Anthony Mann’s Man of the West depicts the West as a prison from which there is no escape, where those who flee its cesspool of violence and anarchy get pulled back by some invisible force in due time. Mann’s style, at once cheaply utilitarian and psychologically vivid, establishes the film’s microcosm as both a depressingly literal stretch of nothingness and an abstracted hellscape that lets loose the nature of man. Fellow Mezzanine writer Andreas Stoehr aptly compared the film to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, another movie about the innate, animalistic drives that shape the same modern civilizations that attempt to tame them. Gary Cooper’s Link Jones, like Viggo Mortensen’s Tom Stall, puts spatial and emotional distance between themselves and their pasts, adopting stone faces that can only conceal, not cure, their darker impulses.
Link finds himself stranded when the train he is riding gets held up by a group of bandits. Stuck with a comely young opera singer and the con man who exploits her, Link brings them to a home he somehow knows is nearby, and the surprises keep coming when the bandits who caused all this mess recognize him as one of their own. In short order, Mann not only forces his protagonist to revert to his old ways as an act to protect himself and his companions but pushes beyond this to show that an “act” of violence only begets more violent acts.
Man of the West, released the same year as two of the great American films of the ‘50s, Vertigo and Some Came Running, may lack their budget and scope but matches the sense of disgust and social commentary of the American myth, whether classical or contemporary. There is no sense of rugged, admirable individuality in this West, and communal spirit here comes down to nothing more than standoffs and gang rapes. Mann leaves off-screen just enough for the audience to know exactly what has happened, or would happen if someone had not stepped in to stop it. Haunting sights abound, such as a nightmarish shot of the con man frantically digging graves to save his life, working so single-mindedly he pushes out of mind the obvious conclusion that the last grave he will be forced to dig by the outlaws is his own. Yet more disturbing is an excruciating sequence in which the vilest of the gang forces the woman to strip in front of a restrained Link and the other boys, a sight so inherently unsettling that a later scene of Link enforcing the same humiliation on the man contains no air of righteous justice, only more horror.
In Jean-Luc Godard’s rave of the film in the pages of Cahiers du Cinéma, he argues that Cooper’s “amorphous face belongs to the mineral kingdom,” a succinct account of the elemental nature of the film and its expression through a famously inexpressive actor. Only three years away from his death from prostate cancer, Cooper still looks reasonably hale, but a weariness infects his performance, deflating his despair and fear at finding himself back at the mercilessness of those he spurned with some hidden knowledge that this was bound to be his fate. Cooper’s face matches the vagueness and specificity of the title, presenting Link as an anonymous figure as well as the embodiment of the West in the cracks of its myth.
But if Mann, adhering to the censorship of the day, omits the full display of violence and violation, he often stands out for lingering where others would depart. This is especially visible in a scene that might have been heroic—Link dispatching two of the outlaws as a result of one shooting an innocent, scared woman—had the camera cut to follow Link as he rides away. Instead, it stays behind in an extreme long shot as the woman’s husband returns and disappears inside to find his wife, an action technically within the frame but off-screen. When Mann finally catches back up with Link and the horror to which he returns, he cements the film’s vision of the West as a place where everyone gets plugged one way or another, and those who manage to get out alive will return, psychically if not physically.
Man of the West is available from the following distributors in the following regions: