Man from Laramie, The (Blu-ray Review)7 Jul, 2014 By: Mike Clark
Available via www.screenarchives.com
Stars James Stewart, Cathy O’Donnell, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Crisp.
Someone once said that if it were possible to combine the exteriors of Anthony Mann with the interiors of Nicholas Ray, we’d be talking about the perfect director — though he or she likely meant the perfect director for widescreen, which became the former’s specialty with this specific picture. The last of five Mann-James Stewart Westerns (and eight collaborations overall), it’s one of the team’s best and a longtime personal favorite, though it has never quite hit me as solidly as it does in this Twilight Time 4K transfer — which is apparently, per Julie Kirgo’s always ace liner notes, this swan song’s first 2.55:1 presentation since the original release in 1955. Certainly, I noticed some beauties in framing that I never have before — as in an early bit where townsfolk enter a church on the left side of the screen while some porch-dwellers play poker on the right. Mann doesn’t rub our noses in it, either; he just presents it as an effective throwaway.
Mann famously toughened-up Stewart’s screen image starting with 1950’s Winchester ’73, and the actor occasionally brandishes some of the gritty demons moviegoers long ago came to expect in one of their Westerns, though perhaps not as many as in one or two predecessors. Still, there are more than enough neuroses to go around, thanks to a Lear-inspired dysfunctional family run by a sight-impaired New Mexico patriarch (Donald Crisp) whose two “sons” (one biological, one adopted) aren’t fully appreciated by the old man. And in the case of the former (Alex Nicol), it’s with good reason.
When I was a kid, Nicol always reminded me a little of Arthur Kennedy without the latter’s psychological depth or brilliance with dialogue deliveries, so it’s interesting seeing them paired here as these siblings-by-chance. Ranch foreman Kennedy is an adoptee raised by Crisp — his duties including keeping hothead Nicol in line despite the latter’s propensity to initiate scrapes. When stranger Stewart innocently packs up some helpings of ranch salt deposits that he’s been told have always been in the public domain, Nicol’s solution is to burn Stewart’s wagons and shoot his mules. About all Kennedy can do is ride up and break up the melee with a “you did what?” — but the it’s the kind of brotherly stupidity that makes things tense at home, even though Kennedy isn’t totally any Mr. Clean himself.
The town to which Stewart has just journeyed might be the least friendly to be found on any 1955 screen if Bad Day at Black Rock (which actually got a token ’54 New York City opening) didn’t exist. Citizens keep imploring him to leave and then act on those sentiments, but Stewart is on a mission (no spoilers, please) that has something to do with an Indian massacre of a benign Cavalry patrol with rifles supplied them by … someone. About the only one greeting Stewart with any warmth is a comely shopkeeper played by Cathy O’Donnell, an actress whose undervalued career was based on just a few standout films, including this one. Stewart has obvious feelings for her here, but she’s also a semi-honey of Kennedy’s, and this stranger in town already has enough problems with the Crisp clan (she and Nicol are cousins) to rock any boats, of which there aren’t many around in this barren territory. To this point, there are several impressive shots here of humans traversing craggy cliffs, including one that reminded me a tad of the great opening in Spartacus (a scene that remained in the final film, even though initial director Mann exited the project before very long).
The Philip Yordan-Frank Burt script has some snappy dialogue that flows naturally off the performers’ tongues, including Stewart’s funny response upon being accused of shooting Jack Elam’s typically seedy character that of course he journeyed all the way from Laramie just so that he could kill the town drunk. Crisp, in his early 70s here, is robust as the father — a good on-screen year for the actor given his wonderful performance as Tyrone Power’s father in John Ford’s The Long Gray Line, which same-studio Columbia had brought out about six months earlier. Another nice turn out of the senior pool comes from 1930s Warner Bros. regular Aline MacMahon as about the only rancher (and a woman, to boot) not put entirely put out of business by Crisp’s ruthless land baron ways. Having contributed to the money-losing notoriety of The Eddie Cantor Story not long before, MacMahon’s performance was a good way of proving that there could be life after playing lead Keefe Brasselle’s grandmother. In anything.
All in all, this is a stellar catalog release from a time when Columbia was in a groove with its Westerns (Delmer Daves’ Jubal and 3:10 to Yuma would follow over the next two years on their ways, much later, to Criterion treatment). Laramie is the first Stewart-Mann to get domestic Blu-ray treatment, and I’d like to see all of them rate the same treatment. This goes as well for the movie that ended the team’s association in some sort of dust-up just as shooting commenced: 1957’s Night Passage, which would have to look great in high-def because it was shot in Technirama.