With a track record that included Winchester ’73, The Man from Laramie and The Far Country, Antony Mann’s knowledge and tact with the Western genre was very substantial. Man of the West marked one of his last efforts tackling stories on the Great Plains, an influential piece of cinema that you can see seeping into the Spaghetti Westerns, famed for mature, raw tales and violence. The restoration of the film is, thanks to Masters of Cinema’s meticulous efforts, superb. The clout of the film, however, is less stunning, sadly dated despite some gritty aspects.
Jean-Luc Godard was one of the most vocal fans of Mann’s 1958 film, claiming it was stunningly simple, with a realm of complexity behind it. This quote, unlike the film, has not dated and still stands up in relation to the film, in whichever way you are affected or unaffected by its story and power. Gary Cooper plays a retired crook, moving to a new town to find teaching staff for a new school. His shady past is only revealed a third to half of the way through, always keeping you guessing as to what the silences and awkward conversations between him, Julie London’s Billie and Arthur O’Connell’s Sam are truly about. The mystery never feels entirely uncovered, with Cooper’s Link Jones such a multifaceted character. Cooper plays the role beautifully, reflecting his own past with the Western image altering into that of a more modern actor. He takes control of the film, asserting his movie star persona and veteran cowboy/crook facade. There is a very straight-forward hero versus the baddies narrative, with all of the questions lurking beneath the surface.
It is a much stripped back film, focusing more on character and cinematography. You have to watch and listen to the characters, as you aren’t drawn to much else; the framing and scenery behind, perhaps is all else. Cooper, as said, is an imposing and authoritative figure, overshadowing singer Julie London and a quirky, yet forgettable Arthur O’Connell. It is the entrance of Lee J. Cobb – as Dock Tobin – where things get tense and exciting. Here is a formidable presence, hell-bent on crime and masterfully played with a booze-crippled drawl by Cobb. Despite the obvious age difference, Cobb and Cooper are very believable as uncle and nephew/past partners in crime/enemies of the present. Tobin pushes Link to many extremes, with each actor clearly enjoying the characters’ incompatible, yet harmonious relationship.
The shocking elements of the film maintain their resonance (to be clear, it is the slow pace and slightly uninteresting side characters that drain it of its enduring strengths). Rape, coldblooded murder and sudden hostilities are usual tropes of the genre, but often only implied, or watered down. Many vile occurrences in Man of the West feel beyond their time and censorship, giving it a slight edge in over the universally-aimed Westerns still shown often on afternoon TV. Man of the West is a niche piece of cinema, catering to those die-hard genre fans, whilst clearing having the ability to deter them. If you want to catch it, don’t wait out for its place on Channel 5 Monday at 1pm in place of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; it is different and meandering, lacking the spark of Ford and Hawks, leaving to find attention through recommendation and the search for nostalgia.