Anthony Mann is one of the greatest directors of Hollywood’s Golden Age and, while he worked across several different genres in his career, he is best remembered for his Westerns, especially the five he made with star James Stewart. For fans of Westerns who have never dipped into Mann’s classic oeuvre, here is my ranking of the eleven films he made in the genre.
11. THE LAST FRONTIER
I knew I was in trouble with The Last Frontier from the very first scene, in which a group of trappers are relieved of their possessions by Native Americans. The outdoor scene looked extremely artificial and boxed in, the screen overcrowded with activity. And then the acting started. At least I think it did. It’s amazing how destructive bad acting can be and in this case it rendered it impossible for me to tell if the screenplay was any good because it was being so badly performed. Sadly, as the film went on, it became apparent that the screenplay wasn’t up to much either. The Last Frontier was Anthony Mann’s first film after the incredible run of films he made with James Stewart, ending with the exemplary The Man from Laramie. By comparison, The Last Frontier feels instantly like a B-movie, and not one of the great ones that Mann made before his transition to A-pictures.
Though there are several reliable former Mann collaborators on hand, including writer Philip Yordan (The Man from Laramie, Reign of Terror) and cinematographer William C. Mellor (The Naked Spur), The Last Frontier feels like a fumbled attempt to get back on track after a setback. With his leading man of choice now gone, Mann is lumbered with a terribly hammy Victor Mature, whose wild-at-heart trapper trying to adapt to life in the army is almost impossible to get a handle on as a character. The supporting cast, though less scenery-chewing, seem equally stymied by the weak story, with a young Anne Bancroft seeming at a loss for how to play such lacklustre material. As a tyrannical Colonel, Robert Preston is the only performer here who makes much of an impression but it’s not a great performance, just a decent one elevated by the comparative mediocrity that surrounds it.
Apparently, Mann was forced to film far more of The Last Frontier on studio sets than he would’ve liked. There’s the odd bit of impressive location shooting but you have to sit through a lot of studio-bound scenes to get to it. Perhaps even more detrimental is the erasure of Mann’s unique identity. The Last Frontier very often feels like Mann doing John Ford, with an obvious debt to the much-better Fort Apache. Though I love Ford, I don’t want to see an approximation of his work filtered through another director and it’s embarrassing to see Mann attempting those thigh-slapping, boys-will-be-boys drunken punch-ups that are pretty cringey even when Ford does them. Rarely does Mann go this broad and it’s ill-suited to his style.
10. THE FURIES
Anthony Mann’s third Western of 1950, The Furies is very different from the preceding Devil’s Doorway and Winchester ‘73. While Devil’s Doorway had examined the prejudices of the Old West and Winchester ‘73 had immersed itself in every classic Western trope imaginable, The Furies uses the Western backdrop of a large ranch as the setting for a soapy family saga. While The Furies is generally categorised alongside Mann’s Westerns, you could just as easily class it as one of his Epics. Above any Western reference point, it evokes the spectre of Gone With the Wind and pre-empts George Stevens’ Giant in its melodramatic familial tensions and ripe psychological subtexts. There are also clear allusions to Hitchcock’s Rebecca (previously an obvious inspiration for Mann’s Strangers in the Night) in the presence of the shrine-like room of a dead wife, a looming portrait and the casting of Judith Anderson, Mrs. Danvers herself, in a key supporting role. But the reference points that come immediately to mind above all are the campy, grand scale American soap operas of the 70s and 80s: Dallas, Dynasty and Falcon Crest.
The Furies is based on the best-selling but largely forgotten 1948 novel by Niven Busch, by all accounts a trashy but enjoyable saga. Mann’s film retains these characteristics and so long as you have the stomach for such overwrought melodrama there’s much to enjoy here. The Furies feels bigger than any Mann film that preceded it. It’s his first film to get close to the two hour mark, allowing it to take the unhurried approach that the material demands. It was also the first Mann film to bag an Oscar nomination, for Victor Milner’s intensely foreboding cinematography. The Furies feels like an important step in Mann’s transition from B-Movies to A-Pictures, but fortunately its excesses didn’t come to characterise his subsequent output. After Winchester ‘73 established Mann’s collaboration with James Stewart, The Furies has more major stars in the shape of Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston. As tyrannical rancher T.C. Jeffords and his daughter Vance, Huston and Stanwyck are playing this big, as the material demands. Stanwyck is intense, passionate and sometimes frighteningly vindictive, while Huston goes for a gigantic caricature, which sometimes works extremely well in establishing the overwhelming power T.C. exerts over everyone in his orbit, but falls down a little when scenes which demand genuine emotion expose the broadness of the performance. The supporting performances tend to get a little lost in these two whirlwind central turns, but it is Judith Anderson as T.C.’s fiancé Flo who does the best work here, her low-level scheming encapsulated by Anderson’s more subtle performance, making her ultimate fate the film’s most shocking moment.
Though it is sufficiently lurid to satisfy fans of widescreen Melodrama, The Furies has an unfortunate sense of pulled-punches about it, especially in its tonally confusing about-face ending, which suddenly seems to be reverently eulogising the characters and lifestyles it has built up as irredeemable. For the film to make sense, a much more unforgiving denouement would be required rather than this false note of hope that undermines everything that went before it. Censorship and studio demands surely played a part here, and there were several changes made to the story including the playing down of an interracial romance, and a premeditated attack being recast as a crime of passion. The process of successful adaptation requires changes be made and I’ve never been one for demanding films stick rigidly to their source texts, but I can only imagine that Busch’s novel ended more effectively that this.
