When the subject of Anthony Mann’s contribution to the western genre is explored, it is his cycle with James Stewart that is inevitably brought up. Indeed, the Stewart collaboration Naked Spur (1953) remains Mann’s highest praised achievement in the great American genre. However, it is his nearly forgotten, last true western, Man of the West (1958), starring Gary Cooper, that is his most strikingly modern achievement. A telling sign of this film’s greatness lies in the fact that its status is still debated decades later.
Mann’s casting of Cooper is nothing less than inspired, although it probably cost the film box office revenue. Mann and Stewart had fallen out during the making of the previous year’s Night Passage, but by then audiences had come to accept Mann’s reinvention of Stewart’s on-screen persona. Starting in 1950, under Mann’s direction, Stewart had been portrayed as violent, selfish, cynical and remarkably complex.
In 1958, Gary Cooper was nearing the end of his career, and no director had manipulated Cooper’s screen personality in the way Mann had done with Stewart. Andre De Toth, a competent journeyman director who, nevertheless, lacked a real consistent vision, had come closest in Springfield Rifle (1952), where he portrayed Cooper’s character as an accused coward in the first half of the film. That turned out to be an undercover ploy to smoke out the real traitors, however, so Cooper retained his pure-as-the-driven-snow nobility after all. Still, even then, neither audiences nor critics bought it. Laconic simplicity and nobility were Cooper’s well-established trademarks. Mann took advantage of what was already established, and manipulated it with a darkly hued underbelly. Under Mann’s direction, the “yup” mannerisms of Cooper’s Link Jones convey evasiveness in an attempt to hide a less than noble past.
Link Jones is about to catch a train headed for Texas. He is on a mission to find a school teacher for his small town’s new school, and is carrying the funds to pay for her. A Marshall at the local train station thinks he recognizes Link, asks Link his name, inquires into Link’s past, and asks him if he knows the fugitive Doc Tobin (Lee J. Cobb). Link cautiously shakes his head, lies, squints, and evades the Marshall’s penetrating looks. Mann’s expert manipulation of Cooper’s personality traits is so subtle as to be believable and, thus, unnerving. It was unsettling enough for 1958 audiences to reject it, and even contemporary critics have often lamented the casting of Cooper, as opposed to Stewart, in this film. Stewart would not have worked nearly as well, simply because his casting would have been acceptable, even expected.
Cooper’s Link Jones consistently plays dumb throughout the film, first to evade discovery, then out of sheer necessity, for survival. We believe that he hides a sordid past. Link’s trip is cut short when bandits rob the train. Link, saloon singer Billie (Julie London) and con man Sam (Arthur O’ Connell) are left stranded. Link recognizes the nearby area as his one-time home. Knowing the nearest town is 100 miles away, Link leads his fellow passengers to the hidden farmhouse of his uncle and old foster father, Doc Tobin. Link is surprised to find Doc there with his gang. It is the same gang that robbed the train. Doc is even more surprised to see his prodigal son, Link. Doc reminds Link of a murder they committed together. Link looks away, vulnerable, embarrassingly exposed as if naked in front of the gang. Cobb expertly captures the trashy Doc without resorting to over-the-top melodramatics, such as the type Donald Pleasance resorted to with a similar character in the otherwise well-done Will Penny (1968), directed by Tom Gries.
Man of the West becomes a reversal of a Biblical melodrama, with a dash of Oedipus thrown in for good measure. Here it is the father figure who needs redemption, but he is too unyielding, too far gone down the wrong path, too broken to find it. The “prodigal” son, who has found his redemption away from his uncle/father, will eventually have to commit patricide in order to survive. Billie and Sam have unwittingly joined the intentionally monikered “Link” on an existential journey that will transform them as well. The cousins/step-brothers in the gang resent Link and feel betrayed that Doc still favors him, even though they have proven more loyal and did not abandon their father.
One of the gang has been mortally injured from the train robbery. Doc wants to display his strong leadership and “family pride” to his returned son. Doc orders his men to shoot and kill their wounded comrade. Neither cousin Punch (Robert J. Wilke, memorable in High Noon) nor cousin Trout (the always impressive Royal Dano) can do it. They are not real men, according to Doc. Link attempts to hide his smile, pleased that the first sign of Doc’s lack of loyalty is blatantly apparent to all. Vicious cousin Coaley (Jack Lord) will do it.
