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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

MAN OF THE WEST (1958)

Of the eleven Westerns helmed by Anthony Mann, the five he made with James Stewart tend to crowd out the others. But you never feel that Gary Cooper is substituting for anyone as a man-with-a-past who gets caught in the middle of a train robbery gone wrong, and then finds himself trapped in the hands of his old gang. There are two other hostages, but only Cooper knows how to play the gang against itself because in many ways, he still is one of them. Coop’s mythic everyman persona is just right for this dark story that’s less elaborately plotted than the Stewart/Mann collaborations. It seems to grow out of the rough terrain, with vet lenser Ernest Haller opening up on his earlier b&w work for Mann (GOD’S LITTLE ACRE/’58 and MEN IN WAR/’57) with CinemaScope color vistas that emphasize the harsh landscape. As the gang leader (and past mentor to Coop before he reformed), Lee J. Cobb shouts to beat the band, but the rest of the cast do well. Royal Dano is especially effective as a mute and a barely recognizable Jack Lord gets a real workout when he jumps Coop from behind. (Cooper uses a nasty looking downward jab that could really sting.) Julie London does what she can as an unemployed saloon singer, wedged in to add sex & jeopardy when she’s forced to put on a striptease, but the film’s main weak link is a by-the-numbers score from Leigh Harline. Largely, the film earns its growing reputation.

DOUBLE-BILL: Budd Boetticher’s THE TALL T/’57 pairs up nicely as a Western hostage drama, but why not go in a different direction with John Huston’s KEY LARGO/’48 to see how Eddie Robinson compares with Cobb as gang leader and how Claire Trevor turns a little song into an emotional striptease that bares a lot more than London pulls off.

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