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The Man from Laramie

12 May

In 1950 James Stewart and Anthony Mann embarked on a series of groundbreaking and influential westerns that would play a significant role in shaping the evolution of the genre. Mann’s visual and narrative sense, honed by years spent producing tight and economical noir thrillers, and the painful angst that Stewart seemed to tap effortlessly into following his wartime experiences combined to push the western in new and exciting directions. Within five years though, this rich partnership had run its course and both men would go their separate ways. The Man from Laramie (1955) was to be the last picture they completed together, and it both built upon and expanded on the themes explored in their earlier collaborations. All of Mann and Stewart’s films exhibit a powerful intensity in the characterization, but The Man from Laramie adds a touch of violent sadism to the mix to achieve an even more potent result.

Once again we have a saga of a man seeking revenge, recompense for a loss he has suffered at the hands of others. Will Lockhart (James Stewart) is the titular character, a man whose real background is only revealed gradually throughout the course of the story and never fully even by the end. He’s first seen hauling a load of freight from Laramie to the small town of Coronado, but a brief stop on the way lets us know that his real purpose is something else. This short, early scene is a fine example of how a skillful filmmaker can impart vital plot details economically and with resorting to dialogue-heavy exposition. We’re shown Lockhart wandering round the burnt out remains of an army patrol that was ambushed and massacred by the Apache. All this information is gleaned from the visual clues and the telling use of some music cues. The way Lockhart gazes wistfully at the charred hat of a fallen soldier makes it clear that the events which unfolded at that lonely spot have some deep, personal significance for him. In time, it’s revealed that Lockhart’s younger brother was among the slain, and his reason for coming to Coronado is to find the man or men who brought about his death by supplying the Apache with repeating rifles. Before he can make any progress with his investigation, he finds himself drawn into conflict with the most powerful man in the territory. An unexpected and violent encounter with Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), the petulant and vindictive son of a local rancher, appears to temporarily distract Lockhart from his primary goal. However, as he’s drawn deeper into the complex relationship between Dave, his father (Donald Crisp) and top hand Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy), it begins to dawn on Lockhart that this curious family arrangement may be connected to his own quest. Again in a 50s western, there’s an examination of the father/son dynamic and how men interact with other men. Alongside all this, there’s the inclusion of quasi-religious symbolism through the suffering and humiliation Lockhart has to endure – being bound and dragged through flames, and then the brutal mutilation of his hand that invokes overtones of crucifixion and the stigmata.

Philip Yordan and Frank Burt’s screenplay is beautifully constructed, with three strands playing out simultaneously and then folding neatly together to form the whole. Lockhart, Vic and Dave are all essentially men in search of some anchor in their existence, all homeless creatures to some extent. Lockhart never says where he comes from, claiming that home is wherever he finds himself; Vic has been taken in by old Alec Waggoman and treated like a surrogate son, but he’s aware that he’s an outsider and never quite comfortable or sure of his place in the world; and Dave is the overgrown boy who knows in his heart that he’s fallen far short of his tough father’s expectations. For both Lockhart and Vic, there appears to be the possibility of salvation or some grounding in the person of Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), but Dave is essentially a lost cause. These three also share a common character trait in that all of them are given to extremes of emotion under the right circumstances. At various times during the picture we get to see all of these men driven into situations where their balance is tested, and ultimately their ability or lack of it to rein in their feelings is the factor which will determine who emerges victorious.

