Western Noir: Man of the West

I never made a better investment in a streaming service than subscribing to the Criterion Channel when it premiered last April. Criterion Channel is the streaming platform extension of the Criterion Collection, the famous home video line of high quality classic and contemporary films. The Criterion Channel library contains great films of every era, genre, and country. I’ve mostly watched their cult films (glad I got to experience Demon Seed, God Told Me To, and Phase IV, because … wow, those are nuts) and classic Hollywood movies, in particular the deep dives they take into film noir. Since signing up for Criterion, my knowledge of film noir feels like it’s doubled.

This month Criterion Channel is presenting a topic that’s personal for me: the influence of film noir on the Hollywood Western. Film noir was not recognized as a genre during its main period of the 1940s and ‘50s. It was French critics who first used the term as they started to study the US-American crime films they had missed during World War II. Not until the 1970s, after the original noir moment was long over, did the phrase “film noir” become established in the movie lexicon. Whether film noir is a genre or not is still a hot topic of debate among film scholars. I like Alain Silver’s definition of it as a “style” rather than a genre. That definition helps to understand how noir influenced an established genre, the Western, that would seem to have nothing in common with it. What we might call the “Western noir” isn’t as much a transplanting of crime film tropes into the Western as it is the dark style and troubled psychology of film noir affecting common Western stories. The two film types do have one important element they share: most are about crime, and often the criminal is the protagonist.

I’ll probably end up watching all the movies in the Western Noir collection, which includes Rancho Notorious (1952), Blood on the Moon (1948), I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Day of the Outlaw (1959), and The Naked Spur (1953). I’ve seen most of these, and all are worth watching regardless of your interest in film noir or the Western. If you only have to pick one from the above list, I’d encourage you to watch The Naked Spur, although I wasn’t impressed with the print Criterion found. I sincerely hope better prints survive somewhere of this seminal James Stewart-Anthony Mann film.

But if I’m going to pick one of Criterion’s Western noirs to talk about, it has to be the one I know and love the most, 1958’s Man of the West, another film from director Anthony Mann. Anthony Mann (no relationship to Michael Mann) directed a string of superb Westerns during the 1950s, often with Jimmy Stewart in the lead. Man of the West is not only his best foray into the Western, but his finest work. Considering that he also directed El Cid, Winchester ‘73, The Man From Laramie, Raw Deal, The Fall of the Roman Empire, and The T-Men, that’s an impressive statement. (If you don’t recognize some of those titles, I recommend them all. And that’s the 1948 film noir Raw Deal, not the 1986 Schwarzenegger flick.)

This was the final great role for Gary Cooper, who stepped into Jimmy Stewart’s place as the lead. Coop plays Link Jones, a quiet and mysterious figure whom we first see riding across the plains like any traditional Western hero. But when Link reaches the nearest town, he stables his horse, dresses up in classy city-slicker duds, and boards a train heading for civilization. Our tough-looking hombre is really riding to the big city to hire a school teacher for the small settlement where he lives.

The first twenty minutes of Man of the West are a blind: a slick deception to get viewers comfortable with the wrong ideas. The direction, photography, and performances indicate a staid, ordinary Western of the 1950s. Gambler and con-man Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) cozies up to Link on the train, trying to find out how much money he’s carrying. He introduces Link to pretty singer Billie Ellis (Julie London), trying to sell her as a school teacher candidate. Are we heading toward some kind of light comedy about Link hiring Billie, and then finding out Sam swindled him? Maybe a love story growing out of antagonism from the misunderstanding?

No, not remotely. At the twenty-minute mark, the film crawls into a cobwebby corner and goes utterly mad. Anthony Mann’s adoration of Shakespearean tragedy seizes the reins, and results in the Western with the closest spiritual ties to the Bard’s most neurotic dramas. Mann approached overt Shakespearean elements in The Man From Laramie and tried for years to make a Western adaptation of King Lear called “The King,” but this is the closest he came to putting the spirit of the Elizabethan stage onto the sagebrush screen.

