The Man from Laramie

In 1950 James Stewart and Anthony Mann embarked on a series of groundbreaking and influential westerns that would play a significant role in shaping the evolution of the genre. Mann’s visual and narrative sense, honed by years spent producing tight and economical noir thrillers, and the painful angst that Stewart seemed to tap effortlessly into following his wartime experiences combined to push the western in new and exciting directions. Within five years though, this rich partnership had run its course and both men would go their separate ways. The Man from Laramie (1955) was to be the last picture they completed together, and it both built upon and expanded on the themes explored in their earlier collaborations. All of Mann and Stewart’s films exhibit a powerful intensity in the characterization, but The Man from Laramie adds a touch of violent sadism to the mix to achieve an even more potent result.

Once again we have a saga of a man seeking revenge, recompense for a loss he has suffered at the hands of others. Will Lockhart (James Stewart) is the titular character, a man whose real background is only revealed gradually throughout the course of the story and never fully even by the end. He’s first seen hauling a load of freight from Laramie to the small town of Coronado, but a brief stop on the way lets us know that his real purpose is something else. This short, early scene is a fine example of how a skillful filmmaker can impart vital plot details economically and with resorting to dialogue-heavy exposition. We’re shown Lockhart wandering round the burnt out remains of an army patrol that was ambushed and massacred by the Apache. All this information is gleaned from the visual clues and the telling use of some music cues. The way Lockhart gazes wistfully at the charred hat of a fallen soldier makes it clear that the events which unfolded at that lonely spot have some deep, personal significance for him. In time, it’s revealed that Lockhart’s younger brother was among the slain, and his reason for coming to Coronado is to find the man or men who brought about his death by supplying the Apache with repeating rifles. Before he can make any progress with his investigation, he finds himself drawn into conflict with the most powerful man in the territory. An unexpected and violent encounter with Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), the petulant and vindictive son of a local rancher, appears to temporarily distract Lockhart from his primary goal. However, as he’s drawn deeper into the complex relationship between Dave, his father (Donald Crisp) and top hand Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy), it begins to dawn on Lockhart that this curious family arrangement may be connected to his own quest. Again in a 50s western, there’s an examination of the father/son dynamic and how men interact with other men. Alongside all this, there’s the inclusion of quasi-religious symbolism through the suffering and humiliation Lockhart has to endure – being bound and dragged through flames, and then the brutal mutilation of his hand that invokes overtones of crucifixion and the stigmata.

Philip Yordan and Frank Burt’s screenplay is beautifully constructed, with three strands playing out simultaneously and then folding neatly together to form the whole. Lockhart, Vic and Dave are all essentially men in search of some anchor in their existence, all homeless creatures to some extent. Lockhart never says where he comes from, claiming that home is wherever he finds himself; Vic has been taken in by old Alec Waggoman and treated like a surrogate son, but he’s aware that he’s an outsider and never quite comfortable or sure of his place in the world; and Dave is the overgrown boy who knows in his heart that he’s fallen far short of his tough father’s expectations. For both Lockhart and Vic, there appears to be the possibility of salvation or some grounding in the person of Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), but Dave is essentially a lost cause. These three also share a common character trait in that all of them are given to extremes of emotion under the right circumstances. At various times during the picture we get to see all of these men driven into situations where their balance is tested, and ultimately their ability or lack of it to rein in their feelings is the factor which will determine who emerges victorious.

Anthony Mann’s typical motifs are again in evidence in The Man from Laramie, particularly the idea of characters climbing and driving themselves to ever higher places. The structure of the movie follows this pattern, with the early scenes played out in the lowlands (especially the salt flats where Lockhart has his initial run in with Dave) before reaching its climax high among the barren rocks. Mann used this visual metaphor time and again to indicate both the struggle of his characters to reach up for something just beyond their grasp and to let the audience know when the point of redemption has been achieved. It also has the effect of distancing the men from the mundane, seeing them rise above the everyday concerns to do battle in lofty and remote locations. In fact, almost all the significant confrontations take place in isolated spots (the exception being the brawl in Coronado) which emphasises the private nature of their conflict. Mann, with cameraman Charles Lang, makes the most of both the New Mexico locations and the CinemaScope lens to blend character and landscape into a tough, lonely vision of the west. The only concessions to civilization come in the interior scenes in the homes of Barbara and Kate (Aline MacMahon), where the feminine influence softens the ruggedness that dominates elsewhere.

The Man from Laramie saw James Stewart taking another turn around the darker corners of his own personality. Where The Naked Spur had him portray a man filled with self-disgust at what he had become, this movie concentrates less on the negative aspects of the character. Lockhart is another lonely and driven figure but the anger and hatred that simmer just below the surface aren’t directed inwards. As such, this is a more straightforward and traditional characterization, albeit an especially intense one. The sudden outbursts of violence that punctuate the movie act as the trigger that sees Lockhart’s emotional balance tilted. I don’t know what demons Stewart let loose at these moments but the result is certainly mightily effective on film. There’s something quite startling about the way his eyes take on a desperate, maniacal cast and his voice fails him at these moments. In the middle of the brawl with Dave and later when his hand is mercilessly maimed, Stewart almost appears a man possessed. In contrast, Arthur Kennedy starts out as a much more composed character, tough but always in control. However, as the story progresses, and the pressure on all concerned mounts, cracks begin to appear too. Kennedy was playing a man who was much more self-absorbed than Lockhart, yet an equally volatile one given the right circumstances. He’s very good at channeling the kind of guilt and shifty paranoia that’s entirely appropriate for a character deeply uncertain about his position in life. No matter how many times I watch the film I can never make up my mind about Alex Nicol’s Dave. At times I feel he’s indulging in a piece of shouty overacting, and at others I’m convinced he’s really nailed the spoiled and perverse nature of his character – an odd yet interesting performance. Donald Crisp was a seasoned old pro who could handle a part like the aging and weakening Alec Waggoman in his sleep by this stage in his career. And now to the women in the movie: Aline MacMahon and Cathy O’Donnell. The former takes on the maternal duties in the film, ministering to men who have been damaged both physically and psychologically. O’Donnell, on the other hand, represents what would normally be termed the love interest, but this isn’t much of a romance. The only love that’s on view is the rough paternal kind that has warped both Vic and Dave. I think the roles of both MacMahon and O’Donnell, whose spinster lifestyles mirror each other, exist mainly to emphasise the emptiness of lives wasted waiting on men who are unattainable.

The UK DVD of The Man from Laramie from Columbia/Sony has been on the market for a long time now. The movie is presented in anamorphic scope and it’s a reasonable enough transfer, but a revisit wouldn’t hurt as I feel the colour can be a little inconsistent at times. The film saw Stewart and Mann’s partnership end on a high note and it’s one of the best of their collaborations. Some may claim it is their strongest work together, but I’m undecided. I still feel that The Naked Spur is difficult to surpass – it’s a tighter story, smaller and more self-contained, with greater depth and realism to Stewart’s character. Nevertheless, The Man from Laramie remains one of the great westerns to come out in the 50s and it’s capable of standing shoulder to shoulder with any of its rivals. It’s a fantastic piece of work, rich in drama and complexity, that never loses its appeal and encourages analysis. Very highly recommended.