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Anthony Mann & The Western Renaissance

Article by Peter Wild

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If you were asked to name the greatest ever western, it’s possible you might say The Searchers, John Ford’s complex and ambiguous deconstruction of everything John Wayne had accomplished up to that point. Perhaps you’d plumb for High Noon or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Stagecoach. Or maybe you’d choose one of a handful of Clint Eastwood westerns, The Outlaw Josey Wales, say, or The Good, The Bad & The Ugly or Unforgiven. Or how about The Magnificent Seven, Red River and Once Upon a Time in the West? They’re all great movies, to be sure. None of them would be out of place in a list of the top ten all-time best Westerns.

It’s arguable, though, that you wouldn’t choose one of the half dozen westerns directed by Anthony Mann in the 1950s. There were a handful of collaborations with James Stewart – movies like Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man From Laramie – movies that are, these days, remembered more specifically for the fact that they demonstrate how interesting James Stewart became as a character actor in the years following the Second World War (each of the characters Stewart played in the Mann westerns themselves a far cry from the George Bailey beloved of Stewart fans the world over). Ditto The Tin Star – a movie Mann directed starring Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins – and Man of the West starring Gary Cooper, films largely regarded by posterity as stations in the career of their respective name star. Singularly none of these films could be regarded as ‘greatest Western ever’ material – but cumulatively they form a body of work that repays considered attention, especially now that the Western appears to be resurrecting itself (for what surely must be the umpteenth time) in the wake of the likes of The Proposition, 3.10 to Yuma, Seraphim Falls and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

So what is it about Anthony Mann films of particular interest and what the hell does that have to do with these recent modern westerns?

Well, first of all, Mann was the first person to bring a noir sensibility to the western. Noir was what Mann knew, having cut his directorial chops, as it were, on a brace of what are regarded as classics in the 40s (Desperate, Rail-roaded, T-Men and Raw Deal are all worth a look) – and noir informs what Mann brought to the western: stylised violence. Whether it’s Robert Ryan and James Stewart in The Naked Spur (Stewart in particular here prefiguring much of his later work with Hitchcock) or Jack Lord and Gary Cooper in Man of the West, audiences were treated, in some ways for the first time, to violence that looked as if it caused the protagonists no small measure of actual pain.

But there’s more to it than that. Before Martin Scorsese (who cites Mann as an enormous influence on his work) and, perhaps more presciently, before Sam Peckinpah, Anthony Mann was constructing movies in which it wasn’t always possible to separate the good guy from the bad guy. Think about James Stewart’s paranoid bounty hunter in The Naked Spur or his remorseful former outlaw in Bend of the River, Gary Cooper’s history of criminal violence in Man of the West, Henry Fonda’s disdained former lawman in The Tin Star – all of these men come with baggage and the baggage muddies expectations. These men might be capable of heroics, but they will never feel like heroes. They’re too guilty or ashamed or just downright beaten by life to kick back and pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

And that’s not all. Mann introduced what we’d no doubt label a sort of arthouse mentality to standard mainstream cinematic fare, using the props at hand to involve the audience in a way that was groundbreaking (at least within the confines of a western). You can see this in the way Mann constantly directs things at the camera lens and by implication at the audience, such as the body falling in Border Incident or the double-barreled shotgun in Winchester ’73. Style informs Mann’s every shot in such a way as to unconsciously lead the viewer by the hand, as far as foreshadowing expectation is concerned. In The Devil’s Doorway, for example, returning Civil War hero Lance Frame is shot from a low angle in a highly shadowed frame, diminishing the hero and undermining what the audience thinks of him.

Mann was also fond of patriarchal (or matriarchal) characters who inform the action of the piece in much the same way as a Greek chorus. Donald Crisp in The Man From Laramie and Lee J Cobb in Man of the West are probably the best two examples. Each offer wisdom and experience as a result of their age – but each are tragically flawed, inspiring a fatal lack of confidence in their charges and directly or indirectly influencing much of what follows. Mann’s patriarchal characters are predicated by responsibility, doing what they do for family or land or respect – frequently spawning conflict in themselves and others to disastrous effect (in The Furies, for example, Walter Huston’s patriarch and Blanche Yurka’s matriarch come head to head in a shotgun mountain siege that ends badly for all concerned).

