Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Man from Laramie

Anthony Mann's 1955 Western, The Man from Laramie, reminds us that films of this sort were once A-list entertainments with complicated and highly literate scripts.  Agon was important in the masculine, hyper-competitive fifties and The Man from Laramie teams with conflict of various kinds -- it has more characters clashing violently with one another than Antigone.  Indeed, just about everyone on-screen clashes with everyone else and the film is crammed with fistfights, shoot-outs, and violent declarations of anger or love or despair -- these speeches inflected with some of the passion of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams.  Jimmy Stewart is a teamster plotting murderous revenge on the man who sold Winchester repeater rifles to the local Apaches -- this weapon's deal has resulted in the death of his brother.  A loyal ranch hand clashes violently with the son of his employer, both men vying for the love of the patriarch of a ranch so large that "you can ride for three days in any direction without leaving" the property.  A matronly female rancher contends with the ranch patriarch -- ostensibly the quarrel is over rustled steers and ranch boundaries, but, actually, arises from thwarted love.  When Jimmy Stewart shoots the big ranch owner's son in the hand in one of the film's many gunfights, he is captured and his own hand shot off at point-blank range -- Jimmy Stewart, who suffers as beautifully and perpetually as Christ, howls with pain and his beautiful eyes roll like those of a martyr as he swoons during his torture.  Accused of killing the ranch-owner's son, Jimmy Stewart stands his ground with his long gun as the old man charges him on horseback, firing his revolver wildly because he has gone blind.  An ineffectual sheriff challenges everyone ineffectually and, lurking around the edges of the action, but unseen until the final five minutes, are the ultimate antagonists, the angry and ferocious Apache warriors who threaten the whole community with destruction.  (The main plot in the film involves the sale of repeater rifles to the Apaches, a story-line that seems related to the Rosenberg trial -- Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed for providing atomic secrets to the Communists; the characters in The Man from Laramie are defined in relationship to their willingness to supply the frontier equivalent of the atom bomb, the Winchester rifles, to the savage and implacable foe.)  We tend to forget how morally complex Westerns became in the 1950's -- The Man from Laramie is startling in that the villain killed at the end of the film was not a bad guy at the outset and was gradually backed into his evil deeds; accordingly, the death of this villain can't be interpreted as a kind of triumph -- the viewer is forced to recall that the bad guy killed at the climax was originally a good man, indeed, a hero in the narrative secondary in virtue only to the saint-like Jimmy Stewart.  Accordingly, the film plays as a sort of highly understated tragedy.  Furthermore, the director doesn't install any explicit speeches in the film to remind us that the character killed in the end was originally virtuous, courageous, and, even, noble -- we are expected to have attended with sufficient care to the plot to grasp that the outcome is tragic and can't be construed as a happy ending.  When the movie ends, the viewer is left with a number of troubling questions that can't be simply resolved. 

The Man from Laramie is handsomely shot in New Mexico.  One of the primary sets seems to be the pueblo at Taos.  The Indians and the landscapes are all authentic-looking and the interiors are beautifully designed.  The film reminds us that Hollywood's racism, particularly as it relates to Native Americans, was never monolithic or simple-minded -- the Apaches are portrayed as sympathetic, a curmudgeonly but loyal old man says proudly that he had an Apache mother, and the ranch-owner asserts that he has no problem with the Indians because he has treated them fairly, lets them hunt on his land, and has paid them for the property that he took from their tribe. (The film also takes great care to distinguish the Pueblo Indians, seen attending church in a handsome adobe chapel for the marauding Apaches.)  When the Apaches finally appear at the very end of the movie, of course, they are visualized as terrifying, the Other with guns and arrows -- when they surround and cut down the heroic cowboy who has become a villain, they blast him off his horse with a half-dozen shots from a Winchester, but, then, administer the coup de grace with an arrow thumping into the dying man's spine.  The acting is stylized and theatrical but uniformly excellent -- Donald Crisp, who played battling Burroughs in Broken Blossoms for D.W. Griffith in 1919, acts the part of the ranch owner with great and dignified authority:  he seems to embody not only the history of West, but the history of American cinema in his appearance in this film.  The landscapes are beautiful but appropriately stark -- we see vast badlands where a single rider, with obvious difficulty, picks his way across the stony waste; the scenes shot at the ranch houses luxuriate with the light and immense steppe-like distances of the open range -- we see cattle grazing, scattered across a half-dozen miles.  And there is a jagged mountain, with extraordinarily steep sides, that becomes as much a character in the film as any of the players -- at the end of the movie, you half-expect to see the mountain given credit since it is so prominent in the film's last hour.  The mountain has yellow crumbling cliffs and has to be approached on horseback via serpentine 45 degree uphill switchbacks and at the top of the peak, in a cool forest of pinon pine that you can almost smell -- I sensed the distinctive odor of the west:  warm pine sap oozing from trees in the high sierra in the cool shade -- there is a splendid view of what looks like all of the world. 

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