(1961) dir. John Huston
Among many other tropes this year, I’ve been watching/rediscovering/discovering for real the first time director John Huston. For some time I’d had interest in seeing The Misfits, both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe’s final film. As with many things, I let the conversion of many tropes and interests meet and give opportunity where no opportunity had yet arisen in my life to see this film, and here we had it: The Misfits.
It’s kind of funny, but watching an actress like Marilyn Monroe is always a sort of multi-layered event in the present day and age. Who doesn’t see her first and foremost as “Marilyn Monroe” and who could not be effected knowing that she would be dead within a year of this film? It’s a meta-experience, if you have any sense of history or cinema or anything. And while I grew up with Monroe in films like Monkey Business (1952) and Some Like it Hot (1959), I hadn’t seen all of her films, nor did I have a complete history of her.
She’s very good in this film, in a way that is different from her comedic roles, ones which seem predicated on her persona as much as her “character”. Written by her husband Arthur Miller, the script of The Misfits, reeks of theater, of the stagey dramatic moments of dialogue and the way that emotional action takes place within a “scene”. But at the same time, the film is very cinematic. And Monroe’s character, a blonde, easily read as cheap and relatively ignorant, certainly carries more emotional depth and realism.
Gable is also excellent in this film. I’d only seen him before in It Happened One Night (1934) and Gone With the Wind (1939), and I didn’t really have a full perception of how he could be as an actor. His tough, manly, earnest yet limited cowboy Gay in The Misfits feels like a very real, believable character, more so than anything I’d seen him in before.
The casting is amazing. With Monroe and Gable, you’ve got Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter as the primaries and secondaries in the cast. Ritter gets a lot of the best lines as the wisened divorcee who seems to have assessed Reno and the world in a way that the other characters can only hope to achieve in later life. And then with only half of the pithy-ness.
The film is a study of divorce, of the diminishing role of the American cowboy, American manliness, of America’s wild, true being, as so obviously represented in the wild mustangs that Gable and company head out to trap and sell for dog meat. What once was a symbol of grace, majesty, power, and independence has been subjugated to that of fodder for machinery and grist of heartless mills. The pride and power and energy of the men who once forced themselves and their wills on the American landscape are not lost flailing meaninglessly against a dying landscape, a way of life already dead, without having realized it.
Huston crafts an excellent film from this, with some tremendous scenes, like the one in which the partying crew heads into a Reno bar after a rodeo in which a drunken crowd becomes enthused by Monroe’s gyrating derriere as she proves her mettle on a paddle ball, showing how even good fun is readily turned into exploitation by the curdling masses.
It’s a sad film, though hopeful, as many films would have been at this time, even with their more pointed social critiques in Hollywood. It’s a powerful thing, in knowing with the conversations about death and the significance of being alive that are passed so unwittingly of the coming deaths, so untimely of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. And yet, as a final performance, both leave perhaps some of their most moving and interesting dramatic work. No doubt why this film is well-known and appreciated.