Man of the West (1958)

Anthony Mann | 1hr 40min

The archetype of morally grey heroes with a shameful past was nothing new to the Western genre by the time Man of the West was released in 1958, but few films confronted their protagonist’s historic misdeeds as explicitly as Anthony Mann does here in his world of crumbling ghost towns and old, battered farmhouses. Deep in its dry, Texan desert, one of these ranches is inhabited by a small gang of vicious outlaws headed by Dock Tobin, a grey, weathered men with a haunting cackle and drunken manner that doesn’t seem to sway the respect his henchmen hold for him. Beneath his greasy beard and bushy brow, Lee J. Cobb is entirely unrecognisable, putting forward a truly sordid character with a contemptibility even more intense than his similarly antagonistic Juror 3 in 12 Angry Men. It is entirely a coincidence that Tobin’s nephew and former protégé, Link Jones, is on the train that his gang chooses to hold up, but it is that unfortunate meeting which brings a reckoning for both men, undermining the identities that they have crafted for themselves as bold, steadfast leaders on opposing sides of the law.

Protégé and mentor, Gary Cooper in one of his best performances and an unrecognisable Lee J. Cobb. An important film for the legacies of both actors.

On the spectrum of cynicism that stretches from John Ford’s idealistic mythologising to Sam Peckinpah’s dog-eat-dog nihilism, it is unusual to find a 1950s Hollywood Western sit so far up the latter end with its bleak resolve and depictions of sexual abuse. Especially striking though is just how much Mann’s specific brand of pessimism bears resemblance to Sergio Leone’s, though obviously preceding his gritty Spaghetti Westerns by just a few years.

Like the Italian auteur, Mann shows real mastery of establishing shots in capturing spectacular sets upon a widescreen, Technicolor canvas, impressively using them in the opening scene to stretch a crowded ensemble across a large train station platform. It doesn’t take long though for us to move away from civilisation into open, desert plains, where that huge scale persists through majestic crane shots of worn-out settlements and actors set against an orange sunset.

The most populated scenes of the film are towards the start before it tapers off into more intimate drama, but Mann makes the most of his ensemble in these long shots.
Gorgeous magic hour shooting, 15 years before Malick would start doing something similar in Badlands.
An excellent compositions using the ridiculously huge depth of field, directing our eyes to the speck in the background through Cooper in the foreground.
Grand establishing shots revealing Man of the West’s dusty, ramshackle settlements.

Perhaps the even greater artistic triumph here though is the meticulous staging, pushing the widescreen format beyond epic landscapes and into confined spaces where Mann’s intimate character portraits unfold, making excellent use of the full frame. While Link first meets his two future companions, Sam and Billie, between the narrow walls and low ceiling of a train carriage, the farmhouse where he previously lived out his days as an outlaw soon becomes the rustic setting of the film’s most significant interactions, staging some remarkable arrangements of characters.

Confined interiors combined with Mann’s masterful blocking staggering actors through layers of the frame.

There in that ranch, Link’s uncle Dock Tobin has built up a new crew over the years, and being an older, wearier man than he was in the old days, he now sends them to his dirty work for him. In wider shots here, Mann often frames the scene beneath a slanted ceiling that subtly tips the dynamic off-balance, though his blocking remains immaculate all throughout regardless of where the camera is placed, consistently staggering his actors across layers of his compositions with a beautifully deep camera focus. These compositions are purposefully driven by the guilt, humiliation, and fear of his central characters, particularly as he alternates between a pair of shots during Billie’s forced strip, sequentially relegating her humiliation and Link’s helplessness to the background.

A pair of shots viewing a single scene from different angles, both superbly staged. While Billie is cruelly forced to strip, all eyes are on her, minus Dock Tobin as he slouches in his chair facing the opposite direction – so much character detail packed into these compositions.
The low angle cowboy shot down at the hip, years before Leone would innovate it further in his Spaghetti Westerns.

Still, traces of more classical Hollywood filmmaking are very much present here, as cinematographer Ernest Haller relishes the bright colours of the scenery, and Mann whisks the narrative along to a lush, expressive score from Leigh Harline. Perhaps the strongest connection back to traditional Westerns though is the self-assured performance from Gary Cooper who, while not always offering the strongest onscreen presence in his lesser roles, here rivals his career-best work as Marshal Will Kane in High Noon. Cooper’s portrayal of Link is heavy with stifled guilt, as even before we discover the details of his past, he shrinks back from the gaze of men with suspicious eyes, passing himself off under a different name just to afford himself some peace. When it becomes apparent that some level of cooperation and deceit is needed to survive the brutality of his old mentor, that shame only sets in deeper, driving an internal conflict between the need to temporarily revert to his old ways and his desire to set them right.

Suspicion and guilt in a single frame, pressing in on Cooper through the window.
A beautifully inspired use of the wagon wheel to obstruct our view of a fight, as the camera slowly drifts to the right.

The shabby ghost town that Link’s climactic struggle against Tobin’s gang unfolds within makes for a particularly haunting set piece towards the film’s end, marking the outlaw’s fruitless efforts to keep their self-perceived glory alive. Mann proves himself to be an excellent editor several times through the film in its action-heavy set pieces, but the brilliant coordination of his actors across hills, atop ramshackle roofs, and beneath brittle floorboards makes especially brilliant use of the set’s expansive geography, attentively keeping track of each adversary as the pacing accelerates. The Leone comparison is more apt than ever here, specifically with the low framing of one gang member’s shooting bearing strong resemblance to Henry Fonda’s death in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Mann makes astounding use of the ghost town’s layout to stage a shoot out that looks a lot like something Leone might direct a few years later. This last shot even looks strikingly similar to Henry Fonda’s death in Once Upon a Time in the West.

To finally destroy the hold that Link’s old life has over him, it must effectively be put down, and it is with this resolve that he returns from killing the other gang members to confront an intoxicated Tobin. “Shoot me!” the old man shouts atop a cliff while furiously waving his gun, and though it seems to be a taunt, it is possible that he genuinely wants to end his miserable life. It is apparent now more than ever that he is not the daring leader that his gang members believed him to be, or that Link once viewed him as. He is simply a tiny speck in the distance, and his voice a quiet echo, drunkenly inviting a fight that he is destined to lose.

Dock Tobin drunkenly shouting atop a cliff in the distance – all that remains of his sad, shrunken legacy.

Though Man of the West eventually sees each of these despicable men meet their sad, pitiful fates, they cannot be forgotten so easily. The discovery that Billie was raped in the short time that Link was away from the group is downright gut-wrenching, and is destined to leave a mark on them both for a long time. They may share a sweet affection for each other, but they also realise that this is not a romance that will last. The old world is crumbling, and new ones must be built in its place. Link may serve his own purpose in that effort, but to do so this trauma and guilt must return to where we found it – deep in the recesses of his mind, where only he can see the pain that quietly lives on.

A hint of Yasujiro Ozu in this framing, segmenting the shot through the vertical wooden beams.

Man of the West is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and Amazon Video.

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