Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Tonight's Movie: The Man From Laramie (1955) at UCLA

Last Saturday night I paid my first visit to UCLA's recently opened Anthony Mann festival, where I enjoyed a pair of "B" films, DR. BROADWAY (1942) and TWO O'CLOCK COURAGE (1945).

Tonight I returned to the Billy Wilder Theater for a double bill of the "B" film STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT (1944) paired with THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955).

I saw STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT at the Noir City Film Festival three years ago, where I described it as "absurd yet wonderful." That description held for my second viewing tonight. It's a wacky movie where people don't always act logically and the most amazingly coincidental things occur, yet it's all highly entertaining. I find it a particular pleasure to watch lovely Virginia Grey on a big screen in 35mm.

Although I've seen several of Anthony Mann's eight collaborations between James Stewart, the only Western in the group which I'd previously seen was the wonderful BEND OF THE RIVER (1952). I don't often make the trip to Los Angeles for a mid-week movie, but I was very glad I was able to see THE MAN FROM LARAMIE for the first time tonight blown up on the huge screen at UCLA. The print was occasionally slightly out of focus or too grainy, but much of it was sharp and crystal clear, and despite the imperfections, seeing this widescreen film in a theater was, all in all, a memorable experience.

Stewart plays Will Lockhart, the title character, who's a man with a mission: He's looking for whoever was responsible for selling repeating rifles to the Apache Indians who massacred his younger brother and several other men in the Cavalry. He arrives in the small town of Coronado, New Mexico, and almost immediately finds himself tangling with the disturbed Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), son of powerful ranch owner Alec Waggonman (Donald Crisp). Alec's foreman Vic (Arthur Kennedy) initially helps Will, but ultimately he proves to be an even more dangerous adversary than Dave...and he just might know something about those repeating rifles.

THE MAN FROM LARAMIE was an absorbing, interesting film with a rich plot which called to mind two later Westerns, SADDLE THE WIND (1958) and THE BIG COUNTRY (1958). SADDLE THE WIND also features Crisp as a ranch owner mentoring a younger man, albeit in a more sympathetic role; that film also featured the theme of a man trying to manage an unpredictable, mentally unstable relative. The foreman looking up to the paternal ranch owner also called to mind Charles Bickford and Charlton Heston's relationship in THE BIG COUNTRY.

The film reunited Stewart and his BEND OF THE RIVER costar Kennedy, who initially have a somewhat similar "friendly enemies" rapport. Stewart's role ranges from quiet moments, admiring the Waggomans' lovely relative, Barbara (Cathy O'Donnell), to brutally physical, being dragged by a rope over a fire -- a stunt which Stewart did himself.

One of Stewart's best moments is a fantastic tracking shot when Lockhart spots Dave in town and charges toward him, heading straight toward the camera, which keeps pulling back until Stewart finally reaches the man and slugs him. It's a thrilling sequence.

As I watched the film I contemplated that James Stewart was surely one of our all-time finest screen actors. He played such a wide range of parts over the years, and the varied shadings he brought to his darker characters of the '50s, in films such as this or VERTIGO (1958), are endlessly fascinating. As Julie Adams commented at the screening of BEND OF THE RIVER (1952) a couple of years ago, it was a marvel what Stewart could convey simply with his eyes. One of the things I find interesting is that while Stewart played strong, powerful men in these Westerns, he also didn't hesitate to show fear or anguish.

The entire cast is extremely strong, including Crisp (most recently seen by me in his Oscar-winning role in HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY) and Aline MacMahon as Crisp's one-time love who is now a competing rancher. Arthur Kennedy manages to make a loathsome character surprisingly sympathetic at times, as his respect and love for his boss Alec is not returned as he had hoped and expected.

I've found Alex Nicol somewhat bland in previous films, and I was impressed with his brave performance in this as the childish and unstable Dave.  I wouldn't have known Nicol had such a twisted performance in him.

The film also has notable turns by Wallace Ford as a kindly half-Irish, half-Indian former Army scout, Jack Elam as a killer stalking Stewart, and James Millican as the town sheriff. Millican (THE SILVER WHIP) is someone I've come to very much admire in recent months, and I'm always happy when I see his name in the opening credits. Very sadly, this was one of his last roles, as he passed away from cancer the year THE MAN FROM LARAMIE was released.

