by Sam Juliano
Anthony Mann passed away before he could realize his long-intended western based on Shakespeare’s King Lear, but a persuasive argument could still be made that both Man of the West and The Man from Laramie have in large measure fulfilled that desire. Mann’s acknowledged background in Greek and Shakespearean drama no doubt helped the director in fashioning some acute and telling character parallels, while never losing sight of the political turbulence that dogged Hollywood in the 1950’s. The Cold War era and the McCarthy witch hunts breaded insecurity, paranoia and madness, and these aspects were ingrained in the compromised heroes of several Mann westerns, especially The Man from Laramie. The final of five fruitful collaborations between Mann and acting icon James Stewart, the film was shot in Cinemascope, which allowed for a greater complexity of composition, and the opportunity to effectively visualize the duality between hero and villain, and how to express more visual depth. Mann had used this kind of framing in the academy ratio in films such as Bend in the River, but the rectangular framing made the close-ups more dynamic and the landscape within the frame more turbulent.
The opening images of the film are accompanied by the title song, and reveal the barbed wire that defines the turmoil at the Barb ranch, where there are power struggles in the Waggoman family. Cavalry officer Will Lockhart (James Stewart) poses as a wagon train driver who is delivering supplies from Laramie to Coronado, but the larger purpose is a secret mission to ascertain the identity of the person who sold the Apaches rifles that were engaged in the massacre of a dozen cavalrymen at Dutch Creek. One of those was Lockhart’s brother, and that event spurs the offer to a sustained obsessed aimed at gaining revenge. Lockhart, who arrives with Charley -an Irish-Apache half-breed, soon finds himself a man without a family and the army life he reluctantly abandoned. He surveys the area of the attack and picks up the hate of one he knows, while his thoughts are being voiced by his companion who serves here as a Greek or Shakespearean chorus: “Hate is unbecoming in a man like you and in someway it shows.” In his exceptional study of the film in “Senses of Cinema” critic Tony Williams opines that Lockhart is “another Mann hero trapped by both his vengeful instincts as well as a society that has generated them.” This is also suggested by the claustrophobia felt in the later scenes in Barbara Waggoman’s store and in patriarch Alec Waggoman’s (Donald Crisp’s) house. In short order the psychopathic, sadistic son of Alec, Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) confronts Lockhart and accuses him of trespassing and stealing salt. Before the ranch foreman Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) arrives to intervene, Waggoman orders his men to burn the three wagons and shoot his 20 mules, despite Lockhart’s explanation that Dave’s cousin Barbara Waggoman informed him that the salt was free for the taking. Dave furthers the humiliation by having one of his thugs rope and drag Lockhart by horse over a campfire. The hot, dry landscape negotiated in scope is employed to arresting effect in this sequence, which seems a metaphorical allusion to hell.
Further harm and damage is checked by Hansbro, who is also a kind of son by “instinct” to Alec, commissioned by the old man to keep watch over his adored natural son, whom he acknowledges has serious psychological issues, and is a threat to himself and those around him. Despite bearing resentment at being rebuffed. Dave reluctantly withdraws, leaving Vic to warn Lockhart that he should leave town as soon as possible. Naturally, Lockhart remains and subsequently becomes deeply involved with the Waggomans, continuing to resist all warnings to leave, even from the local sheriff. He is persuaded to work for elderly rancher Kate Cannaday, a spurned lover of Alec who both hates and still loves him. Shortly thereafter Lockhart is ambushed by Dave while rounding up Kate’s stray horses not far from the Barb ranch. Lockhart manages to escape the shots by scrambling behind a large rock, and his return gunfire gets Dave in his hand. The cowhands then arrive and jump Lockhart, who is then shot in his shooting hand at point-blank range by the maniacal Dave. A festering family feud, intensifying rivalries and the slow realization of who is responsible for the ensuing deaths bring this slow-building western drama to an electrifying conclusion.
Like Gloucester in Lear Alec loses his failing site near the end, after obsessing like the Brad’s title character, throughout the story of who will inherit his ranch. And like Mann’s earlier film The Furies, there is a clear parallel to the House of Atreus in that both films showcase stubborn patriarchs oblivious to the mounting tensions that threaten to engulf their families from within. Blindness again is employed metaphorically. Alec Waggoman is a hybrid of Lear and Gloucester in that he is spiritually blind, and is on his way to becoming physically as well. He is unaware of the lurking danger fueled by the disparate personalities and motives of his two “sons” until it is too late. Tony Williams suggests the similarities with Kyle Hadley (Robert Stack) in Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, in that both he and Dave “cannot live up to the foreboding image of his father, expressing his rage in bouts of infantile violence and male hysteria.” The major difference though it seems is that Dave clearly has no love at all for his father, and if the situation were right he’d kill his off to advance. The adopted son Vic is obviously the Cordelia character, but he is far too flawed and insecure to match up with the saintliness of Shakespeare’s tragic and loving Cinderella rendition. Certainly, Vic is far from innocent as the story arc later confirms, and there is an acute narcissism connected to his actions. More like Cordelia in temperament and action is the proud and faithful Kate, who in the end takes care of her Lear, who is now blind, humbled and dependent. Like Iago in Othello Vic “tempts” his master’s son in illegal trading with the Apaches, and later kills his brother on a mountaintop scuffle (caused by the victim) and nearly does the same to his “father” when the older man insists on finding out a vital truth. It has been persuasively established in a number of scholarly studies of Mann’s work that his Man of the West is even closer to Lear, but is the result in large measure of the casting of Lee. J. Cobb, whose bombastic overacting is perfectly attuned to the Bard’s force of nature. In this story we have three sons instead of daughters, one level-headed and responsible like Cordelia, and the other two mentally compromised and ineffectual.
