Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Man Of The West, Revisited

A couple weeks ago I included a couple of lines dismissing Anthony Mann's Man Of The West in a speedy Movie Roundup:

"Mediocre Western starring the always(?) mediocre Gary Cooper. Anthony Mann made far better films, I was just never into it. Maybe I should give it another shot? The #13 film of 1958."

Which prompted a detailed response from faithful reader Andrew, in which he asserts that the film is, in his opinion, the best Western ever, and possibly the best American film of the last 50 years. He urged me to revisit the film and come up with a more detailed response to it. Well, it was on TCM last week, and I watched it again, being careful to pay closer attention to it. What follows is Andrew's comments and my responses to them.

Cooper's performance is brilliant, a perfect portrait of a dying man who can barely muster the energy for one last burst of violence, though I can see why some people might not be so impressed by it or Cooper in general. I know many are turned off by his overemphatic "folksy" delivery, but watch any of his good movies with the sound off for a few minutes and you'll see a great performer whose moves, looks, and gestures are perfectly choreographed. Then watch him with sound again, and you'll probably be more impressed.

Acting is a difficult thing for someone like me, who knows very little about that art. But I do know what I like, and Gary Cooper isn't it. I will admit that Cooper's a wonderful physical actor, his comic sequences in the beginning of the film, showing his characters discomfort in both a town and a train are well done. But his voice bugs the hell out of me and he always seems to have the same expression on his face (a kind of befuddled determination) which works in some films (The Fountainhead) but not really here.

Part of the problem is that he's playing a Mann character that James Stewart set the type for: the former outlaw trying to go straight and sucked back into a world of violence. This is set up well in the beginning (the aforementioned fish out of water jokes) but falls apart towards the end, when Cooper seems bored where Stewart brought a maniacal intensity to the same role in films like Bend Of The River or The Naked Spur. This is a game Cooper can't help but lose: Stewart's quite possibly my favorite actor.

Mann's direction, though, is impeccable; it reaches the level of the best work of Rossellini, Melville, Ford, and Bresson, where every composition and camera movement is perfect and, more important, _necessary_ to the whole. Watch the way Mann tracks back behind a wagon wheel as a humiliated outlaw crawls for a gun, or the astonishing way in which he shoots the climax in the ghost town. The latter sequence is the definition of great action direction; the spatial relationships are so clear you could draw a map of the entire event after one viewing (see the beautiful track capturing Jones and the two gunmen in one shot), and the way Mann splits up horizontal and vertical areas of the Scope screen to define the action reveals a more sophisticated formalist than Peckinpah or Leone.

This I must agree with absolutely. The final shootout sequence in the ghost town is brilliantly done, both in the mise-en-scene (an empty wasteland of a town, devoid of both human and vegetal life (except for the poor Mexican couple who get caught in the crossfire) and in the camera movement. The crane shot up and away from Cooper preceding the final battle is as elegant as anything in the genre. Mann was a great director, and like any great director there's always something interesting in even their worst films (which this film isn't for sure).

I agree he's superior to Peckinpaugh, but Leone's aesthetic is so radically different (while being similar, perhaps, thematically) that I wouldn't compare them in this way.

But unlike those two directors, who he resembles and influences in his violence and awareness of genre, Mann brings a genuine, unironic sense of tragedy to the action; both the urgency and the inevitability of the theme (all the usual suspects: desert/garden, outlaw violence/civilized community contrasts, inescapable past) are felt more strongly than in similar (and similarly great) films from My Darling Clementine and The Searchers to The Wild Bunch and Ride the High Country.

Here I disagree, Yes, the film is thematically similar to many great Westerns, with the usual oppositions in place and worked out through the action. But this film feels far more schematic and theatrical than the best Westerns (The Searchers, Once Upon A Time In The West, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, Winchester 73, Unforgiven). The characters in Man Of The West never feel real and organically human, but instead as echoes of Mann films past. Part of the problem is the acting (aside from Cooper, it's a collection of unremarkable B-listers and scenery-chewers) and part of it is the construction of the narrative itself. I'm still trying to figure out when the film took place (less than ten years after the railroad reached eastern Texas, I guess, but wasn't that long before The End Of The West that the film thematically deals with?) or why Cooper, after being left behind by the train went straight to his old gang's hideout, or why the fugitive gambler is such a coward (he was outlaw enough to be known by the Law) or why the only people left behind by the train are the two who'd previously interacted with Cooper, or why the gang thought they'd rob a bank in a ghost town (it's established that the crazy old leader is totally out of touch, but why are his underlings as well?). There are more holes and questions that keep popping up and I think that no matter how great the directing, a narrative so full of holes just can't be a truly great genre film. I spend too much time asking questions about the story to care about the characters or the ideas the film is trying to convey.