One other big change between novel and film is in the more literal interpretation of the title. Here, The Furies refers to the name of T.C.’s sprawling property while in the novel it was apparently a more symbolic reference to the gathering demons hovering around the family. Still, in the novel T.C.’s property has the goofy name The Bird Foot, so I think the decision to change this was a wise one and The Furies works well as an alternative. It does sometimes seem like the actors are getting paid according to how many times they can say the title, but this almost comical repetition of “The Furies” this and “The Furies” that does also have the effect of building up the property’s mythic status and central importance to the plot, a point emphasised by Milner’s dramatic cinematography. Another unintentionally funny element of the film, which is no fault of its own, is that anyone who grew up watching the cartoon Top Cat probably won’t be able to stifle a smirk whenever anyone refers to Huston’s character as T.C. But of course, only his close friends get to call him that!
Though it has recently been claimed by many as one of Mann’s great works, The Furies is a little too much for my tastes. I did enjoy the film in the same way I can easily get drawn into a soap opera if I idly watch it for long enough. But ultimately I found The Furies to be rather an empty experience, if also occasionally a ferociously entertaining one.
9. DEVIL’S DOORWAY
Anthony Mann’s first Western is an interesting, ahead-of-its-time story of violent prejudice which takes a pro-Native American stance that was rare for Westerns of this era. Let’s get this out of the way first: the central role of a Shoshone Indian is played by the white actor Robert Taylor, his skin darkened with make-up. Most reviews mention this and it’s right that it should be flagged up. You can’t help but feel a little queasy about such a casting decision these days but it seems very unlikely that Devil’s Doorway would’ve got made with a real Native American in the leading role. The studio’s demand for some star power behind their film probably played a part, although I can’t imagine that the already controversial sexual tension between a Native American and a white woman that Mann depicts here would’ve been allowed unless audiences could rest assured there was a white man beneath the make-up. Though some choose to castigate Devil’s Doorway for satisfying this hypocritical liberal/conservative dichotomy in fickle audiences, I prefer to credit Mann and his team with getting such an important message on the screen at all. Given the choice of presenting a compromised vision or none at all, I think they made the correct choice for that time and place. After all, if it was made now, it would be a cause for as great a controversy that Devil’s Doorway has a white screenwriter and director but few people mention this point in their reviews. It was just how things were done in 1950. It doesn’t make it right but it’s important to recognise steps towards greater progressiveness and, though compromised, Devil’s Doorway is undoubtedly a film on the side of the angels.
As to the film itself, Devil’s Doorway is an often compelling, beautifully made Western which sags a little here and there under the weight of its own didacticism. It starts out terrifically, with Native American Lance Poole (Taylor) returning from the Civil War a decorated hero, only to find himself the immediate victim of racism, at first on an interpersonal and, ultimately, a systemic level. Resentful that Lance’s family owns a large, valuable piece of land, bigoted lawyer Verne Coolan (Louis Calhern, sporting a moustache just made for twirling) exploits a loophole in the law to strip him of it and turn it over to white homesteaders. When Lance’s attempts to prevent this by engaging a lawyer (Paula Raymond) come to nothing, an all-out siege breaks out in the war to claim the land.
Devil’s Doorway has a solid premise for an entertaining Western and the racism angle provides it with the chance to be more than the average good-vs-evil tale. The film is at its best when it focuses on some of the complexities of prejudice. While the hatred of Native Americans is correctly portrayed as simplistic racist nonsense, the liberalism of Paula Raymond’s lawyer being challenged is one of the narrative’s most impactful moments, as Lance forces her to admit that she doesn’t think the law handing his land to white homesteaders is wrong. Where Devil’s Doorway misses an opportunity is in exploring Lance’s own prejudices. There is a moment when he first encounters Raymond when he goes to her house looking for a lawyer. Shocked to find she is a woman, he excuses himself and immediately leaves. A moment of contemplation follows before he re-enters to go about his business. This is one of the most interesting moments of the whole film, bringing Lance’s prejudices to the forefront, but it is immediately shaken off and never alluded to again, even when Lance is doling out rebukes to Raymond. In its attempts to preserve Lance’s exemplary character at all costs, Devil’s Doorway ultimately makes a simplistic cipher out of a potentially complex and interesting protagonist.
If it is occasionally frustrating to watch Devil’s Doorway wrestle with its own message, it’s certainly a wonderful film to look at in the meantime. Working for the final time with cinematographer John Alton, Mann creates a claustrophobic Old West, with the gorgeous swathes of open land choked of air by the dispute that surrounds them. Alton’s Noir credentials had informed another largely open-air film in Mann’s previous Border Incident, and his trademark use of imposing shadows have led many to call Devil’s Doorway a Noir-Western. I’d characterise it more as the latter, and while there is a Noirish edge in its fatalistic approach, there are other elements at play which make such a dualistic label seem reductive. A lengthy and sadly rather dull stretch of the film feels almost like a legal drama as the technicalities of the situation are wrangled by Lance and Orrie, while a fantastically tense barroom fight is given an almost Horror movie edge by a thunderstorm that rages outside.
