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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Man Of The West

Why John Wayne and not Gary Cooper? Cooper’s post-war career was like some ongoing crisis of conscience. Wayne settled moral issues with balsa wood chairs and sugar-based bottles. Man Of The West Cooper engages decades-younger opponents at coronary inducing fisticuffs I’d not wish on a star half his age. Wayne seemed to gain strength and moral authority (as defined and enforced by himself) with passing years. Cooper was beaten down in increments from High Noon on. Health concerns were partly to blame, but Wayne had those too. The difference was every ulcer in Cooper’s stomach showed up on his face. Choice of parts made you wonder if he wasn’t seeking punishment for unspecified wrongs. The onscreen Cooper spilled life’s blood whenever he shot a man; even the richly deserved finish of no-good Burt Lancaster in Vera Cruz brings tears to his eyes. Cooper in westerns was always digging out from under mountains of regret. There’s anguish from the beginning and it seldom relents. Look to Bright Leaf and Springfield Rifle for performances so internalized as to make Clift, Dean, and Brando look like Moe, Larry, and Shemp by comparison. In fact, the Method and techniques derived therefrom fascinated Cooper. He attended workshops long after prosperous circumstances rendered such effort unnecessary. There was always a desire to be better, even to the end. Modesty compelled him to joke over a handful of trick gestures he'd rely on to see him through, but there was obviously more happening with this actor. Cooper chose to suffer during a decade in which many leading men did the same. The fifties was an endurance test for players seeking to break loose and do serious things. Burt Lancaster sprinkled his hair gray and pulled drunken fits in Come Back, Little Sheba. Kirk Douglas relieved himself of an ear in Lust For Life and nearly ground his teeth to powder doing so. Younger competition made Cooper’s westerns look old-fashioned. Never would age and baggage he carried with it be given more emphasis than in Man Of The West.

In starkest contrast to previously covered The War Wagon, and severest among uncomfortable westerns, Man Of The West is as much hard, bitter siege for us as for put-upon Gary Cooper. Anthony Mann’s previous westerns had toplined James Stewart. They’d have been together yet but for a rupture over increased control Stewart wanted on Night Passage. The director’s command of outdoor locations runs contra to Playhouse 90 writing by Reginald Rose. The latter's script groans under endless talk among outlaws so self-absorbed as to seem incapable of executing train or bank robberies, and in fact, they succeed at neither. Cooper ruminates over the man I used to be, always a risk when the man you were had considerably more get up and go than the one we’re watching at present. He stops short of violent action despite our hopeful anticipation of same. That makes me just like they are. Understood, but let’s get on with some killing anyhow. This is a motion picture, not television, where talk will do because it has to do. Reginald Rose seems constrained by budget and time limitations recalled from Studio One and Goodyear Playhouse, anthology series for which he’d written. Twelve Angry Men was also his. Long middle sections of Man Of The West amount to half that many angry and shouting men pacing one another around cramped interiors atypical of director Mann. Had live television and its endlessly chatting heads seduced him? Something about reams of dialogue amidst closed quarters causes supporting players to abandon restraint as well. Lee J. Cobb bellows at characters standing not two feet away, while newcomer Jack Lord relishes nastiness as though western villainy itself were just now invented by him. That dark cloud over fifties cinema known as Arthur O’Connell isn’t killed off soon enough, and Julie London’s just another soiled dove bound to be used badly before Cooper at long last squares accounts.

Kids have too steady a diet of violence these days, said Gary Cooper in a late fifties interview. Probably knocking television after the fashion of most bigscreen names, but would he take responsibility for kid patrons enticed to Man Of The West with coloring contests as shown here? Movie mayhem in the fifties was a lot like television after the violence crackdown of the late sixties. Gunplay was downplayed, but sadism and cruelty, always lots more disturbing for me, was ratcheted up to alarming degrees. There’s an extended ordeal in Man Of The West wherein Julie London is forced to strip while Cooper sits by helplessly with a knife at his throat. It’s pure meanness, agony to watch, and goes on forever. I can’t help suspecting they shot this (so lovingly) just for something to liven up trailers and one-sheets. Indeed, the sequence was emphasized in virtually every piece of exploitation material I've seen for this feature. The showdown between Cooper (at 57) and Jack Lord (38) pays off on the strip episode, though by now there’s so much humiliation piled atop misery that most of my concentration was upon spotting doubles that might relieve poor Coop. It was noted at the time (and since) that Man Of The West was shunted off to saturation bookings rather than a Broadway opening. Reviewers dismissed it as casually as now certified classics Touch Of Evil and Vertigo of the same year. Man Of The West earned $1.4 million in domestic rentals, with foreign bringing another $1.9. Its worldwide rentals of $3.4 million were equal or close to monies realized on star vehicles among other veterans, as Clark Gable’s The King and Four Queens had the same worldwide total ($3.4), while John Wayne’s Legend Of The Lost, considered a disappointment for him, did $3.6 million. French director Jean-Luc Godard called Man Of The West 1958’s best film. I have seen nothing so completely new since --- why not --- Griffith. Anthony Mann’s placement atop the pantheon of autuerists was something he’d burnish in latter-day interviews. Yes, Man Of The West was inspired by Greek tragedy, said Mann in 1967, the director's references to Oedipus Rex and Antigone disarming those critics otherwise disinclined to take his westerns seriously.

