' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Man from Laramie (1955)

Friday, October 25, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Man from Laramie (1955)

Throughout “The Man from Laramie”, director Anthony Mann juxtaposes widescreen, Technicolor vistas of the Old West, frequently with a lone man under the big sky or disappearing between craggy rocks, against just as wide interiors of hearth and home, where characters line up in expert bouts of blocking. These contrasts are not new, the latter typically epitomizing a sense of community and camaraderie and family that the lone lonesome cowboys inhabiting the former yearn for and, eventually, find, redeemed of their wicked companionlessness (sic). And though Mann allows his lone lonesome cowboy, Will Lockhart (James Stewart), brief moments of rapport, like sitting down to tea with Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), the storeminder he has just met, the auteur’s viewpoints surprise, ultimately painting a much more cynical picture than such community-mindedness is supposed to engendervalues, and which must have felt like a punch to the face of the Eisenhower era’s values. Indeed, if Will’s arrival into the movie’s setting sets things in motion, the seeds, as he notes, have long since been planted, insidiously turning that familiar metaphor for family on its head.

Ex-Army man is transporting supplies from Laramie to Coronado as the movie opens, though his underlying motivation skews a little more personal – that is, he seeks the dastardly soul who sold rifles to the Apaches who killed his brother and members of a Calvary regiment. Though this does not devolve into a clichéd rerun of Cowboys & Indians, with the Apaches mostly hovering on the periphery of the story, it nevertheless comes across as a disappointing archetype in a movie otherwise trying to bust them, not even reduced to savages so much as given no voice, employed as a device. The family dominating Coronado, however, ruled by patriarch Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), Barbara’s Uncle, is rendered as more than a one-dimensional villain, Lear-like, both kowtowing to a hot-headed son, Dave (Alex Nicol), he knows isn’t cut out to take over the operation but also not willing to acknowledge that his surrogate son, Vic (Arthur Kennedy), is just that, binding Alec to blood even as it threatens to do him in, evoked not just in his recurring nightmare of a mystery man coming to kill his son but in his blindness, perhaps a metaphor too far.

It is Dave who drags Will into the fray, raiding the latter’s caravan on the way out of town, wrongly thinking this interloper a thief, having only taken supplies at Barbara’s behest. If this arouses suspicion that Dave might be the rifle-seller, or merely good old fashioned male orneriness, well, Stewart essentially plays to both, emitting the same sort of immovable defiance the Waggoman family did in erecting this New Mexico Territory outpost by marching right back in. It’s a classic Western scene, the lone lonesome cowboy entering the corrupt town to make things right, though the ensuing sequence, a fistfight between Will and Dave, and eventually Vic too, feels less standard-issue than a majestic mess, rolling around on the ground and right underneath cattle, crashing through fences and gathering dust, looking almost like a precursor to “They Live’s” trash can brawl, never-ending verité, where rather than refusing to put on sunglasses, Will flat refuses to leave Coronado.

You see this steadfastness in a sequence when Alec offers restitution to Will for what Dave has destroyed, asking this out-of-towner if they might both be willing to bend. Mann positions this shot with Alec standing and Will sitting, though, Stewart, tilting his blue eyes upward and letting a pernicious smile curl onto his lips, commands the moment anyway, pointing out the irreconcilable differences in their personalities and demanding “Just where do we bend?”, bending the word itself, brilliantly, like a deliberately dissonant guitar chord. It is my retoractive 1955 Line Reading of the Year. His performance is much more polite in the company of Barbara, and that’s all Will’s scenes with Barbara are – polite, never generating much in the way of romantic spark. In a way, though, that plays right into the end. Will might well find his revenge and ultimately the scales might tip toward justice, but when Will rides away, Mann is taking that traditional shot and twisting it inside-out, someone who has come to learn that family and fellowship is not all it’s cracked up to be.

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