The Man from Laramie (1955)


The Man from Laramie (1955) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 12/16/2015

Between 1950 (Winchester ’73) and 1955 (The Man from Laramie), director Anthony Mann and star Jimmy Stewart teamed up together for five Westerns.  Between 2003 and just now (late 2015), I’ve finally managed to getting around to completing the cycle.  I caught The Naked Spur (1953) two years ago, and have chugged through Bend of the River (1952) and The Far Country (1954) in the last few months.  Considering the many tropes and cycles and themes and styles of films I slog through, it’s kind of amazing to complete anything.

Shot in CinemaScope and Technicolor, The Man from Laramie seems to be the “big one” of the series, a stab at something more epic-ish, if not fully epic.  Their first four films together are much more concentrated action Westerns, themes and big ideas, sure, but each but not the Technicolor, wide-screen luxury of Laramie, and Laramie is even about 15 minutes more epic.

In this one, Stewart rolls into Coronado with a couple wagon-loads of supplies.  The town has been cut off in isolation by the size of some of its holdings and by pesky Apache territory in one direction.  What Stewart finds is a ruthlessly-run place, owned by a harsh but ailing land baron, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), whose son Dave (Alex Nicol) rides psychotically half-cocked at all times, while his testy right hand man Vic (Arthur Kennedy) tries to keep him at bay.  Dave burns Stewart’s wagons and shoots his mules when he thinks Stewart is stealing their salt.  This leads to a fist fight and a rather convoluted situation that makes for the rest of the story.

Mann is once again in his element, shooting on location, this time in Arizona and New Mexico.  And the wide-screen of CinemaScope offers new frames for capturing the rugged landscape and the cowboy hero.  But the longer beats of the pacing, the bigger scope of the family drama wind up bogging the thing down more than expanding it.  I’d say it’s a good film, but the weakest of the five.

I guess if I’d seen the films all in quicker succession I’d have a better chance at teasing out a sense of consistency in the worlds.  Of the three films I’ve seen this year, Bend of the River (1952, The Far Country (1954), and now The Man from Laramie, in each one Stewart plays a man from the outside come to the Wild West outpost.  In each one, be it Oregon, Alaska, or New Mexico, he finds a lack of law and order, is robbed of his rightful goods, and has to decide to take a stand with the underdogs against the rich, powerful villains and then ultimately decide to either settle down or move along.

Both Mann and Stewart made other Westerns with other collaborators, so I don’t know if it’s worth just looking at these five films in isolation.  But shot in that tight 5 year period, it’s a worthwhile cycle for a fan of the classic American Western.

The Far Country (1954)

The Far Country (1954) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 11/21/2015

1896, the Alaskan Gold Rush, the “far country”, the Westernmost range of the Western.  This is the setting for Anthony Mann’s 1954 Western, The Far Country, his fourth of five Westerns starring Jimmy Stewart.

Aspects of the film echo of Bend of the River (1952), Mann and Stewart’s 2nd Western together.  In Bend of the River, Stewart played a driver who helped a family drive to their homestead in Western Oregon, navigating the ruthless markets and opportunists who try to rip them off when gold is discovered nearby.  The Far Country begins in another Pacific Northwest frontier town, this time Seattle, and Stewart’s character, Jeff Webster, isn’t aiding a family unit, but shepherding his own team of cattle to Alaska for a big score.  And while he manages to dodge the shysters and thieves in Seattle, he runs afoul of the even more ruthless kingpin in Skagway, Judge Gannon (John McIntire).  The judge, having all authority, just takes his cattle without any chance of recompense.

As Jeff, Stewart isn’t as kind-hearted as his character in Bend of the River.  He’s looking out for #1, and to some extent, his #2, Ben Tatum (the always enjoyable Walter Brennan).  When he manages to free himself (and his cows) to hit the far country, he finds the same villains of Skagway have invaded Dawson City.  But his moral compass only looks to his own profit and he winds up selling to the villains, just to make a buck.

It’s an interesting contrast, these two characters.  Under the sway of a pretty young thing, Renee (Corinne Calvet), and through further ruthlessness by the local villains, Jeff comes around to learning to protect the town and the budding American society laying its seeds in the icy, isolated soil.  He’s forced to do right, to protect and support the good people from the bad, rather than disinterestedly looking only out for himself.  Some vague critique of isolationism or something?

Shot in parts in Canada, like other Anthony Mann Westerns, the natural landscapes are used to significant effect.  The Far Country is an interesting and well-made picture.

Bend of the River (1952)

Bend of the River (1952) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 08/29/2015

Jimmy Stewart is a former border raider leading a wagon train to Oregon to set down roots and start homesteading.  He saves the life of a man about to be lynched, another former raider, not quite sure if he’s ready to settle down but joins up for the trek.  When they get to Portland, the homesteaders purchase supplies and catch a steamboat up toward their stake and start working their land.  When a promised and paid for shipment of supplies fails to show up, Stewart heads back down to Portland to see what’s what.

Turns out there has been a gold rush and the merchant who sold them their goods hasn’t sent them because he’s planning on selling them for hugely inflated prices.  When Stewart and his men get the steamboat laded up, they make a break for it.  A chase ensues with the greedy rabble ready to make a break to the highest bidder.

This is another of the Anthony Mann/Jimmy Stewart Westerns, and another good one.  Morality and the Wild West are challenged by greed, and even Stewart’s good-hearted hero forces the layabouts at gunpoint to aid him, promising them decent pay at the end of the line but no choice in the matter.  The other former raider (Arthur Kennedy) doesn’t ultimately have as high a moral code and the showdown must commence.  A lot of it was shot on location in Oregon and bears the unique landscapes of that state.

