' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Man of the West (1958)

Friday, March 26, 2021

Friday's Old Fashioned: Man of the West (1958)

“Man of the West” opens with Link Jones (Gary Cooper) boarding a train in Crosscut, Texas, intending to take it to Fort Worth to find a schoolteacher for his small community, Good Hope. He cuts a regal figure in his western bowtie; he’s Gary Cooper, after all. But in taking a seat on the train, he finds it is not quite built to accommodate a man of his size, forcing him to adjust and readjust, again and again, suddenly looking less like some stately figure than an Old West old-timer out of his element, like a big kid in a small desk, a chance for Cooper to play some physical comedy, bring himself down a peg or two. You laugh at him. It’s reminiscent of the scene 34 years later in “Unforgiven” when Clint Eastwood’s retired outlaw William Munny, getting back in the game, tries climbing aboard his horse and can’t do it, rendering a formerly frightful killer as a past-his-prime, pitiful old man. And just as the revisionist “Unforgiven” sought not only to take Munny on a journey to confront his past but to confront the myth of the western itself, epitomized in the dime store novelist skulking around the film’s edges, so too does Link come face-to-face with his past and the sort of myth that past engenders. It’s the conclusion, though, and the air of his leading man where Anthony Mann’s “Man of the West” slightly diverges. 

Link has a dark past, hinted at not just in a Marshal recognizing him before he boards the train but reaching for a gun, when the train stops for additional fuel and is attacked by robbers, that he doesn’t have, suggesting he has chosen to put weapons down. He escapes alive, but the train departs without him, and without the talkative con man Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London). Link leads them to a nearby farm, one where he lived years earlier, only to discover the train robbers using it as hideout. The leader of their gang, it turns out, is Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), Link’s Uncle and his former mentor, of sorts, and so the pieces of Link’s backstory fall into place. Once a killer and a thief in Dock’s company, Link has since gone straight, married and cleaned up his ways. What transpires, however, is not so much temptation as Link staying the course. In the company of such loutish men, he becomes Billie’s protector, though never a true love interest, staying faithful to his unseen spouse. No, “Man of the West” is more a tale of masculinity, the dolts under Dock’s command who feel emasculated by the sudden presence of Link, Dock’s own anger and insecurity at his nephew having jilted him in the first place, and Link having to navigate all this without losing his cool.

In playing the chief heavy, Cobb is not so much cunning, or even intimidating, as plain berserk, a man gone around the bed, existing only to provoke rather than profit. Duke is so off his rocker, in fact, that his cousin Claude (John Dehner), who shows up mid-movie, feels as much like the brains of the operation even if he is forced to walk on eggshells around Dock. He babies his ostensible boss while suspiciously eyeing Link, knowing they should cut this interloper loose but also knowing Duke would never allow it, a strange dance culminating in a would-be robbery in the mountain town of Lassoo. Though Dock makes this robbery sound like the score that will set him on the path to riches, there is something in Cobb’s tone that feels almost desperate, like he’s playing the part in the register of a a mad dictator or military commander still fighting battles long since lost, still charting troop movements that no longer exist. Indeed, when Link is sent ahead to Lassoo, he finds not a bustling community but a ghost town, save for a few stragglers, putting into perspective the emptiness of  Dock’s existence and the life Link left behind.

“Unforgiven” skewered myriad Western myths, many of which Eastwood himself fostered, seeing the outlaw as exhausted and minimized only to violently re-embrace the myth as it concluded, the scales of law and order tipped out of whack, painting the outlaw as the moral arbiter and the ostensible moral arbiter - Sheriff Little Bill - as venomous roadkill. Not that Eastwood entirely let his William Munny off the hook. When he memorably growls “We’ve all got it coming, kid”, he means himself too, the wickedness he professed to be cured of reclaiming him. It never reclaims Link. Dock may get his, and Sam the con man may get it too, taking a bullet that seems to settle his score with the cosmos, but Link goes back into his past and still manages to come out the other side. 

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