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Man of the West
KL Studio Classics
Savant Blu-ray Review

Man of the West
KL Studio Classics
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / min. / Street Date November 4, 2014 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Gary Cooper, Lee J. Cobb, Julie London, Arthur O'Connell, Jack Lord, John Dehner, Royal Dano, Robert Wilke, Frank Ferguson
Cinematography Ernest Haller
Art Direction Hilyard M. Brown
Original Music Leigh Harline
Written by Reginald Rose from a novel by Will C. Brown
Produced by Walter Mirisch
Directed by Anthony Mann

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Just getting started after moving their independent production banner from Allied Artists to United Artists, Walter Mirisch decided to do another small-scale western along the lines of his work with Joel McCrea, but with the much bigger star Gary Cooper. The script was by Reginald Rose, the hot writer of the TV and film hit 12 Angry Men. Mirisch also signed Anthony Mann, a commercially successful director just off a string of lucrative James Stewart westerns. Mann had bowed out of what was to be his next Stewart project, Night Passage.

When critics began to focus on genre in the early 1970s, Anthony Mann joined Budd Boetticher and Sam Peckinpah as new champions of the western genre, and Mann's nearly forgotten United Artists show Man of the West suddenly acquired a lofty reputation as a genuine work of art. The downbeat and grim tale of bad men trekking through a barren landscape pointed the way to later western idylls about "men who've outlived their time". Producer Mirisch probably expected a popular entertainment in the Jimmy Stewart mold, and instead got the humorless, classically minded Anthony Mann of Devil's Doorway and The Furies. Man of the West may be the artistic bitter end of the 50s 'psychological' western, but it was a conspicuous flop at the box office.  1

The story has potential as a major classic. Farmer Link Jones (Gary Cooper) hasn't been away from his tiny farm in ten years, and is impressed by the newfangled things he sees in town, like a locomotive. The town of Good Hope has entrusted him to hire a schoolteacher, but when his train is robbed he's left alone and penniless in the wilderness with dishonest gambler Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell) and tired saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London). Link helps his new friends walk to a hidden farmhouse, only to find that it's the hideout of the very same thieves that robbed the train. Coaley, Ponch and the deaf-mute Trout (Jack Lord, Robert Wilke & Royal Dano) prepare to rape Billie until their leader Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) sees Link and intervenes. Dock recognizes Link as his own nephew, a murderous member of his old gang. He's just crazy enough to believe that Link has come back to join him. Link has little choice but to agree with Dock and play along, if only to save the lives of Sam and Billie. Pretending that Billie is 'his woman', Link confesses his secret to her: in his youth he was indeed an outlaw and a cutthroat with the Tobin Gang. He hoped his past would never be found out. When Dock brings him along to rob the rich mining town of Lassoo, Link must revisit his previous savagery. Only Link's cousin Claude (John Dehner), another member of the depraved Tobin Gang, sees through Link's charade.

Anthony Mann's previous westerns were heavily influenced by their star James Stewart, who liked the richness of his guilty, morally compromised characters but who wanted to steer the series in a lighter, more wholesome direction. The films are Winchester '73, The Naked Spur, Bend of the River, The Far Country and The Man From Laramie. The relative darkness of the first entries eventually give way to conservative reassurance, with miners and farmers overcoming villains to form happy communities and Stewart winning a place in society. Night Passage shows us what happened when Stewart went on his own without Mann. Its tough-minded story is smothered under a thick coating of sentiment and accordion solos.

A complete departure from that trend, Man of the West is way ahead of its time, a moody treatment of dark father figures and the nature of evil. The pace is not fast and much of the movie is a theatrical showcase for actor Lee J. Cobb. His Dock Tobin is an outlaw nearing his dotage, riddled with delirious ideas and bad judgments but still forceful enough to rule a band of cretins and sadists. Tobin bursts forward with operatic explosions of excitement, whether for crimes of the past ("You remember? You held him and I blew the top of his head off!") or dreams of loot to come ("Lasso! The name goes 'round and 'round in my head like a bell!"). The bandits move through a grassy but almost featureless landscape, eventually coming to a ruddy desert that seems incapable of supporting life. Expressing a theme later swallowed whole by Sam Peckinpah, writer Reginald Rose implies that the days of Tobin and his thieves are closing fast. Their fearsome reputation remains, but Dock wails that they can't even pull off a simple railroad holdup: "One stinkin' guard -- and you let it get away!" Three of the gang are too stupid to realize that Dock is living in a nostalgia for soft banks and glorious killings. Cousin Claude should know better but considers Dock a father figure and supports him out of personal loyalty. The prodigal adopted son Link is a 'link' to civilization, or perhaps to the savage past. To save Billie and Sam he must pretend to be a willing partner in crime.

Anyone who knows Sam Peckinpah's films will immediately recognize Man of the West as cut from the same bloody cloth. The train robbery in The Wild Bunch is similar to the one seen here. Man of the West has grit and a gnawing sense of violent futility. Several of the set pieces are true classics. The outlaws' reaction to seeing Billie is coarse and direct: "Look at the build on her!" Coaley holds a knife to Link's throat, drawing blood, and orders Billie to take her clothes off. Outraged but terrified, Billie has no choice but to comply. The perversely erotic scene puts the lie to an entire generation of Hollywood bad men, the kind that threatened virginal maidens but became impotent or stalled when their chance finally comes. The scene can only go so far, but in 1958 it was strong tea.