The train gets robbed at a refueling depot, and Link, Sam, and Billie end up trapped in the wilderness after the train hauls off in the confusion. However, Link knows this land, and he leads the three of them to a rotting ranch that belongs to Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), the insane patriarch of the clan of thieves responsible for the train robbery. In the long ago, Link rode with these men. He was Dock’s favorite “son,” and when Link strides back through the door, Dock imagines that the good ol’ days have returned, and he can finally commit the huge bank robbery he’s always dreamed of. The rest of Dock’s gang, including hotshot psycho Coaley (a young Jack Lord) and mature Claude (John Dehner), aren’t happy to have Link around getting all the attention and increasing Dock’s dementia.

The situation for Link and his two companions amidst this family of murderers is precarious. Link has to find a way out, but he also has to retrieve his stolen money from Dock—it’s his ticket back to the new life that he used to shut out this diseased older one.

Cooper gives the terrific performance you would expect from a famous Hollywood icon who only got better as he aged. But the movie-stealer is Lee J. Cobb as the delusional Dock Tobin. Cobb is best known to audiences today as Lt. Kinderman in The Exorcist and as the last juror to break in 12 Angry Men. Cobb is ten years younger than Gary Cooper, but looks far older on the screen in his character makeup. Dock Tobin crosses the mad King Lear, searching for the right heir amongst his children to take over his “empire,” with Falstaff, making one more stab at turning Prince Hal back into the good-time thieving rogue. As Link observes, Tobin has ceased to be human and rotted into something foul: “There’s a point where you either grow up and become a human being or you rot, like that bunch.” Dock now lives in a perpetual fantasy of a golden era where the booming town of Lasoo is waiting for him to plunder it. In truth, Lasoo is a ghost town, a lumber heap whose only inhabitants are a Hispanic couple living in the back room of the empty bank building. That sums up the reality of Dock Tobin’s universe. The movie charts the course of his mad plans that blossom into violence the more Link tries to pull himself out of the malign family he thought he had rejected years ago.

The film’s most famous scene is a fight between Link and Coaley, which must count as one of the ugliest one-on-one confrontations in any movie. No simple fisticuffs here: these fellows fight dirty, gouging, choking, throttling, kicking, and wailin’ hell on each other until both hardly look human. You’ve seen classic films where the heroes never seem to get their hair mussed—this is the opposite. Eventually, the fight reaches a level of pure hysteria, where Link forces Coaley to strip to complete his humiliation and get revenge on the crazed outlaw for making Billie strip the night before. At this point, the dialogue turns into incoherent screeching and howling.

Man of the West will shock viewers who expect Westerns from the 1950s to be bland and pleasant, filled only with generic pleasures. It is a nasty film, the King Lear of Westerns in the raw manner that it strips its characters to nothing. It’s also gorgeous to look at, shot in CinemaScope that uses the wide canvas as either a visual trap crowding in on the characters or as a contrast of the sprawling emptiness that the insane Dick Tobin wishes to conquer. It’s one of my favorite Westerns, and favorite movies, period. I’m amazed I was able to fall in love with Man of the West when I first saw it in the 1990s because it was only available on pan-and-scan VHS. You just do not do that to a CinemaScope film. It’s like sawing off both ends of Picasso’s Guernica so it will fit better in a bathroom. But the greatest movies can still overcome mutilation.

Does Man of the West count as a Western noir? The concept of a man pulled back into a seedy criminal family is a deeply noir one, although it’s quintessentially Western as well. Having Lee J. Cobb in the cast also casts a long noir shadow, since he’s a key actor in a few prominent noirs, most notably Jules Dassin’s Thieves’ Highway. I think what most qualifies the movie as a Western noir is Anthony Mann direction. Early in his career, Mann was one of the great noir stylists, and there are undercurrents to Man of the West that resemble his films Raw Deal and The T-Men. Not all Westerns Mann directed have such noirish aspects (for example Bend of the River and The Far Country), but I think it’s fair to call Man of the West and The Naked Spur—and arguably the lesser-known The Tin Star—under a broad film noir-influenced umbrella.