Anthony Mann directed eight movies—five of them westerns—with James Stewart that were released between 1950 and 1955. To me Stewart seems somewhat deranged (manic) in Alfred Hitchcock’s single-set “Rope” made before the Mann/Stewart films, so that the break from the all-American Mr. Nice Guy that Stewart essayed for Frank Capra (in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Its a Wonderful Life”) was a joint Hitchcock and Mann enterprise. Stewart played an obsessive voyeur of sorts in “Rear Window” and went on to the obsessive, agoraphobic police officer in “Vertigo.”
In Mann’s westerns (in order: Winchester 73, Bend of the River, Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Man from Laramie), Stewart generally played someone minding his own business, not very comfortable with women, not seeking trouble but not backing away from any that confronted him. They all turn into stories of revenge. It is not immediately obvious that revenge is driving him from before the start of what is shown in “Naked Spur” and “Man from Laramie,” but in both of them, like the other three, he is riled by affronts from others who impinge on him as he is trying to mind his own business.
I have to say that “Man from Laramie” has the least gripping opening of any of the five Mann/Stewart westerns, even if one can ignore the ballad underlying the opening credits. Will Lockhart, the man from Laramie of the title, is leading a mule train across Apache country, stopping at the scene of an ambush of soldiers, though it is unclear how long ago it occurred. After camping on the battleground for the night, he delivers the goods to store-keeper Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell) who surprises him by telling him she’s sort of sorry that the goods arrived. because with nothing to sell, she had been considering closing down her store.
On his way out, Will notices a repeating rifle for sale and asks the (Pueblo) clerk where it came from. An interest in who has been selling repeating rifles to the Apaches becomes ever more central as the movie continues. But first, he is in the process of filling his wagons with salt so that he was some freight to take back the other way. (Side note: that the New Mexico town is being supplied from Laramie puzzles me, as does explicit mention of it being a stop on the way east, later on…)
Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol, the psychotic son of the main rancher, attacks the wagon train for trespassing and stealing salt. Among other things, he has Will lassooed and dragged through a fire (for which Stewart had no stunt double). The weak heir is a recurrent figure in 1950s westerns (in Sam Fuller’s “40 Guns” it is a brother rather than a son of a generally clear-eyed boss). This one is supposed to be kept out of trouble by a saner surrogate older brother, Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy, who played an ally of Stewart’s picked up on the trail in “Bend of the River”… and the man seeking revenge in Fritz Lang’s “Rancho Notorious”). There’s sibling rivalry, especially since the overlord, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp, the brutal father of D. W. Griffith’s “Broken Blossoms” and the very harsh father of John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley”) has delegated authority to Vic rather than to his son.
Will and Dave have two more run-ins, the second ending with something that shocks most everyone (including this viewer). Will is not the world’s greatest detective, and his final understanding is not entirely correct. Dave is a gangster who is devoid of compunctions and of sense.
One can say that Will is saved by a woman, Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon), a tough rancher who was jilted by Alex Waggoman and has been the only rancher not bought out by him. To further complicate matters, Vic’s fiancée, to whom Will is drawn, is the store-keeper, Barbara, who is Alex’s niece.
Soap opera, Oedipal psychodrama, detective story, western rolled into one. With striking northern New Mexico (Taos and Santa Fe counties) backdrops filmed by Charles Lang (cinematographer of “The Big Heat,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Gunfight at the O. K. Corral,” etc.) and well transferred to DVD. The only “extra”, however, is a trailer. (Though subtitles are available in an unusual number of languages.)
I don’t know why the Mann/Stewart partnership ended. Stewart made more westerns, including two very good ones directed by John Ford (“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Two Rode Together,” the latter much closer to the kinds of characters Stewart played for Mann than the former). Mann directed three more westerns. The one most like the Stewart ones was “Man of the West” (1958) with Gary Cooper playing a role close to the one Stewart played in “Bend of the River” and with Lee J. Cobb as a larger-than-life patriarch/villain. (I haven’t seen Henry Fonda mentoring Anthony Perkins in the 1957 “The Tin Star.”)
Except for the first, shot in black and white, the Mann westerns have striking scenery. The five starring Stewart all have complex not entirely heroic Stewart characters and interesting villains. The most entertaining of these is the corrupt sheriff played by John McIntire in “The Far Country,” though Robert Ryan makes an interestingly wry prisoner in “Naked Spur.” Arthur Kennedy is an interesting second lead in “Bend of the River” and “The Man from Laramie,” but Walter Brennan in “The Far Country” is the most entertaining sidekick of Stewart’s. I am writing myself into a conclusion that “The Far Country” is the best of the four in color (though the least popular and most northern). Ruth Roman in that is less wooden than Janet Leigh in “The Naked Spur” or Cathy O’Donnell in “Man from Laramie” or Julie Adams in “Bend of the River.” Shelley Winters surpasses this weak female competition in “Winchester ’73,” which is probably the tightest of the five. So, if you like psychologically complex westerns, watch them all and pick your own favorite!
©2018, Stephen O. Murray