I only saw it for the first time a year ago, when it immediately vaulted into my all-time top ten, and subsequent viewings confirm its greatness. I can only urge you to take a longer look, or else figure out more concretely what about the film doesn't work for you.

I thank Andrew for his post, because Mann certainly deserved a closer look than I initially gave the film, but in the end my feeling for it hasn't changed much. The film it most reminded me of was Howard Hawks's Rio Lobo: a fine film, but one he had done better a few times before. I'd rank any of the Mann-Stewart Westerns above this, as well as several films by Ford, Hawks, Leone, Eastwood and the Westerns I've seen from Fuller, Boetticher and possibly even Peckinpaugh. I'm comfortable with it as my #13 film of 1958, though I may bump it above Gigi, but I should watch that film (which I haven't seen since college) again before making a final decision.

Movies Of The Year: 1953

Metro Classics is now up on the Landmark Theatres website. Remember, free popcorn for anyone who finds me and mentions The End Of Cinema!

And now, back to the countdown. 1953 was a pretty good year, with a number of great American films, but the top of the list is dominated by France and Japan. Check out The Big List links on the sidebar for up-to-date list for 1954-2006, plus explanations, methodologies, apologies, equivocations, etc.

22. Glen Or Glenda
21. Peter Pan
20. Shane
19. From Here To Eternity
18. How To Marry A Millionaire
17. The Wild One
16. The Wages Of Fear

15. Julius Caesar - Joseph Mankiewicz's adaptation of the Shakespeare play. I haven't seen it in a very long time, and all I remember is the acting, by Marlon Brando, James Mason and John Gielgud. It's probably my least favorite of the Shakespeare I've seen or read (which unfortunately, isn't all that much), I don't know why, it just seems unfocused and kind of all over the place. It's a fine film, and the performances are pretty good, and of course Brando (playing way against type, but that's acting) and Mason (one of my favorite underrated actors) are terrific.

14. I Confess - One of the less well-known Hitchcock films, but a good one. Montgomery Clift plays a priest who through confession learns who committed a murder. He becomes the police's #1 suspect, however, when he won't violate the privileged communication and tell them whodunnit. Anne Baxter and Karl Malden costar, but Clift is the real standout. He's one of my favorite actors and he gives a great performance here. As method actors go, he's every bit as good as Brando and James Dean were, in my opinion.

13. The Blue Gardenia - Fritz Lang's fine film noir stars Anne Baxter as a depressed woman who agrees to go out with womanizing journalist Raymond Burr. When he tries to date rape her, she hits him and passes out. When she wakes up, Burr's lying dead on the floor. Richard Conte plays the journalist who tracks her down and tries to get her to turn herself in, and Ann Southern and George Reeves also star, along with Nat King Cole playing himself singing the title song. Baxter's great and Burr's really good as a sleazeball, and Lang's direction is as solid as ever. Probably not one of his best films, but not bad at all.

12. Mogambo - John Ford's remake of the 1932 film Red Dust, directed by Victor Fleming and starring Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. Gable stars again in the same role as an African hunter at the heart of a love triangle between the slutty Ava Gardner and the proper Grace Kelly (ah, movies). The Technicolors are really great, but the film didn't impress me that much on first viewing. Tag Gallagher made a great case for it in his Ford book, though, so it's one I'll definitely be watching again.

11. Roman Holiday - Audrey Hepburn's breakthrough role as a visiting princess who runs away from her boring structured life and runs wild on the streets of Rome with journalist Gregory Peck. It's an entertaining light comedy-romance, and all right-thinking people can't help but love Audrey Hepburn. Directed by William Wyler and co-written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo (I Married A Witch, Spartacus).

10. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - Howard Hawks lunatic screwball musical stars Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell as a pair of hot chicks looking for husbands on a cruise ship. Monroe's after money (diamonds, apparently, are her friends), while Russell's more into muscles. Like The Seven-Year Itch, I think the consensus likes the film more than I do. While the two leads are great, and the plot's pretty zany, the songs are mostly just OK and the supporting performances aren't particularly good (or at least memorable).

9. The Naked Spur - Another Anthony Mann-James Stewart western, this time with Stewart playing a bounty hunter out to capture Robert Ryan. Unfortunately when catches him, he's got to bring Ryan's girlfriend (Janet Leigh) along for the ride, with Ralph Meeker (an itinerant ex-soldier) and an old gold prospector tagging along as well. It's not on of the best Mann westerns, but, as usual, Stewart is great. While it slows a bit in the middle, as Ryan tries to play all members of the party against each other to win his freedom, the ending, on the eponymous spur, is really cool.

8. The Hitch-Hiker - Ida Lupino's ultra-low budget noir about a couple of regular guys who pick up a hitch-hiker who turns out to be an escaped murderer. The killer forces them to drive him through Mexico trying to evade the law. The three actors (Edmund O'Brien, Frank Lovejoy and William Talman) are terrific and Lupino photographs the stark desert landscapes with a lot of menace, adding to the psychological intensity of the whole thing.

