I watched this and The Naked Spur building up to Emory’s 35mm screening of Mann’s T-Men, which I then missed. Oh well. These were excellent, so I’ll have to catch up with T-Men and the others eventually.
A perhaps less-wooden-than-usual Gary Cooper gets a train ticket, is asked his name and destination by two different people and gives them different answers. So we know something is up (turns out he’s a still-wanted ex-badman). But Gary has reformed, is now the inordinately earnest Gary we all know and love, so he’s not lying to talky card-shark Arthur O’Connell when he says he’s headed to Fort Worth with cash raised by an entire town to hire a schoolteacher. Arthur introduces him to saloon singer Julie London, says she’d make a fine teacher, but then the train is robbed, Gary’s money is stolen, and Gary, Julie and Arthur find themselves on foot.
Julie and Arthur in happier times:
Fortunately, this all took place a short walk away from Gary’s old hideout, where his half-crazy uncle Lee Cobb (baddie of Thieves’ Highway) still reigns over a crude bunch of dangerous dimwits, including Gary’s real asshole cousin Jack Lord. Gary is treated as a prisoner/possible-accomplice, Julie as a sex slave, and Arthur is finally just shot (so is Jack Lord).
Cooper, trapped by Lord (left) and Dano:
Gary talks his way into helping with a bank heist, but mute Royal Dano (the Kid’s henchman in Johnny Guitar, later Gramps in House II) comes along and gets himself killed – so now Gary’s got to pick off the rest of the gang as they come for him (that’d be John Dehner, who played Pat Garrett to Paul Newman’s Kid the same year, and Robert Wilke, the foreman in Days of Heaven) before facing off against his uncle Cobb, who I’m surprised was able to leave the house and ride into town.
Cooper vs. Cobb:
Gary’s got his money back, and rides off with Julie London. But besides the money and the schoolteacher plan, Gary was also not lying about having a wife and kids back home. So they can’t be together, but Julie says she’s happy with the unrequited thing, and they get their unique doomed-romance version of the ride-into-sunset.
Man of the West is shot in CinemaScope, yet it’s initially hampered by the shallow dramatic space associated with television. This effect is made worse by the casting, which pairs the stagiest of stage actors (Cobb) with the most cinematic of movie actors (Cooper). But Mann is canny enough to turn these limitations to his advantage whenever he can, offering sly notations about Link’s physical discomfort on the train and using a long, tense scene inside the farmhouse to create claustrophobia before sending the characters outdoors for virtually the remainder of the picture. Once again, the hero is a dialectical contradiction, both regressing toward an unbearable past and making an anguished effort to break free from it — the struggle ultimately engendering hatred, violence, pain, and humiliation, and revealing boundless evil.
Royal Dano vs. the ghost town: