Man of the West (Blu-ray Review)17 Nov, 2014 By: Mike Clark
$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur O'Connell, Jack Lord.
Though I’m not sure at what point Anthony Mann’s next-to-last Western began to pick up its following, it has been a while; Danny Peary included it in the very first of his three landmark Cult Movies books (some of whose inclusions, by the way, have just gotten new life in e-book spin-offs to predictable huzzahs). But I knew a little about Man’s visceral appeal fairly early in my formative years after my childhood best friend Jim Freeman caught it at a drive-in in 1959 and reported on (with glee) the scene where Gary Cooper makes Jack Lord strip before dropping him across tough campfire terrain that has nothing to do with the backdrop Lord would labor against in Hawaii Five-O. His character has it coming, too.
I remember reading sometime in the ’60s that Man either didn’t get a New York opening (which doesn’t sound likely) or didn’t get a major New York opening, which would mean that it premiered in one of those Midnight Cowboy kind of 42nd Street theaters of the day where I once witnessed a guy hawking Eskimo Pies during a double bill of Rio Bravo and Don Siegel’s Madigan. By the same token, Man had a tough time going it alone without a second feature when it got booked into my local cavernous downtown Loew’s Ohio in 1958 when even Westerns with Gary Cooper (who only had three more movies to go) weren’t as fashionable to tastemakers as they once were. To promote the picture, Cooper appeared on Jack Benny’s Sunday night CBS show and (with vocal backup) performed a cover of the Everly Brothers’ hit “Bird Dog” — one of the great singular moments in show biz history and included on the Shout! Factory Benny set that came out last year.
As loopy as this rendition remains, it isn’t a whole lot goofier than Cooper’s demeanor in Man’s early scenes, which Peary describes as a semi-reincarnation of Longfellow Deeds and one I’ve always thought had a decided “what me, worry?” dimension. Presumably, director Mann was trying to set us up for surprise when Cooper’s personality is forced to change — or, in fact, revert to what it once was — once the holdup of a train to Fort Worth strands him in the middle of some Texas nowhere along with a saloon singer (Julie London) and an ear-bending con man (Arthur O’Connell). Reformed and now married with children, Cooper was on his way to hire a schoolteacher on the now stolen money raised by his humble community in a kind of 19th-century kickstarter campaign.
In the middle of a long trek to civilization on foot — try 100 miles — Cooper and the others come across the shack that was once home to him and the corrupt uncle (Lee J. Cobb in a role that’s better than most in sustaining his ham) who raised him. The old geezer is still there with a Cooper cousin (Lord) and other assorted hangers-on who, turns out, perpetrated the train robbery that was largely averted. One look at London, and they mostly have rape on their minds, though the aging Cobb is unsteady enough to buy the false premise (promoted by Cooper to save his skin) that this nephew is prepared to return to the fold. There’s not much chance of this given this crew’s treatment of captive London, forcing her to strip inside the cabin and setting up Cooper’s apt revenge on super-creep Lord later in the picture.
The grown-up screenplay is by TV writer Reginald Rose (who’ll always be on the map thanks to 12 Angry Men), and if you wanted to know what constituted the familiarly termed “adult Western” at a time when Roy Rogers was relegated to hosting TV variety shows, this isn’t a bad place to start. Despite my yen for noir-ish The Furies and his five famous James Stewart collaborations, I think this is my favorite Mann Western due to the brilliance of his CinemaScope staging in a movie whose final third or more takes place almost exclusively outdoors. You can easily see how the isolation of the Texas land could drive certain men crazy (The Searchers does this, too) and basically dividing their options into two: settling down with a respectable woman, as Cooper has, or sticking up train passengers.
The Scope close-ups here of Cooper are among the most iconographic of his career, and though the actor’s box office fell off some in his last screen decade (High Noon and Vera Cruz were relative aberrations, and even Friendly Persuasion underperformed), history has shown that two of his very best Westerns — this and 1959’s The Hanging Tree — came right near the end. This Kino Classics version is so close in quality to its German Blu-ray predecessor it’s not worth it trying to split hairs. One thing, though: This movie must have been utterly destroyed by VHS or any other pan-and-scan showing in the unlamented pre-letterbox days. A key character will be in the upper left of the frame and another in the lower right; the song here for the panner wouldn’t have been “Bird Dog” but “19th Nervous Breakdown.”