If Devil’s Doorway has a tendency to lose its way a bit amongst screenwriter Guy Trosper’s stiff dialogue, Mann’s handling of the action sequences is extraordinary. As the tension builds between the white townsfolk and the Native Americans, a series of brutal battles bring the final act vigorously to life. Mann’s subsequent, more famous Westerns were often characterised by excellent small-scale action sequences in which two enemies shoot it out but Devil’s Doorway instead opts for big battle scenes and, as they did with the wonderful Reign of Terror, Mann and Alton manage to turn a B-movie into a bona-fide epic. Mann made four films in 1950 and it becomes clear at this point that Devil’s Doorway may have benefited from a longer production period in order to really whip up its script to match the quality of the action sequences. If Devil’s Doorway can’t quite match the brilliance of Mann’s subsequent Westerns, it is still a fascinating, often brilliant work. The problems it has putting across its message without lapsing into speechifying are balanced by the thrill of seeing such a message in a Western of this era. Perhaps as a result of its radical differences from its contemporaries, Devil’s Doorway tested poorly and was shelved until the success of the similarly themed Broken Arrow made it seem commercially viable. Ultimately, it made a small profit and Mann’s career as a director of Westerns was underway.
By all accounts, Anthony Mann had a shaky start in his transition to maker of Epics. According to differing accounts, after an argument with the producer he left production on Cimarron, his first Epic as credited director, either early on, in the middle or towards the end of filming, after which it was completed by Charles Walters. He was also fired as director of Spartacus by that film’s producer and star Kirk Douglas. Had Mann become too used to doing his own thing to successfully integrate into Epics, where bigger budgets meant a closer eye was kept on him? Mann would finally have his Epic hit with his next film, El Cid, but historically Cimarron has got a bit lost in the shuffle. With such different reports on the matter, it’s hard to tell exactly how much of Cimarron was directed by Mann. Following Man of the West, in which his directorial tells were on clear display, Cimarron is a more faceless creation, adhering to the era’s template for epic family sagas and delivering a solid, if fairly unremarkable, film.
A version of Edna Ferber’s source novel had already been made in 1931, a huge critical and commercial hit that won the third Best Picture Oscar. In intervening years, that original film’s stock fell considerably, with most critics acknowledging that it had dated badly. But the response to this updated take on the tale has been so lukewarm since its release that it is rarely acknowledged as the better of the two films. In the case of both films, it is the impressive scenes of the Oklahoma land rush of 1889 that are singled out as highlights. This occurs in the opening 40 minutes of the 1960 version, which many have suggested leaves the film nowhere to go but down, as it becomes more involved with family politics and the moral conflicts of its hero Yancey “Cimarron” Cravat. I’ve seen both versions of Cimarron and, for my part, I greatly prefer the Mann version. While the original may have the greater stake in film history thanks to its Oscar win, Mann’s version is on the right side of history, trading the 1931 film’s grotesque racial stereotypes for a prominent pro-Native American stance which doubles down on that presented in the original film. 1960’s Cimarron is generally considered tedious and overlong but I thought it did a more than efficient job of negotiating the pitfalls of Epic cinema. While often as overwrought as melodrama tends to be, the film only occasionally tumbles into excessive sentimentality. Action sequences are few and far between but I thought the questions of moral vs. familial responsibility, of being true to yourself vs. doing what is best for others, were very effectively explored, with a similarly ambiguous attitude to that found in Man of the West. The audience are invited to join the argument but there are no designated place settings.
Cimarron undoubtedly has its share of flaws. Arnold Schulman’s screenplay, though offering some nicely written scenes, doesn’t quite manage to put them all together in a manner that avoids haphazardness and the complexities of the generation-spanning story often get lost in muddily defined character motivation. There isn’t time, for instance, to properly explore Arthur O’Connell’s corruption by money. The character just suddenly changes. It’s perfectly plausible that these changes would occur across the timeframe Cimarron covers, but there’s not enough time to check in with O’Connell regularly enough to sell the transformation. Am I really asking for Cimarron to be longer? Probably not, but it could have done with a screenplay that tightened up some scenes in order to incorporate others. For instance, I’d have liked to see more of Maria Schell’s anti-Native American sentiment being quelled by her acceptance of her new Native American daughter-in-law. Instead, we get plenty of build up of her showing her prejudice, followed by a tacked-on last minute switch.
When it is working though, Cimarron is a pleasurable watch and I found myself enjoying it despite its flaws. Robert Surtees’ colour cinematography is as glorious as you’d hope for and, while there are moments of artificiality (one of the things that apparently rankled with Mann, who was forced to shoot in studios more than he would’ve liked), scenes like that breathtaking land rush sequence more than make up for that. Though he received poor notices at the time, I thought Glenn Ford was very good in the lead role of the settler who can’t settle. Maria Schell as his wife Sabra veers between movingly believable and wildly over the top, but it’s another of those enjoyably big performances and the chemistry between her and Ford (they apparently had an offscreen affair) sometimes works in the film’s favour, as in a terrific scene in which he tears up the reward money for reluctantly killing some bandits.
To enjoy Cimarron you need a fairly high tolerance for these family sagas, which fortunately I have. Though it has a Western setting, the film feels like it belongs more to Mann’s Epic catalogue than his Westerns one. But, however much of it he directed, Cimarron feels like an important transitional work for Mann and it’s a shame it is so neglected or reviled.
