Man of the West (1958)

by Paul on January 16, 2013

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 ★★★★

 

The Anthony Mann westerns create a genre all on their own. Much like John Ford, Anthony Mann ‘s films have a unique and incomparable style, and when watching one of these fantastic films you know that the characters will deal with more emotional hardships than physical, and in the end, the man with the strongest will always beats the one with the mostMan of the West (1958) brute strength. Towards the end of Mann’s career he could easily have made these films in his sleep, but he didn’t. No matter how many westerns he made, each one was given all the time, energy and skills that Mann had to offer. This has never been more apparent than in his one and only Gary Cooper western, “Man of the West” (1958).

Link Jones (Gary Cooper) is a man from a small town traveling to Fort Worth, Texas, in order to procure a new school teacher. On the train ride he meets a small time con-man named Sam (Arthur O’Connell) and a former saloon performer (amongst other things), Billie (Julie London).  When the train stops to load up with firewood, the men climb off to lend a helping hand. At the same time, a small group of bandits attempt to rob the train, but because of their incompetence the train takes off, leaving Man of the West (1958)the bandits with nothing except Link’s traveling bag that holds his guns and the money that he was entrusted to give to the new teacher. The other problem is that when the train left Link, Sam and Billie weren’t on the train either.

Knowing that they are in the middle of nowhere, the trio begins walking across the open land looking for shelter for the night. They come upon a small farmhouse and we learn that Link had been here years before. He leaves Billie and Sam inMan of the West (1958) the barn and goes to the house to look around. When he goes inside he discovers that this is also the hideout for the train thieves. The three outlaws (Jack Lord, Royal Dano and Robert J. Wilke) are unintelligent men and Link seems to be sizing them up from the start, but then the leader of the gang, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), emerges from the back room.

It is this point in the film when we discover that years before Link was a criminal, raised by his Uncle Dock. He spent his childhood learning how to kill and steal from this old man who stands before him now. Clearly at a disadvantage, Link tells his Uncle that after being left by the train, he thought he would come looking for some “work” with him here. The boisterous Dock is thrilled at the prospect of having Link riding with him again, but he also wants to make sure that Link understands that this is still Dock’s gang.

In order to stay alive, Link is forced to go along with all of Dock’s plans and even agree to go and help rob the bank in Man of the West (1958)Lassoo. With just a couple of days to travel, Link has to find a way to break free from the gang and keep Billie out of harm’s way.

There are many things about this film that elevate it to the upper echelon of westerns. To see this film on a small screen (or not in the widescreen format) would be a downright crime. The landscapes are beautiful and the wilderness is intoxicating. Little sets were needed, and this must have been a relatively inexpensive endeavor for Mann. The lack of many big town settings and few extras gave Mann the chance to expand upon his characters and give everyone more depth than we get in a 99 minute western.

Gary Cooper gives one of his silent but deadly performances, and several times tries not to let things get out of hand. HeMan of the West (1958) prefers to do things peacefully, and even though it’s obvious he keeps wishing he had some guns, you can sense that he wants them more for protection than to use as a weapon.

Although Cooper is great in this film, he is almost outdone by the loud and somewhat crazy seeming Lee J. Cobb. Cobb’s best performances always seem to come when he is able to scream and shout, and “Man of the West” gives him plenty of those opportunities. He has so much rage and pain within him, and it seems to have driven him crazy. If it wasn’t for his familiar yelling voice, he might not be recognizable.

Man of the West (1958)Mann made so many westerns in his career that I have even lost track of them all, but one of the reasons that “Man of the West” stands out is because of the climactic scene that takes place in an abandoned town. If the landscapes in the rest of the film were aesthetically pleasing, the ghost town setting is the icing on the cake. Long after the film ends, the poignancy of Cooper’s aloneness in the world and regret for having to go after his own family members will continue to haunt western film lovers.

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