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Archive for October 9th, 2013

river

By Stephen Mullen

Over the years, I think, Anthony Mann has become my favorite director of westerns. John Ford might still get pride of place on the lists, having made so many of them, and such big, grand films – but for the pleasure of watching a western, including the pleasures of thematic complexity, deep characterizations, emotional investment, I think Mann’s films might take the prize. A lot of that is Jimmy Stewart, I admit – he’s my favorite actor, and when he has first rate material, he can be beyond superlative I think… And Mann gives him very good material indeed. Complex characters, who keep pain and anger just out of sight, holding it together, as only Stewart can do – set amidst other complicated characters, superbly cast, and all of it put together impeccably. Mann is not necessarily the showiest director – but he exercises such control over the story, the emotions, the look, with framing, staging, designs that are quietly gorgeous, and always integrated into the story and work of art as a whole. The Bend of the River has all that – the beautiful locations, compositions and photography; the rich story; the total control over the material, it’s pacing, shifting tone, its way of turning on a dime from from relaxed and rather hokey to tight as a drum – the spectacular nighttime scene stalking some Indians, or the killing over a deuce of spades – the whole thing tightening up considerably in the last act, as Mann turns the screws from start to finish.

Mann is known for bringing film noir sensibilities to westerns – the moral ambiguity of noir, its tortured heroes, almost sympathetic villains, its psychological underpinnings, its roots in expressionism and horror. Mann’s films tend to work that way – like a lot of horror films as well as noir, they are built around doubles, someone good and someone bad, though it’s not always clear who is which, who are like different aspects of the same person; this is often given a familial twist (with all the psychological overtones that can have) – fathers and sons, real and surrogate, brothers, good and bad – brothers (real or symbolic) who reveal one another, reveal the divisions within each of them. Those themes might be more explicit in films like The Man From Laramie or Winchester 73, but they are strong here. And – he’s not afraid of the odd symbol: Mt. Hood (which turns up in almost every shot) might not be quite as obvious a symbol as the rifle in Winchester 73, but it ain’t far off… (more…)

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