7. THE FAR COUNTRY
The fourth Western collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart, and the third scripted by Borden Chase, The Far Country is often considered the weakest of the cycle. In all fairness, it’s a pretty high bar and The Far Country is a solidly entertaining oater and another gorgeous looking film from Mann, with William H. Daniels back on cinematography duties. Daniels captures the mountainous Canadian landscapes, standing in for the Alaskan setting, in glorious Technicolor that has a subtly muted edge reflecting the frosty climate and the cold, self-centred outlook of Stewart’s anti-hero Jeff Webster. It’s good to see Stewart again playing a character of moral layers and Jeff is probably his most unheroic lead yet. Stewart is as reliable as ever, if nowhere near as intensely unforgettable as he was in The Naked Spur, and many of the supporting cast are excellent here too. Ruth Roman is powerful as saloon owner Ronda and Walter Brennan does that classic Walter Brennan thing as Stewart’s long time best pal, but it is John McIntire as the villainous Judge Gannon who most impresses. McIntire had been great in a similar but much smaller role in Winchester ‘73 so it’s great to see him turn up here in an extended and pivotal performance.
While the glorious scenery, the strong performances and a solid sprinkling of effective moments make The Far Country a largely pleasurable experience, it does also have its downsides. The central premise about the importance of selflessly helping others is somewhat oversold, with scene after scene of Jeff asking why he should step in to assist someone and his friends and acquaintances chastising him for his lack of humanity. I like the idea of a character like this growing to see the error of his ways but it could’ve been set up in a couple of scenes and then highlighted through looks and events, rather than constant, repetitive speechifying. There’s also a rather muddy, almost pro-violence edge, epitomised when Jeff intervenes to prevent a Marshall from getting himself killed in the line of duty and is consequently reviled for shaming him. The implication (to put it kindly, given that Walter Brennan actually comes out and says it) is that it’s better to die a death standing against tyranny than to live on and let it thrive. That’s not an uncommon message for a post-war movie, nor one with which I disagree, but it’s hard to get behind when the potential death in the given scenario would undoubtedly have been thoroughly pointless. You can have a balance that doesn’t involve either ignoring tyranny or blundering in and getting yourself killed without having done any real good at all. Symbolic gestures are important but this one would probably have acted more as a deterrent to seeking justice than an inspiring example.
Perhaps my biggest issue with The Far Country is the character of Renee, played with a broad comedic flourish by Corinne Calvet. A young French-Canadian woman who falls in love with Jeff, Renee’s function in the plot is unclear. Jeff repeatedly refers to her as “freckle face” and openly states that he sees her as a child, which should take any romantic potential off the table. Thankfully, the story doesn’t quite go there but it doesn’t seem to be able to let go of the possibility, long after most audience members surely will have. This isn’t quite the classic Madonna/Whore complex of so many Westerns, but the script does seem to approve of the idea of Jeff ending up with Renee over Ronda, whose saloon owner status and unapologetic sexuality make her a prime candidate for an eleventh hour killing. In the aftermath, Jeff is left in the care of Renee but there is no hint that romance will blossom. Ultimately, she seems like a pretty redundant character and Calvet’s performance is instantly grating. Jeff is told by Renee herself and others that she is a woman, not a child, but Calvet plays her like a little girl.
Of course, the unconventional love triangle at the centre of The Far Country is just a red herring and it doesn’t take much surface-scratching to realise that this is actually a love story between two men, Stewart’s Jeff and Walter Brennan’s Ben. Ben repeatedly talks about how he and Jeff are planning to settle down together on a ranch, and Jeff has a treasured bell that he keeps attached to his saddle, which was a gift from Ben. The bell is a nice little symbol that jingles away throughout the film and its daintiness is at odds with the usual masculine signifiers associated with Western heroes. Borden Chase was obviously fascinated by the love between men, as it figured heavily in his celebrated screenplay for Red River, and it is one of the most effective and moving elements of The Far Country. Ultimately, The Far Country has too many flaws to touch the earlier Mann/Stewart Westerns but it should please fans of the genre well enough.
6. BEND OF THE RIVER
It’s strange to me that Bend of the River, Anthony Mann’s second of five Westerns starring James Stewart, is not generally considered among the greatest examples of its genre. This oversight seems to be partially due to the fact that Mann made better and more unusual films in the Western genre, consigning Bend of the River to undeserved secondary status. But the film was also greeted by mostly negative reviews at its time of release, when Mann was still just getting a foothold in the genre. At the very least, Bend of the River’s reputation has improved over time, with most critics recognising it as a good film. But I think it is overdue acceptance as one of the greats.
Bend of the River is the second of three Mann films with screenplays by Borden Chase (who also wrote the novel on which Mann’s debut film, Dr. Broadway, was based). Their first collaboration, Winchester ‘73, had given the Western genre another undisputed classic, with Chase’s cleverly structured script being one of the standout elements. Chase has once again written a strong screenplay here but several other elements stand out above it. For one, Bend of the River was Mann’s first film to be shot in colour and Irving Glassberg’s ravishing cinematography makes the film instantly pop. Rather than the barren deserts familiar from other Westerns, Bend of the River is set in lush, green Oregon landscapes. There are plentiful water sources and the usual journeys by horses and wagons are supplemented by a wonderful mid-film steamboat ride, made even more rousing by Hans J. Salter’s uplifting score.
