Mann of the West

by Sean McCloy



'Cahiers du Cinema' critic Andre Bazin perfectly summed up the awesome quality of director Anthony Mann's visuals when he wrote of them - "When the camera pans, it breathes." Bazin was writing about Mann's Westerns, which he lauded as "the purest of the post-war period". In a quite prolific career, Anthony Mann made films in a variety of genres, but his Westerns (which primarily starred James Stewart and were produced in the 1950s) remain his most celebrated contribution to the movies. And understandably so, as the sight of an almost deranged James Stewart on horseback, frequently caught up in revenge-fuelled odysseys, is one of the most indelible images that American cinema has given us. "If you're going to tell a story, instead of telling an intellectual story - which by necessity requires a tremendous number of words - you should pick one that has pictorial qualities to start with", Mann once explained. This no-nonsense approach firmly places Mann in the classical Hollywood storytelling tradition of Hawks and Ford, yet Mann's harsh outdoor Westerns form a vital bridge between the tradition of the old school and the more troubled frontier visions that began to emerge in 1960s cinema. He was also more than just a man of the west, and chalked up a number of notable successes in the other genres he tackled.

Born Anton Emil Bundesmann in San Diego on June 30th 1906, he grew up and was educated in New York. After his father's death in 1923, Mann left school to work in the theatre. By the late 1920s, he was employed as a production manager for the Theatre Guild in New York and by 1933, he was starting to direct his first plays. Following a two year spell working for the Federal Theatre Project, Mann became an east coast talent scout for David O Selznick in 1938. The next year, he was in Hollywood, gaining experience in the industry working as a casting director and conducting screen tests. By the time he landed the job of assistant director to Preston Sturges on Sullivan's Travels (1941), Mann was eager for a chance to prove himself as a film-maker. The director later recalled Sturges' career advice to him - "It's better to have done something bad than to have done nothing. So, the first picture, good or bad, that came along, I decided to do and this was Dr. Broadway ." Dr. Broadway (1942) was the first in a sequence of forgotten low-budget movies (mostly musicals, thrillers and melodramas) that Mann churned out for studios like Republic Pictures and RKO, among them the Erich von Stroheim vehicle The Great Flamarion (1945). Having paid his dues, the director then delved into (and helped define the very style of) film noir in a superb series of B-movies. Tightly constructed, briskly paced and filmed with great fluidity, works like Desperate (1947), Railroaded (1947), He Walked By Night (1948, which an uncredited Mann co-directed with Alfred Werker) and Side Street (1950) are also characterised by their punchy violence, the immediacy of which is still striking today. Fitting in with the vogue exemplified in Jules Dassin's The Naked City (1948) and Henry Hathaway's The House on 92nd Street (1945), Mann's thrillers made exciting use of urban locations, yet also display some of the most stylised cinematography of the period. Filtered through the eye of brilliantly gifted DoP John Alton, Mann's noirs made dramatic use of backlighting, low angles, deep focus and often shrouded the action in near darkness, granting the grittiest of subject matters a uniquely rich visual texture. Alton, who would later write a seminal book on cinematography 'Painting With Light' commented - "I found a director in Tony Mann who thought like I did. He not only accepted what I did, he demanded it." For a director who would later display such innate skill in capturing the scope of the great American outdoors, Mann also knew the power of the close-up and one of the chief pleasures of his noirs are the unforgettable gallery of mugshots that appear among the shadows. Among them, Raymond Burr who memorably played a brooding heavy in both Desperate and Raw Deal (1948), a beautiful tone poem of a movie which anticipated the later Westerns in its use of the narrative structure of a journey (in this case, a framed ex-convict's quest to settle an old score). But perhaps the two strongest Mann/Alton collaborations are fascinating semi-documentary thrillers that focus on the work of crime-busting government departments. T-Men (1947) is about a pair of undercover treasury agents who infiltrate a gang of ruthless Detroit-based counterfeiters. As tough and hard-boiled as they come, T-Men was a breakthrough commercial success and got the director noticed.

