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Man of the West
Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials and other sources, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
Shrugged off upon its 1958 release, Man of the West has undergone a decades-long reappraisal for director Anthony Mann's subtle, humanistic touch. Looking at it now, the movie actually feels more like a melodrama with a Western backdrop than a true Western. With Gary Cooper as a pacifist coming to terms with the amoral, criminal posse-heading uncle who raised him, the film has been reissued as part of Kino Lorber's Studio Classics series of spiffy versions of titles from the MGM/United Artists back catalog.
Man of the West starts out as a deceptively light, even somewhat tame little movie, but Mann eventually delves into searing, violent territory that is unusually raw for a '50s flick. Gary Cooper's Link Jones is an itinerant traveler going through Crosscut, Texas, seeking to use the charity funds he collected to hire a schoolteacher at the small town where he lives. On a train journey to Fort Worth, a holdup by bandits leaves Link unconscious and abandoned on the side of the tracks. After awakening, he finds two other abandoned passengers from Crosscut - con man Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell) and former saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London, in an excellent performance) - and the three attempt to find shelter in the countryside. They soon come across what appears to be an abandoned farm, which Link reveals as his childhood home. While Sam and Billie settle in the barn, Link checks in on the property's run-down house and confirms his worst suspicions - the train-robbing bandits live there, the same gang of crazed relatives from whom Link escaped twenty years before.
Link's crisis as he attempts to get Billie and Sam to safety while confronting his uncle and the gang's leader, Dock Tobin (an overbearing, scenery-chewing Lee J. Cobb), contributes to some of the movie's tensest moments. One gets the feeling that director Mann maximized the tension by drawing scenes out to uncomfortable lengths. At one point, Link's psychotic cousin Coaley (Jack Lord, pre-Hawaii 5-0) gets a load of Billie and forces her to do a strip-tease while his hooting brothers and dad cheer him on. Link tries to be civil with Dock and his sons Coaley, Ponch (Robert J. Wilke) and the docile, mute Trout (Royal Dano). After Coaley shoots and kills Sam, however, Link realizes that he has to fight violence with violence in order to survive. Discovering that his bag full of cash donated for the school has been stolen, Link reluctantly volunteers for Dock's plan to pull off a bank heist at the desert town of Lassoo.
Though Man of the West is a finely crafted film with some nice performances, it has its fair share of cliche-ridden, schlocky elements as well. By all appearances, Cooper should have been too old to be convincing as Link, yet he does a fine job conveying the character's resolve and fatigued world-weariness. He's matched by London's fine, subtle work and Dano's sensitivity as the brother who was too weak-willed to follow in Link's footsteps. On the other hand, Mann should have had Cobb dial down the unhinged, histrionic shouting - it's a terrible performance that takes the viewer out of the story. His obnoxiousness is matched by the bombastic musical scoring, although the movie ultimately comes through as an interesting, unusually harsh watch. Along with Mann's thoughtful direction, a philosophically grim screenplay from Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men) gives this film a depth lacking in most Westerns.
The Blu Ray:
Although the picture doesn't appear to have been digitally restored, Kino Lorber secured a beautiful, pristine-looking print for this Blu Ray. The letterboxed 2.35:1 image sports great, lifelike color and very little in the way of damage or distortion. There were a few specks of dirt here and there, while I detected a couple of brief instances of flashing. The DeLuxe color process produced a subtle-looking image with nice grain, qualities highlighted in this high-def transfer.
While the film's mono soundtrack fails to impress like the visual component, it's still a decently mixed track with not too much distortion during the louder passages. Optional English subtitles are also provided on the disc.
The disc merely has the film's original, spoiler-filled Theatrical Trailer as a bonus.
By turns schlocky and potent, 1958's Man of the West rises above typical Western fare thanks to Anthony Mann's detail-oriented direction and fine playing from Gary Cooper and singer-actress Julie London. Kino's Blu Ray edition sports a fantastic looking print of this lovingly photographed, overlooked oater. Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.