While it has plenty of tough action sequences and high stakes, Bend of the River is perhaps less psychologically intense than some of Mann’s other Westerns. Though there are meditations on whether bad people can change their ways, the conclusion to this quandary is ultimately upbeat and, with its mix of exciting action, laidback hanging-out scenes, tentative romance and comedy relief, Bend of the River makes for perfect Sunday afternoon viewing. This instant accessibility and relatively uncomplicated outlook has probably contributed to Bend of the River’s middling reputation but if, like me, you find a well-told, simple tale as viable for artistic merit as something more emotionally abstruse, then you’ll probably find Bend of the River easy to love too.
As with Winchester ‘73, the Native Americans are here reduced to the racially-insensitive role of savage antagonists, although they play only a very small role at the beginning of the film. From a racial standpoint, I was initially more concerned by the presence of Stepin Fetchit among the cast. Once hugely popular, Fetchit’s shtick was already out of fashion by the 50s and this was one of his last major roles. It’s also one of his best. As Adam, assistant to Chubby Johnson’s steamboat captain, Fetchit is more dignified and restrained than some of his earlier appearances as the self-styled “laziest man in the world.” Adam is still positioned as comic relief but the comedy comes from his eccentric character and relationship with the white captain, which is ultimately portrayed as a warm friendship in their final scenes. Though there are doubtless still issues with Fetchit’s stereotyped portrayal, I actually quite like him in Bend of the River and, like it or not, the character he created has a place in Hollywood history. This is that character at its most honed and least ugly.
The rest of Bend of the River’s cast acquit themselves well enough. In some cases, as with Rock Hudson’s gambler and Julie Adams’ love interest, their job seems to be little more than looking pretty, but the central duo of Stewart’s haunted McLyntock and Arthur Kennedy as his morally-ambiguous mirror image, provide the film with a solid foundation. Stewart in particular is winningly forceful and believably compromised. He makes the most of having considerably more screentime than the episodic structure of Winchester ‘73 allowed for. Fans of the sitcom M*A*S*H, of which I am emphatically one, will also recognise Harry Morgan in a supporting role. Morgan became a reliable supporting player in many subsequent Mann films, as well as several others featuring Stewart.
In order to gain access to the acknowledged canon, it seems Westerns need to have an exceedingly complex psychological and moral core, with John Ford’s The Searchers being the chief example as the current face of the critically-acclaimed Western. But sometimes an adventurous simplicity can create a film of equal, even greater, worth. From my standpoint the glorious Bend of the River seems like a neglected classic, combining a joyous widescreen splendour with just enough shade to imbue it with a satisfying complexity that never threatens to upstage its entertainment value.
5. THE TIN STAR
The first time I saw The Tin Star I came away ecstatic, thinking it an instant 5 star classic. Since then, and seeing other people’s generally positive but less enthusiastic reviews, I’ve often wondered if I overreacted to the quality of this film, which is usually considered solid but unremarkable. Was I just in the mood for a good Western that day? The answer is yes, I was, and I still am and always will be, and that’s why, on a rewatch, The Tin Star retains its 5 star status. Shot in beautifully crisp black and white by Loyal Griggs, the cinematographer who had recently won an Oscar for lensing Shane, The Tin Star benefits greatly from a taut, intelligent screenplay by the great Dudley Nichols, a frequent John Ford and Howard Hawks collaborator who wrote classics like Stagecoach, The Big Sky and Rawhide, as well as non-Western classics like Bringing Up Baby. Nichols script allows for plenty of action but keeps the focus squarely on the characters and their relationships, making for one of the most emotionally satisfying Westerns I’ve ever seen. As well as delivering everything you’d hope for in the genre, it also incorporates commentary on racism, gender roles and generational differences. The richly layered screenplay did not go unnoticed by the Academy and The Tin Star became a rare Western with an Oscar nominated script.
Originally projected to be another collaboration with James Stewart, The Tin Star probably would’ve been a higher budget film in that case but the material is far more suited to the more modest presentation it is given. And The Tin Star is not lacking a solid gold star of its own, in the shape of Henry Fonda. As much as I adore the Mann/Stewart films, their split did have the advantage of allowing Mann to work with some of the other classic Western leading men and Fonda hits just the right note as the wearied bounty hunter who finds himself lumbered with an unwanted protégé. In that role, The Tin Star boasts an up-and-coming star in Anthony Perkins, perfectly naïve as the young sheriff just one wrong decision away from getting himself killed. Perkins was just a couple of years away from becoming a Horror icon in Hitchcock’s Psycho, and The Tin Star has another horror icon in waiting among its cast, in the shape of Betsy Palmer, who would eventually become infamous for her Razzie nominated turn as Jason Vorhees’ mother in Friday the 13th. In a more restrained performance, Palmer is effective as outcast Nona, shunned by the townsfolk for having a “half-Indian” son. Mann regular John McIntire is also back, although in contrast to the villains and rascals he’s played previously, here he is the most beloved man in town, a caring doctor whose arrival at a party in his honour is one of The Tin Star’s most memorable moments.
Mann directs The Tin Star with just the right mix of grit and Sunday afternoon folksiness. Though there are deaths and moments of peril, The Tin Star is a U rated Western through and through, that gorgeous, polished black and white cinematography giving it the feel of a warm, beloved TV serial. Perhaps this feel is what leads many to give The Tin Star middling ratings but its simple appeal, combined with deceptively complex and contemporarily relevant thematic content, is what makes it endlessly pleasurable for me.
