Man of the West (1958)
Directed by Anthony Mann
This elegiac but action-filled Western contrasts markedly with Mann’s other 1958 release, the Southern hothouse potboiler God’s Little Acre. His range extended beyond the noirs and Westerns for which he’s best known, but this, his penultimate Western, ranks with the best of his extensive, modernly neurotic work in the genre. Though Jimmy Stewart, Mann’s partner on five of those, wanted to star in Man of the West and would’ve been fine, it’s fortuitous that it wound up in Gary Cooper’s hands, since the latter is so moving in the role, one of his last. His Link Jones is a former robber and killer who has put that past behind him, until a train robbery leads to events that thrust him back in (he’s on the train for the all-too-wholesome task of seeking out a schoolteacher in Fort Worth to bring back to his underserved small town). Akin to The Shootist or Unforgiven, its “one last gunfight” trappings belie its resistance to nostalgia in the same way its violence, though exciting, denies escapist enjoyment; Link takes no pleasure in his begrudging slide back into criminality. The fistfights are long and almost comically drawn out, not snappy, and the shootouts (particularly the concluding one, which masterfully exploits deep focus) are as cleanly choreographed as ever in Mann, but hardly make you want to strap on a six-shooter.
Billie (Julie London) is the saloon singer Link meets before boarding the train to Fort Worth, and the two end up as train flotsam (along with Arthur O’Connell) after the robbery. Link leads them all to a sinister homestead, saying “I used to live here once.” “When you were a boy?” she asks. His reply (Reginald Rose scripted) is cryptic: “I don’t know what I was.” Camped inside is Link’s uncle Dock (Lee J. Cobb), who raised his nephew to kill (“Remember when we painted them walls with blood?”). Man of the West has been knocked for casting the ten-years-younger Cobb as Cooper’s mentor, but Cobb and his grizzled, born-old demeanor (and the makeup) make it work. Sprawling California locations and character actor faces like Royal Dano’s paint in the rest of the color. You can see the heart of the movie in Cooper’s agonized expression, his bald pate visible under wispy gray plugs, standing over the henchman he just knocked out. In Mann’s Westerns, his men may be brave, but are never happy. Justin Stewart (December 3, 6:45pm at the Metrograph, with Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker and Jonathan Demme in person)