Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: The Man from Laramie (1955)

The Man from Laramie (1955) ****
Directed by: Anthony Mann.
Written by: Philip Jordan & Frank Burt based on the story by Thomas T. Flynn.
Starring: James Stewart (Will Lockhart), Arthur Kennedy (Vic Hansbro), Donald Crisp (Alec Waggoman), Cathy O'Donnell (Barbara Waggoman), Alex Nicol (Dave Waggoman), Aline MacMahon (Kate Canady), Wallace Ford (Charley O'Leary), Jack Elam (Chris Boldt).

Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart made five Westerns together from 1950 to 1955 – the excellent Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952) and The Man from Laramie (1955) among them. (The other two are The Far Country and The Naked Spur, which so far have eluded me – but I will get to them sooner or later). What stands out about all of these films is how the surface level of the films – which makes them seem like straightforward Westerns is always just a cover for something deeper and darker. (This was also true of Mann’s excellent 1958 Western Man of the West with Gary Cooper – which in my mind is better than these three Stewart movies). The Man from Laramie is a classic revenge Western, about a bitter former Calvary officer Will Lockhart (Stewart) travelling from the town of Laramie to a smaller town to try and find the man responsible for his brother’s death at the hand of the savage Apache Indians in the area. The film works on that level brilliantly well – who doesn’t love a good revenge Western? – but the film also bares resemblance to a Shakesperian tragedy – notably King Lear, as it features an aging, wealthy patriarch, obsessed with his legacy, and not realizing that everyone, his own son and adopted son included, hates him.

The movie starts out simply enough with Lockhart and his men on the trial between Laramie and the small town closest to the where the massacre happened. They are delivering goods to the local store, but the owner Barbara Waggonman (Cathy O’Donnell), seems disappointed when the goods arrive. She wants out of this small town, and without goods, she thought she could close the store her father left her and move on. Will wants to know if there is anything he can ship back to Laramie – to make his return journey profitable – and Barbara tells him of the local salt flats, where he can take all the salt he wants. Unfortunately, this turns out to be untrue. As Lockhart and his men are loading up their wagons, the psychotic Dave Waggonman (Barbara’s cousin” shows up and tells him that the salt belongs to his father Alec (Donald Crisp), as everything else in town seems to. Not wanting a fight, Will explains the misunderstanding, and offers to pay for the salt. But Dave will have none of it – he burns Will’s wagons, kills his mules, and gets his laughing henchmen to rope Will and drag him through the fire. He may well have killed Will if Vic (Arthur Kennedy) didn’t show up and tell Dave to knock it off. Vic is an orphan, who has essentially been raised by Alec, who trusts him more than Dave. Vic is also engaged to Barbara, and thinks that Alec will leave him part of the ranch when he dies.

From here, we get some great scenes – between Stewart and Vic, Stewart and Alec, Alec and Dave and Alec and Vic. Although Stewart is the center of the movie, he is in many ways the most straight forward, and at times even passive character in the film. He has to do very little except stay in town to stir up the Waggonman clan, and get them to come apart at the seams. When it’s available to him, and he knows who is responsible, he doesn’t even take his long sought after revenge – but allows the Apache to do it for him. His casual racism is ever present, yet not overtly stated.

What makes the film great is two wonderful performances – one by Donald Crisp and the other by Arthur Kennedy. A while ago, I reviewed another Arthur Kennedy movie, The Lusty Men, where he essentially played a good guy who gets in over his head. I prefer him like this – a man who has eaten crap his whole life, and has become bitter and angry and dangerous, yet still tries to keep an even keel. You slowly start to realize as the movie goes along that this character, who we thought was an upstanding guy, is really a louse underneath his calm exterior – and when push comes to shove, he’ll push you literally over the edge of a cliff. For Crisp, this is the best I have seen the Oscar winner (he was quite good in his Oscar winning role in Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, but nothing compared to this). Here, he plays a proud man – a man who has built his life up from nothing in an attempt to leave something behind to his son. What he can never seem to realize is that his son hates him – everyone hates him – and when this finally dawns on him, he is left a broken, lonely old man.

This is one of the first Western shot in widescreen and Mann and his cinematographer make excellent use of the additional space. But the visual look isn’t just there to look pretty, but gives the films it’s dark tone and feel. Mann remains an underrated director – and The Man From Laramie is one of his best.

No comments:

Post a Comment