John Ford did more to invent the modern Western – and arguably the American dream that streamed through it – than any other film director, and he probably did more to test and warp that dream than anyone else as well. If he has any competition, however, it must be Anthony Mann, a director who knew beauty and pregnant pauses of weathered visual memory as well as Ford. However, he was also a director of profoundly small ego, never one to indulge in the opulence and gilded glory of Ford at his most boundless and operatic. Mann used color cinematography with appreciation for how its incomplete translation to full-blooming color could enhance cinema as much as bubbling, bursting color might. In Man of the West, color is not passionate; it is exhausted.
Mann and criminally overlooked cinematographer Ernest Haller douse their film in the deceitful sublimity of the West, exploiting the wide expanse of the Cinemascope imagery, perverting it into a latitudinal travesty of paranoia and carnage. Mann feigns the beauty only to disguise the crawling king snakes lying in wait underneath; he uses the “Westernness” of the frames to push our eyes away from venom and danger, manipulating the film’s carefully calibrated earnestness only to stab us in the back with cool, cruel bedlam. There’s a malevolent evil coursing throughout the veins of Man of the West, and the film is all the more sinister for nonchalantly, how banally, it confronts that evil. It looks like the West that we know, but an austere, drained version of the same, like a nightmare the Western genre had about itself. A color-drained nightmare West pretending to be the more happy-go-lucky colorific kind. Evil is found in the most everyday color tones imaginable.
Which is to say that Man of the West depicts the vicious indignation of the West and its wrath-less brutality as simply another part of the landscape, which is as wide as it ever was in Man of the West but somehow more deadened and autumnal. The mystique, the allure of the West is siphoned out like slippery, choke-worthy molasses fraught with so much consequence the film would tremor from drowning in it if it hadn’t been divorced from feeling due to the parched coil of dehydration in the first place. The shimmering yellow and piercing crimson of Ford’s West – memorably climaxed in The Searchers – gives way to dirge-like browns of this revisionist-Western prefacing film. Even the replete greens are misleading in this film; they aren’t opulent and lushly calming, portals between mankind’s soul and the heart of nature. Instead, they are insidious patches of broken spirit and forlorn, coiling human disregard. It is as if the spirit of life has been ripped to shreds by the men of the West.
Gary Cooper plays one of those men, or at least he once was. Now reformed, and on his way to acquire a teacher for his presumably fable-like community of Good Hope, Link Jones (Cooper) boards a train that is attacked by a gang. Knocked off the train along with conman Sam (Arthur O’Connell) and singer Billie (Julie London), Jones’ only hope is to seek refuge in his old criminal hideout. Trouble is, his old gang leader, the conniving, supercilious Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), is still around, leading the gang that robbed the train. Without alternative option to adversity, Jones must play the past card to falsify a reconnection to the outlaws to get away. The question on the film’s mind is whether feigning the ties that once bound will mend those ties after all.
This question percolates in Reginald Roses’ theatrical screenplay, which admittedly may be a put-off for many. The whole film is viciously, adamantly, and even openly contrived and circumspect, but this layer of artifice only serves to draw the film closer to the shaman-like conjuration of the Old West as it exists in the imagination. The West, the film knows to be true, is a fabled, planar kingdom upon which American society constructed its moral rules and regulations. Mann and Rose are at their best not supplanting this idea with a realist tale, but in confronting it with their own equally, but diametrically opposite fable of fakery and vision. They acknowledge the spirit of the Western – the role of the constructed tall tale, the myth, in society – only to build-up a counteractive, contrarian myth of their own.
The film is often lauded as Cooper’s final seminal performance, but what is initially most disquieting about him here is his frail indifference, affording for a cat-and-mouse game where the mouse is particularly incapable of mousing around. That Cooper holds indignity for his old crew is assumed by the crutch of the genre, but the film never actually admits to this; his morality may fade under the whirlygust of contention, consequence, and age, especially when his withered ex-persona rears its ugly head. Man of the West is an epistemological, abstract title bound to the twisting nether of malehood and Western identity, but it is also a title of intimate embodiment in Cooper himself when he adopts a performance of masculinity in the film’s second half. He purrs and whispers sweet brutalities in our ears as an alpha male braggart whose on-a-dime penchant for sliding back into his old ways may clue us in to the way that those ways never left him. And the fact that those ways bind, penalize, empower, and curdle all men into barbaric types. The actorly performance hurdles the theatricality of the film and corrals it into a commentary on the theatricality of the public and private performance of gender identity.
An identity that the film personifies in Mann’s unforgivingly brisk, tactile editing and the clammy, desperately cramped inner spaces of the cabin where most of the film’s second act uncoils. The laconic, forlorn opening modulates itself as Cooper must, warping its everyday fabric into a crusted, curmudgeonly, and even vituperative faunt of barely contained testicular fury. Scenes are chopped to tooth and bone with serrated whip cracks, every whimper shatters the sound barrier, and the images constrain and contain themselves to the most pointedly limiting, suffocatingly squishy and sweaty close-ups of craggle-pussed human faces imaginable.
Which is only a prelude to the beguiling final confrontation, where a ghost town – the proverbial marker of death, destitution, and ghostly decay pertinent to the Old West – is transmuted into a hellscape of subdivided geometry as characters phallically lance around the screen firing at one another as Link rids himself of his hallowed ghosts. The film itself – its precipitous psychological architecture and visual lexicon at its basic formative layers – grows testy, restlessly uncomfortable, pulsingly malcontent, and patently deranged with its habit of prefacing the cackling Hitchcockian psychotic horror of the early cinematic 1960s.
Mann affords us no time for contemplation, mimicking the muscular, masculine role of the Western male until it curtails our capacity for reason itself. The film epitomizes the grotesque caliber of that image, jumping to conclusions and growing suspicious as its pitiless male characters bicker. Cinematic evolution and devolution meld together like a pugnacious firefight conquering all problems whilst further prohibiting a true solution; the film becomes a perilous, precarious parade of action and reaction where characters psychology is implied through the very failure of the film to focus on the psychology of its characters. The film practically foams at the mouth like a rabid dog. More than any American Western released prior to the tumultuous rising tide of the New Hollywood cinema, Man of the West essays the West as a palpably uncomfortable, disquieting state of mind. The central genius of the film is that its very mise-en-scene mimics the transformation from cool, even-keeled, avuncular calm to riotous, vicious turmoil – the very transformation Link must make to survive, even if he dies from it.
If John Ford questioned whether the violence of the Old West could ever hold quiet company with the civilized world that this violence would usher in, Mann shakes his head at the whole enterprise of civilizing to begin with. He doesn’t merely doubt; he runs the other way. It was probably fate or cruel irony that Mann would have to do the same after this film; the Western, like Link Jones and his past lives, was one foot in the grave by the film’s release. In this light, Man of the West is both a Shakespearean ode to the genre airing out its past tortures as well as a tragic, almost melancholic question about whether the Old West, and the Western, belongs dead after all.