"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.