Anthony Mann’s typical motifs are again in evidence in The Man from Laramie, particularly the idea of characters climbing and driving themselves to ever higher places. The structure of the movie follows this pattern, with the early scenes played out in the lowlands (especially the salt flats where Lockhart has his initial run in with Dave) before reaching its climax high among the barren rocks. Mann used this visual metaphor time and again to indicate both the struggle of his characters to reach up for something just beyond their grasp and to let the audience know when the point of redemption has been achieved. It also has the effect of distancing the men from the mundane, seeing them rise above the everyday concerns to do battle in lofty and remote locations. In fact, almost all the significant confrontations take place in isolated spots (the exception being the brawl in Coronado) which emphasises the private nature of their conflict. Mann, with cameraman Charles Lang, makes the most of both the New Mexico locations and the CinemaScope lens to blend character and landscape into a tough, lonely vision of the west. The only concessions to civilization come in the interior scenes in the homes of Barbara and Kate (Aline MacMahon), where the feminine influence softens the ruggedness that dominates elsewhere.

The Man from Laramie saw James Stewart taking another turn around the darker corners of his own personality. Where The Naked Spur had him portray a man filled with self-disgust at what he had become, this movie concentrates less on the negative aspects of the character. Lockhart is another lonely and driven figure but the anger and hatred that simmer just below the surface aren’t directed inwards. As such, this is a more straightforward and traditional characterization, albeit an especially intense one. The sudden outbursts of violence that punctuate the movie act as the trigger that sees Lockhart’s emotional balance tilted. I don’t know what demons Stewart let loose at these moments but the result is certainly mightily effective on film. There’s something quite startling about the way his eyes take on a desperate, maniacal cast and his voice fails him at these moments. In the middle of the brawl with Dave and later when his hand is mercilessly maimed, Stewart almost appears a man possessed. In contrast, Arthur Kennedy starts out as a much more composed character, tough but always in control. However, as the story progresses, and the pressure on all concerned mounts, cracks begin to appear too. Kennedy was playing a man who was much more self-absorbed than Lockhart, yet an equally volatile one given the right circumstances. He’s very good at channeling the kind of guilt and shifty paranoia that’s entirely appropriate for a character deeply uncertain about his position in life. No matter how many times I watch the film I can never make up my mind about Alex Nicol’s Dave. At times I feel he’s indulging in a piece of shouty overacting, and at others I’m convinced he’s really nailed the spoiled and perverse nature of his character – an odd yet interesting performance. Donald Crisp was a seasoned old pro who could handle a part like the aging and weakening Alec Waggoman in his sleep by this stage in his career. And now to the women in the movie: Aline MacMahon and Cathy O’Donnell. The former takes on the maternal duties in the film, ministering to men who have been damaged both physically and psychologically. O’Donnell, on the other hand, represents what would normally be termed the love interest, but this isn’t much of a romance. The only love that’s on view is the rough paternal kind that has warped both Vic and Dave. I think the roles of both MacMahon and O’Donnell, whose spinster lifestyles mirror each other, exist mainly to emphasise the emptiness of lives wasted waiting on men who are unattainable.

The UK DVD of The Man from Laramie from Columbia/Sony has been on the market for a long time now. The movie is presented in anamorphic scope and it’s a reasonable enough transfer, but a revisit wouldn’t hurt as I feel the colour can be a little inconsistent at times. The film saw Stewart and Mann’s partnership end on a high note and it’s one of the best of their collaborations. Some may claim it is their strongest work together, but I’m undecided. I still feel that The Naked Spur is difficult to surpass – it’s a tighter story, smaller and more self-contained, with greater depth and realism to Stewart’s character. Nevertheless, The Man from Laramie remains one of the great westerns to come out in the 50s and it’s capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with any of its rivals. It’s a fantastic piece of work, rich in drama and complexity, that never loses its appeal and encourages analysis. Very highly recommended.