And, of course, alongside all of this there’s another thing about Anthony Mann westerns you should never forget: they always looked beautiful. There were times when he could out-Ford John Ford when it came to a beautiful vista shot. The only difference between the look of a Mann western and the look of a Ford western is that the Mann western’s beauty is tempered by what you know of man’s inhumanity to man. Yes, the world is beautiful, Mann says, but that doesn’t make man beautiful. Quite the opposite. The beauty of the world is a counter-point to what goes on and what goes on is ugly in the extreme.

But what about the modern westerns? Do they really owe a debt to Mann? Certainly as far as something like The Proposition is concerned, that’s out-and-out Peckinpah, surely? I’d argue it’s more Mann than Peckinpah myself. Peckinpah is like Tarantino. He’s a director of extremes. He wants to take you, the viewer, on a ride. See how far you’re prepared to go. Mann is more interested in taking his characters on a ride, is far more interested in the psychology of the rider than any presupposed cinematic taboos. Which is partially why the deeply psychological The Proposition is far more Mann than Peckinpah. But there’s more to it than that. Think about the plot of the film: Guy Pearce stars as an outlaw (so, one would think a bad guy) given a chance to save his brother’s life by bringing his elder (psychotic) brother to justice. Which places a tick in the ambivalent ‘are they good / are they bad?’ box, whilst at the same time creating a situation that one would think has to be resolved by violence. The Proposition also features a classic Mann archetype in the form of Ray Winstone, who features as the local law enforcement, as weak a patriarch as Mann ever conjured.

Take another example: Seraphim Falls, an absolutely classic modern western that appears to have more or less slipped beneath the box office radar, despite the fact that it’s just about everything you would want from a film, western or otherwise. Within seconds of opening, the film has one of its central protagonists, Gideon (a career best Pierce Brosnan) shot in the arm and rolling down a mountainside as a small posse led by Liam Neeson’s Morsman Carver give chase. The counterpoint is established: outlaw, possibly, and law enforcement, possibly – but of course it isn’t as simple as that. Although cast from war and capable of terrific atrocity (carving the intestines out of man and beast alike at various points in the film), Gideon is a complex and haunted individual; Liam Neeson on the other hand is coolly officious in his manner and treatment of both his men and his quarry. But these roles shift and change as the film progresses and you learn more of what drives each man.

3.10 to Yuma, James Mangold’s reimagining of Delmer Daves’ 1957 adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s novel goes one step further, pitting the always-watchable Christian Bale (as a crippled Civil War vet shacked up with an unhappy wife and a contemptuous son) against Russell Crowe (who appears to be enjoying something of a renaissance himself with this and the equally excellent American Gangster), a ruthless villain on the run from the law with his gang following his 22nd robbery. Any notion of Bale as the hero is quickly compromised when he aligns himself with the Southern Pacific Railroad who want to take his land and a vicious Indian slaughtering bounty hunter played by Peter Fonda. Ambiguous compromise, less than clear cut motivation, the remorseless overtones of Greek tragedy – they’re all here and they’re all taken straight from the rule book set down by Anthony Mann almost fifty years previously.

Even The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, is suitably Mann-ian in that it sets out (from the title down) to debunk a popular myth and show things how they really were (something that Sam Fuller aimed to do in 1948 with I Shot Jesse James only to have his hands tied by the studio, people at that time preferring the rosy tint to reality).

So. You could do worse than check out any of these recent westerns. They’re all worth a view but I’d recommend Seraphim Falls and The Proposition in particular as movies any seasoned film buff should be ashamed not to have caught yet. When you have checked these out, though, it strikes me that you’d be well-served by checking out the source of much of their pleasures: any western directed by Anthony Mann, the long-neglected, forgotten king of the movie western.

 

 

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