4. WINCHESTER ‘73
Winchester ‘73 is a film I’ve always loved, ever since my Dad recommended it to me years ago. It marks a noticeable shift from B-Movies to A-Pictures for Anthony Mann, with the presence of huge star James Stewart signifying the completion of this transition. The film had originally been offered to Fritz Lang but when that deal fell through, it was Stewart himself who chose Mann to direct, as part of a historic deal which gave Stewart a percentage of the film’s profits rather than a fixed amount, as well as a say in the casting process and director. It proved to be a shrewd deal when Winchester ‘73 became a big hit, and it kicked off the most significant collaboration of Mann’s career. He and Stewart went on to make seven more films together, including four more Westerns. Stewart had made a small number of films in the genre but it was this cycle of Mann-helmed films that really cemented his long term association with the Western, as well as helping to redefine his screen persona with a series of neurotic, edgier characters than the small-town heroes for which he was formerly known.
While this was only Mann’s second Western, he obviously had a knack for the genre and Winchester ‘73 manages to include nearly every Western trope you could hope for within a tight 90 minute runtime. Beginning with a fantastic shooting competition, for which the coveted prize is the titular gun, Winchester ‘73 goes on to give us a card game, a wagon chase, a cowboys-and-indians battle, a siege, a family secret and a mountainside shootout. While this may sound dangerously like it could descend into a pile of clichés, Winchester ‘73 instead works these mainstays into an unusual narrative structure which follows the rifle itself as it passes from person to person. The result is like a book of short stories brought to life, with the three central characters weaving in and out of each new scenario. It’s a clever, novel premise that gives a solid spine to Winchester ‘73’s numerous thrilling attractions.
The casting, partially overseen by Stewart, is fantastic here. In fact, Stewart’s role is perhaps the least flashy, although it does have an interesting morally-compromised edge to it that would define Stewart’s performances for Mann. Stephen McNally is wonderfully hateful as ‘Dutch’ Henry Brown, the brutal bandit Stewart is doggedly pursuing, and Dan Duryea is amusingly bratty as a young psychopath who sets his sights on the prize gun. But the star of the film for me is Shelley Winters as Lola, a saloon girl who is run out of town and ends up getting reluctantly caught up with just about every dangerous character going. Winters herself didn’t think much of her role, commenting that she could never understand why all the men in the film were chasing a rifle instead of her, but it’s a better written part than Winters suggested and her performance is the clear standout. Far from the damsel-in-distress of other Westerns, Lola is streetwise, smart and able to handle herself. On numerous occasions, well-meaning acts of chivalry from the male characters are exposed as patronising when Lola shows she knows just as much, and often more, about surviving in the Old West as they do.
Not every casting decision is perfect though. As with Mann’s previous Western, Devil’s Doorway, the main Native American role in Winchester ‘73 is played by a made-up white actor, in this case a pre-fame Rock Hudson. While Devil’s Doorway at least took a pro-Native American stance, Winchester ‘73’s take is that of the traditional Western; the savage, brutal antagonists that soiled the reputation of Native Americans across decades of Hollywood slander. As a Westerns fan I’ve come to expect this from films of this era, but it’s worth mentioning how strange it seemed when experienced as part of a chronological journey through the Mann catalogue, given that it is preceded by a film with such a different view of the Native American experience, released in the very same year, no less.
While it’s important to acknowledge this flaw in Winchester ‘73, it stands out because it is practically the only flaw. In making a film that hits pretty much every classic Western beat, and by executing those beats with astonishing precision, Mann has made one of the most perfect films in the genre. It remains one of my favourite Westerns and a strong contender for my top 100 films, should I ever compile such an ambitious list.
3. THE MAN FROM LARAMIE
I first saw The Man from Laramie many years ago when I still lived at home with my parents. My brother, who was visiting, had bought my Dad a Westerns DVD boxset for his birthday and we decided to all watch one together that evening. What we were obviously looking for was an old-fashioned Western with lots of gunfights, barroom brawls and clifftop chases; all the classic tropes you can cheer along to. What we should’ve watched was Winchester ‘73. What we watched instead was The Man from Laramie and consequently all came away disappointed. Because it didn’t meet my specific expectations for that evening I’ve long laboured under the misapprehension that The Man from Laramie isn’t very good. But its growing reputation and the fact that it was directed by Anthony Mann have seen it long languish on my must-rewatch list. I’m glad I finally got round to it, because The Man from Laramie is a masterpiece.
It’s easy to see why The Man from Laramie didn’t please an action-hungry group that evening so many years ago. It’s a very different kind of Western. Languid, cerebral and intense, it draws as much from Shakespearean and Greek tragedy as it does from Wild West mythology. The excellent screenplay by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt incorporates a wide-range of complex characters, with the focus gradually moving from James Stewart’s vengeful Will to Donald Crisp’s elderly ranch owner Alec, and then Arthur Kennedy’s devoted ranch foreman and surrogate son Vic. From the opening scene in which Stewart momentarily interrupts a journey to visit the chilling landmarks of a recent tragedy, The Man from Laramie has a far more elegiac atmosphere than the previous Mann/Stewart Westerns. This pervasive sense of sadness and loneliness reverberates through the film, with its comparatively empty town and imposing wide-open spaces. This is balanced by the absolutely glorious cinematography of Charles Lang, presenting the Old West in warm Technicolor hues and expansive CinemaScope.
