The Man From Laramie – 1955 – dir. Anthony Mann
Prominent among the James Stewart films most often shown on television in the 1960s and ’70s were the five westerns that he made with director Anthony Mann. Despite this exposure, Mann, though something of a successor to John Ford in the genre of more psychologically complex westerns, is arguably not as well known today. Perhaps this is because he was considered more of a craftsman than an actor’s director, but in the western films Stewart made with him, the actor emerged as more understated, and showed audiences a whole new facet of his personality.
Although James Stewart was capable of subtlety and emotional appeal from the outset of his career in the mid 1930s, he frequently displays a kind of manic energy that is sometimes (unintentionally) almost laughable. Stewart shows just as much intensity in his Anthony Mann and Alfred Hitchcock movies, but that shaky, crazed anger of his is more convincing and frightening as his acting ability matures and his dramatic characters become more hard-bitten.
Perhaps he became more believable because “crazy and edgy” were a better fit in these darker and more serious films than in the lighthearted work for which Stewart is also remembered. As movies about the old west continued to move away from stock characters and made audiences more curious about characters’ backgrounds and motivations, it was the collaboration of director Anthony Mann and James Stewart that brought forth a kind of western noir, and it was in these tough, mettle-testing stories that Stewart’s fervid streak worked best of all. (Then, too, with a drawl like that, even a central Pennsylvania boy makes a believable westerner!)
Mann described his westerns’ protagonists as not necessarily heroes, but men with a purpose. Instead of white-hat wearers, these lead characters were complicated, vengeful, and often troubled and violent. In a reversal of pattern from Stewart’s other Mann films, his character begins this film as a man with a peaceful turn of mind (as the title song has it), but becomes vengeful as the film progresses. In Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, and The Far Country, he’s a bitter and outraged individual who learns to mellow and finds peace by the last reel.
Will Lockhart (Stewart), the man from Laramie, rides into a village in New Mexico Territory ostensibly to deliver goods to the town’s general store, but he is on a personal mission as well: to learn who was responsible for Apache acquisitions of repeating rifles, which led to the death of his brother and 11 other Calvary officers. Will soon endures senseless persecution at the hands of the local landowner’s twisted son Dave (Alex Nichol) and is not only beaten and dragged through a campfire, but has to watch his freight wagons destroyed and even some of his mules shot down. This was one of the most frightening and brutal scenes in western films up to that time—at least, it was until a climactic scene later in this same film.
The cattle baron who owns the town and surrounding lands is Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), a Lear-like figure who adores his shiftless son but places his real trust in his ranch foreman and veritable surrogate son, Vic (Arthur Kennedy). Though once a formidable and cruel acquirer of the surrounding lands, the old man is becoming more subdued and fretful as he experiences portentous dreams about his family and his property. After Will Lockhart has a knock-down-drag-out with Dave and Vic in retaliation for Dave’s earlier attack, Alec breaks it up and pays Will for damages, but warns the stranger to get out of town.
The one holdout in the land grab was rival rancher Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon), a woman who long ago was in love with Alec Waggoman. She convinces Will to stay on as foreman of her ranch, and he finds that his troubles with Dave are only just beginning.
Arthur Kennedy’s character of Vic also evolves in interesting (though not entirely consistent) ways in the course of the film; he comes across more as tragic figure than one-dimensional villain, but one of the weaknesses of this movie’s script is the way that he suddenly becomes scapegoat for so much. As the story is established, viewers can feel his frustration over having the real responsibility for the ranch without a secure claim to it, and he is shown to discourage Dave’s ruinous behaviors, yet events conspire almost mythically to make him the bearer of all guilts.
These overtones of Greek tragedy were no accident. Anthony Mann believed that “The West is the one place audiences will accept the violence and passion of the classical writers.” His whole career long, the director wanted to make a western version of King Lear. Although Mann never accomplished that, the plot and characterizations of The Man From Laramie certainly echo elements of the Shakespearean work closest in theme to Athenian tragedy. (Philip Yordan and Frank Burt wrote the screenplay, based on a magazine short story.) A patriarch of competing heirs struggles with his decisions as to who will receive his legacy, then suffers as his lack of judgment puts into motion a series of cataclysmic events.
London-born Donald Crisp (who frequently played a Scot) does an impressive job with an American accent and adds to his well-known portrayals of gruff and distant fathers. His dream, which he believes is a portent, adds to the Shakespearean air of the proceedings.
Cathy O’Donnell plays the niece of the landowner, fiancée of Vic, and unambitious proprietor of the store; someone who intrigues Stewart’s character, but never truly functions as romantic interest. O’Donnell is somewhat stiff in her portrayal of a breathy innocent almost too good to be true; it’s a bit startling when Kennedy plants an impassioned smooch on her, for she has come across as rather daughterly to every man with whom she has interacted in the movie.
Despite its plot holes the movie somehow comes together, probably thanks in the main to the star power and acting ability of Stewart, who was more versatile than the company line would have it. Hitchcock often gets the credit for revealing the grittier and more multi-layered Stewart in Rope (1948); I’d argue that it was Anthony Mann who showed him to us, starting with Winchester ’73 (1950).
That first of the Mann-Stewart westerns was a black-and-white film in the traditional ratio; The Man From Laramie, their last, was shot in Technicolor and CinemaScope. Like John Ford before him, Mann knew how to choose and direct cinematographers (in this case, Charles Lang) to full advantage in capturing the vast and hard landscape of the west in ways that reflected the emptiness or challenges felt by the stories’ characters. Most of this movie was shot on location in Sante Fe and Taos, New Mexico. Audience members at The Brattle are fortunate to be seeing this one as it originally was meant to be seen; if you watch at home, make sure you’ve got a high-quality widescreen version.