Saturday, 16 July 2016

Man of the West (1958)

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There are a lot of westerns on the List. So many in fact that I have started to get a bit bored by them. Or at least the idea of them. By now a western needs to bring something new to the table or it will get a negative rating from me.

This was what I was thinking watching “Man of the West”. Why is this movie on the List? What does this movie do that I have not seen a million times before? It is okay, well-acted and beautifully shot, but it was only when I watched the bonus material on the DVD, a commentary by scholar Douglas Pye, that I discovered what made this movie special. With that in mind I am okay having this movie on the List, but please, please give me a break with the westerns.

Gary Cooper, the old western legend, is this time a country bumpkin going on what appears to be his voyage of a lifetime, from his homesteader hamlet to Fort Worth to hire a school teacher for the village. His ride is cut short when the train is held up by bandits. The raid fails, but Cooper’s Link Jones, a gambler named Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and Saloon singer (whatever that implies) Billie Ellis (Julie London) are cut off from the train and have to continue on foot.

Link finds an old shack they can stay in, but when he opens the door it turns out the place is occupied by the very bandits who raided the train. The movie now takes a turn when we find out that this is Link’s old gang, one he left years ago to start a new life with wife and children. The gang is led by Link’s old father figure, Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), a man who practically raised Link, and he is mighty pleased that Link is back. The rest of the gang is a brutal and not too smart a bunch and they are less pleased at having Link back. He is challenged at every turn and in an early climax he has to protect Billie from being raped without being killed himself.

Dock wants to bring Link along for the raid of his life, a rich bank in the township of Lassoo, while the rest the gang is poised to kill Link. This balancing is made even odder when it turns out that Lassoo is a ghost town and Dock is raving mad.

While the apparent story here is that Link has to extricate himself from this pinch and hopefully save the girl in the process, a story involving gun smoke, horses and a lot of shouting (and a pair of breast almost falling out of a corsage), there is a far more interesting story beneath.

When Link opens that door to the shack we get a true David Lynch moment. The door is the door to Link’s past and the gang members are all ghosts from back then. What Link is fighting is his past guilt that he has to come to terms with. There is no bank in Lassoo and Dock Tobin is ultimately an impotent ghost, but Link has to fight off all those temptations to fall back into his old pattern if he is to deserve his new life. That somehow includes Billie, who must resemble some woman of his past.

So this is actually a movie about redemption, that at some point you have to face your skeletons in the closet. This is a plotline I have seen before, but dressed as a western this comes about new and refreshing and as all good movies it gives you something to think about. It took that commentary on the DVD to make me realize that this is the true story of the movie and that might explain why “Man of the West” originally panned at the box office. This is not a plotline that would be appreciated or even recognized by the average western fan who is probably almost as dense as I am.

Gary Cooper is surprisingly good as Link Jones. He may appear a bit old and stiff, but as the movie carries on he actually fit his role. He is never supposed to match Billie Ellis, but he probably would in his youth and that is the point. She is a flame of his youth and he is an old man remembering her. Elegant and delicate.

I did not recognize Lee J.Cobb at first. Man, they got him to look old! He usually played some sort of a bastard, but here he is a particularly old and dirty one. That was a man with some talent!

The conclusion is that I liked the movie much better on after thought than while I watched it. It is okay as a straight western, but exquisite as a dive into the subconscious. Oh, and Julie London is quite a dish.



  1. You've passed me by! And with this movie, which I have never seen, as well. Looking forward to getting back to some 1957 action. One version of hell must be stuck in an airport on a constantly more delayed flight ...

    1. I hope you had a good vacation despite airport delays. There are few things worse than those, especially when you fly with children.
      Actually according to my edition of the book I am still in 57 so I'd say we are on par. Looking forward to reading some posts from you again.