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28 Comments

Posted by on May 12, 2012 in 1950s, Anthony Mann, James Stewart, Westerns

 

28 responses to “The Man from Laramie

  1. Cavershamragu

    May 12, 2012 at 9:57 am

    Excellent review Curt. I like all the Mann / Stewart film (even THE GLENN MILLER STORY) but I’ve always been especially partial to MAN FROM LARAMIE probably because it is a bit less tightly constructed than THE NAKED SPUR. That is to say, it has a slightly allusive quality – apart from a basic narrative which is similar to KING LEAR it is also reminiscent of OEDIPUS REX with its sense of destiny and the old man going blind. A lot of the motivation tends to be deliberately obscure in terms of quite how we are meant to feel about old man Waggoman and the fact that he lies to Vic, who is clearly the most interesting character in the film, but which suggests something ‘other’ going on behind the scenes and which somehow matches the grandeur of the CinemaScope imagery. When I first saw this movie as a teen I remember very clearly how frustrated I felt, albeit in a good way, about Vic’s eventual turn to the ‘dark side’ – how his downfall (which as you so rightly point out follows that geographic pattern established in WINCHESTER 73) seemed so cruel since he was much less obviously a villain than the violent dunderhead Dave. And it has those great set-pieces – that long tracking shot as Lockhart walks towards Dave for their punch up is a brilliant bit of dynamic staging.

    Love the poster by the way – that sequence when the hand is shot will forever be seared in my brain – amazingly violent for its day!

     
    • Colin

      May 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm

      Cheers Sergio. Donald Crisp’s character is very ambiguous and it certainly is hard to know how we’re supposed to take him. At times he’s quite sympathetic, yet at others you feel he’s getting exactly what he deserves. He is, I think, an essentially manipulative figure and the most striking result of that aspect is the way Vic turns out. I know what you mean about the bitter feel of discovering Vic is actually a villain; to this day, I still feel kind of uncomfortable about that. Then again, Mann’s movies seemed to specialize in creating that sense of discomfort in viewers – Man of the West really presses that issue home.

      I love that tracking shot of Stewart striding forth for his confrontation with Dave; it really shows how well Mann understood the scope process and how to achive the greatest impact from his compositions.

      As for the poster, I deliberately picked that one as it seems to sum up the whole feel of the movie perfectly.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        May 12, 2012 at 1:22 pm

        Partly of course it’s just because Arthur Kennedy was a sensational actor so he probably makes the tortured aspects of the character really come alive. Had it been a lesser actor in many ways the role could perhaps have been played more conventionally. But, without taking anything away from Stewart, who blossomed in such unexpected ways as an actor in the 50s, Kennedy also has the more interesting role in that we get to really experience his sense of frustration and betrayal while Stewart’s motivation is mostly buried in the past and of course, as in WINCHESTER 73, is initially meant to be a bit of a mystery anyway.

        In the Mann westerns the so-called villains are rarely two-dimensional figures, rather people who feel they have very good reasons to justify their actions.

         
        • Colin

          May 12, 2012 at 1:31 pm

          Yes, Kennedy wasn’t the right “type” to carry a film as the lead, but he excelled as morally dubious supporting characters. He was very memorable as Errol Flynn’s rival in They Died With Their Boots On and again added an extra dimension to what could have been a drab role had someone else played it.

          I agree that Mann’s villains tend to be very interestng figures – there’s a similarity to Boetticher’s work in that respect.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            May 12, 2012 at 1:48 pm

            Yup, I agree completely about Boetticher – Boone’s character in THE TALL T for instance could certainly have been in any of the Mann westerns. There was apparently a falling out between Stewart and Mann though I don’t know any of the details. Shame as they seemed to bring out the best in each other.

             
            • Colin

              May 12, 2012 at 2:08 pm

              The split apparently happened during production of Night Passage but it’s hard to ascertain the exact reasons why. There was a bit of chat about it on the HTF here a few years back but nothing concrete.

               
              • Cavershamragu

                May 12, 2012 at 2:14 pm

                Thanks for the links Colin – I remember reading an interview with Borden Chase where it was alluded to and seemed very much to be Stewart’s decision to no longer use Mann. Still, with the main exception of STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND, there are half a dozen terrific movies there to cherish. More than enough to be grateful for.

                 
                • Colin

                  May 12, 2012 at 2:18 pm

                  Yeah. And at least the partnership came to an end with a great movie rather than petering out with something mediocre.