Viewers will recognize Cathy O'Donnell from William Wyler's THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946) and BEN-HUR (1959), as well as Nicholas Ray's THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948) and Mann's SIDE STREET (1949). Her Barbara is interesting, if somewhat underdeveloped; her tentative relationship with Lockhart mostly seems to serve the purpose of softening his character; Will and Barbara seem to have a deeper relationship in the publicity stills than they actually do in the film! Barbara is semi-engaged to Vic but that's not explored in much depth. The film has a dense, meaty plot, yet despite that I felt that Barbara was rather shortchanged.

The ending of the film once again calls to mind a later film, SEVEN MEN FROM NOW (1956), with a similar "look me up sometime" unresolved ending as Will and Barbara part ways.

THE MAN FROM LARAMIE runs 101 minutes. It was filmed in Technicolor by Charles Lang.

The script was cowritten by Frank Burt and Philip Yordan, based on a Thomas T. Flynn story from the Saturday Evening Post. Yordan wrote many outstanding film noir and Western titles, including DILLINGER (1945), THE CHASE (1946), REIGN OF TERROR (1949), JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), and THE BIG COMBO (1955) to name just a few. The underrated comedy JOHNNY DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (1944) was one of his earliest films. Yordan won the Oscar for writing the Western BROKEN LANCE (1954).

THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is available on DVD, VHS, and streaming on Amazon Instant Video. The DVD can be rented from Netflix or ClassicFlix.

This Columbia film is also shown from time to time on Turner Classic Movies.

Previous reviews of additional Stewart-Mann films: THUNDER BAY (1953) and STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND (1955). I intend to take a fresh look at THUNDER BAY, as it's been several years since I've seen it and I'm curious if I'll like it better now, given how much I've come to admire Dan Duryea in particular.


Blogger James Corry said...

Just a quick note Laura: "The Man From Laramie" is scheduled to be released June 10th on blu-ray from boutique label "Twilight Time" and will be limited to 3,000 copies.


6:36 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Brad, that is great news! I have a couple of the Twilight Time Blu-rays, and they're really beautiful.

Best wishes,

8:59 PM  
Blogger Jerry E said...

I am sure it was worth the drive in to L.A. to see this great movie, Laura. I envy you that facility.
James Stewart made some great movies prior to WW2 but I think he really hit his stride upon his return from the conflict, beginning with "It's A Wonderful Life" through many really great movies in the next 20 years, including those wonderful westerns with Anthony Mann.
In 1975, the year we got married, my wife and I were really lucky to get tickets to London's West End to see James Stewart on stage in "Harvey". Magical! He is still my wife's all-time favourite actor.

3:42 AM  
Blogger Mike's Take on the Movies said...

Anytime spent watching a Mann film is time well spent from his noir thrillers which always seemed just a little grittier than the other titles being produced to the Stewart westerns. Jimmy in always brought that little something extra to his characters in these oaters with Mann. Nice post.

6:28 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jerry, that's so wonderful you were able to see James Stewart on stage!! What a fantastic memory.

I'm definitely fortunate to have so many big screen classic film options in Southern California, and UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater is one of the very best.

Thank you, Mike, I'm glad you enjoyed the post! I am really enjoying the chance to delve into a bunch of Mann films in a compressed time frame.

Best wishes,

11:06 PM  
Blogger KC said...

I need to see Strangers in the Night. It sounds like my kind of weird. Though I never think of myself as a fan of James Stewart, I should probably reassess that, because you're right about his varied accomplishments. The difference in tone between Vertigo and It's a Wonderful Life alone is pretty amazing.

11:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's great that you got to see this marvelous film on the big screen Laura.

It's such a powerful movie, with Stewart digging deep into his own darker places once again and really producing the goods. And of course there's Kennedy in a genuinely tragic role.


1:30 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

KC, STRANGERS IN THE NIGHT is out from Olive, do check it out. It's nuts but so much fun!

Colin, I feel so fortunate to be "meeting" most of these Stewart-Mann films for the first time on a big screen. I just saw THE NAKED SPUR this weekend and was even more impressed.

Best wishes,

11:51 PM  

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