One of the most striking uses of the Cinemascope in the film is the manner in which Mann and ace cinematographer Charles Lang establish the metaphorical solitude or remoteness of the characters within the frame. Each individual bears personal problems, and are shot in intense close-up against the arid expanse. As the alienation and increasing isolation grips Alec, Vic and Dave, the space grows wider, and there’s a clear sense of impending doom. Despite what seems to be a mutual love for Alec’s niece Barbara Waggoman, there was never any kind of a moral link between Lockhart and Vic. The latter often seemed level-headed and reasonable, but in the end he was driven by his own personal greed and grasp for power, and was ultimately undermined by his own demons. Whenever both appeared in the same frame, there was an uneasiness and mistrust, a result of the dual nature of the two characters. In the end it was Vic’s failed attempts at deception that established him as a person of a far worse human nature. Said Mann: “I always tried to build my films on oppositions of characters. Putting the accent on common points of two characters, then making them collide, the story acquires more strength and you obtain a greater intensity.
If The Man from Laramie is top-heavy in Shakespearean allusions and parallels, it can reasonably be asserted that the tenets of Greek tragedy are powerfully transcribed in the characters and situations as well. Donald Crisp’s Alec is losing his eyesight and becoming feeble, after a long run as an powerful land baron. With an obvious reference to Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, Alec laments “I own land, but I can’t see it.” He can’t see who his real son is. Truth be said he has no real son, and is unable to see what both really think about him. Instead, in the manner of the great early tragedies his inability to see is compensated by dreams that inform him of coming events. In one instance he lets Lockhart know the contents of one in which a tall stranger arrives at his house with a gun to kill his boy Dave. After Dave is gunned down on the mountain by Vic, Alec is then convinced that Lockhart is the tall stranger who killed his son. At the point when Alec’s eyesight begins to desert him, he rides off alone to confront the man he is convinced murdered Dave, shooting wildly and off-target, much in the manner of the western code of behavior and in the tradition of Greek tragedy. Lockhart bluntly but tellingly informing Alec: “I am not the man in your dreams.” The old man, his certainty now shaken, rides off. In her seminal volume on the director, Anthony Mann, film historian Jeanine Basinger refers to the scene, brilliantly asserting: “It is a scene of uncommon poetry and madness, with no physical resolution in violence whatsoever. Rather it illustrates the futility of violence and draws a fine line between insanity and the code of the western.”
Greek tragedy may well be most compelling enacted in the scene of Vic carrying home Dave’s body on the horse. Although Vic is the actual killer, he feigns being the messenger of death. Mann effectively employs George Duning’s spare and mournful music to powerful emotional effect, with shadows and silhouettes again recalling the staging of the earliest playwrights.
As Lockhart James Stewart plays the most reputable character of the most celebrated films he made with Mann. This group also includes The Naked Spur, Winchester ’73, Bend of the River and The Far Country. He possesses a keen, sometimes biting sense of humor, and is warm and loving. In the screenplay his obsession for revenge is seen as both reasonable and noble, and in no way impacts his credibility. Stewart plays the role with a sense of purpose, and easily wins the affection of the audience with his typical charm and personality. But as Mann was basically plumbing the psychological depth of the characters in his westerns, and each of his films clearly exhibit some deep-rooted “disturbances” Stewart responds here as he did in The Naked Spur, fleshing out a character with the aforementioned duality that includes a tortured psyche. As he demonstrated with Hitchcock, Stewart has a particular gift for this kind of role. Arthur Kennedy as Vic, is equally effective as an insecure man with his own secrets (the distinguished actor’s best film work was for Mann) whose fate is sealed by his own deceptions; as the Waggoman patriarch, the veteran Donald Crisp (best known for his Oscar-winning role as Pa Morgan in John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley) initially conceals his own torment, but eventually succumbs to the mental and physical tortures that lead to regret and verisimilitude. As the spoiled, sadistic and anarchic Dave Waggoman, Alex Nicol gives the most famous performance in his film career, a weak and destructive young man who sows the seeds for his own demise in the opening scenes. As the resilient and uncompromising Kate, Aline McMahon negotiates an inwardly compassionate woman who will wait a lifetime to attain what she has long sought. Cathy O’Donnell, famed for her lead role in They Live by Night and as Judah’s sister Terzah in Ben-Hur is wonderfully cryptic near the end when Stewart tells her to look him up in his new home town. Stewart himself has soured on the concept of family values after his tortured time with Waggomans.
The full gamut of human weakness and fallibility is examined in The Man from Laramie, an enthralling western drama that contains some of the most fascinating characters in the genre. It’s no wonder when one considers the literary influences that inspired it’s composition. It may well be Mann’s masterpiece.