When Coaley does the deed, we feel Link’s tension. Indeed, this is a film of tensions. We do not know just how long Link can continue his act or whether he will be able to protect his fellow passengers from harm. Billie is at greatest risk. Julie London invests her character with an internal sexual longing that sickens her. London’s sex appeal has often been compared to Elvis Presley’s, but London’s complexity renders Presley comparatively banal. Billie is as frightened for Link as he is for her. Thankfully, the romance that one keeps expecting to blossom between the two never does, which only heightens the tension. She knows full well what these men are capable of doing to her; she has dealt with these types for years. “You are not like these at all,” Billie tells Link. “I was. There was no difference,” he responds. Link’s fear parallels Billie’s. It is not the fear of the unknown, but the fear of what they both know all too well that threatens to consume them. Both characters resonate authenticity. Neither of them could survive their tormentors if they did not understand them and, in Link’s case, if he had not once been that himself. This situation leads to a second redemption for Link, who finally comes face-to-face with what he has been attempting to outrun for so long. Billie was on the verge of escape when she boarded the train, but escape cannot be equated with redemption. When she left for Texas, Billie was in a state of spiritual bankruptcy, having seen and experienced too much. Now, out of necessity, her cynicism and coldness have been replaced with vulnerability and faith in someone else. Sam does not have enough firsthand experience to ensure his survival. However, he too must find redemption. Sam the con man is ready to abandon Billie and escape. Sam does not need Billie, but he needs Link—and Link will not resort to such selfishness. Link’s inspired example will provide Sam his own opportunity for an unselfish choice.
Cousin Claude (John Dehner) returns to the lair, having heard Link was on the train. When he finds Link alive and well with Uncle Doc, he is bitter, knowing that Link is only pretending to go along with Doc’s dream of a reconciliation. Claude loves Doc, especially in light of Doc’s increasing senility and alcohol-induced nostalgia for older, better days, which he knows Link is taking advantage of in order to survive. Claude begs Doc to kill Link, even though he knows Doc, who truly loves Link, will never allow it.
Link, echoing the Davidic Absalom, takes revenge upon Coaley for his intended violation of Billie. Link humiliates Coaley in the same way Coaley humiliated Billie, in front of the “family.” In the earlier sequence, Coaley forced Billie to expose herself by stripping down to her corset as he held a knife to Link’s exposed throat. Drained and vulnerable, Billie collapses in abject humiliation. That earlier sequence is, by turns, titillating, repulsive and unbearably tense. In retaliation, Link now similarly exposes Coaley, stripping him down after a savage beating. Link identifies all too well with Billie’s vulnerability. They both felt naked and humiliated in front of this family. The retaliation scene is equally tense and well-executed. Doc is so proud of Link’s raw humiliation of Coaley that he gives Link a fatherly slap on the back. Doc’s number one boy is back. It is more than Coaley can endure, and he tries to shoot cousin Link. Sam intentionally takes the bullet meant for Link. The dying Sam tells Link, “I don’t know what came over me. I never would have done that before.” Sam tires to pooh-pooh his own sacrifice: “It was a shrewd move of me. If they had killed you, they never would have allowed me to live.” Link knows better than to accept Sam’s halfhearted downplay of what he just gave up. Inevitably, Link and Billie will join Sam, unless an opportunity soon arises.
Doc wants to consummate the old father-son relationship with a bank job in the nearby town of Lassoo. The senile Doc is unaware that Lassoo is now a ghost town, but Link knows, and sees this as the opportunity to reverse the situation for Billie and for himself.
Billie is raped (off-screen) by Doc while, simultaneously, Link is killing Doc’s “sons” in Lassoo. In the showdown between Link and Doc, Link tells his father, “I have killed your sons. Lassoo is a ghost town, like you. You are a ghost who has outlived his usefulness.” Man of the West is brutal poetry and may well the best film of Mann’s entire oeuvre. Par for the course, MGM has given it a ho-hum DVD release.