The performances in The Man from Laramie are all terrific, beginning with Stewart’s lead role. Stewart had been good in all his Mann collaborations but the ones where he truly shone were those that provided him with characters of the greatest psychological intensity. Along with his Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur, Laramie’s Will Lockhart is one of Stewart’s finest roles. Unlike Kemp, Lockhart isn’t consumed by his quest to the extent that he can’t stop to charm a woman over tea but his refusal to leave a place of imminent danger and the precision of his focus when opportunities present themselves show that his dormant rage is merely suppressed through effort in a way that Kemp had gone beyond. This character clearly wasn’t named Will by accident. Arthur Kennedy’s Vic gives the actor the chance to immerse himself in a likeable character whose arc is filled with almost unbearably tragic ironies and reaches one of the most visually memorable climaxes in Mann’s whole canon. Donald Crisp gives a fine performance as rancher Alec Waggoman, whose encroaching blindness mirrors his unshakeable love for and faith in his psychotic son, the effectively detestable Alex Nicol. Warmth and humour are brought into the film by Wallace Ford as Stewart’s travelling companion who has a deeply touching speech about friendship, and the wonderful Aline MacMahon as rival rancher Kate, who offers Will refuge. There’s a great overtly comic scene where she bails Will out of prison, in which the strength of chemistry between the two actors elevates the material and provides a fleeting moment of relief which is far removed from the sort of goofball comic moments favoured by John Ford.
Though the story it tells is one of greed, anger, death and revenge, The Man from Laramie is blessed with a good heart that acknowledges the power of love, both destructive and redemptive. If a love triangle involving an underwritten role for Cathy O’Donnell is the one part of the film that feels truly tacked-on, the note of hope it strikes is welcome and it never stands in the way of the true love stories being told, from Will’s love for his murdered brother to Alec’s blinkered adoration of his son, Vic’s only-partially reciprocated love, and Kate’s long dormant but still smouldering love, for Alec. The importance of this theme is highlighted in that aforementioned brief speech by Wallace Ford, in which he tells Will “I’m a lonely man, Mr. Lockhart. So are you. I don’t suppose we spoke ten words comin’ down here, but I feel that I know ya, and I like what I know.” The emotional core of The Man from Laramie makes the actions of certain characters all the more infuriating and entertaining, although this is truly a film of downbeat moods, punctuated by occasional stabs of brutal violence. The wholesome-sounding title song, a number one hit in the UK in a version by Jimmy Young, sets the perfect tone with its contradictions about a man “with a warm and gentle heart”, of whom it is said that “the west will never see a man with so many notches on his gun.” This doesn’t particularly sound like it’s about Stewart’s character (who, as he observes, isn’t really from anywhere) but it certainly captures the push and pull between tantalising peace and love and horrifying greed and violence.
I was expecting to enjoy The Man from Laramie a lot more on a rewatch but it surpassed my expectations. It’s a film that lives long in the mind after viewing and Mann takes his time weaving that spell, allowing scenes like an opening ride into town to quietly play out for much longer than in his earlier, faster paced films. This was ultimately the final collaboration between Mann and Stewart, who fell out over the quality of their proposed follow-up, Night Passage, which Mann deemed “trash”. I’ve seen and enjoyed the film that Night Passage ultimately became but it’s of far lower quality than the films Mann and Stewart made together. The Man from Laramie feels like a much more fitting, grandiose end to their fruitful collaboration.
2. MAN OF THE WEST
Man of the West starts out looking like a light comedy. After riding into a typical Western town to the peaceful early strains of Leigh Harline’s score, Gary Cooper’s mysterious stranger Link Jones boards a train and has an awkward encounter with a seat that is far too small to contain him. It’s a nice little bit of physical comedy but it proves to be just one of the ways Man of the West deliberately wrong-foots the viewer in its opening scenes. That bustling Western town, so ripe to be the setting for numerous adventures, disappears forever as Link’s train pulls out of the station. We’re heading for a much more barren setting for this story and, as Harline’s score darkens, I hope you laughed heartily at that train seat gag because it’s absolutely the last laugh you’ll be getting.
Written by Reginald Rose, who also wrote the immaculate 12 Angry Men, Man of the West is one of the darkest Westerns, certainly of its era and potentially ever. While Mann’s Westerns with James Stewart often probed deep psychological wounds or had moments of brutal violence, Man of the West pushes things to a whole new level. The questions it asks, about redemption and whether there is such a thing as good and bad people, are unanswerable and Rose knows this, aiming to stimulate conversation while probing the very darkest corners of the subject. Man of the West feels especially prescient and important in an age where extremes seem to rule every argument and nuance lies deader than the majority of this film’s characters by the end credits.
Man of the West is so bleak and brutal that it still shocks me that they show it in the daytime schedules. It tells the story of a reformed bandit, a saloon singer and a conman who become stranded in the wilderness after a train robbery, forced to take refuge in an old farmhouse where Link once lived. But when he comes across members of his old gang there, he is forced to pretend he is reverting to his old ways in order to protect his travelling companions. No punches are pulled over how revolting the criminal gang is, with one particularly disturbing scene involving Julie London’s Billie being forced to undress as one of the crooks holds a knife to Link’s steadily bloodying throat. The threat of sexual violence is constantly imminent from the moment Billie enters the farmhouse and it hangs over Man of the West for its whole runtime, creating a sense of constant, uncomfortable tension. This is a world of easily wounded egos and bruised masculinity, where disagreements lead to murders and fist fights at the drop of a Stetson. One fist fight in particular, between Link and his cousin, is prolonged, bloody and nasty as hell. It’s a wonderfully choreographed piece which drives home Man of the West’s characteristic brutality even harder.
