nowhere really were a bunch of freaks in real life. The doomed history that follows The Misfits around--Gable died mere days after shooting was completed, Monroe followed within a year, and Clift apparently had his heart attack not long after refusing to watch the film on television in 1966--becomes part and parcel with the narrative. These were cinematic icons whose time was about to pass, working in a genre that had also seen better days. It's possible this is the first revisionist western, leading to the reassessment of the cowboy mythology that would redefine the genre over the next couple of decades. It's a safe bet that Peter Bogdanovich saw The Misfits before he started making The Last Picture Show. John Huston's pioneering cinema style is all over that later film. Huston shoots in the thick of the action; wherever the dust is getting kicked up, he goes. Russell Metty's black-and-white photography is beautiful and gritty, capturing the open spaces of the desert plains and contrasting them with the cramped spaces where humans wall themselves in. The bar scene where Roslyn entertains the cowboys in inadvertent ways while playing with the paddle and ball is marvelously orchestrated; the men are climbing on top of one another, and the camera jockies for such positions, as well.
Just as it's easy to forget the excellence of the scripted drama under the scandal of the off-screen drama, it's also easy to forget that these actors became stars for a reason. The acting here is exceptional, with Marilyn Monroe turning in one of her finest performances as the bruised beauty Roslyn. There is a wonderful scene in The Misfits when Gay comments on how sad Roslyn is, and she is shocked, most men always tell her how happy she seems. He replies, "That's because you make a man feel happy." This one exchange could sum up the whole of Monroe's career, and to her credit, she brings this schism to life in her performance as Roslyn. She creates a complete character, one whose internal sorrow keeps her from ever being subsumed by the things the men in her life project on her. She can play at being happy, but Monroe knows how to do it so that it's clear that it's just for show.
By the shooting of The Misfits, Marilyn had put in time with the Actors Studio. Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach were also purveyors of method acting, and they both bring their naturalistic style to the production. They appear to be living it, not putting it on. (Clift has obviously been living it too much; his handsome features are starting to show signs of age and vice.) Clark Gable somehow manages not to get lost in this. His performance is pure confidence. Perhaps it's the fact that Gay is meant to loom large over the other men working in his favor. He is intended to be different, a misfit amidst the misfits, and so the performance styles end up meshing within the material.
The Misfits is a heavy movie. It's a sad movie. It sets up multiple themes and contends with each, all the while giving proper showcase to the characters and their relationships. It's a movie that isn't afraid to be about something, but it never forgets to be about somebody--or a bunch of somebodies--along the way. It also doesn't skirt the surface or play with clichés; rather, Huston and Miller get right down in the human muck and root around in all the neuroses and foibles, and though they lament how their misfits are losing ground, they also show how these folks do it to themselves. The tide of history drowns those who can't adapt. The glimmer of hope here is that sometimes, when people swim for shore together, they actually find a way to stay afloat.
The Blu-Ray release of The Misfits shows a significant improvement over previous DVD releases. My 2001 copy looks cramped and dim by comparison. The 1080p AVC-encoded image on the BD is remarkably crisp, with only minor instances of soft resolution or scenes that blur at the edges (and I'm not convinced that these aren't just the look of the actual production). There is a consistent grain throughout, lending a nice finish to the black-and-white photography, which in turn is rendered with a fantastic tonal balance. Blacks look deep and dark, and textures really come alive. You can almost feel the dryness of Marilyn Monroe's bleached hair in some instances, and the sweaty battle between the horse and Clark Gable is nauseatingly visceral. This is certainly the best The Misfits has looked on home video, and the 1.66:1 transfer could very well be as good as it's ever going to get--which is certainly nothing to complain about.
The soundtrack is mastered in DTS-HD Master Audio and maintains the original mono. Tones are clear, and there are no instances of hiss, cracks, or pops. Dialogue is sharp and easy to hear, and the music has excellent potency.
Spanish and French overdubs are also available, and each language also has a subtitle option, with the English being geared for the deaf and hearing impaired.
Not much, just the original theatrical trailer.
It's too bad that MGM couldn't somehow get the 2002 episode of Great Performances that focused on the making of the movie for this release, as the individual DVD release of that program is long out of print.
Highly Recommended. This underrated gem from John Huston is given stunning new life on Blu-Ray. The Misfits may have gotten lost in the tragic history of its stars over the years, but that in no way detracts from the power of this motion picture when you actually sit down and watch it. The 1961 drama, penned by Arthur Miller and starring Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, and Clark Gable, captures an American way of life in transition, detailing the lives of people who have lost their way in a time and place that no longer holds the same promise for them that it once did. The Misfits is written with flair, performed with passion, and shot with gusto. You simply can't go wrong.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joëlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.