A little upstart four-part series of reviews on less-remembered John Huston films.
As with a few of John Huston’s works, The Misfits feels a little over-determined in its willingness to suffuse the screen with agony, but at least its particular agony is full-throated. Released in 1961, a twilight year for both the Western genre and the Old Hollywood edifice, The Misfits is a little on the nose in its embodiment of the death throes of The Way Things Were, assuming of course that the film actually believes things were ever like The Way Things Were to begin with. The casual misery rampant during the film’s production infests the screen with a fell acrimony, with the on-screen result bearing testament to the declining glory of the Old Hollywood as Huston displays no qualms about doing his part to slay that particular beast. Which is to say, it is a film about the crumbling Old Hollywood ivory tower that is, via its corrosive production details, itself an embodiment of the crumbling Old Hollywood ivory tower.
Although not a great film per-se, The Misfits is disarming in its pugnacious negative energy and sheer willingness to disrobe the glamour of Old Hollywood. John Ford’s The Searchers famously explored the dialectic of Western myth and Western reality, more or less questioning whether the dichotomy was truly meaningful and laying bare the idea that the West is so inextricably entwined in its own myths that, perhaps, it could never be fully parsed. Less poetically, but still scorchingly, The Misfits isn’t even graced with the equivocation to question; rather brutally, to both its benefit and detriment, it assaults and throws away the Western genre, dredging up star types out of the woodwork, and then erects a mortally toxic sculpture garden of Western archetypes and actorly charisma calcified by Hollywood’s self-inflicted wounds. Anything resembling Old West glory is subjugated by petrifying pain.
A great deal of the film’s despondent charge is born from the palpable absence of affective desire on display in the film; more or less, everyone seems warped by a dispassionate hell. And the behind-the-scenes details, only notable because they most definitely inscribe themselves on the screen, corroborate this hell, fanning the film’s flames with a most poisonous film shoot. By all accounts, this particular exploration of Western misery was itself an embodiment of its theme, with old, semi-discarded stars like Clark Gable and new upstarts like Marilyn Monroe and Montgomery Clift flailing around hating one another and struggling to stay afloat in their lives distorted by the Hollywood machine. Famously, an ill Gable didn’t survive until the film’s release when he essentially dropped dead after filming wrapped. Marilyn Monroe, the platonic abused starlet (well, her and Judy Garland) would be out the door a year later when her vicious drug habits got the better of her. Clift, an ever-troubled Method brat in the fashion of James Dean and Marlon Brando, was in the middle of his descent as well, subjected to personal demons until his eventual passing four years after Monroe.
Corralling then all, or rather not doing so, was Huston, himself not prone to sobriety and notoriously likely to be drunk on set. Wearing his directorly stature and brutish demeanor as a weapon for heating up the oppression of a film set, he also donned his power as a shield so his cast and crew wouldn’t question his sobriety at the moment. Although Huston’s style was constrained a touch by his difficulty staying awake on set, there’s a certain primeval and pungent quality to the sparseness of his direction (far less aesthetically heated than his usual style, returned to soon enough with the gloriously hot-headed, smoky Tennessee Williams adaptation The Night of the Iguana, allowing Huston to work with or on the two most acclaimed playwrights of the mid-century within a three year period).
Speaking of which, the last piece of the puzzle is the screenwriter and famed playwright Arthur Miller, rewriting his script mid-shooting and undoubtedly corrupted by his failing marriage to Monroe which was more or less corroding into tatters on the set. Displayed somewhat abusively in the unmitigated onslaught of dire, beaten-down acrimony thrown Monroe’s way, Miller’s screenplay is none too sympathetic to her (or anyone on screen), casting them all in a pallid light suggesting fossilized ghouls or runaway vehicles careening to their own oblivion.
So we have a perfect storm of rancorous, hardly covered-up disease and mostly uncontained distaste graced with a plot about four lonely, crestfallen souls struggling to abide by some principle of human companionship while they all bake in the sun-scorched earth. Almost literally, the narrative boils down to a group of wayward souls in the Nevada desert in 1961 pretending things are okay right up until they realize they aren’t, frankly the very story of the film’s production. The synergy of concerted content and construction is bracing, to say the least, even if the film doesn’t quite earn the punishment that went into it. Miller’s sometimes naturalistic and sometimes grotesquely overt symbolic screenplay is clearly a playwright’s work judging from its broadness and its disinclination to pacify its ruthlessly front-and-center symbols, the most over-baked elements of a film that spends all its time roasting in the sun and the sadness of the lie of the Western. With a more visually melodramatic, full-throated style from Huston, Miller’s ideas might have roused into something robustly uninhibited and gloriously inebriated in their outré obliviousness, but Huston’s direction, even more than typically, avoids any sort of expressive spectrum. Instead, the style curtails itself to the harshest gestures of spare naturalism which are effective in their unsparing, downtrodden emptiness but also at odds with Miller’s baroque screenplay.
Largely, the film is saved by the hoarse beauty of the actors themselves (in what was quintessentially a star-power marketed film), although a side character played by Eli Wallach (pre The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) shines brightest with a nervy role that is less oppressed by the screenplay’s metaphors (he’s given more room to suggest his own character than the others). The names of the tin, however, are never less than superior. Monroe smothers her usual sexpot stylings in a stew of mustang-crazed desire, allowing ingress into her soul and affording for cracks in her mental structure to emerge. Clift radiates such heated intensity and weariness that it couldn’t but be a Method routine (where the performer inhabits the lifestyle of the character) if Clift’s unaltered life weren’t already so disarmingly similar to the character’s own mortal turmoil.
Gable shines brightest though, unscrewing his charming presence precisely by screwing it on so tight that the cracks show. Perverting his classical Hollywood smile and roguish good looks so that they’re forced to cover his weathered age and anxious features, he channels a character that epitomizes Old Hollywood cheer abused as camouflage to hide his pain from the world and himself. The film around the actors shows its nondescript tendencies more often than it needs to, and its definition of pain is a little cumbersome at times, but the thoroughly discomfited nature of the production is sculpted into such a fine morass of on-screen nihilism that it is hard to accept, even if you know how over-stoked the whole affair is and bemoan the indiscretion of its screenplay. Misery has seldom wrought such broken-down beauty.