Coming at the tail-end of the classic era of the studio western, the cycle of five westerns Anthony Mann made with Jimmy Stewart in the first half of the fifties stand as a breakthrough in terms of psychological realism, a last-gasp hurrah before the bitter and revisionist westerns of the sixties and seventies, and as the ultimate success of the oft-tried technique of merging the myth-ready genre with classical modes of story-telling.
The Man from Laramie was their final collaboration. Will Lockhart (Jimmy Stewart) brings a wagon train of shop goods to Cornonado but sticks around when the local rancher’s son goes crazy on him for digging the salt lagoon for return freight. It’s one-man country, and old Donald Crisp is the boss, with a feckless, unstable son Dave (more interested in his gloves and buckskins than the ranch accounts), a surrogate son in his steady but frustrated 2IC Arthur Kennedy, and failing eyesight. Lockhart gets tangled in this family drama with motives of his own – he’s after revenge on whoever sold repeating rifles to the apaches who murdered his brother.
Stewart was 42 in 1950, the year he and Mann teamed on the wonderful Winchester 73, and already taking more serious roles than the light comedic ones which had made his name. The Mann-Stewart westerns centre on ambiguous protagonists, each as transparently Jimmy Stewart as any of his other roles, but each driven by an overpowering emotion which colors their entire judgement, and suggests a psychology of varying degrees of instability. There’s still room for a bit of small-town uming and ahing here, when Jimmy chats with the pretty young shopkeeper, but when he is first accosted by Dave, against the eerie white salt flats, physically humiliated and his property destroyed, his barely-suppressed anger is expressed by his whole body; later, when Dave exacts a cowardly and sadistic retribution in an almost repeat scene, the frame fills with Stewart’s seething face. This is a man with violence in him. Hitchcock was the only other director who could paint a dark side to Jimmy Stewart; or perhaps, Mann and Hitchcock were the only directors for whom he was prepared to let it out.
One of the great things about the Mann-Stewart westerns is their implacable emotional logic and structural elegance; scenes follow one another organically and inevitably, with information conveyed as succinctly as possible and action deriving from character (a mode refined almost to abstraction in the Randolph Scott-Budd Boetticher western cycle of the late 50s). This classicism of form and broad-stroke characterisation align the storytelling with myth, but in its commitment to psychological realism and intensity of emotion within well-worn generic bounds both ancient and modern, the drama becomes positively Shakespearean. This is only enhanced by the business with father and son(s), and the sense that the old man’s time of two-fisted land-grabbing has been super-ceded by an era of urban domestic development. Unfortunately, the familial drama is less interesting than Stewart’s obsessed and lonely soul; Mann covered similar territory five years earlier in The Furies, where Walter Huston’s sprawling cattle empire faced peril from familial strife and the brave new world of business and banking. It’s much more expansive, histrionic and a less successful film than the Man From Laramie (tho still highly enjoyable, thanks to Huston and Barbara Stanwyck) but does show how fertile such material could be. The corresponding characters here are less developed from the archetype: Crisp is given a much weaker role than Huston, and doing little with it, seems to be going gently into that good night; while his son Dave is similarly underdeveloped and B-player Alec Nicol attempts little nuance. This is amply compensated for by Arthur Kennedy, however, superb as a man of ambiguous position, who appears good, but is possessed of a dubious moral compass.
All the high-minded antecedents and approach to the drama do not detract from the fact that this is still a cracking western in simply generic terms. It starts with a theme tune sung by a cowboy choir (always a good thing!); it’s fantastically photographed, with the vast Cinemascope vistas becoming almost a character in their own right; and it erupts regularly with bursts of action often startling in their violence. Best of all, we can sympathise fully with Lockhart, less unpleasantly unhinged than other Stewart protagonists of the cycle; his name is appropriate, as even before the death of his brother we feel that he has for some reason separated himself from society and emotional contact. He is recurrently described as having no home (he’s not even from Laramie, but stationed at the fort there, the army barrack as surrogate home), and claims unconvincingly to be at home wherever he is; in the context of the settled town, Kennedy and his fiancée shopkeeper, and the roiling family saga at the ranch, he looks pretty lonely. He claims he will only be able to find a home when he has executed his vengeance, but its fulfillment is bittersweet (he doesn’t even get the satisfaction of doing it personally), and the traditional western ending gains poignancy through the suspicion that Lockhart’s place outside society has more complex roots than his monomaniacal quest for vengeance.