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 Continue reading ANTHONY MANN’S MAN OF THE WEST (1958)