Thursday, October 25, 2007

Man of the West (Anthony Mann, 1958)


Probably Anthony Mann's last great Western (and last great film) tells a tale of Shakespearean pull and intensity, with a grotesque variation on the family-sticks-together notion. Gary Cooper plays a reformed outlaw unwillingly reunited with his former gang, still run by his demented, alcoholic uncle (a thoroughly and gloriously unhinged Lee J. Cobb, in reality 10 years Cooper's junior), with a bunch of sadistic cousins at his side.
That the picture was greeted with unanimous scorn by both critics and audiences upon its release very likely had something to do with its strands of charred modernism and the virulent, uncompromising portrait Mann paints of the Old West. The majority of its scenes depict or anticipate decay and horrific violence (of both the physical and psychological kind) in a way that will unnerve even the most fanatical of Peckinpah disciples. It's a brutal and profoundly disturbing film, all the more so for taking place against magnificent, often serene (Cinemascoped) scenery. Mann works with cinematographer Ernest Haller to cast the iconic landscapes in a fresher, more organic light, underscoring their significance to the story's psychology as well as suffusing them with an eerie beauty.


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