Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Dark West: The Western Films of Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart

A couple of weeks ago I found a stash of old articles I wrote in the late 90s. Last time I posted an interview with Stan Lee: today I am posting the first of several film commentary pieces, this one about the 1950s Western movies directed by Anthony Mann and starring Jimmy Stewart. This particular piece has a sort of convoluted history. I sold this article to American Cowboy magazine in 1997- not long before it went to press, though, Jimmy Stewart died. They did a cover article which was a retrospective of his entire career, and decided they didn't need two Stewart articles. So I got a kill fee, but no publication. It eventually appeared in the online magazine American Western -where I got a publication but no fee, so I guess it balanced out.

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?”

Mann did just that, in five classic Westerns: Winchester ‘73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955). Stewart’s characters were dark and flawed, and Mann’s direction made their unspoken passions bubble just beneath the surface, threatening to boil over at any time.

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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  1. Thank you for sharing this article, Troy. Very nice write up.

    More than just a backdrop, those mountains become an active participant of the plot in THE FAR COUNTRY when Ruth Roman's caravan is nearly killed by an avalanche despite Jimmy Stewart's warning.

    I always appreciate when a natural element can be worked intelligently into a storyline. Too often such usages come across as "convenient" when a storm has blown in to saved a situation or alter a conflict.

    Again, in THE FAR COUNTRY, approaching the end of the climax, I have always interpreted the tinkling of the bells on Steward's saddle as a metaphoric use of the death knell, the proverbial "bells of doom" for Robert Wilke's character. (Maybe we should correlate it as "the killer angel gets his wings"?)

    Tom Roberts
    Black Bog Books

  2. These and the Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher westerns are, in my opinion, superior to anything John Wayne ever did. I guess I prefer small and neurotic to epic and empty. That's why Deadwood was so good. Real as opposed to mythic.

  3. I say we're both right about those cowbells, Tom- good symbolism should be able to multitask, right?

  4. Thanks for posting this insightful article. I also prefer the Mann/Stewart collaborations over the less ambiguous westerns of that era. A common literary western theme is one of internal strife and redemption, and the Mann/Stewart "cycle" is the only series of film westerns that develop the internal conflict over the conflict of cattle drive, bad guy, etc. Oh, right--Scott/Boetticher also.

  5. A wonderful essay, thank you for tweeting me toward it, cheers, Debra Levine Los Angeles