Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Sagebrush and Sadism

Film: Man of the West
Format: DVD from Bettendorf Public Library through interlibrary loan on kick-ass DVD player.

Something there is about a Western that loves the touch of melodrama. Most of them, and especially the early ones, have that sense of good versus evil going on, but it’s more than just that. While cattle rustlers, land barons, and shady railroad companies exist in abundance, there is a particular naivety that goes with the old Western. Good guys win because they’re good guys and bad guys lose despite any lowdown sneaky tricks. Classic Westerns aren’t so much about realism but about reinforcing that idea of two-fisted honor.

Westerns changed, of course. One need look no further than directors like Peckinpah and Leone to see films in the genre that didn’t hold to those clich├ęs. Films like Winchester ‘73 made strides into bringing the genre heroes into places more akin to reality, but I’m going to nominate Man of the West, Gary Cooper’s last great role and one of Anthony Mann’s best films as a starting point for stories that might not be so appropriate for kids in the genre.

The story is a simple enough one, and fairly standard fare for Westerns. Link Jones (Cooper) is an ex-outlaw who has reformed his ways. He boards a train headed for Fort Worth with a sack of money intended to be used to hire a schoolteacher for his little community. Also on the train is Billie Ellis (Julie London), a singer leaving town for greener pastures and a gambler named Beasley (Arthur O’Connell).

Sadly for everyone involved, the train is robbed, and our trio is left behind when the train rides off. More to the point for Link, his satchel of money is missing. With no other option, Link, Billie, and Beasley start walking down the track until they come to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. It turns out that this is the hideout of the trainrobbing gang. More seriously for Link, the gang is the old gang he used to ride with, led by his Uncle, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb). We learn quickly that this is not a simple gang of outlaws and bandits, but a group of sadists. Of these, the most particularly nasty is a man named Coaley (Jack Lord of Hawaii 5-0 fame under a couple of pounds of dirt and without the famous pompadour).

The plot hinges on Dock wanting to believe that Link is back in the gang and Dock’s dream of knocking over the wealthy bank in Lassoo. Things are complicated by the arrival of Claude (John Dehner), the last member of the gang and Link’s cousin. Claude doesn’t trust Link and thinks he’s up to something. And then there’s the problem of what to do about Billie. Link claims her to keep her safe, but there’s no protecting a pretty woman from deviants out in the middle of nowhere, is there?

Like I said, it’s pretty standard Western fare in a lot of respects. Where it is different is in not the execution of its simple plot, but in how far it goes. Billie is always a couple of moments away from complete degradation at the hands of Dock and Coaley. In fact, the moment she walks into the cabin, Coaley can’t contain himself and demands that she strip for his pleasure. The forced striptease—complete with Coaley holding Link hostage using a knife at his throat—is ugly and brutal. Just as brutal (and a real coming of age moment for the genre) happens when things finally spiral out of control between Link and Coaley. They fight, an extended beating for both men that ends with Link standing over the beaten Coaley and stripping him of his clothes, enacting his revenge by forcing him to live through what happened to Billie. There’s a real sense of justification in this, but also of sadism. As for what happens to Billie when Link isn’t around, it’s easily imagined, and while films today obviously go much further, even the implication in 1958 is pretty shocking.

Mann’s film was poorly received when it was released, and I’m not really that surprised. Like other films that break genre or push boundaries a good distance (Peeping Tom comes to mind), people simply weren’t ready for this. There’s a far cry between what Gene Autry did and Unforgiven, and Man of the West takes some pretty big steps in bridging that distance.

Mann was smart enough to go as far as he could, though. Late in the film, one of Dock’s men shoots a woman in Lassoo really for no reason other than that she was holding a gun and was nervous. Later, as Link rides out of the town, her husband appears and discovers that she is dead. Mann lingers here, and as Link rides away, we hear him shouting his wife’s name and crying over her body. It’s a moment that forces the audience to remember that even though this encounter for Link was about thinning the herd of Dock’s gang, other people with lives were affected by it. Link isn’t as innocent in this as he might want to believe. Even the minor characters have feelings, and their lives can be just as crushed by Dock Tobin’s savagery and sadism as anyone else.

If it goes too far anywhere, it’s in the character of Dock Tobin. I like Lee J. Cobb, but I didn’t really like him here. He’s far too scenery chewing. The man never talks in anything quieter than a dull roar. Coaley is far more menacing, even though he’s meant to be nothing but a thug. He’s much more evil and much more disturbing, and perhaps would have been a better villain rather than the drunk, vaguely demented old man.

This is a smart film, and an edgy one for its release date. I’m glad to have seen it.

Why to watch Man of the West: It’s far more badass than you expect a 1958 Western to be.
Why not to watch: Dock Tobin is an annoying asshole.

4 comments:

  1. That scene in Lassoo where the man finds his wife killed is totally heartbreaking. It is such a small detail, but symptomatic for the brutality of this film. No wonder this was difficult to swallow in 58.

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    1. I agree, but it's also impossible to see this and not see how it's influenced pretty much every Western that has followed.

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  2. I DVRed Man of the West off THIS TV and watched it today.

    I liked it OK, especially Lee J. Cobb, John Dehner and Jack Lord.

    But it's nowhere near a good as Winchester 73, The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie or even The Far Country.

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    1. I agree completley. Jack Lord is the reason to watch this because it just seems so crazy!

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