7. The Big Heat - One of Fritz Lang's best American films is this noir starring Glenn Ford as a cop out to revenge himself on the people who murdered his family (among them Lee Marvin and Gloria Grahame). Not as nihilistic or black as Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly or a few other noirs, but it's still pretty bleak. Marvin famously throws a pot of coffee in Grahame's face.

6. The Band Wagon - My favorite Vincente Minnelli musical stars Fred Astaire as a performer trying to make a comeback on Broadway. He signs on to a musical version of Faust directed by and starring a wicked caricature of Orson Welles (played by Jack Buchanan) and a snooty Cyd Charisse with songs written by Oscar Levant and Nanette Fabray (apparently based on Betty Comden and Adolph Green, who wrote the film, as well as On The Town and It's Always Fair Weather). The Faust thing falls apart, but they pull things together to rewrite the play as a noir parody, the famous "Girl Hunt" sequence, which caps the film. One of the all-time great self-reflexive musicals, along with Comden and Green's Singin' In The Rain and Minnelli's The Pirate.

5. Pickup On South Street - Samuel Fuller's near perfect noir stars Richard Widmark as a pickpocket who accidently picks the pocket of a Soviet spy on her way to deliver secrets to the bad guys, right under the noses of the FBI agents who are watching her. Soon, he's the uncooperative target of the feds and the commies, with everyone out to get everybody else. The highlight is a brilliant supporting performance by Thelma Ritter (for which she won an Oscar) as a small-time stool pigeon trying to save enough money to buy herself a nice grave site. Fuller and noir were a perfect match, with his remarkable skill at hard-nosed, cynical dialogue and striking black and white compositions.

4. Tokyo Story - Yasujiro Ozu's classic film about how the post-war generation of young Japanese are a bunch of jerks who don't respect their elders. An aged couple (Ozu regular Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama) travel around Tokyo visiting their grown-up children and their families and are largely perceived as annoying bothers. Eventually they give up on the kids and spend the rest of their vacation hanging out together. It's probably Ozu's most famous film, though it's a bit too bitter for me to call it his best (I prefer Late Spring, personally).

3. Madame de. . . - Max Ophuls masterpiece about a pair of earrings winding their way through high society infidelity. Danielle Darrieux (The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg) plays the eponymous madame, the wife of a high-ranking military officer who pawns the earrings to pay off her gambling debts. Boyer, her husband, buys them back and gives them to his mistress as a going away present. Vittorio DiSica buys them traveling in Egypt (or somewhere far away) and brings them back to Paris, where he eventually gives them to Darrieux during the affair he's having with her. The dizzying plot is paralleled in the directing, featuring Ophuls trademark long, flowing tracking shots up, down and around the opulent decadence.

2. M. Hulot's Holiday - Jacques Tati's great film introduces his most famous character (one he never could escape) with his vacation to a beach resort populated by a typical variety of vacationers. Tati was perhaps the only sound film successor of Keaton and Chaplin, with his comedy having almost nothing to do with dialogue (though sound is essential, some of the best gags in this and the other Hulot films revolve around sound effects). Tati filmed in deep focus longshot, with little or no closeups, the better to utilize the entire frame for the gags, all of which are grounded in a basic reality (unlike most other physical comedians of the sound era). Basically, if you've never seen a Tati film, you've never seen anything like a Tati film. It's not as good, because not as resonate or, dare I say, spiritual, as his great Playtime (#1, 1967), but it's an amazing film and a must-see for anyone who likes film or comedy (does that leave anybody out?).

1. Ugetsu - My favorite Kenji Mizoguchi film is the two part tale of a pair of potters from a small village who abandon their wives in the midst of war to pursue their own ambition. One lives out his dream of becoming a samurai while his wife is raped and forced into prostitution while the other is ensnared by a ghost and waylaid while his wife and child are chased across the country by brigands. A beautiful, beautiful film, full of haunting sequences (the trip down a foggy river is my favorite, though the final sequence is as gut-wrenching as anything in cinema) and Mizoguchi's signature long tracking shots. The performances are all terrific, and the film stars Masayuki Mori and Machiko Kyo, who both also starred in Rashomon.

Lots of good stuff among the films I haven't seen this year, adding to what was already a terrific year for film.

The Sun Shines Bright
I Love Melvin
Give A Girl A Break
The Golden Coach
Stalag 17
The War Of The Worlds
House Of Wax
Beat The Devil
The Robe
I Vitelloni
Kiss Me Kate
The 5000 Fingers Of Dr. T
Thunder Bay
Gate Of Hell
Summer With Monika
Sawdust And Tinsel
The Story Of Three Loves
Dangerous When Wet
99 River Street