Monday, March 12, 2012
The Man from Laramie (1955)
The Man from Laramie was the last of the five westerns starring James Stewart that Anthony Mann directed in the 1950s.
Stewart plays Will Lockhart, a man who seems at first to be a rather amiable trader who arrives in the small town of Coronado with three wagons full of provisions for the store there. Pretty soon we discover that he’s a haunted man, haunted by the death of his brother and determined on taking revenge. Lockhart had been a captain in the US Cavalry and his kid brother had been in the service as well, until his patrol was ambushed and wiped out by Apaches. The Apaches had been armed with US Army repeating rifles and Will Lockhart wants to find the man who sold them the guns. When he finds him he intends to kill him.
Coronado turns out to be a tense unfriendly place. The big man around these parts is Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp). He claims to own the whole town and all the country around it for three days’ ride. This proves to a slight exaggeration, but only a slight one. He owns everything except the Half Moon Ranch. That’s owned by Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon). Kate and Alec have a history, but not a happy one. Alec plans eventually to own everything, including the Half Moon Ranch.
He also hopes to establish a cattle dynasty. Unfortunately his only son Dave is not exactly ideal material for such a project. Dave is spoilt, impulsive, jealous and spiteful. He is also lazy and incompetent. Alec’s ranch foreman Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) has the job of trying to keep Dave in line and out of trouble, a formidable challenge.
Will Lockhart’s arrival in town is the catalyst that will bring the simmering tensions in Coronado to boiling point. When Dave and his boys find Lockhart and his men harvesting salt from a salt pan on the Waggomans’ Barb Ranch they burn Lockhart’s wagons and shoot his mules. Lockhart is not a man to forget this kind of treatment. Lockhart finds himself drawn into the complex and dangerous dramas of the unhappy town, dramas that escalate into a series of murders as his own obsessive search for the man he holds responsible for his brother’s death becomes enmeshed in the struggle for control of the Waggoman empire.
Vic is a key figure. An orphan, he was raised by Alec Waggoman and considers himself as having a claim on the ranch, a claim bitterly resented by Dave Waggoman. Now Alec Waggoman is in failing health and going blind and the question of who will succeed him is becoming urgent.
The villains in this movie are not the conventional sort of western villains. They’re bad because they’re weak. And their weakness makes them dangerous. Will Lockhart is a strong man but also a man driven by a dangerous obsession.
Since Anthony Mann directed some notable examples of film noir earlier in his career it’s tempting to see his westerns as a species of western noir. There’s some justification for this. His westerns do have a slightly noirish sense of fate. Characters make mistakes because they do the things that are in their nature. They seem almost unable to do anything else.
This applies to the hero in this movie as well as to the villains. Will Lockhart is a man driven not just by his desire for revenge but by the extraordinarily stubborn streak in his character. When a sensible man would walk away he dives right in.
James Stewart gave some of his most admired performances for Anthony Mann and he does a fine job here. Vic is arguably an even more interesting character than Lockhart although Arthur Kennedy is rather less impressive than Stewart. That’s perhaps personal prejudice on my part - he’s an actor I’ve never really been convinced by.
This was one of the first westerns made in Cinemascope and Mann makes the most of the format.
A very good, intelligent and complex western.
The Region 4 DVD is a handsome widescreen print although sadly lacking in extras apart from trailers.