                   
                  • Bruce H.

                    June 19, 2012 at 4:22 pm

                    The story as I heard it is that both Mann and Stewart were slated to begin work on “Night Passage” but Mann pulled out for some reason, possibly because he felt he was repeating himself, who knows. Stewart felt this was extremely unprofessional since Mann had already committed to making the film, and they didn’t speak for many years afterward. They did reconcile before Mann died in 1967, and Stewart had nothing but praise for the director on his “Winchester 73″ commentary.

                     
                    • Colin

                      June 19, 2012 at 6:49 pm

                      Hi Bruce. I doubt if we’ll ever get confirmation now as to what happened or what the exact reasons were.

                       
                    • Mike

                      July 28, 2012 at 2:07 pm

                      Hi Colin – finally caught up with this one (it’s on the telly tomorrow). TCM proposed that Mann backed out of Night Passage because of its perceived weak script, but the decisions of both men to end their working relationship – presumably terminally – seems a bit extreme. Perhaps neither appreciated just how strong the results of their partnership were at the time.

                      In any event, I thought this was great and I think I preferred it to The Naked Spur. The influence of King Lear on the plot, as mentioned by Sergio, was something I got, but what really nailed it for me was the performances and I love your mention of the panic in James Stewart’s eyes. By the end, I got the impression of men who realised they’d gone way further than they ever intended, the fear and confusion suggesting they had no idea quite how they’d reached that point.

                      Arthur Kennedy might be even better. He suggests he’s got it all or at least everything worked out, but over the course of the picture realises just how weak his position really is – the moral downfall of his character is just superbly conveyed.

                       
                    • Colin

                      July 30, 2012 at 10:29 pm

                      Hi Mike, it’s such a well acted movie by all concerned, though the two leads really get their teeth into their roles. The intensity of the playing is a large part of what makes Mann’s movies so memorable.

                       
  2. Jeff Flugel

    May 12, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Terrific and detailed review of one of the best of the Mann-Stewart collaborations, Colin! I know The Naked Spur is considered superior by many, but to my mind The Man From Laramie is far richer thematically, with a lot more care given to fleshing out the supporting characters. Robert Ryan is very good in Spur, but I find a lot more nuance in Donald Crisp’s and Arthur Kennedy’s performances in Laramie. I love both films, but Laramie is the one I revisit the most often, along with my personal favorite, Bend of the River (Kennedy again on great form there).

    I especially liked your examination of Stewart’s performance; he really does some extraordinary work here. It’s rare to see an actor at this time period and in this genre bringing such unbridled raw emotion to the screen. I think people tend to focus on the “aw shucks” everyman side of Stewart, but he was able to mine much more complicated, dark territory while maintaining his innate humanity and likeability.

     
    • Colin

      May 12, 2012 at 12:48 pm

      Hi Jeff. As I said in reply to Sergio, there is a vagueness about Crisp’s role that makes it very intriguing. I guess it is really just nonsense saying that this or that movie is the better one – all of the Mann & Stewart westerns are high quality stuff and worthy of their status. I suppose I have a fondness for lean and tightly constructed pieces in general, hence my championing of The Naked Spur.

       
  3. Cavershamragu

    May 12, 2012 at 11:47 am

    PS By the way Colin, apologies for my floral early morning brain – don’t know who this Curt guys is …

     
    • Colin

      May 12, 2012 at 12:49 pm

      Ha! My evil twin perhaps. :)

       
      • Cavershamragu

        May 12, 2012 at 1:23 pm

        Feel free to call me Loretta all day today (if it’s good enough for Eric Idle …)

         
  4. le0pard13

    May 12, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    Another excellent film examination, Colin. So glad you’ve now completed my favorite three of theirs: Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur, and this. Tell me, do you have plans to do Bend of the River and The Far Country any time soon? Well done and thanks for this.

