Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Man of the West

In writing about Man of the West, the temptation is to focus exclusively on a few mind-blowing shots - and indeed director Anthony Mann and cinematographer Ernest Haller do things with the CinemaScope format that other filmmakers seem never to have conceived of - but the danger of such an approach is that we risk slighting the overriding unity of the picture's narrative and thematic conception. Along with The Searchers and perhaps two or three other films, Man represents the high-water mark of the "mature" Western, signalling that moment in the late 1950s when the genre was still culturally viable, but had progressed to the point where self-reflection was possible and the morally unquestionable hero gave way to an obviously flawed protagonist whose heroic function was undercut by any number of unglamorous character traits.

In Man of the West, that protagonist is Link Jones (a weary-eyed Gary Cooper in one of his last roles), a former outlaw who's opted for a peaceful family life in a small settlement away from civilization. So removed is he from modernity (circa 1860) that, when he takes a train at the film's beginning, his complete unfamiliarity with the jerky motions and cramped spaces of that mode of transport marks him out as an absurdly anachronistic presence. En route to Fort Worth (Jones' been entrusted with hiring a schoolteacher for the settlement), bandits attack the train and Jones gets left behind with an oily, but good-natured gambler (Arthur O'Connell) and a beautiful singer (Julie London) for company. Stumbling across a house, Jones begs shelter for the night and we soon realize that they've come across the hideout of Jones' former gang, led by graybeard Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), the man who raised him as a father, and who makes it quite clear that he expects him to rejoin the group and participate in a series of robberies.

The ease with which Jones re-adapts himself to his surroundings is striking, even as we understand that he's playing along with Dock in order to avoid being shot and has no real desire to rejoin the gang. But, as the gambler remarks to him, "you're a completely different person than you were," and he quickly adopts the tough-guy routine of the Western outlaw. And although it's clear he has no inclination to resort to his former ways - his shielding of the singer against the improprieties of the other men serves to mark him apart as a beneficent protector - it's not long before his former penchant for violence is awakened, even as it's directed not against innocent victims, but at his former allies.

That penchant comes to the fore in one of the film's most notorious sequences, an uncharacteristically fast-cut brawl between Jones and Coaley (Jack Lord), a member of the gang and, perhaps not surprisingly given the dictates of the genre, what's at stake in the exchange is Jones' manhood. In an earlier scene, Coaley had forced the singer, who had been posing as Jones' girlfriend, to perform a lurid striptease for the men. When Jones objected, Coaley drew a knife to his throat and commanded the singer to continue, forcing Jones to watch his "girl" remove her clothes' for another's delectation, while being unmanned by his inability to intervene. Thus the savageness with which the normally stoic Jones rips into Coaley, orchestrated in a virtuoso sequence that takes in all the close physicality of the brawl - the awkward punches, the rolling on the ground - until, several minutes later, having bested his opponent, Jones begins ripping off his clothes, attempting to reclaim his sense of manhood by sexually humiliating his opponent. From here, it's only a matter of time before he's strapping on a gun-belt for the first time in years and again accepting the necessity of violent engagement, even if this time it's in the service of "good" and not "evil". Although as the film makes clear, a man's actions can no longer be defined in such purely unambiguous terms.

As fascinating as all this psychological maneuvering is, it wouldn't be half as striking if it weren't couched in such an inventive, but carefully controlled visual program. From the first scene in which the camera follows Gary Cooper's entrance into town in a long right-to-left tracking shot, taking in a pastel of reds, blues and browns, before Julie London tops them all when she descends to the street decked head to toe in an off-red dress, to the intricate indoor stagings where Mann skillfully maneuvers six or seven characters in extended takes, to the glorious final mountaintop showdown, the film's a virtual textbook of widescreen framing. But it's the penultimate sequence, an extended showdown that unfolds in a mountain-side ghost town, that provides one of the true pinnacles of 'Scope staging. If Fritz Lang famously declared the format (in Godard's Contempt) to be only suitable for filming "snakes and funerals," then Mann and Haller are clearly able to tease out a few additional uses.

The ultra-wide screen is, of course, naturally suited to capturing the sprawling landscapes of the West, but five years into the format's existence, Mann seems to have unlocked some new staging possibilities - the depiction of two simultaneous actions in a contiguous space, even when a large physical distance separates the two. In the shoot-out sequence, a gunman perches atop the roof of a building, while another crouches on the porch of an adjacent house. With the two men situated at opposite corners of the screen (upper left, lower right), Mann conveys a sense of the great distance between the two, but without ever losing the impression that they exist in the same space. Thanks to the wide-angle lens and the wide screen, the composition never feels cramped and the staging always remains completely legible. At the sequence's conclusion, after Jones has dispensed with his enemies, he walks off into the distance at the right side of the screen, while another man, a town local, walks into a building on screen left, having just realized that his wife - an innocent bystander - has been shot. These two concluding actions are presented as distinct incidents - only tangentially related - but their simultaneous presentation increases the pathos of both discoveries - Jones' wistful acknowledgment of his continual capacity for violence and the loss of the other man's wife that resulted indirectly from that capacity. As the camera holds steady while the two men continue their walk, staging and theme come together perfectly. In that shot is the meaning of Mann's film.

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