Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on Sue’s Mother’s Day gift.
Roger Ebert died today, which is completely shitty. I kind of didn’t want to post anything because of it, because we’ve truly lost a giant and a real inspiration. Would I have started reviewing movies without Ebert? In the long sense, no. It was Ebert along with Gene Siskel who made me think that being a geek for movies was okay. They made it socially acceptable to nerd out over this stuff. But then I thought I should put up a review. Ebert worked pretty much until the day he died. Reviewing a film today is the best way to honor the man who has been an inspiration to me and almost every reviewer and critic I know.
Evidently, director Anthony Mann and James Stewart collaborated a total of eight times, five of them Westerns. The Man from Laramie was the last of their collaborations, and according to the text on the back of the DVD case, the best of them. Going in, I had my doubts; a Western needs to be more than just well-made to rank above Winchester ‘73 in my books. This is a pretty standard horse and saddle picture, in a lot of respects. We’ve got cattlemen and people trying to keep more land than they need, bullies, natives, and a revenge plot. What more could a picture ask for?
Will Lockhart (Stewart) rides into the town of Coronado, a town at the crossroads of No and Where. Lockhart and his team are from Laramie, and their bringing in three wagonloads of freight that have been ordered for the general store. The owner of that store is Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), who was kind of hoping to close up shop. Lockhart would rather not return to Laramie with empty wagons. Barbara tells him that there are salt flats nearby and he can load up a cargo of salt there.
Lockhart and his men go, but are interrupted by a gang from a nearby ranch, the leader of which claims the salt is theirs. This guy is Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), cousin of Barbara in town and the owner of a terrible temper. As a lesson to Will’s “theft” of free salt, he has him dragged behind a horse, then sets fire to Will’s wagons and shoots 12 of his mules. As we continue to learn through the film, subtlety and moderation are not in Dave’s vocabulary. The only thing that stops Dave from killing everyone in a rifle-shooting frenzy is the sudden appearance of Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy), who is marginally in charge of Dave.
Of course, things fester. Will is approached by Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon) to work for her to prevent the Waggomans from taking her land, too. He’s also contacted by Waggoman patriarch Alec (Donald Crisp) and offered a job. What Will really wants, though, is to find out the person responsible for his brother’s death. Someone has been marketing repeating rifles to the Apache, and Will’s brother was killed in an Apache ambush by someone using a repeater. There’s all sorts of revenge taking place, too. Everyone wants to get back at everyone else, and no one is more hot for revenge than Dave Waggoman.
The Man from Laramie is surprisingly complicated for a film that seems to be a straight mystery/revenge picture. I mean, once we and Will Lockhart find out who the killer is, it makes perfect sense that he’ll track the responsible party down, pump a couple of shots into him, and ride on. There’s far more here than that, though.
To put it mildly, this is one of the most mean-spirited films I have ever seen, and almost all of this falls squarely onto the characters of Dave Waggoman and Vic Hansbro, especially Dave. He’s flat out evil and is so in a way that is almost cartoonish. The initial confrontation between Dave and Will is really ugly, and while this does well to set up the characters in opposition, it’s also almost too much to be believed. It’s not so much what happens, but the proportion of what happens.
Because of this, The Man from Laramie plays as an extreme melodrama for a great deal of its running time, and that’s always a little difficult to take very seriously. Oh, the characters certainly take everything seriously, and as the film progresses and we learn what’s going on, we understand why it’s all so deadly serious for Will, and we know what’s going on with Vic, but Dave’s insane level of possessiveness and anger is never adequately explained.
I do like the where it goes in terms of plot, though. It takes us a bit of time to learn that Will is investigating the death of his brother, killed at the hands of the Apache. We discover that Will’s investigation is not merely into that, but into who is selling repeating rifles to the Apache—an investigation that leads him directly to Vic and Dave. This is at least interesting and certainly worth basing the film on. So I buy the motivations of everyone involved. I just don’t specifically buy how completely out of their mind everyone seems to be most of the time.
So is it the best Western of Mann and Stewart? Not by a long shot. Will Lockhart turns out to still be too much the man in a white hat and his nemeses are too much men in black hats for me to really buy as much into the story as I need to for the film to work. It’s best feature is the wide-open landscape shot beautifully; this is a pretty film if nothing else. It just needs characters that work in its context.
Why to watch The Man from Laramie: Huge landscapes shot perfectly.
Why not to watch: It’s a live-action cartoon in terms of character actions.