This week, Hidden Treasures takes a look at three Westerns directed by Anthony Mann, a versatile filmmaker whose career spanned a variety of genres, from film noir in the 1940’s (Railroaded, T-Men) to big-budget epics of the 60’s (El-Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire). However, it’s the westerns, five of which teamed him with Hollywood legend James Stewart, for which Mann is best remembered. I’ve already presented one of them, Winchester 73, in a previous Hidden Treasures. Here are three more, each an excellent example of Mann’s preference for gritty realism over the more stylized Western “mythology” that many of his contemporaries chose to explore.
(As an added bonus, click on MORE below to view clips / trailers from this week’s films)
The Furies (1950)
Unlike this week’s other two entries, The Furies was shot entirely in black and white; but then it couldn’t have been presented any other way. With a brooding story, populated by characters equally as dark, there were no colors in the spectrum that could have possibly penetrated this film.
The year is 1870, the setting, New Mexico. T.C. Jeffords (Walter Huston, in his final screen appearance) is a cattle baron who used his incredible wealth to construct an enormous ranch, which he named the Furies. His daughter, Vance (Barbara Stanwyck), has a lot in common with her father, including a love of the Furies. T.C., who has fallen on hard times and owes money all over the territory, has promised to turn the Furies over to Vance one day, whom he feels is the only person capable of running it the way it needs to be run. However, a love of the Furies isn’t the only thing they share; both are headstrong, and clash openly over everything from potential husbands for Vance to how to handle the squatters who have been trespassing on their land for years. When T.C. turns against a series of suitors for Vance, the stage is set for a face-off, one which ultimately threatens to destroy not only their relationship, but the Furies as well.
Huston and Stanwyck are absolutely stellar as T.C. and Vance, two individuals so incredibly alike, sharing the same boisterous, egotistical personality, that their eventual clash seemed inevitable. At the wedding reception of T.C’s son, Clay (John Bromfield), who has always taken a back seat to his more ambitious sister, a rival of T.C.’s named Darrow (Wendell Corey) unexpectedly turns up. T.C, who had killed Darrow’s father years earlier, insults Darrow and orders him to leave. At that, Vance turns to the unwanted ‘guest’ and asks him to join her in a dance. Before long, Darrow and Vance are seeing each other regularly, and even talking of marriage. It’s an open challenge to T.C., who earlier had presented Vance with a dowry of $50,000 that he promised to turn over only if he approved of her choice of husband (to which Vance snapped back that she’d marry whomever she pleased). Less a courtship than a showdown between father and daughter, it’s the first in what will become a series of standoffs between them.
Ultimately, there are very few likeable characters in The Furies, and while we do feel a certain degree of empathy for T.C. and Vance, it’s an empathy that shifts back and forth between the two, never once coming to rest on both of them at the same time. The two are like a dark cloud hanging over the film, in much the same way they hang over the Furies ranch and everyone who resides within it. From the moment we met T.C. and Vance and watched them interact, it was obvious that a storm was brewing, and heaven help anyone who got caught in the middle of it.
The Naked Spur (1953)
As mentioned above, James Stewart and Anthony Mann worked together on five westerns, starting with Winchester 73 in 1950 and culminating in 1955’s The Man from Laramie. Aside from turning out five excellent films, this pairing also marked a change of pace in the career of James Stewart. Gone was the loveable underdog of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the disillusioned do-gooder of It’s a Wonderful Life and the eternal optimist of Harvey. With Mann, Stewart was exploring characters that had an edge, hardened by life and never afraid to do whatever it took to come out on top. Under Mann’s direction, James Stewart was given an opportunity to walk on the dark side, and he appeared to be just as comfortable in this darkness as he was in the light.
Howard Kemp (James Stewart), a bounty hunter from Kansas, has been tracking wanted murderer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan) for hundreds of miles. Picking up two partners along the way; unlucky prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and dishonorably discharged Union soldier Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), Kemp is finally able to capture both Ben and Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), a young girl Ben has been looking after. Unfortunately for Kemp and his partners, the journey to Kansas to collect their reward is fraught with dangers on all sides, not the least of which is the danger they pose to one another. With greed rearing its ugly head, each of the three is tempted to somehow find a way to claim the $5,000 reward on their prisoner’s head for themselves.
As is Mann’s style, there are no clear-cut heroes or villains in The Naked Spur. Stewart’s Kemp is working to bring a wanted man to justice, but only so he can collect the reward. The fact that Ben may be innocent means nothing to him (“it’s him they’re paying the reward on”, he reasons). Kemp even tries to swindle Roy and Jesse, who helped him capture Ben, out of their share of the reward. On the reverse side of the coin, Ben is wanted for murder, but has also set himself up as a father figure to Lina, the daughter of his best friend, taking care of her when there was nobody else to do so (even if he does use Lina from time to time to stir up the tension between Kemp and his ‘partners’). Then there’s Roy, wonderfully played by Ralph Meeker, a soldier who was thrown out of the army for taking up with an Indian chief’s daughter (whether or not the chief’s daughter was a willing partner is never fully disclosed). Roy has a nasty disposition, and makes advances towards Lina every chance he gets. There are no trustworthy characters to be found on either side of The Naked Spur, bringing a level of unpredictability to the film. With each man capable of anything, good or bad, we simply don’t know what to expect with each new scene.
Therein lies the true appeal of an Anthony Mann western. Formulas be damned; here’s a director who’ll gladly guide his story in any direction it wants to go.
The Man From Laramie (1955)
The Man from Laramie marked Anthony Mann’s first experience with Cinescope, a widescreen format introduced in the early 1950’s. With the goal of filling the screen with action, Mann took his western in an entirely new direction. Within his typically well-composed tale of drama and intrigue, Anthony Mann introduced a level of art; giving his audience the added bonus of breathtaking imagery to coincide with a story they could sink their teeth into.
Will Lockhart (James Stewart) is searching for the man responsible for the murder of his brother, even though he’s not completely sure who that man might be. Knowing only that the killer trades guns with the Indians, Lockhart travels to Apache country to continue his quest. Once there, he runs afoul of the bad-tempered Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), son of powerful rancher Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp). Left wounded by his run-in with the younger Waggoman, Lockhart learns that he has inadvertantly placed himself in the middle of a family struggle, with Dave Waggoman and his adopted brother Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) fighting each other for control of Alec Waggoman’s vast estates.
The Man from Laramie has all the elements of an Anthony Mann western, where vigilante justice is preferable to law and order, and family members fight each other for control of a piece of land. Throw in the added bonus of a wide screen, and you have a film that is truly unforgettable. Along with Director of Photography Charles Lang (who received 18 Academy Award nominations over his 47-year career), Mann utilized every inch of his available canvas to relate this story of deception and revenge. From the opening scene, where two horse-drawn wagons make their way across a desert landscape, it’s obvious that Mann plans to take full advantage of everything the Cinescope format has to offer. Even the moments of violence are stylized, such as when Lockhart, on his first meeting with Dave Waggoner, is roped by one of Waggoner’s henchmen and dragged ten feet across the dirt and sand. It’s a terrible scene, to be sure, yet presented here in such a way that it becomes equally as spectacular.
The Man from Laramie is an example of an artist working within a genre that he is wholly familiar with, while employing technology that is entirely new to him. The result is a film of incredible power, not to mention incredible beauty.
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