When Dore Schary became head of MGM, the first people he hired were Mann and Alton, who promptly started work on a project they had been developing at their old studio Eagle-Lion about the exploitation of illegal Mexican workers. The resulting film, Border Incident (1949), unusually made a hero out of Mexican cop Ricardo Montalban, featured some of Alton's most gorgeous, gloomy cinematography shot against the backdrop of the San Joaquin Valley and the treatment of violence was as gutsy as ever (in particular, a gruelling death-by-tractor scene). Mann carried the visual trappings of noir over to other genres and settings with ease. The Tall Target (1951) is an exemplary little claustrophobic thriller, the majority of the action taking place on a train in 1861 and centering on policeman Dick Powell's attempts to thwart an assassination attempt on incumbent president Abraham Lincoln. In contrast to much of the director's output, Reign of Terror (1949) is an atmospheric period drama set during the French Revolution. The final Mann/Alton collaboration was a sombre, noir-inflected Western, the overlooked The Devil's Doorway (1950), which like Delmer Daves' Broken Arrow (1950) and Robert Aldrich's Apache (1954) was an early sympathetic portrayal of the plight of the American Indian. In it, Robert Taylor played a Shoshone chief who returns home from serving on the Union side during the Civil War, only to discover that his land has been robbed from him by the Homesteading Act. An uncompromising, angry piece of work, the film leads inexorably to a tragic, downbeat finale and not surprisingly it proved to be a commercial failure. That same year, Mann made three Westerns for three different studios. Alongside The Devil's Doorway, The Furies (1950) exhibited Mann's fascination with classical Greek mythology, adding more than a dash of Freudianism to its tale of Barbara Stanwyck's battle of wills with her dictatorial land baron father (Walter Huston in his final role). Winchester 73 (1950) was the blueprint for the future Mann Westerns, not least in the fact that this was the first film on which the director worked with James Stewart. It's worth pausing to reflect on the importance of the Mann/Stewart partnership as this is one of the all time great actor-director teamings. Even more so than Hitchcock, Mann captured a haunted, neurotic intensity that had previously remained untapped in his leading man. This was the post-war Stewart (a man who had served with distinction in the U.S. Air Force), not the Jimmy Stewart of Frank Capra's 1930s films or the laconic, aw-shucks lawman of Destry Rides Again (1939). When asked who his ideal Western hero was, Mann replied "He's a man who could kill his own brother." This is literally the case in Winchester 73 (1950) as James Stewart spends the entire movie single-mindedly tracking down the sibling who shot their father in the back. The film starts off light-heartedly enough (complete with a shooting contest staged in Dodge City where Stewart wins an 1873 Winchester, "the gun that won the West") and the episodic narrative that follows the fate of the rifle as it is passed between different owners provides some archetypal Western situations and characters along the way (an Indian attack, Dan Dureya's smiling outlaw). But the tone gradually darkens until the final, fraught shoot-out between Stewart and his brother played out against a barren, rocky wilderness.

Time after time, Mann would put his driven, complex heroes through a journey that is both physical and emotional, with the landscape reflecting the characters psychology. As Jim Kitses describes it in his essay on Mann in 'Horizons West', "...the terrain is so coloured by the action that finally it seems an inner landscape, the unnatural world of a disturbed mind". This approach is evident in The Naked Spur (1953), memorably shot amid the dense forests, jagged outcrops and roaring rapids of The Rockies. Here, Stewart plays a bounty hunter plagued by violent nightmares, who self-destructively sets out to bring back an outlaw (the ever impressive Robert Ryan) dead or alive to collect a reward and buy back the land that was taken from him after the Civil War. The journeys undertaken in the Westerns often correspond with a paring away of civilised behaviour in Stewart's characters as they battle with their own dark sides. As in the noirs, violence is painful, brutish and ugly, irrespective of whether it is dealt out by the heroes or villains. Mann once said "I always tried to build my films on opposition of characters. By putting the accent on the common points of the two characters - the good guy and the bad - then making them collide, the story acquires much more strength." Thus, the often charming but deadly villains of the Westerns can be viewed as doppelganger figures who represent the heroes' fears of becoming what they hate. This role is assumed by Arthur Kennedy in both Bend of the River (1952), which sets him against Stewart's ex-Missouri raider who is guiding a wagon train through 1840s Oregon, and The Man From Laramie (1955). Many view Man of the West (1958) as the summation of Mann's Westerns. Here, however the Stewart role is assumed by an ailing Gary Cooper in his last great performance. Cooper plays reformed outlaw Link Jones, who comes under the influence of the band of criminals he formerly ran with (led by demonic, ranting father figure Lee J. Cobb). Disturbingly, he must summon up his old, evil impulses in order to kill off his former cohorts before he can allow himself to return to a normal, ordered life. As with the Stewart Westerns, there is the chance of a new start for Link Jones at the end of his exhausting journey, but it's won at a high emotional cost. Man of the West (1958) is one of Mann's most probing, cathartic works and his characters' symbolic progression through the Western landscape, from the verdant valley of the opening scenes to the ghost town of the finale was never more clearly delineated. The monstrous paternal figures that resurface in Mann's films remind us that one of his unrealised projects was a Western version of 'King Lear', though arguably he had at least partly achieved this with dying rancher Donald Crisp's obsession with passing on his inheritance in The Man From Laramie (1955).

