Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Reginald Rose
Based on a Novel by: Will C. Brown
Starring: Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord
Producer: Walter M. Mirisch
Running Time: 100 min
BBFC Certificate: 12A
I’ve been enjoying my own mini western renaissance over the last couple of years. I’d always held a handful of westerns in high regard, with probably my all time favourite film (Once Upon a Time in the West) being from the genre, but I hadn’t considered myself a ‘fan’ until recently. My love of Leone was possibly part of the reason, steering me away from Hollywood westerns and towards the Italian ones, most of which are woefully unavailable in the UK. However, the last few years have opened my eyes to a number of true American greats and now I can proudly call myself a fully fledged western fan.
The film which began my new love affair with the west was Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73. I adored it and was pleased that most of the rest of the director’s collaborations with James Stewart were in same the DVD box set that housed it. My run of westerns since then has taken in classics from a variety of stars and directors too and I still haven’t been disappointed (other than with one or two less respected spaghetti westerns). I’ve been gathering whatever titles I can, whenever I see any on offer, and, looking up Mann’s filmography, I also liked the sound of one of his last westerns, Man of the West. I hadn’t got around to it though, until the PR guys behind the ever trustworthy Masters of Cinema series offered me a Blu-Ray screener of their new release of the film.
Man of the West stars Hollywood legend Gary Cooper as Link Jones, who enters a bustling town to take a train to Fort Worth, where he is to hire a teacher for his much smaller town. There’s a sense that he’s not the quiet do-gooder he claims though or so the local sheriff suspects. When the train gets hijacked by bandits and Link, motor-mouthed salesman Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and attractive bar-room singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) are thrown off and left to walk to the nearest town, we learn the truth about the mysterious man. He takes his two companions to his old home, where they find the gang of bandits that includes a couple of Link’s cousins and is led by none other than his uncle, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb). And so begins a tense power play between the ‘bad guys’ and Link, who wants to continue to go straight as he had been doing for many years, but has no choice but to play the hard man to avoid getting himself and his innocent friends killed.
My spotless run of classic westerns doesn’t look to stop anytime soon as I loved Man of the West. It really hit several of my sweet spots, not only with simply being a western, but by being a pared down genre film that doesn’t waste time and energy on superfluous side-plots or characters (although there are a fair few characters considering it’s largely a chamber piece). Link is the focus here and his ability to stand tall against the out dated values represented by his uncle and his cronies. This, like Once Upon a Time in the West and a number of other classic late 50’s/60’s westerns, is examining the end of the wild west. As well as Link’s determination to become a modern gentleman and follow the straight and narrow, you get a more comic scene at the beginning of the film, when Link sees his first train and struggles to fit into its cramped seats.
Mann and writer Reginald Rose’s (12 Angry Men) great strength is in allowing this depth and subtext whilst keeping actions on screen lean and deceptively simple. A couple of lines are a little on the nose perhaps, but largely this is a subtly brooding film which seems to motor along, despite not containing a great deal of activity. The key ‘big’ scenes, action or otherwise, either ratchet up the tension or explode with energy though. It’s a dark and nasty film for the era too, with a tense and disturbing scene of sexual assault proving particularly grim when the bandits force Billie to undress in front of them. A fist fight between Link and his cousin is cruelly drawn out and vicious too, with the two men pulling out every dirty move they can.
When the classic gunfights occur they’re spectacularly staged, with Mann making stunning use of his ultra-wide Cinemascope frames, mounting one-on-one face-offs and train/horse chases against the vast expanses of the countryside. It’s shocking to think that for years anyone watching this on TV (pre-flatscreen days) or VHS would have likely been subjected to a pan and scan picture, lopping off almost half the image.
Man of the West is the sort of taught, engrossing and finely crafted film that I instantly fall in love with and is helping build Anthony Mann up to be one of my ‘new’ favourite directors. The only reason I’m not giving it the full five stars is because I’m comparing it against some of the other cast iron classic westerns I’ve seen recently, one or two of which it marginally falls short against. Ask me again and it could easily get a perfect score though if I’m in the right mood.
Man of the West is out now in the UK on dual format Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. The picture quality is excellent as usual, with a clean, detailed picture and healthy natural grain. Audio is solid too.
You get a couple of decent special features too, on top of the standard theatrical trailer. First up is a feature commentary by critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme. This is very detailed and informative, moving at a brisk pace (other than a couple of minor stumbles at the start) as the two bounce off each other. Added to this is a 17 minute documentary on the film, made and presented by Douglas Pye. This too is very informative and well put together.
Of course, being a Masters of Cinema release, you also get a chunky leaflet in with the package. This contains a glowing review by none other than Jean-Luc Godard and a fairly lengthy essay by Robin Wood.