     
    • Colin

      May 12, 2012 at 6:42 pm

      Thanks for that Michael. I plan to get round to the other two Mann/Stewart movies but I can’t say exactly when. In the past I’ve run some series, but I’m the kind of person who tends to thrive on the disorganized approach to most things and setting myself targets too far ahead drives me nuts. :)
      Let’s just say I’ll feature them in the not too distant future.

       
  5. jeffro517

    May 12, 2012 at 8:02 pm

    I love this review. I have also reviewed this film amongst scores of other Jimmy Stewart movies out there. This one has a sinister side to it that really comes from Mann and his great directing. Stewart took on the role and made it great. The partnership is historic and wonderful.

     
    • Colin

      May 12, 2012 at 8:10 pm

      Thanks for that. I know your own fondness for Stewart and movies in general and those words are very much appreciated.
      Historic is a fine way to describe Stewart and Mann’s work together – the contribution both of them made to the development of the western is immeasurable.

       
  6. billyriel1971

    May 12, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    Thanks for your review of this film, Colin. I am struck by that poster for the film…..it has a lurid, almost pulp novel-like quality. It’s quite striking for a mainstream movie poster from that era.

    Chad
    http://www.westernsreboot.com

     
    • Colin

      May 13, 2012 at 5:26 am

      Hi Chad. The poster definitely has that pulpy appearance about it. It seems to have been adapted from the original US artwork but goes for a much darker feel.

       
  7. Toby

    May 15, 2012 at 2:09 pm

    You brought up something that really strikes me about these Mann/Stewart pictures, along with many other 50s Westerns: the way a character’s back story is handed to us in small pieces over the course of the film — and not through pages and pages of dialogue.

    Burt Kennedy’s Ranown scripts are great examples of this, too. It shows the craft these people had developed, usually from simply writing a lot of scripts. Real on-the-job training.

    Nothing annoys me more than when a picture comes to a halt in order to shovel on some more exposition. It seems lazy and it’s a terrible way to pace a film.

     
    • Colin

      May 15, 2012 at 6:51 pm

      Yeah, reams of expository dialogue kills a story in its tracks. Experienced screenwriters, as these guys were for the most part, knew that too much information on a plate just slows everything down and negates the drama. Bits and pieces as you go along, enough to ensure the viewers are aware of who is who and what is what, doesn’t damage the pace and actually keeps the interest alive.

       
  8. raymie

    May 24, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    Hello everyone.I found this wonderful piece colin wrote a week and a half late but I am greatly impressed with it.The imbB states that anthony mann was annoyed with night passage because he did not like audie murphy’s acting.Odd because night passage was universal international and audie’s to hell and back was their biggest hit for twenty years.Anyone viewing the unforgiven with audie as cash zachary can see what audie could deliver with a good director.I have read that after eight films in five years,mr.stewart was tired of mann’s cussing and possibly overbearing attitude.I do not see the correlation between mann saying he did not want to visit the same territory again and again in his filming projects.Mann had did the furies,devil’s doorway and a western with victor mature besides the five with mr.stewart with none having to do with the railroad,a young boy or an accordian.This script and setting seemed new turf in some respects and considering the fact he was just a few years away from a cimmaron remake,it makes even less sense.My logic of mann’s replacement stems from the fact that mr.stewart had did a g.e.electric half hour western entitled the windmill and had used james nielson and nielson directed night passage.For the rest of his life mr.stewart when talking about the mann films always referred to him as the director.He did not call him by name.Mr.stewart had lead actress approval for his films and a clause that he wore the hat he wanted to so It stands to reason that he had the power to let anthony mann go and choose a new director.

     
    • Colin

      May 24, 2012 at 6:45 pm

      Hi Raymie. I agree that whatever the reasons for the split were, I doubt Murphy’s acting ability came into it. Sure, he made some humdrum efforts, but that was often due to uninspired scripts and so on. Night Passage, No Name on the Bullet and The Unforgiven show he was very good when the circumstances were right.

       

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