Every Sunday, Film School Rejects presents a movie that was made before 1960 and tells you why you should like it. This week, Old Ass Movies presents:
Man of the West (1958)
You probably already have an idea of what a Western should be – good guy, bad guy, gunfight. It’s a fairly simple formula that throws on a ton of different costumes throughout genres and just so happens to be wearing dusty spurs this time out. You probably already have an idea, yes, and that idea might as well have been cemented by Man of the West. Not invented, but cemented.
The ultimate badass, Gary Cooper, plays Link Jones who has turned from a life of outlawing and is trying to take the straight and narrow path in a small town. That doesn’t last too long, as you might guess, since Link runs into his uncle Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) – the man who taught him to kill. The man he left all those years ago. The man who is desperate to pull Link back into a life of murder and crime.
Clearly it’s a match of the story – a Shakespearean tale of betrayal and family – and the impressive acting of Gary Cooper that really brings this tale to life. I don’t care how old he was when he made it, Cooper brings the character to life as he did with all of his roles. Unfortunately, when the film was released, critics and movie-goers criticized the casting the same way they would when Harrison Ford reprised his Indiana Jones for another adventure at age 65 (Cooper was only 56). And he could still sling a gun.
Director Anthony Mann distilled his impressive experience into his last Western, and the results are startling. The camerawork is nothing revolutionary, but it shows the wasteland of the west in that unfazed way that’s more realism than red bandanna. However, the brilliance to the directing is the performance that Mann gets from every last actor on screen. Cooper is a no-brainer, a leading man who was nominated for 5 Best Actor Oscars, won 2 (for a War film and a Western no less), and who commands the screen.
But Cooper is also surrounded by talent. Singer Julie London is woman enough to go line for line with him and every other five o’clock shadow on screen. She turns in a stellar performance – one that she’s probably most remembered for. In addition, no human being has frightened me more in my movie-watching career than Lee J. Cobb. The guy is a damned tornado of fear-inducing fire and brimstone, and he brings the heat to his role as Tobin like absolutely no one else could.
With a slight resurgence in Westerns with 3:10 to Yuma and No Country For Old Men, I’m convinced that it’s a great time for people to rediscover the classics of the genre like Man of the West.
The story here is gritty and complex – placing a large amount of money in the center of a group of people who don’t trust each other. A main character who even the audience can’t completely trust. A vengeful gang member who kills to impress. An accidental murder. A man beaten within an inch of his life and stripped of his dignity. A redemption and return.
In fact, I’d say those that loved No Country owe it to themselves to see this film to see the very roots in the barren ground that the Coen’s film was birthed from. With any luck, the resurgence will continue on – and it looks like it might with the Coen’s remaking True Grit – and it’ll become even more imperative, and even more entertaining to take a view into the past to see the brilliant Westerns of our time in a new, old light.
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