Friday, November 28, 2014

Blu-ray Review: Anthony Mann's Man of the West (1958)


The weight of multiple converging histories hangs heavy on the heart of Anthony Mann's last great film, Man of the West. Released in 1958, the project marked a spiritual culmination of many interrelated cinematic careers and concerns. For one, studio filmmaking of the sort which Mann helped popularize was on the wane, staring down an upcoming decade in which the production, distribution, and artistic disposition of popular cinema would drastically change. Likewise, the film's star, Gary Cooper, would feature in only a few more films, succumbing to prostate cancer just three years after its release. And while Mann would make a handful of subsequent films, including one more western, Man of the West carries with it an unshakeable aura of finality in its world-weary temperament, bringing a genre which would quickly find new modes of expression—whether in the mold of a spaghetti, revisionist, neo, or acid western—to its logical endpoint.

This simultaneous sense of exasperation and dedication in the face of progress is reflected in the demeanor of Cooper's aging, reformed outlaw, Link Jones, whose proactive measures to reconcile personal principles and professional pride manifests as a kind of existential crisis. Jones, journeying across Texas to recruit a new schoolteacher for his adopted home of Good Hope, is brought face to face with his past when his train finds itself under siege by a gang of bandits and former criminal cohorts. Refocusing his priorities, and now in the company of two fellow passengers, a hustler known as Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell) and a potential love interest named Billie Ellis (Julie London), Jones sets forth to confront lingering traumas, tracing the robbers to a remote farm where the leader of the gang, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), is revealed to be Jones's uncle. Their reunion is tense and riddled with guilt, and Mann shoots the sequence (which accounts for a good quarter of the film's runtime) as a kind of psychological sparring match, a moody, modular drama of literal and figurative interiority. Ceilings are low and light is ominous, the room a claustrophobic stage where the attempted rape of Billie is the only act heinous enough to disrupt—or, more likely, simply postpone—the proceedings.

By this point in his career, Mann's visual style had fully matured, with the tight, functional design of his 1940s crime films precipitating a steady advancement in scope and syntax, which his first forays with the Technicolor western of the early 1950s, as well as the CinemaScope experiment of 1955's The Man from Laramie, would eventually bring to fruition. Mann utilized landscape as both pictorial and thematic device, teasing from his jagged geographies an impressionistic nuance directly reciprocal to the mental disposition of his characters. Befitting this approach, much of Man of the West transpires outdoors, from the glorious sun-drenched commencement to the threatening pink dusk left lingering after the train robbery to the climatic shootout in an abandoned mining town. Mann's indoor passages prove to be just as impressive, however, consistently helping to consolidate and reanimate character constitution. And from a formal perspective, they're simply a marvel of physical orchestration and diagrammatic expression. Set aboard the moving train prior to the siege, a quaint interlude featuring Jones, Beasley, and Ellis establishes their personalities and priorities with just a master shot and a few carefully intercut dialogue exchanges, while the aforementioned farmhouse confrontation unfolds something like an intimate stage diorama, energies and intrigues subtly emerging enriched by the surrounding environs and vice versa.

On the whole, Man of the West is what one would generally classify as a "slow burn," concerned as it is more with accumulating tension and articulating a sense of cerebral violence rather than pushing toward any sort of demonstrative display of action. Nonetheless, there are a trio of thrilling sequences punctuating the narrative which Mann realizes with his typical flair for muscular composition and lithe choreography. The train robbery is certainly a swift example of Mann's visual storytelling prowess, but it's two subsequent sequences that bruise the hardest. A drawn-out fist fight between Jones and his cousin, Coaley (Jack Lord), brings the nascent anxiety of the film's first half to brutal reality as the two trade bare-fisted blows while the gang curdles the bad blood from the sidelines. And later, after taking up an uneasy partnership with Dock under the prospects of a bank robbery, Jones and the film finally arrive at their literal and figurative destiny, as the heist reveals itself to be a set up and Jones is forced to physically put his past behind him. The resulting shootout in the abandoned mining town is one of Mann's most brutal depictions of compulsion and comeuppance, as Jones systematically rids his psyche of a lifetime of regrets and responsibilities. When uncle and nephew inevitably square off, Jones shrewdly describes Dock as a ghost, a relic of a bygone era of the Old West. "You've outlived your kind and you've outlived your time," he sharply pronounces. In the context of the film, the remark is a bluntly effective bit of truth telling; as an unintentional reflection on Mann and the aims and ideologies behind a genre he so ably helped advance, it's an affecting, melancholy metaphor.

Image/Sound:
Man of the West debuts on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber looking strong on all fronts. Texture stands out as a major draw, with the thick, tangible look of grain suffusing the frame. Colors aren't demonstrative, but appear fairly accurate, with the film's autumnal palette translating through soft tones. Artifacts are at a minimum, if completely imperceptible, while the interior scenes betray a strong nocturnal sense with balanced contrast allowing for dark shadows and sharp detail. Audio, meanwhile, is offered in a two-channel DTS-HD track, sounding clean and free of much extraneous noise. Dialogue is clear and upfront, sound effects are alternately barbed and robust, while Leigh Harline's rousing score comes through demonstratively, but not overpoweringly.

Extras:
Unfortunately, there are no digital supplements offered. There is, however, an eight-page booklet included, featuring an informative essay by critic R. Emmet Sweeney.

Overall:
Man of the West, director Anthony Mann's last great film, carries with it an unshakeable aura of finality in its world-weary temperament, bringing a genre which would quickly find new modes of expression to its logical endpoint. [Slant]

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