OEDIPUS WEST: THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955)

June 17, 2014

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The five Westerns that Jimmy Stewart made for director Anthony Mann proceed with the inexorable grim fates of Greek tragedy. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, circles around the perverse machinations of the Waggoman family, rich ranch owners who are overflowing with cattle and Oedipal anxieties. Stewart is the rootless antagonist who triggers their fears into violence. These are characters weighted with symbolic significance, from the blinded patriarch to his spoiled, elaborately dressed son, but the film never sinks under that weight. Mann’s widescreen cinematography of the parched New Mexico desert keeps nature in balance with the corroded psyches of his protagonists. The West is not an expressionist tool for Mann, but a hard reality that is irreducible to his film’s characters. As Andre Bazin wrote in his 1956 review of The Man From Laramie, “when his camera pans, it breathes.” This breathing is made visible in the superb limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, remastered from the original negative in a 4K scan, and presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio for the first time on home video. It’s available exclusively through Screen Archives.

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Anthony Mann and his screenwriter Philip Yordan were very consciously going after mythic resonances in their Westerns together. Yordan said he was trying to, “find again the purities of heroes of ancient tragedies, of Greek tragedies, and on this I was in perfect agreement with Anthony Mann.” Adapted from Thomas T. Flynn’s 1954 novel by Yordan and Frank Burt,  The Man From Laramie circulates around the Waggoman family, a doomed gene pool overflowing with hubris. Patriarch Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) is an aging dictatorial ranch owner, one who built up his land through intimidation, but now desires a life of quietude. His son Dave (Alex Nicol) denies him any peace, a short-fused man-child decked out in leather fringe who lashes out against any perceived slight. Dave is Alec’s sole heir, while it is Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) who in actuality manages the ranch, keeping Dave out of scrapes and hoping for a large slice of inheritance himself. When Will Lockhart (Stewart) rolls into town, all of the festering insecurities of the Waggoman family ooze into the open. Lockhart comes from his own broken home on a mission of vengeance – seeking the man who sold repeating rifles to the Apache, rifles that gunned down his Army cavalry brother.

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Lockhart’s presence activates the Waggoman’s pre-ordained doom, foretold in one of Alec’s dreams, in which a tall slender man kills his son and destroys his family. As in Oedipus Rex, Alec misreads the symbolism of the dream, and suffers his inevitable fate. The family atmosphere is suffocating, but the world of the CinemaScope frame is airy and free. Lockhart is introduced  in a long shot in the desert, traveling from left to right in the frame, pausing to peer at the horizon. He appears as if he is the traditional Western hero, exerting his will over the land. But as the narrative will prove, no one has control other than the fates, and nature rolls along on its own, indifferent to the violence executed amid its beauty. Bazin again:

In most Westerns, even in the best ones like Ford’s, the landscape is an expressionist framework where human trajectories come to make their mark. It Anthony Mann it is an atmosphere. Air itself is not separate from earth and water. Like Cezanne, who wanted to paint it, Anthony Mann wants us to feel aerial space, not like a geometric container, a vacuum from one horizon to the other, but like the concrete quality of space. When his camera pans, it breathes.

Humanity’s imprint on the land is transient. In the opening, Lockhart finds scraps of his brother’s cavalry troop, bits of torched wagon wheel and army uniform. All signs of life have been effaced, and soon there will be nothing. The same can be said for Waggoman’s ranch, Alec’s gesture towards permanence threatened with extinction thanks to Dave and Vic’s rivalry for Alec’s affections.

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As the film’s instigating force, Lockhart is a man of abiding hatred. As his old coot sidekick will tell him, “hate’s unbecoming on a man like you. On some people it shows.” While Mann prefers to depict the arid landscape in long shot, his few close-ups are used to emphasize Lockhart’s humiliation. In the inciting act, Dave Waggoman orders Lockhart to be tied up and dragged through a fire. Jimmy Stewart’s face turns into an agonized rictus, his voice a swallowed down yelp. The Man From Laramie is a brutally violent film, and Mann claims to have pushed the Stewart and his character to his limit:  “That [film] distilled our relationship. I reprised themes and situations by pushing them to their paroxysms. So the band of cowboys surround Jimmy and rope him as they did before in Bend of the River, but here I shot him through the hand!.” The Man From Laramie is a gorgeous paroxysm, one that depicts suffocating, doomed intimacy in the open air. It features one of Stewart’s finest performances, pitched between his natural gentle demeanor, seen in his guarded flirtation with the Waggoman niece (Cathy O’Donnell), and  blinkered, self-destructive rage, whenever his physical boundaries are violated. He is a docile animal except when cornered, when he attempts to carve his own fate out of others’ flesh.

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