' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Misfits

Friday, February 10, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Misfits

This 1960 film is, above all else, probably most famous as being the final film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe who, eerily enough, share the film's final scene together with her wondering "How do you find your way back in the dark?" and him replying "Just head for that big star straight on...it'll take us right home." Two days later Gable had a heart attack, eight days after that he was dead, and a year later Monroe was dead from an overdose. Like I said, eerie.

The film was written by Arthur Miller specifically to be a vehicle to show off the dramatic chops of his wife, Ms. Monroe, but by the time filming commenced their romance had spiraled into an all-out war careening for divorce that permeated the set. The maverick John Huston directed and was supposedly as interested in gambling during the shoot as shooting. A pain and drug-riddled Montgomery Clift co-starred and while he still had a couple more films in the tank he was in the words of Monroe "the only person I know who's in worse shape than I am." It's a miracle then that "The Misfits" not only was completed but that in spite of some rather glaring flaws it still manages to capture something very beautiful and essential amidst the insane chaos of its creation. In fact, I dare say the chaos of its making contributed to making its best qualities stand out.

Monroe is Roslyn, living in Reno, not unlike Fozzie Bear, fresh off a divorce ("If I'm going to be alone I want to be by myself"), when she and her pal Isabelle (Thelma Ritter) encounter a couple cowboys, Gay (Gable) and Guido (Eli Wallach). They like whiskey, free-living, mustanging, and what they decidedly don't like is "working for wages." They have a ranch out in the country and invite the ladies along.

Roslyn: "Once I walked to the edge of town. Doesn't look like much out there."
Gay: "Everything's there!"
Roslyn: "Well, what do you do with yourself?"
Gay: "Just live."

This is the prevalent theme of this band of Misfits - adhering to a life code ("better than wages") but ultimately realizing this code may have done them in. A particularly startling sequence shows a drunk Gay at the rodeo attempting to introduce Roslyn to his two grown children only to realize his two children have fled the premises on account of his drunkeness. He calls out for them. They don't respond. We never see these children, of course, they are only referenced. His way of life has caused his ceaseless ignoring of his own flesh and blood. Guido had a wife, too, but she is long since gone. And Perce (Clift), the rodeo rider that joins their gang, is a broken down soul that seems all too enamored with the inevitable beatings he takes from bucking broncos, as if he deserves them, getting thrown to the dirt with a concussion and then saddling right back up soon afterwards.

Eventually the direction of their lives will be crystallized symbolically when they take to the mountains to dramatically round up 15 Nevada mustangs to sell them off to be turned into dog food. Seeing these sleek creatures tied up and held down much in the same way a payer of the wages would do to them, they understand the wickedness of their particular cowboy ways and at the very risk of their livelihood must set them free. Gay knows the score. He says: "It's like roping a dream now. I just gotta find another way to be alive, that's all. If there is one anymore."

All the men, as men are wont to do, seek solace in the lady, taking turns falling in love with her, though she primarily only reciprocates that love with Gay, most likely because he was, you know, played by Gable. But she's a delicate flower (read: minor to moderate headcase) and the cruelty these cowboys display toward innocent animals set her off. One of the sequences intended to be a show-stopper for Marilyn The Actress involves her breaking down in the midst of the desert when she learns what will become of the mustangs. It is done in an extreme long shot and one has to wonder if this was intended by Huston or if it was used in the end to disguise its weakness. Marilyn The Actress is adequate, though sometimes less, and often you can see her straining to act. Then again, Marilyn - just Marilyn - turns up now and again when she stops all the exertion and simply exists before the camera, and when she does......oh, dear reader, she makes Michelle Williams look like a cut-rate imposter panhandling in the alley. Did she steal scenes because she didn't realize she was stealing them or was she so crafty she stole them while appearing to not know she was stealing them? It's an answer we'll never receive, and I prefer that way.

The film takes its cues from that Marilyn, which is to say it is flawed - particularly in a too long second act that hits a wall and trips me up every time - but rising above those flaws in many ways because of the baggage brought to the project by its stars and because of the many stories that surround its troubled filming. I don't know if it's quite right to judge a film based on its ju-ju but occasionally cinema transcends the rules of criticism.

A few Hollywood misfits gathered together to make a movie about a few "Misfits" making one last defiant stand before their walls came tumbling down. And there's something terrifically, terribly poetic about it.


The Fab Miss B said...

I watched this film a long time ago when I was reading and watching everything I could about Miss Monroe and I agree about the second act- I remember it dragging like nobody's business. Perhaps I need to give it another viewing. She really had that luminosity, and perhaps it was because of all the cracks that we got such a good look at it from time to time.

Nick Prigge said...

Even on another viewing the second act will drag. But it'll surprise you! You will be watching and thinking, "Man, this movie's great. Why do I always forget about it?" And then the second act will start dragging and then you will remember but then the end will still be so powerful you will want to watch again. It's all so confusing.

Andrew K. said...

I have never seen this one, perhaps because I don't go wild for Monroe or Gable. In fact, as an actor I'm somewhat bored by Gable to the point of vague dislike, so bizarre...but then, considering me - perhaps not.

Nick Prigge said...

I recorded this off Turner Classic Movies and they had a little intro where Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin were talking about the film Baldwin said how he thought having to act opposite Monroe and Clift brought out Gable's most Method-y performance.

Personally, I didn't see it. I saw the same Gable I always see, just getting by on that smile and that charm. Which I like in some things, but not everything.