Tuesday 10 October 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (12) - Anthony Mann - Master of the western and the epic

Anthony Mann
ANTHONY MANN directed some intelligent minor Thrillers and Film Noirs before hitting his stride with some of the greatest Westerns of the 1950s (many starring James Stewart, Winchester 73 (1950), Bend of the River (1953), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954). An earlier film Devil's Doorway (1950), also directed by Mann. was deliberately put on hold so as not to clash with the release of the higher profile Broken Arrow, directed by Delmer Daves. 

The Daves film was ironically seen as the landmark Western to deal sympathetically with Native Americans. Just as ironic, the Mann film did not receive the kudos in spite of the fact that he had made a tougher and more authentic film. Mann's overall career, however, did end in a blaze of glory with epics of mythic grandeur and deep formal beauty in El Cid (1961) and the first half of The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

The Man from Laramie (1955) further demonstrated his pre-eminence in the genre. This ambitious western concerns a corrupt landowning family who finally disintegrate when an outsider, (James Stewart in his best role for Mann), is drawn into its closed world. Mann's dramatic presentation, partly set in striking New Mexico locations, is, as in most of his 1950s Westerns, Shakespearian in its power and intensity.

Mann's widescreen compositions of the 1950s are among the best uses of that then fresh format when many film makers were still exploring its possibilities. The process enabled Mann to realize its superbly configured canvas in which the conflicts are grandly played out. Donald Crisp plays family patriarch, Alec Waggoman going blind (in more than just a physical sense) who is preoccupied with dynastic succession. His natural son (Alex Nicol) is a vicious psychopath who, early in the film, overturns and brutally burns Stewart's trading wagons, shoots his mules and has him roped and dragged through the dirt, all in a pitiful bid to assert his authority in front of his men. In a later incident, he shoots Stewart's hand at point blank range, as if castrating him (a violent and shockingly potent sequence).

Crisp's foreman and surrogate son (Arthur Kennedy in a fine performance) feigns worthiness but plots to usurp the succession and betray his father-surrogate. Stewart as catalyst and protagonist, fulfils his own quest for justice and revenge with an obsession/pathology bordering on madness. Strong stuff!

Man of the West (1958)
Director Mann's compositions for the frame always tended towards classic simplicity and uncluttered spareness, even in epic forms like El Cid. In Man of the West, they are pared back to the bone, mostly to a single claustrophobic interior set and a journey through a barren desert landscape into a ghost town (ironically called "Lassoo"). Gary Cooper, in one of his most expressively laconic late performances, plays Link Jones, a former outlaw long gone straight and respectable, who through an unhappy chain of circumstances falls afoul of his old gang, presided over by ranting father/mentor figure Lee J Cobb, in a grandly theatrical role tailor-made for his volcanic outbursts.

The most extreme of Mann's exploration of dysfunctional families and betrayed friendships, Man of the West encompasses sexual and physical humiliation (there are two remarkably nasty parallel scenes involving, respectively, Julie London and Jack Lord, and Gary Cooper and Jack Lord), as well as madness and fratricide. Gary Cooper functions very differently from James Stewart in their respective westerns for Mann: while Stewart's demons are generally unleashed from within or through a contemplation of his alter ego in another strong protagonist (Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie), Cooper's are re-imposed from without (the accidental meeting up with his old partners in crime).

The film ends in tragedy: Cobb's death at the hands of his erstwhile "son" Cooper is staged with a grandeur that is consistent with Mann's proposal to film a western version of King Lear with John Wayne, a project sadly interrupted by Mann's sudden death. This is one of the great westerns.

El Cid
El Cid is Hollywood's greatest epic film by a long margin. Epics were fashionable between 1953 and 1963. They aimed, through their spectacle and technology, at getting bums back into cinema seats after the damage TV had done to business. Anthony Mann's 1950s westerns with James Stewart were, as alluded to above, among the mythical, psychological and visual highpoints of that most mythical of genres. All Mann's virtues as a director of Westerns have been transferred to this lofty tale of medieval Spain. Charlton Heston was probably the only actor of his time with the authority and physical grace to carry with complete conviction and credibility a role of such heroic weight - this is far and away his best screen performance.

Mann's imagery resonates through its clean, classical lines and stately compositions (and its precise control of colour - greys, whites, blacks, and browns mostly, with outbursts of reds). Miklos Rosza's intelligent score, based on medieval Spanish themes, lends the appropriate gravitas to complement Mann's visual imagination. Philip Yordan's necessarily stylised screenplay conveys the film's thoughtful mix of action and reflection. Sophia Loren is exquisitely lovely as the complex Chimene. And only Heston could have carried off the thrilling and uplifting finale where as a corpse strapped to his horse, he stirringly rides into legend-and the glory accorded to all mythic heroes.

In summation, Anthony Mann is one of the purest classicists in American cinema exploiting Greek models and Shakespeare in both visual and dramatic senses. His best films from The Furies (1950) to El Cid make my blood race with their cleanness and precision both stylistically and thematically. The James Stewart westerns and Man of the West are among the finest exemplars but the power and visual cleanness of all his work after 1950, even in relatively minor works like The Tin Star (1957) and The Last Frontier (1955), leave me gobsmacked.
Walter Huston, Barbara Stanwyck, The Furies
Editor's Note: Noel Bjorndahl’s previous personal histories have included

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