Saturday 12 January 2013

1,001 Films: "Man of the West" (1958)

Often cited as one of the key "dark" Westerns Anthony Mann made with established stars in the 1950s, Man of the West is the film that best explains Tony Soprano (and, indeed, the whole Sopranos screenwriting staff)'s fascination with the figure of Gary Cooper, refusing as it does to deal in the clear-cut or obvious, and keeping us on our toes throughout. Consider the opening: Cooper's Link Jones rides into a Texan town, stables his horse under one name, then buys a ticket on the next train out, eluding the attentions of the local sheriff on the platform by offering him an entirely different sobriquet. Right from the off, it's evident that this isn't the upright, honourable Coop of High Noon, but at best a liar, at worst a creep, and that this isn't going to be a traditional white hat/black hat Western (Cooper's is black, for the record), but a film in which identity is up for grabs and the characters will be at the mercy of fate: after his train is held up, Link stumbles with two fellow passengers into the hideout of that very gang he once rode with.

As a stand-off develops, our "hero" finds himself torn between vestigial loyalty to the mercenaries (a couple of whom are actual kin) and a desire to protect those he came in from the cold with. This makes for an unusual Western plot, with a heroine (chanteuse Julie London, interestingly tough) who's out of bounds - because Link's already married, or so he claims - and a protagonist who chooses to go along with, rather than after, the ne'er-do-wells, and has to stand by, where a Wayne or later Eastwood would stand and deliver. One shootout towards the end sees Link literally descend to his enemies' level, throwing himself in the dust to counter a snaky, underhand line of attack: there's just no high ground here. Plenty of high country, though, beautifully photographed by Ernest Haller in lush colour (on faded TV prints, you can still make out the contrast between London's red dress, the inky blacks of the hideout, and the green fields beyond it), even as Mann and screenwriter Reginald Rose arrive at some complex, intriguingly murky conclusions: that heroism isn't one thing, set in stone, so much as a changeable concept that has to move alongside the times. In this American West, the merest shred of decency could mark you out - and have you marked for life.

Man of the West is available on DVD through Optimum Home Entertainment.

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