The film has a good cast, including Rock Hudson as an unlikely gambler good guy and the lovely Julie Adams (Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)) as primary love interest.  It also features a youngish Harry Morgan as Shorty, one of the “treacherous hired men” (as Wikipedia puts it).  And Steppin Fetchit!  Controversial as he was, he was also very good.

I’ve now seen three of the Mann/Stewart Westerns (Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River, and The Naked Spur (1953).  I’ll have to check out the other two as well (The Far Country (1955) and The Man from Laramie (1955).

Railroaded! (1947)

Railroaded! (1947) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 03/10/2015

Railroaded! is a nifty noir from director Anthony Mann with effective cinematography from collaborator John Alton.   Clocking in at only 72 minutes, this is a deft and defining genre and style picture.

There is a blithe simplicity to this story and set-up to this story about a young kid that gets framed for the killing of a cop by some callous crooks.  That simplicity belies what lies beneath this picture of crime, killers, cops, and the average citizen.  What’s odd and interesting is that the story isn’t focused on the kid who becomes the fall guy for the killer, but rather on his sister (Sheila Ryan) who wants to prove him innocent to the detective on the case (Hugh Beaumont).  Only the killer (John Ireland) is a pretty wily fella, only too willing to kill others to keep his secret.

The opening robbery sequence is a keen highlight, but so is the ending shoot-out.  This is a solid little film.

Anthony Mann continues to impress.

Raw Deal (1948)

Raw Deal (1948) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 05/07/2014

Pretty nifty film noir from director Anthony Mann starring Dennis O’Keefe as an inmate breaking out of prison with the help of his gal.  Only the story is really from his gal’s perspective.  That’s Claire Trevor doing the world-weary voiceover for this doomed little narrative.

Raymond Burr plays the big-suited heavy with a sadistic streak.  John Ireland is his wily house of cards-building henchman.  But more than anything, it’s the decent nice girl, Ann (Marsha Hunt) who makes the whole thing go sideways for them.  The cynics would actually get away with their diminished sense of happiness and freedom if it wasn’t for the nice girl, turning O’Keefe’s head and general sensibilities.

Some nice cinematography too, especially toward the final moments of the film.

The Naked Spur (1953)

The Naked Spur (1953) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 12/22/2013

After watching a few Westerns with the kids, my appetite has been whetted for more of the same.  I was digging around for lists of the greatest examples of the genre to see what would come up, and sadly the lists I came across didn’t offer so many hot leads but rather a number of films that I have seen.  Maybe what I need is a list of the best B-movie Westerns.

That said, Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur did show up in a few places.  Mann is one of those auteurs  whose name I became familiar with as I started really getting into cinema. For all that, outside of Winchester ’73 (1950), I’m not sure how many of his films that I’ve actually seen.  I think I saw one when I was living in England, which is actually where I turned the corner on my interest in film and also where I came to know and love the Western.

The Naked Spur is a pretty great film.  It’s a tight concept with a small but very good cast.  James Stewart is hunting for Robert Ryan, a wanted murderer.  He winds up stumbling into a partnership with gristly old timer Millard Mitchell and unsavory roustabout Ralph Meeker as he captures Ryan, who turns out to be travelling with young thing, Janet Leigh.  It’s a game of distrust in all directions, with Ryan cockily trying to wrangle his escape.

Shot on location in Colorado, the settings are beautiful and dramatic and make for a great finale above and in a raging river.

I think I’ll have to queue up the rest of the Anthony Mann/James Stewart Westerns (there are five all together) and more Mann films as I try to get a better handle on them for myself.

Winchester ’73

Winchester '73 (1950) movie poster

(1950) dir. Anthony Mann
viewed: 05/14/03

I grew up in the South, in Florida to be exact, despising many things that I associated with Southern culture: rednecks, blue jeans, chewing tobacco, country music and Westerns. The litany of those things detailed shows how ill-informed and indiscriminate I was in consigning things to my list of dislikes. Though I still dislike rednecks and tobacco products, I have come to appreciate many other things that I associated rather blindly with one another, some more readily than others.

I came upon the Western in England, of all places. On the “telly” on BBC and Channel Four, frequently in the afternoons the films that would be played would be the great symbols of America, the Westerns of the Golden Age of Hollywood. I got quite into them and saw quite a few, but never came close to having seen even all of the interesting or important films. I want to say that I did see a good Anthony Mann Western among the viewings, but I can’t recall it. Winchester ’73 was recommended to me by a former film school chum, who credited it as being his primary influence into converting him into a fan of the Western.

It’s an interesting film with a surprisingly notable cast. Jimmy Stewart stars, Shelley Winters is the love interest, and also features an interesting performance by Dan Duryea, Rock Hudson as an indian chief (amusingly bad Hollywood casting and depiction of Native Americans — though Hudson is a notably young, strapping buck), and Tony Curtis in a bit part. The film’s Monument Valley setting is as beautifully rendered as in a John Ford Western, and the narrative is cleverly structured and literate yarn that follows a stolen Winchester rifle as it passes through several hands, leaving each usurper dead as it passes on.

When I asked my film school chum what the nature of the discussion was of this film in his classes, he said that it was the “gun as phallus,” a classically Freudian reading, the thing that every man must have and is willing to die in trying to procure. It’s interestingly lethal to those who fail to maintain it. And the landscape is rife with phallic cacti surrounding the players in the desert. It’s an amusing reading, and that is why I share it with you.

After seeing The Magnificent Seven in the theater a couple of weeks ago, I had been a-hankerin’ to see some more Westerns, so don’t be surprised to see some more classics showing up here in the DVD section, pardner.