Even had he lived another two decades, I doubt Gary Cooper would ever have gotten away from the Yup/Nope label he’d worn since starting out. Television appearances, limited as they were, demonstrated a greater public’s persistent image of veteran stars. Humphrey Bogart broke policy, guested on The Jack Benny Program and found himself spoofing (and being spoofed) as a gangster. Benny invited Cooper to attempt rock and roll in his familiar inarticulate cowboy style and home viewers’ comfortable expectations were met. Silent cowboy William S. Hart had earlier come out of retirement to provide sidearm instruction to youngsters John Mack Brown and Robert Taylor when they (respectively) played Billy The Kid. Cooper assumed Hart’s role for purposes of lending authenticity where it might otherwise be lacking. Here he is coaching unlikely gunfighter Frank Sinatra on the 1956 set of Johnny Concho. Wire photos I’ve seen of Cooper at industry and charity events find him in (modern) western attire (as here with Claudette Colbert), this in spite of Saville Row tastes he indulged in private life. Toward the end, Cooper would host and narrate an NBC Project 20 episode called The Real West. An outstanding documentary about hardship on the (real-life) frontier, this would be his final appearance but for an advertisement shown here for Insured Savings and Loan Associations. That endorsement may well have been the last professional work Cooper did prior to his death on May 13, 1961. Man Of The West played theatrically through much of the sixties, a stand-by for matinees and drive-ins despite being syndicated on television since 1962. Anthony Mann’s compositions would be mutilated on box screens at home for the next four decades, typical of abuse and neglect visited upon Cinemascope features once they finished general release. United Artists’ non-theatrical rental library made Man Of The West available on anamorphic 16mm in response to auteur awareness on the part of University and film society customers. Rates during the mid-seventies were seventy-five dollars per engagement. A collector friend who snatched one in the late eighties said it had already turned pink. Present day availability is limited to stateside showings of the wide version on TCM and a barely adequate Region 2 DVD from England. Man Of The West remains a difficult picture to see properly and like a lot of others, will remain so until corporate owners revisit it for (overdue) home video release (and that they did --- for it's now available on Region One DVD from MGM/UA).


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You're right -- it may take a quality video release of MAN to settle some of the critical questions surrounding it. My overall impression of the film remains very strong, but when you referenced some of that endlessly declaimed Reginald Rose dialogue, forgotten misgivings about the movie immediately surfaced. The film's notorious sadism and cruelty perhaps reflect a certain niche of the genre of the time, but there's no denying that they seem extreme -- this is, after all, a Gary Cooper western. I'd love to see this properly again -- the okay print that airs on TCM just isn't enough.

I've always remembered that "Project XX" The Real West show as excellent, with Cooper's narration and presence both eloquent and moving. I saw this last in the late '70s and it still held up quite well -- thanks for the reminder of it.

1:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like the analysis. It reminded me of Bogdanovich's books in which Hawks, John Ford and even John Wayne talk about how carefully he was guided in his films, oftentimes overriding Wayne's personal notion on how to play a character or scene. I don't think Cooper was that malleable, or perhaps taken another way, that easily led.

I've not seen this film... but it sounds like the opposite of the easy kidding of Cooper's "Along Came Jones."

I read there's a "High Noon" remake in the offing.

2:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff, that Project 20 episode is really fine. I watched it recently. Cooper does a great job as host and narrator. It's a fitting swan song for him.

Erik, I agree it would have been difficult at this stage of his career for any director to influence a Gary Cooper performance. It's doubtful anyone even tried. As for that "High Noon" remake, how can anyone hope to surpass Lee Majors?

6:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I agree wholeheartedly about Lee Cobb's to-the-back rows-of-the-balcony bellowing. In the wake of playing Johnny Friendly, Cobb seemed to make lung power his stock-in-trade. See THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV, PARTY GIRL, 12 ANGRY MEN (with Cobb not only the angriest but the loudest), and THE FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE for more of Cobb's migraine inducing displays.

Corny as Cobb tended to be, at least I can buy him as MAN OF THE WEST's deranged old reprobate, Dock Tobin. Gary Cooper, on the other hand, pulls me out of the picture altogether. Not only is Coop too old for the physical demands, he's too old for the role as conceived. No amount of vaseline on the lens can conceal the fact that he looks like Dock's contemporary rather than surrogate son, which, among other detriments, makes hash out of the Oedipus subtext.

3:45 PM  

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