The final shootout in the empty streets and shacks of a rotting ghost town is a fit arena for a clash between 'ghost' outlaws. We expect a standard ritualized six-gun confrontation, but Link must instead deal with a pair of killers outflanking him and looking for an easy shot. As Ponch and Claude stalk Link from different directions Mann establishes spatial relationships with his wide screen instead of quick cutting. Mann pays off the tense scene with his characteristic emphasis on bodily violence we can feel: a man dies in a claustrophobic crawlspace, jumping as he's shot several times at close range.

Other indelible events express the misery and horror of meaningless death. Link cannot save one of his fellow prisoners, or prevent the casual murder of a frightened woman. The mute Trout stumbles down a deserted street, wailing like a dying banshee. These outlaws are becoming extinct, like the dinosaurs of Fantasia.

Mann's blocking of scenes is clean and economical. His crane work is better than that of Delmer Daves and his dramatic interior scenes are more fluid than Budd Boetticher's. Mann relies less on cutting than Peckinpah, often using a single shot to carry an entire scene. The old Mexican miner finding his wife Juanita, for instance, holds the image of Link riding away, guilty for the misery he's been unable to forestall.

The ghost town of Lassoo is Burl Ives' ranch from The Big Country, presumably repurposed to save money. Walter Mirisch was still not that far removed from his Allied Artists days, so the conclusion and a traveling scene are also filmed in the relatively distant Red Rock Canyon location. It's an other-worldly final setting, so Mirisch got good value for his production dollar.

As much as we admire Man of the West its lack of commercial success is no surprise. Gary Cooper's 'good guy' persona is so strong, it's difficult to accept that the gentle Link Jones could ever have been a sadistic killer, pushing people's "guts out through their backs." Cooper's performance is also mildly inconsistent. Link at first exhibits some of Cooper's bad-habit "cute" puppy dog mannerisms, behaving more like a bumpkin than a former hardened criminal. Link is initially so meek that he becomes skittish at the sight of a train.

After all the highly original material, Mann and Rose drop the ball at the climax. Didn't they realize that Link's final lines to Dock Tobin are unintentionally funny? Dock is wheeling about in a demented state atop a sandy cliff. Link has just seen what the old monster has done to Billie, but his words boil down to a generic, "I'm takin' you in, Dock!" Audiences consistently laugh when those words deflate the considerable tension that's been built-up.

But did budgetary tightness alter the film's form? It sorely lacks a concrete representation of Good Hope, the virtuous town that accepted an outlaw and helped him reform. Link tells Billie that 'those people back there trusted him'. To be reminded of what's at stake, we need to see those people, and also Link's wife and kids waving goodbye as he heads out to hire a teacher. We need to want him to restore his honor and return. The movie begs for the symmetry of Link returning to Good Hope safe and sound. It instead ends with some limp dialogue on the trail. Cooper doesn't even seem to be in character. An old Savant article from 1998 raises some parallels between this film and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. Structurally, they're almost the same movie.

Leigh Harline's generic western music score mirrors some of the film's darker moods, but his folksy-heroic main theme reinforces the Gary Cooper good-guy connection, with counterproductive results. The optimistic feel of the main titles and the final shot have the feel of a bland TV show, like Wagon Train.

That said, Man of the West's strengths far outweigh its flaws. Once Cooper feels himself drawn into his old role, he gives us hardened stares and anguished looks that definitely prefigure the wounded, conflicted heroes of Sam Peckinpah. Julie London gives a terrific performance. She handles the more adult material with dignity, especially considering that more than half of the film exploits her status as a potential rape victim. Arthur O'Connell is a little forced and obvious, but his Beasley is the first to realize that Link may be reverting to his younger, vicious self. The actors playing Tobin's bad men are encouraged to emphasize total depravity. Not until The Wild Bunch would outlaws surpass these guys for basic gnarly-ness. Jack Lord's smiling creep Coaley is a precursor of spaghetti western villains to come.

But the madness of Dock Tobin dominates. Lee J. Cobb is magnificent as the wooly, demented egomaniac, an outsized figure to compare with Walter Huston in Anthony Mann's The Furies. At one point Tobin tells Trout what to do about Link: "After you leave the bank --- Kill Him." A variation on that line would become Pike Bishop's (and Sam Peckinpah's) signature in The Wild Bunch ten years later.

Anthony Mann's next film, the epic remake Cimarron links his western work to his later epics El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. But Man of the West remains the director's leanest, meanest tale of violent absolution.

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Man of the West is an attractive encoding that is very possibly from the same HD master as the older MGM Home Video DVD from 2008. The added sharpness helps a great deal, and the better-defined colors bring out more subtle hues in the desert backgrounds. Cinematographer captures Red Rock Canyon at its best, and Julie London's bright dress certainly attracts our eye. The train robbery plays out under interesting overcast light, adding to the scene's atmosphere. I'm no longer certain that the film's negative had severely faded. As a child I saw part of the movie (or the trailer?) and remembered those rocks looking even brighter. But what I see here looks fine.

An original trailer is included that may provide the answer to the movie's box office failure. It touts Gary Cooper's legendary status and little else, while offering too many close-ups and a jumble of scenes and dialogue bites that don't add up to anything. KL Studio Classics sources what looks like European ad art for their package, but it's pretty bad too -- none of the action images relate to anything in the movie. But now that I think of it, I don't remember ever seeing any good ad art for this picture!

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Man of the West Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good ++
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Original Trailer
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 31, 2014


1. A note from Richard Dinman: Glenn, United Artists thought so little of Man of the West that they dumped it into multiples with no Broadway opening. This was the one and only Cooper film without an exclusive Broadway engagement. --- Richard Dinman

Text © Copyright 2014 Glenn Erickson

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