When you think of films about the passing of the old west and the shrinking of the frontier it’s examples from the late 1960s and 1970s that tend to spring to mind. As the western entered its own autumnal phase, the movies, perhaps quite naturally, turned their focus onto the gradual decline of the period they depicted. However, the sense of a way of life passing wasn’t confined to films of this time alone. Man Without a Star (1955) was made during the genre’s heyday, yet it tells the tale of a man driven ever further by the inexorable closing of the open range to seek out a place that offered the kind of freedom he once took for granted. This is a fascinating and emotive theme, and it runs throughout the film, but it’s diluted somewhat by a script that has the hero behaving in a way that, while entirely appropriate within the framework of the classic western, sees him contradicting his own personal philosophy.
Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) is a drifter, as the title suggests, a man who’s lost or perhaps never had a point of reference to guide him through life. His wanderings have taken him ever further from his roots in search of an elusive idyll. He waxes lyrical about the open range that used to allow men to go wherever their fancy took them, and thinks he may have stumbled upon his goal when he finds himself hired on as a hand on an expanding ranch. But that’s not to be; the barbed wire that signals the end of the vast expanses of untamed country are never far behind. No sooner has Rae settled into this comfortable position than the neighbouring ranchers start to string wire and close off the land to protect their grazing from the encroachment of his employer. That employer is Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain), a hard headed woman from the east who intends to make her fortune no matter what obstacles are thrown in her path. After some initial hostility, she sees Rae as the man on whom she can depend on both a professional and personal level. And so Rae becomes Reed’s top hand, her lover, and her enforcer. That ought to be more than enough to occupy any man, but Rae has also taken on a kind of paternal role for a young man, Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), who has drifted north with him. It’s the arrival, with more cattle to swell Reed’s already substantial herd, of an old acquaintance of Rae’s that tips the balance though. Steve Miles (Richard Boone) is a mean and dangerous figure who’s prepared to take the ruthless steps that Rae baulked at, and will force his rival onto the sidelines. Miles’ actions force Rae’s hand and he has no option but to reconsider his previous prejudices. This, naturally, is par for the course in a western but it does have the effect of making Rae’s character less focused – he smoothly crosses the line to defend those whose methods he once railed against. Here we see a man who has suffered personal loss, whose body is crossed by the scars left behind by the hated wire, yet one who is prepared to forget all that and side with his former enemies as a result of his dislike of Miles and his methods. It builds Rae up into a hero of course, but it also cops out to a degree. I can’t help feeling that the story might have panned out into something more interesting and subversive had the character of Rae been allowed to stick to his guns and go down fighting rather than yield to the advance of progress.
I haven’t seen a huge number of King Vidor’s films, especially not his early output. However, of those I have seen (six or seven pictures I guess), I must admit they all look great. Man Without a Star is no exception in that regard, there’s a richness to the images on show that’s extremely attractive. Clearly, having a top class cameraman like Russell Metty on hand didn’t hurt, and the result is some very well staged sequences. The climactic stampede, leading to the fight between Douglas and Boone, is a good example of this. Kirk Douglas’ performance in the movie is what I’d term a patchy one and not really up there with the best he was capable of. At times, he produces the kind of intensity that marked his more memorable roles, while at other moments he resorts to something akin to a parody of himself. In the same way that his character arc, which I mentioned before, doesn’t entirely satisfy, the jump from brooding, hair trigger moodiness to comedic mugging fails to flow naturally. In fact, the comic interludes are perhaps the least successful aspects of the film. At one appalling point, William Campbell strolls into the saloon done up in the kind of outfit that might have given Bob Hope pause for reflection in The Paleface, leading to some merciless ribbing from Douglas. The thing is though that it doesn’t actually work as it just feels forced and it jars. Scenes such as this don’t blend in with the rest of the movie and seem like they’ve been ported over from an entirely different production. What does succeed is the needling relationship between Douglas and Richard Boone, whose work generated some discussion on this site a few weeks back. Personally, I found myself yearning for more screen time for Boone and considerably less for Mr Campbell. Another positive aspect is the role played by Jeanne Crain. The traditional western template equates the feminine with domesticity, pacifism and a civilising influence. Man Without a Star, on the other hand, sees this truism overturned. Ms Crain exudes a sassy antagonism, sat on her buckboard, skirts hitched high and hat at a provocatively rakish angle. It is she, rather than the meek, male neighbouring ranchers, who takes on the role of aggressor and advocate of the open range that characterised the real wildness of the old west.
As far as I’m aware, Man Without a Star is currently available on DVD from three sources, and all of them bear some imperfections. There’s a French release that presents the movie, I believe, in a 4:3 aspect ratio and forces subtitles on the English track. There are also versions out in Germany and Australia, both of which have the movie in the correct 2:1 ratio. I’ve only seen some screencaps of the German disc but it appears that the colours have been drained and the overall result is a drab and flat looking image. I have the Australian DVD, which offers far richer colours yet looks like it may be interlaced. Despite that, the R4 version is a generally pleasing effort and I can’t say I was aware of any print damage or other distractions. The disc is completely barebones – no extras, no subtitles, not even a menu that I can locate. All in all, Man Without a Star is an imperfect film; it looks good and explores some interesting themes, but there’s an uneven quality to both the writing and lead performance that weaken it slightly. Even so, it’s an above average production that deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in westerns of the period.