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The summit of an absolutely superb series of Westerns
on April 4, 2005
One of the reasons that Jimmy Stewart is one of the truly great movie stars in Hollywood history was his ability to reinvent himself. Early in his career, he excelled as a light comedian, though he could expand that into more complex comedic roles such as MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. But mainly, he was nice. He was never mean, never rough, never rugged. But in the 1950s he was wonderfully utilized in differing ways by two very different directors: Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Mann. The latter in particular offered Stewart roles that would be the darkest, most complex of his career. When we think of the great actor of the 1950s, Stewart is not usually the first actor of whom we think, but the fact is that from 1950 with the films WINCHESTER 73 (with Mann), BROKEN ARROW, and HARVEY (for which he received an Oscar nomination) to 1959 with ANATOMY OF A MURDER, Stewart was the most prolific star of the decade, with a resume that no other actor can match. Not least his success depended on the string of eight films he made with Anthony Mann: WINCHESTER 73, BEND OF THE RIVER, THE NAKED SPUR, THUNDER BAY, THE GLENN MILLER STORY, THE FAR COUNTRY, STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND, and THE MAN FROM LARAMIE. The five Westerns of this collaboration stand comparison with any series of Westerns ever made, excluding only those of John Ford and John Wayne.
THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is probably the finest Western that Stewart and Mann made together, though it gets serious competition from THE NAKED SPUR. Unlike Clint Eastwood, who pretty much played variations on the Man With No Name even in Westerns in which his character had a name, each of Stewart's Western characters are strikingly different from one another. Howard Kemp in THE NAKED SPUR is a man so obsessed in his task that he borders on insanity. Will Lockhart in THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, while angry, is self-contained, deliberate, and calculating. He is a man on a mission-a U.S. Army captain going undercover to learn who was selling repeating rifles to the Apaches who ambushed a squad of soldiers, one of whom was his brother. Unlike Howard Kemp, Will Lockhart is the epitome of sanity. And unlike some of his other roles under Mann, Stewart's Lockhart is never driven to action by his circumstances. In BEND IN THE RIVER and THE FAR COUNTRY, Stewart's characters respond to trouble, but they don't seek it out. Lockhart knew he was stepping into trouble from the start.
One of the reasons that THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is so outstanding is the presence both of a very strong cast (with a couple of notable exceptions) and finely conceived characters. Next to Stewart's Lockhart, Arthur Kennedy's Vic Hansboro is marvelous as an almost tragic figure-the foreman of a huge ranch who is the glue who holds everything together, but knows that the irresponsible, incompetent, hotheaded son of the owner is destined to inherit all. He is in an impossible situation, and this is brought out by a series of accidents that he finds himself in the middle of. Always good in anything he was in, this is one of the finest roles of Kennedy's career. The other stellar performance is by the always reliable and enormously versatile Donald Crisp as cattle mogul Alec Waggoman. I love his role because Waggoman is never reduced to a one-dimensional stereotype. Unfortunately, the film is brought down somewhat by the lackluster Cathy O'Donnell as the film's love interest and by Alex Nicol. Although he was memorable in two powerful scenes in which he first ropes Jimmy Stewart after burning his wagons and shooting his mules and then later shoots him in the hand after his men holds him, he overall lacks any kind of subtlety in his performance. Had the film had a more gifted actor in the role, this would have been an even better film.
Like all of the Stewart-Mann Westerns, this one was filmed on location, though each film sports a different one. THE MAN FROM LARAMIE was primarily shot around Santa Fe and Taos, and one of the joys of each of these films is the unique look the locations create.
On a negative note, the dreadful song that graces the beginning and end of the film stands as one of the worst in the history of the Hollywood Western. One can only speculate what led to the selection of this song as the theme.
Turner Classic Movies has a series called The Essentials, a series dedicated to some of the finest films in the history of American cinema. If a similar series were created for the Western, all five of the Stewart-Mann films would be included. And of that series, THE MAN FROM LARAMIE might be the finest of the bunch.