If this all sounds rather hard to take, rest assured that Man of the West is also a fiercely entertaining film. Though it is a chamber piece at heart, there’s plenty of room for action too, with a thrilling train robbery, a lengthy shootout and that aforementioned brawl. Mann again uses cinematographer Ernest Haller who lensed a couple of his then-recent black and white films, but this time he’s working in striking colour and CinemaScope, which brings out the beauty of these desolate, rugged landscapes. The film’s final shootout, set in an eerily quiet ghost town, is one of the greatest climactic gun battles ever staged. So while Man of the West forces its audience to confront some probing questions, it also makes sure they have a damn good time while doing so.
Perhaps the one area where Man of the West isn’t quite as strong is in the acting stakes. For the most part this is a film of grotesques and it is sometimes overplayed accordingly, with Lee J. Cobb’s big performance as gang leader Dock Tobin bordering on Grand Guignol. If he weren’t so repugnant, Dock could almost be seen as a sort of tragic clown figure, and the film goes to some interesting places in rooting out small amounts of humanity buried in this monster. I’ve never made any secret of the fact that I don’t think Gary Cooper is much of an actor, despite two Oscars and multiple other nominations, and he seems a bit too old for the role of Link, but he does bring with him an imposing, authoritative presence in the same way John Wayne can dominate the screen. Although many see this as Cooper’s best role, I’d say the acting honours are taken by Julie London, who is terrific as Billie, a character who goes through the worst experiences the film has to offer. Arthur O’Connell is also good as the weasely conman Sam, whose journey defies expectations and culminates in a great final scene for his character. Man of the West is often considered to be Mann’s masterpiece and even those who don’t like it can’t help but admit that it is a striking and unforgettable film. While it may be a bit too nasty for some tastes, I think it blends its numerous attributes beautifully. This is a cocktail that could easily have curdled in less competent hands but Mann seems to instinctively understand Rose’s script, avoiding the potential for nihilism in favour of an exploration of morality that refuses to offer easy answers. The results are remarkable and, while it may not be as easy to pop on and enjoy as Winchester ‘73, Man of the West is ultimately a more ambitious, fascinating film. In a list that features extraordinary competition, Man of the West has dragged itself up with bloodied knuckles to the number 2 spot.
1. THE NAKED SPUR
The Naked Spur is one of my favourite Westerns, and favourite films, of all time. The previous Mann-Stewart Western collaboration, Bend of the River, felt like Mann’s first epic Western, bursting with luscious colour cinematography, crammed with characters and action, and set against rousing, wide open backdrops. The Naked Spur, by contrast, works with a much smaller palette. It features just five characters with speaking roles, its action scenes are tougher, tauter affairs, and its open spaces (the whole film is set outdoors), while as lush and green as those in Bend of the River, are rendered deliberately claustrophobic by the tight focus on the small group and their reluctant alliance. This oppressive atmosphere mirrors the greater psychological intensity of The Naked Spur. Bend of the River’s characters, though they had their secrets, largely filled fairly stock roles with a reliable simplicity. The Naked Spur’s characters have far more light and shade, with each one of them boasting unsavoury traits, corruptible morals or a dogged determinism that blinds them to all but their own ends. The whole cast is excellent here, from Robert Ryan’s smug, manipulative murderer and Janet Leigh as his naively loyal companion, to Ralph Meeker’s smarmy sexual predator and Millard Mitchell’s luckless old prospector. Through my love of Westerns, I’ve developed a real appreciation for Mitchell as an actor in particular. Watch his performances in this, Winchester ‘73 and The Gunfighter. All strong performances, all completely different from one another.
But it is Stewart who takes top acting honours in The Naked Spur. His performances for Mann thus far had been good but always maintained an element of that good-natured persona for which he was previously famous. In The Naked Spur, Stewart reaches a new level of intensity. His character begins as a guarded, single-minded bounty-hunter but the emotions underneath bubble up slowly throughout as his bounty, Robert Ryan, uses psychological manipulation to rattle his cage. Stewart must be congratulated for such a nuanced performance but he is aided immeasurably by a terrific script by Harold Jack Bloom and Sam Rolfe, which received that rare honour for a Western : a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination.
One of The Naked Spur’s major draws is the fact it is one of the most beautiful films of its era. A Technicolor triumph, William C. Mellor’s cinematography highlights the beauty of the vibrant greenery, the torrenting rivers and the ever-present deep, deep blue sky, offset by the jagged, dull greys and browns of the looming cliffsides around which the characters tussle and scramble. Rarely have I seen a landscape so accurately matched to a film’s psychological mood. But, ravishing though those bold colours are, they are quite differently presented from Bend of the River’s rousingly gorgeous, glistening vistas. The Naked Spur’s colours are more like that of a 50s comic book, their vibrancy balanced by a melancholy fade that evokes both old-fashioned printing techniques and the dulling effect of the passage of time.
If all that makes The Naked Spur sound like a bit of a downer then I should add that it is also a compelling, consistently exciting, well-paced and beautifully written film from which the takeaway is less it’s melancholy atmosphere than just the excitable thrill of having seen something magnificent. The Western genre is sometimes criticised for being repetitive but, unlike Winchester ‘73 which turned those well-known tropes to its advantage, The Naked Spur is like no other Western I can think of. It stands alone as an extraordinary anomaly. It’s a perfect film and my easy choice for number 1 in my ranking.