Man of the West was director Anthony Mann’s final Western of the 1950s. As such, it stands as something of a cumulative expression of his generic preoccupations and stylistic preferences, preoccupations and preferences that were consistently integrated in a decade’s worth of some of the finest Westerns ever made. What Mann accomplished in this particular genre during a 10-year period is one of the most impressive chapters in American film history, but Man of the West is more than just a summation of the period; it is as good, if not better in many ways, as the extraordinary pictures that came before it.
Taking over the reigns from James Stewart, who had previously starred in five earlier landmark Mann Westerns, is Gary Cooper, another perennial aw shucks leading man. Like with Stewart, Mann upsets this archetypal Cooper screen persona. Man of the West was released six years after the classic High Noon, which featured a very cut and dry Cooper hero, Marshal Will Kane. Man of the West is no High Noon, and Cooper’s Link Jones is no Will Kane.
That being said, Link starts off as a fairly straightforward Cooper character. The first thing he does when we see him arrive in town is get off his horse and help an elderly man with a ladder. But something’s different here. Link is not unambiguously good and trouble-free. He has arrived in town with secrets. He seems meek, backing away from steam as it shoots from train for instance, and at times he appears utterly lost. But we see he has a stash of money and he is calling himself by multiple names. In general, he is uneasy, and so is the film, and so are we. Nothing feels right. Nothing feels secure.
Soon we see partly why. The train Link boards is poised for a robbery. Though generally unsuccessful, the heist nevertheless results in Link being stranded with Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) — annoying, somewhat shady, but probably innocent enough — and Billie Ellis (Julie London) — a sweet singer with teaching experience. By this point, we have discovered that Link is traveling to hire a teacher for his town. Sam contends that perhaps Link got lucky finding Billie. This might all have worked out for the best.
As the trio seeks shelter, they come upon Link’s former home. Was he there when he was a boy, Billie asks. “I don’t know what I was,” he cryptically responds. The house, it turns out, is not vacant. Inside reside the notorious outlaw Dock Tobin (a grizzled and craggy Lee J. Cobb) and the band responsible for the botched train robbery: Coaley (Jack Lord), Claude (John Dehner), Trout (Royal Dano), and Ponch (Robert J. Wilke). Not only are these misfits clearly dangerous and depraved, they are Link’s family. And Uncle Dock is glad to see his nephew back home and, he assumes, ready to reclaim his spot in their criminal enterprise.
As in a sort of Western Out of the Past, Link wants nothing to do with his former life. He has a wife and children now, back home in Saw Mill, and despite what he may have once been like, it becomes abundantly clear that this apple has strayed far from the family tree. The life he left (or abandoned, depending on whose point of view it is), was a violent one, but it is over and done with, at least as far as he’s concerned.
During this rather tense family reunion, Dock fondly reminisces about the younger Link and the good old days, while Link and the audience are left to wonder what he just walked into. Upon hearing the tales of his storied past and seeing the way Dock still reveres Link, the psychopathic cousins grow jealous and skepticism abounds. Once they force Billie to strip, however, the level of their sadism becomes appallingly apparent. This type of behavior would be troubling in any film, but in the traditional Western, such barbarity toward a woman is particularly off-putting and it sets up a threat that remains inherent throughout Man of the West’s duration. Things get further complicated when it’s revealed that old wanted posters of Link are back up after the marshal recognized him at the train station. Now he’s in deep, and his decisions grow perilous.
Though Dock himself is clearly dubious about Link’s intentions, he still bears affection for his long lost nephew. Or maybe he just wants to see what his game is. Like so many classic Mann characters, Dock possesses dual motives and, subsequently, dual options: use Link if he can, kill him if he can’t. Likewise, Link is caught between two choices: he must prove himself without loosing himself. He needs to do just enough to stay in the good graces of these thugs, convincing them that he is who he used to be. But since that’s no longer the case, he must also remain true to his reformed identity.
Still, it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that he could, if pushed, revert back to the ways of his former self. His seeming meekness is betrayed by the remnants of his past and his potential capacity for violence. When angered, Cooper cuts a sharp glance suggesting what lays dormant. And when violence is eventually necessary, Cooper’s mad aggression spiked with a twisted sense of revenge is truly shocking.
Mann incorporates relatively limited camera movement in Man of the West. As a majority of the film takes place in just a handful of stationary locales, the film is constructed almost like a stage play. But this is a Western after all, so wide open spaces inevitably appear. Here, however, when they are seen, it’s as an ironic open space in the background. While Link and the others are restricted in their mobility, essentially held hostage until Link shows your mettle by partaking in the group’s next robbery, the mockingly cruel openness behind them makes their situation all the constrictive. There is similarly little character movement, and Leone-esque close-ups only occasionally break up the Cinemascope frame with its multiple character placements in long shot.
As Link’s rage builds and a sense of menace pervades, one also notices the grey, overcast sky that lends the film a somber, cold tone, something comparatively unusual for a Western. Toward the end of the picture though, the sky opens up as the decisions that need to be made by each of the men become equally clear.
Nothing goes as planned, and the resulting final shootout is a brilliantly staged sequence. Mann has always been a master visual stylist, far more than he gets credit for, but this concluding gunfight is something special. Mann’s broad visual design and the way the action is arranged and executed is remarkable, especially in terms of character positioning, camera angle, and the choreographed steady escalation of the conflict.
Though Man of the West was Anthony Mann’s last Western of the ’50s, it would not be his last Western. That distinction belongs to the ill-fated remake of Cimarron (1960), from which Mann was removed in the picture’s final stages of production. Sadly, he was also fired from Spartacus, which was released that same year. (Fortunately, in that case, Stanley Kubrick took over, though the film bears little of his influence either.) Crime dramas and noirs predominantly made up the early part of Anthony Mann’s career, and epics and action/adventure films concluded it. But the Westerns he directed solidify his standing as one of the great, underrated figures of American cinema. Many films are evidence of his talent. Man of the West is just one, a very good one.