Man of the West (1958)
Release Date: October 1st, 1958 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Anthony Mann Actors: Gary Cooper, Julie London, Lee J. Cobb, Arthur O’Connell, Jack Lord, John Dehner, Royal Dano
ot one of Anthony Mann’s more commercially successful Westerns (or critically acclaimed pictures during its initial release), “Man of the West” still uses effective trademark elements, such as very infrequent location changes and a hero who uses few words, knows how to get the job done even if initially reluctant to resort to violence, and has an uncommon decency toward women. The villain is also a notable aspect, surrounded by dastardly henchmen, yet deeper and more human than his generic counterparts. It’s gritty, bleak, and calculating, but a slower-moving later entry in Mann’s generally impressive oeuvre.
Link Jones (Gary Cooper) is headed to Fort Worth to hire a schoolteacher with his town’s hard-earned money. The train gets hijacked, and Jones, along with cowardly conman Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and potential teacher (or the other half of Beasley’s scam) Billie Ellis (Julie London), are stranded with the bandits. Soon, Link realizes that the robbers are members of a gang from his sordid past, led by the sadistic, crazed patriarch “Uncle” Dock Tobin (Lee. J. Cobb) – a man who once served as a father to the now reformed cowboy. Tobin welcomes Jones back, thinking that the long lost gunslinger can aid in an upcoming bank heist. In order to survive and protect Billie from certain molestation, the wizened, levelheaded fighter must resume his previously abandoned, criminal ways.
In one of his last roles, Gary Cooper again gets to play a tough, tight-lipped, even-tempered, weathered gunman who doesn’t mind getting dirty – and he’s completely at ease (and always watchable) in this signature persona. Based on Will C. Brown’s novel “The Border Jumpers,” “Man of the West” features an unusually abrasive band of supporting characters and events, most notably in two paralleling scenes: the first has Julie London being forced to strip to entertain the rowdy cohorts (and toy with the audience) while Link is held at knifepoint, and the second sees Jones turning the tables on the instigator, Coaley (Jack Lord), to literally tear the shirt off his back for a taste of his own medicine. It’s unexpected, shocking, and vigorous – a violent revenge for a wicked deed, which is just one instance of Link’s formerly savage nature slowly becoming unveiled. But he’s decidedly more complex and interesting because of it.
Compelled to transform into the very thing he’s tried so many years to purge from his deportment, Jones has to “pretend” he’s just as ruthless as Tobin and his gang in an effort to live out the ordeal. Resorting to stealing, killing, and outrunning the law, he has to convincingly skirt the edges of villainy to best his enemies and save the girl. “You’re not like him,” Billie whispers, hoping Jones is not a complete hostage to his former life. With a powerful conclusion and a memorable main antagonist who reprehensibly manipulates the competitive nature of his surrogate “sons,” “Man of the West” is one of Mann’s most debated works, made up of several key, striking moments that give the production distinct strength, even if the whole of the film isn’t consistently suspenseful, action-packed, or classically Western.
– Mike Massie