I watched this movie, along with Ashes and Diamonds, while waiting last year for my girlfriend to show up at my apartment and for the two of us to embark on what would become a seven-hour separation that I’m surprised to find is still dimly grueling to remember. So I won’t go on about it. But I guess people always say that about their smaller traumas; “I’ll spare you the details” becomes a prologue to the slow drip of those verysame details. I only mention it because it’s one of those life events that shrouds a movie you watched at the time. The two become inseparable in your mind.
And so when I was watching Man of the West, another western from director Anthony Mann, what I saw as an echo of my own situation was the way that there’s no hope in it once the story’s gears are turning. It’s one of those bleak and meditative yarns where the hero’s goal is just to mitigate damage, escape a bad situation.
There’s nothing to gain, in other words.
Nobody will really win.
Gary Cooper plays a good wholesome guy who’s taking a bag of money, via train, back to his small wholesome town where—virtue abounding—he’ll reunite with his family and hire a schoolteacher. The money gets stolen and he chases it to the hideout of a shady lecherous gang over whom his estranged uncle presides. The uncle’s played by a gloriously menacing Lee J. Cobb, who at this point on the List is up there with Henry Fonda and Kirk Douglas as one of my favorite actors.
Turns out that Cobb, back in the day, was training Cooper to become his equal inc rime so that they could some day rob the proverbial Bank of Banks and runoff with the biggest payday ever.
But Cooper bailed. Played it straight.
Now, with a prospective school teacher named Bille Ellis (Julie London, whose song “Nice Girls Don’t Stay for Breakfast” is one of my favorites) as a hostage, along with the funds to hire her, Cooper is blackmailed into participating in that belated heist.
There’s a feeling of heart-sinking desolation for the viewer (this one, at least) when we find in the third act that the bank, along with the town that houses it, is dead. Vacant. Nothing to steal and nobody to steal it from.
A shootout ensues, and covers lots of ground, between the good guy and his captors; wherein, naturally, the good guy prevails—but not before the hostage, London, is raped and beaten.
Without romance, our heroes go their separate ways. Lucky to be alive, but both of them irreparably worse off for the experience (that such an analogy might be drawn to the breakup I endured a few hours after watching .
Now there are Guy Movies with similar plots to this, where the action is engorged and you can almost see the director’s pearl of precum glinting off the camera lens, but most of those movies tend to reward their heroes with riches and sex; or sometimes, like in Silver Lode, with apology, the groveling of those who mistook him—which is a kind of fantasy fulfillment in itself, that the world should come to apologize for having ever doubted your virtue or greatness. When the reward is taken out of the equation, the movie feels more grizzled. The promise of reward for one’s masculine heroism is made to seem juvenile by comparison. But there is still, I think, a conceit in such doom-laden action movies, suggestive, with their abrupt and brutal violence, of a gritty realness.
But I like such movies quite a bit. Writer-director Taylor Sheridan has recently made two very strong ones with Hell or High Water and Wind River, both of which I wholly recommend (albeit with a caveat that Wind River is emotionally grueling).
This movie is directed by Anthony Mann, who’s appeared on the List so far with two other westerns: The Naked Spur and Winchester 73—and while the former didn’t make much of an impression on me, the latter is a personal favorite. Probably my favorite western on the List beside Red River. And the reason I love it so much is because of its structure, which is something I seldom consider with respect to movies on the List. You get the feeling with Winchester 73 that Anthony Mann is riding his own story wherever it cares to go. There’s something softly subversive about it.
And I think the same can be said here of Man of the West. Even just looking at the title: if Cooper is a model for the western man, the American man, what we see is somebody with a very ugly past, the capacity to do horrible shit, and an obligation to his people. Is this a manifestation of postwar shame?
For me it’s just a manifestation of heartbreak.