DARK WEST: The Western Films of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart
By Troy D. Smith
Glyn McLyntock—Jimmy Stewart’s character in Bend of the River—had been beaten and left behind by his partner, played by Arthur Kennedy. “I’ll be seeing you, Glyn,” the greedy partner said.
“You’ll be seeing me,” Stewart answered, his eyes bulging and his jowls quivering with rage. “Every time you bed down for the night you’ll look back into the darkness and wonder if I’m there—and some night I will be. You’ll be seeing me.” He is profiled against the harsh mountain peaks as he watches his attackers leave, and begins to plan his revenge.
This was not the Jimmy Stewart that audiences had become accustomed to in films like Destry Rides Again and It's a Wonderful Life. This was Jimmy Stewart as directed by Anthony Mann, who had cut his teeth on 1940s films noirs. Stewart had needed an image change; post-war audiences were no longer content with whitebread heroes. They wanted the depth, the ambiguity—and yes, the violence—to which their own wartime experience had inured them.
Stewart had previously shown his ability to portray a dark, cynical character pushed to the edge, in It’s a Wonderful Life. Mann may well have seen the actor’s potential in that movie, and wondered: “What if instead of sending George Bailey an angel, someone had handed him a gun?”
The familiar, genial face of Stewart, framed by a shabby cowboy hat, takes on an edge in these films. He is a man haunted by his secretive past, prodded by his barely-suppressed rage into a violent confrontation which may perhaps redeem him. In a jarring scene from The Naked Spur, Stewart—as the self-loathing bounty hunter Howard Kemp—beats an Indian to death with a pistol. Kemp keeps pounding the Indian long after he is dead, desperate fury pouring from his eyes. Then Kemp finally stands and surveys the silent carnage around him; he limps away, bleeding quietly, his rage reined in but still not expended.
The effect is achieved not only by Stewart’s subtle actions and tones, but by the movement of the camera. Mann moves jerkily from one character to another, sometimes pulling away yet again to focus on a recurring image, such as Kemp’s spur or the cowbell on Stewart’s saddle in The Far Country.
Mountains appear often in these Westerns. It seems incongruous at first that Mann’s dark stories should be filmed in the Rockies, instead of the barren locations of Monument Valley. But Mann’s characters are not really lifeless; they are attempting to choke their lives and emotions back. Perhaps the verdant backdrops to their stories make for appropriate imagery, after all.
The mountains themselves provide a physical obstacle which Stewart must overcome, mirroring the emotional one. Howard Kemp must scale a cliff to reach the outlaw he is hunting, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan.) It is tough going, and Kemp cannot make it. His opportunistic companion, played by Ralph Meeker, has no trouble scaling the wall and capturing the killer. Unhampered by a conscience, it is easy for him to find the killer within himself—something which Kemp, for all his cynicism, is unable to do until it is in self-defense. At the end of the film Kemp uses his spur as a climbing tool, once more forced to climb a rock to reach Vandergroat. The same rocky setting had been used in the climax of Winchester ‘73.
Water is another recurring image. Many confrontations take place in or near a river; Stewart, his anger purged, is washed clean and becomes a new man. His conscience has won out. He is free to begin his new life.
When Kemp finally retrieves the killer’s body from the river, he shouts defiantly at Janet Leigh. “I’m takin’ him back!” he says. “He’s gonna pay for my land!” The ex-Confederate bounty hunter had once been a rancher, but was bilked out of his property by an unfaithful lover. Vandergroat had been his one chance to take back his old life. When Lena, Janet Leigh’s character, tells Kemp she will marry him anyway, he does not understand why. “I’m gonna sell him—for money!” he sobs. Kemp ultimately buries the body and leaves it behind. The two decide to go to California instead of returning to his failed life in Texas.
The cowbell in The Far Country is an obvious symbol of Stewart’s longing for home and hearth. His partner Ben (Walter Brennan) had bought the bell to put over the door of the little ranch-house they would have one day; it would jingle when their friends came over. Ben is killed, and Stewart ends up using the bell as a decoy when he goes after the villain. The bell rings when he embraces the heroine, like a divine blessing—not unlike the ringing bells in It’s a Wonderful Life.
At the conclusion of Bend of the River, after Glyn McLyntock has killed his evil alter ego Arthur Kennedy—in the river—and the settlers under Glyn’s protection have seen the rope burns on his neck and learned of his secret outlaw past, they accept him anyway. He is thanked by the motherly figure of Frances Bavier (best known as Aunt Bea on The Andy Griffith Show.) Her acceptance seems especially important to him—she is the family (whereas the families of the hero in most of the other films, when they appear at all, are fractured and twisted.) Only in the end has he found release and redemption, and family peace.
Jean-Luc Goddard, speaking of Mann’s work on the Western film Man of the West (which starred, not Stewart, but Gary Cooper), called it “an admirable lesson in cinema—in modern cinema.” Anthony Mann took full advantage of the unique opportunities of the Western genre, perhaps more than any other director. People in a harsh frontier setting have a head start on unleashing passions. No one captured those passions better than Anthony Mann, and the normally amiable Stewart proved to be excellent clay for him to use in shaping his vision.
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