Thursday, July 7, 2011

Man of the West (1958)

Link Jones: part thug, part boy scout, all Cooper.
If I were to use one word to describe Man of the West, it would probably have to be "awkward." It's not bad by any stretch, and even has elements of greatness in it, but somehow for all that it never quite hits the mark.

The story itself is fresh and powerfully told, although not without its share of questions. Cooper plays Link Jones, who was raised by a team of bandits until he grew up enough to know better and ran away. He made a new life for himself in another town, until a business trip takes him back through his old stomping grounds. The train he's traveling on is robbed, and he ends up stranded in the middle of nowhere with two of his fellow passengers, singer Billie Ellis (Julie London) and annoying busybody Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell). He takes the group back to the house he grew up in (yup, the one with bandits) looking for food and shelter, only to have his old guardian Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) try to gather him back into the fold. This leads to all sorts of dangers, both physical and moral, to Link and his companions.

Here be bandits. Do you think they have a spare room?
Contemporary critics felt that Cooper was badly miscast, and I can't say I disagree, although not necessarily for the same reasons. The primary argument against Cooper here is his age, although if you actually start to look at the ages and relationships of the characters, you find that Cooper's advanced age is really just the tip of the iceberg. Dock Tobin (46) was like a father to the two boys he raised as brothers, Link (56), and Claude (42). Clearly something is amiss. Personally, I don't feel the age to be a big issue. The film does not precisely define Link's age, but he is certainly not meant to be a young man. More importantly, Cooper can do the action scenes, scrambling around on the ground in a tense fist fight, without looking like he's in danger of breaking a hip or otherwise making a fool of himself, so I'm willing to look past it.

The bigger problem I see is in his characterization. Without seeing it on screen, I find it almost impossible to accept that Cooper has a past as a hardened killer. His dark past is particularly difficult to buy into as his present character is so far removed from this, and is much more typical for Coop in the first place. Now, he is an honorable, upright man, not given to excessive chatter, who will fight to the death to protect the honor of a woman but wouldn't dream of looking at her in a way she didn't want him to. As if to mimic the cruelty of his former life, he becomes particularly brutal in his treatment of his onetime bandit family, but this still feels more like righteous indignation than bred in the bone cruelty. Apparently James Stewart was first choice for the role, and I think I would have an even harder time buying it from him. Probably what the role really needed was Clint Eastwood, although at 27, Eastwood's age would have been just as inappropriate as Cooper's.

And yet. There is no denying the emotional power of the story. Against his will, Link is being dragged back into a life he'd done his best to forget. Dock Tobin is delighted to have him back, and seems determined to compel him to return to his old way of life. There's no real danger of this, as his current convictions and hatred of his former family are far too strong to be forgotten. Yet herein lies the danger. In his anger against his old friends, he reaches the same pitch of hatred and brutality he used to show (or so we are told) towards anyone he felt like beating the crap out of.

Old he may be, feeble he is not.
I get the impression that the Hays office must have turned a blind eye to this one. The same men that forcefully objected to the suggestion that Coop did not marry Audrey Hepburn at the end of Love in the Afternoon only a year before now seem to have no issue with suggested rape, a married man sharing a bed with another woman (albeit the plot makes it clear they're not having sex, but they do sleep together with her cuddled in his arms), and a terribly brutal fist fight that has Coop violently shredding the clothes off his opponent, Claude (John Dehner). The sex and violence of the story really ups the emotional tension, and makes the bandits really seem like, well, bandits. When Link and Billie go to sleep at night wondering what horrors are in store for them the next day, their fear feels well-justified.

The film has other, more superficial flaws that detract from the emotional impact of its story. I've watched a good number of westerns recently, and this is the first among them that was in color, so I was certainly well positioned to pay particular attention to the way color was used here. Unfortunately, DeLuxe is not Technicolor, not by any stretch. The color pallet seems grotesquely limited, and is particularly weighted towards reds and greens. Most everything else is some shade of yellowish brown, and the only hints of blue in the entire film are in the sky and Gary Cooper's eyes. This particular range of colors appears to be more accidental or the result of technical constraint or deterioration than artistic choice. In fact, due to the preponderance of reds and greens it actually does a fair job of mimicking two-strip Technicolor, a look that certainly has no place in the 1950's. When saturated colors appear in the film at all, they are repeated unnecessarily. The precise coral-red of Julie London's dress is repeated in another woman's hat, and even in the walls of the depot behind her. To be fair, the film probably stands in desperate need of a quality restoration. The film is grainy at best, and DeLuxe was known for excessive fading.

See how this red/green based color pallet from 1958...
... resembles this, from 1925's Ben-Hur.
The score is equally off-putting. It's all right in slower parts of the film, but the moment the action kicks up a notch the bassoons and low brass take over, bass drum pounding, until it sounds like something from Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. Whenever a film score becomes more tense and dramatic than the action on screen, it tends to make the action itself seem ridiculous, quite the opposite of the effect intended. The music undercuts the emotional impact of the film at all the worst moments, and so it would almost be better if there were no music at all.

Although most contemporary critics disliked the film, Jean-Luc Godard defended it, calling it the best film of 1958. I think I can see where he's coming from, and it certainly has its appeal, but personally I would find it hard to rank Man of the West highly either among Westerns generally or among Cooper's total filmography.

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