Outside the Stewart cycle of Westerns, Mann contributed other individually strong films to the genre. The Last Frontier (1955), in its tale of how uncivilised trapper Victor Mature witnesses the encroachment of civilisation (in the shape of the cavalry, led by Indian-hating commander Robert Preston) holds a powerfully ambivalent attitude towards how the West was really won. More conventionally, but still masterfully directed, The Tin Star (1957) featured Henry Fonda as a disenchanted ex-lawman who shows inexperienced sheriff Anthony Perkins how to wield authority and in the process regains his own self-respect. The less complex achievements from the Mann/Stewart canon are non-Westerns. The nostalgic The Glen Miller Story (1954) is an untroubling portrait of a different kind of pioneer spirit, but is a wonderful evocation of an era and Martin Scorsese has praised its "sense of period and time, and an authenticity that other musical biopics do not have." The straightforwardly patriotic Strategic Air Command (1955) views like a recruiting advertisement for the Cold War shot in glorious VistaVision, where actors mouth objectionable lines about the purpose of atomic weaponry as being "to prevent a war from ever starting". The film has some awe-inspiring footage of B36 bombers in flight and Stewart is oftenpictured gazing admiringly at these big planes, while gooey 1950s wife June Allyson (also his spouse in The Glen Miller Story) is mostly preoccupied with having a nice home. Norman Mailer labelled this museum piece "a prime example of Shit".

A much more convincing film (without a hint of jingoism) about conflict is Men In War (1959), a wholly admirable, gritty Korean war movie of beautiful simplicity that skilfully dissects the tensions between the soldiers in a lost foot patrol. The films commitment to intimately staged, close-up acting, the unshowy black-and-white photography reflect Mann's background in the theatre. As did God's Little Acre (1958), a vigorous comic adaptation of Erskine Caldwell's novel with Robert Ryan (leader of the platoon in Men At War) again heading another strong ensemble cast, and extending the director's dramatic interest in dysfunctional families. Mann's final Western was Cimarron (1960), a remake of the Oscar-winning 1930 movie and adaptation of Edna Ferber's sprawling novel. Unfortunately, the resulting work was truncated, Mann disowning the film when the studio prevented him shooting additional scenes on location. Then, originally hired by Kirk Douglas to direct Spartacus (1960), Mann only lasted a few days on the shoot (filming the opening scene in Death Valley, which recognisably bears his stamp), to be famously replaced by Stanley Kubrick. Despite this set back (for which he still pocketed $75,000), the epic form beckoned Mann. Like Nicholas Ray, Mann moved to Europe when invited by producer Samuel Bronston and there he directed two of the most intelligent, thoughtful examples of the genre. The stirring El Cid (1961) remains perhaps Mann's most complete statement on the heroic ideal. The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) was a flawed but stately, totally absorbing portrait of a world in transition as much as the Old West. Indeed, both films can be viewed as veiled Westerns, and Mann's ability to choreograph mass crowd scenes is still majestic to behold. Not everyone however was convinced. Jean Luc Godard, who had called Man of the West "an admirable lesson in cinema - in modern cinema", now was of the opinion that Mann had been "a great director when he was paid by the week and under contract. Now he makes The Fall of the Roman Empire." Mann's last completed film was the genuinely exciting WW2 actioner The Heroes of Telemark (1965). The tortured heroics may have been absent, but his command of the landscape (in this case, Norway) was as breathtaking as ever. The director would later die during the making of the spy movie A Dandy In Aspic (1968) in Berlin on April 29th 1967, and the job was completed by the film's star Laurence Harvey. Mann's work will endure because he was a consummate film-maker and storyteller. But most importantly I think, because above any other director his art fully integrated into their narratives one of the moving images purest, most primal functions: photographing figures moving against landscape. Mann himself, however, summed up the appeal of his work much more succinctly - "Why is the American Western film such a success throughout the world? It is because a man says, 'I'm going to do something' - And he does it. We all want to be heroes. This is what drama is. This is what pictures are all about. I don't believe in anything else."

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