When it’s on: Sunday, 29 July (1.15 pm)
The more I watch James Stewart’s post-war output, most pertinently the work he did in the 1950s, the less doubt I’m in that this was a really fascinating and fertile period for him. A couple of well known Hitchcock films aside, his collaboration with Anthony Mann in a series of eight productions between 1950 and 1955 produced some amazing results. Of these, we can probably discount The Glenn Miller Story, a charming yarn that chimed more with the easy going Stewart from before World War II. The Westerns are the real draw. Stewart was stretched, with each entry going to greater lengths to subvert the wholesome image built up for him in previous decades. By The Man from Laramie, his last Mann Western, Stewart could enter as a blank page, a character with a shaded past, and it was never clear whether he would turn out to be good or bad.
As for Mann, the genre allowed him to take his noir sensibilities to the Old West. Whereas some directors created Westerns on grand canvases, all sprawling tales and noble deeds, Mann brought a tight storytelling mood to the table. The Man from Laramie is about complicated people struggling with moral dilemmas, often omitting right and wrong from their thinking. It’s set in New Mexico, a harsh and rocky landscape that seems to reflect the bleak outlooks of the characters. Neither does Mann show his narrative hand too early. We know Stewart’s character, Will Lockhart, is in Coronado for a reason, but it isn’t clear for a long time what that reason is, neither do we appreciate why he doesn’t heed the advice of almost every other character and high-tail it out of there.
Lockhart is the man from Laramie. He’s carrying supplies through Apache territory to Coronado and, on his way, comes across the decimated remains of a cavalry troop. The music and Lockhart’s desolate expression are the only clues that this means more to him than an anonymous group of dead horsemen, presumably a not uncommon sight at the time. Entering the town, he quickly falls foul of Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) when he’s caught taking salt from the Waggoman lands. It’s an innocent mistake, but nobody’s prepared for Dave’s violent punishment, killing Lockhart’s mules, torching his wagons and for good measure lassoing and dragging him through a fire.
Stewart performed the stunt himself, allowing Mann to film the ordeal in close-up, and the pain on the actor’s face looks real enough. It isn’t the first time in the film that Lockhart is treated brutally by Dave. Later, he’ll have a bullet put through his hand from point blank range. In both instances, Stewart goes for an authentic reaction, whimpering and grimacing after his hand is mutilated. It’s a far cry from the ‘manly’ response to pain one found in earlier pictures, where such treatments were usually shrugged off. The effect is to show us the consequences of Dave’s sadism in as much detail as the censors would allow. Chillingly, Stewart’s war record suggests he might very well have based his acting on the real life horrors he witnessed.
Dave’s psychotic, the unworthy son and heir to Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp). Alec’s going blind, a neat metaphor to his attitude towards the nasty excesses of his offspring and the underhand trade of guns to Indians in which he’s involved. The real wildcard is Alec’s foreman, Vic (Arthur Kennedy). At first, we think Vic’s a good guy. He reins in Dave’s sadism, saving Lockhart from worse than his lasso punishment, and shows an unswerving loyalty to Alec. But his are murky morals. He’s loyal because he think Alec will favour him over Dave. When he eventually shoots Dave, he lets Alec believe Lockhart is responsible, though it’s a dilemma that plagues him. By the end, Vic’s in too deep, through a muddy mixture of avarice, chance and trying to do the right thing.
The dense plotting suggests a much longer film than The Man from Laramie’s 96 minutes, but it’s a testament to economic plotting and the quality of the acting. Mann lets his characters’ faces do the talking often, cutting away the layers of exposition that would emerge otherwise. It’s a great film, and a real shame that this was the last time Stewart and Mann worked together. Their relationship broke down over Mann’s refusal to direct Stewart in Night Passage, citing the film’s weak script and opting instead for Henry Fonda and The Tin Star.
The Man from Laramie: ****