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Mann of the West

Above: Julie London and Gary Cooper in Man of the West; Anthony Mann, center, leans against the camera.

“Don’t you talk anymore, Claude? We used to talk, you and me, when we were kids. What happened? Things have kind of gone to hell haven’t they? And you’re still at it – stealing and killing and running.” – Gary Cooper as Link Jones in Anthony Mann’s Man of the West (1958)

Man of the West gives one the impression that Anthony Mann is redefining the Western. It is, moreover, more than an impression. He does re-invent.” – Jean-Luc Godard writing on Man of the West after naming it one of the Ten Best Films of 1958.

Anthony Mann, whose violent, brutal westerns redefined the genre in the early 1950s, is long overdue for a retrospective, although he’s had many over the years. Mann, born Emil Anton Bundsmann is San Diego, CA on June 30th 1906, started out as an actor on Broadway, and eventually made the move to Hollywood, were he directed such standout noirs as Strange Impersonation (1946), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949), Side Street (1950), starting at the minor studios Republic and Eagle Lion. By 1950, however, he teamed with James Stewart for a series of violent, revisionist westerns; Winchester ‘73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country and The Man from Laramie (both 1955).

What sets these films apart from other westerns of the era is their extreme violence, pessimism, and fatalistic view of life; in Mann’s west, it’s not only kill or be killed, it’s also a world where no one can trust anyone else. James Stewart, back from World War II and his heroic service in the Air Force, was eager to re-invent himself, and get rid of the “aw shucks” persona which had served him so well in the past, and Mann was the person for the job. But eventually, Stewart found Mann’s films too violent, and backed off, leading to a falling out between director and star.

Thus, when it came time to shoot Man of the West, Stewart wanted the role of Link Jones, but he didn’t get it. Instead, Mann cast Gary Cooper, the symbol of integrity from Fred Zinnemann’s classic High Noon (1952), as Link Jones, a man with a past who’s trying to run away from his spectacularly dysfunctional family.

But with a surrogate father like the monstrous Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb, in a stunning performance), and Dock’s sidekicks Coaley (Jack Lord, later of television’s Hawaii 5-O, here, a truly villainous psychopath), Claude (John Dehner, as a ruthless gun for hire) and Trout (Royal Dano), cutting family ties isn’t going to be so easy.

This is one of Mann’s most brutal, uncompromising films, and he gets superb performances from the entire cast, including Julie London as Billie Ellis, a saloon singer who is swept up in the path of Dock and his clan. Even today, the sheer brutality of the film is still stunning, anchored by Cooper’s solid performance as the world weary outlaw (Cooper died in 1961).

Mann went on to direct more westerns, and then re-invented himself again with the huge spectacles El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), shot for maverick producer Samuel Bronston, after Kirk Douglas saw to it that he was fired from Spartacus (1960) and replaced by a young Stanley Kubrick.

Then it was on to the World War II action film The Heroes of Telemark (1965), before starting the spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic on location in Berlin. Sadly, Mann died from a heart attack during production, and the film was completed by its star, Laurence Harvey.

This is another must-see film, truly; Mann’s vision of the west is very different from that of John Ford or Howard Hawks, two of the genre’s most prolific practitioners in the classical age of Hollywood. Mann instead gestures forward, to the ultraviolent westerns of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone.

My sincere thanks to colleagues Christopher Sharrett and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for bringing this superb film to my attention.

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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