The last film that Marilyn Monroe fully completed also turned out to be Clark Gable’s swan song: John Huston’s The Misfits (1961). A troubled production expressly penned by Monroe’s husband, Arthur Miller for his wife, it began with high expectations that quickly degenerated into abject chaos. Monroe, who had greatly admired Gable as an actor, quickly incurred her idol’s wrath while testing his patience with her many delays and absences from the set. After Gable suffered his fatal heart attack there were those who quietly blamed the strain of working with Monroe as its cause. In hindsight, The Misfits seems a terrible idea – not from a narrative perspective – but from a casting standpoint. Monroe’s emotional state was imploding even before production began; her constant need for affirmation and chronic abuse of alcohol and sleeping pills adding toxicity to her already fragile ego. Montgomery Clift was battling his own demons exacerbated by a severe dependency on painkillers; his means of coping with the loss of his good looks after a near fatal car accident in 1956.
Daily, there were problems on the set, from Monroe’s frequent inability to coax herself out of her dressing room to Clift’s outbursts that materialized in the form of drug-induced temper tantrums. Gable was caught in the middle. A no nonsense guy committed to his work, he frequently relayed his mounting displeasure to Huston who had to agree that the project was fast becoming a frenzy he only hoped to survive. In the middle of the shoot, Huston effectively shut down production for two weeks to send Monroe to detox, resulting in a painful withdrawal that made her even more unmanageable upon her return.
Everyone’s distemper was aggravated by the intense 108 degree heat in the Nevada desert. And Huston threw in his own lot into these disappointments when his mounting gambling debts forced United Artists to cover his tab. Worse, Huston and Miller severely clashed over the script that Huston eventually rewrote to his own liking much to Miller’s chagrin. The film effectively killed Monroe’s marriage to Miller and was box office flop when it premiered – a strange and sad pity, since The Misfits is a rather interesting and often underrated intense drama about flawed human beings. In this regard, The Misfits is most definitely appropriately cast.
We begin in Reno with the finalization of a divorce between Roslyn Tabour (Monroe) and her husband Raymond (Kevin McCarthy). Ros’ is rooming with feisty Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter); a devil-may-care matriarch who’s recently broken her arm. Guido (Eli Wallach), a garage mechanic with a roving eye, is first introduced to this Mutt and Jeff pair when he is called in for an appraisal on Ros’ new car, severely dented on the driver’s side. Guido takes an immediate, though unrequited, shine to Ros’. He also makes the big mistake of introducing Ros’ and Isabelle to his good buddy, Gay Langland (Clark Gable) – a rough around the edges middle-age cowboy who’s retained his buckin’ bronco good looks and still has an eye for the ladies.
Gay and Guido invite Ros’ and Isabelle to Guido’s house in the country; actually a shack set against a mostly barren landscape that has been left unfinished ever since Guido’s wife died in childbirth. The foursome throws a pity party with some heavy boozing. Gay decides to take Ros’ home to sleep it off. He confides in her that he has hardly been an exemplary father to his children from a previous marriage and she sympathizes with his desire to re-establish a bond with them. The next day Gay and Ros’ return to Guido’s shack and begin to fix it up. Ros’ is horrified when Gay kills a rabbit that’s been eating from their garden. When Isabelle and Guido show up, Gay suggests that they might raise some money by capturing wild mustangs to sell.
The job, however, will require an extra pair of hands belonging to Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift); a washed up, penniless would-be rodeo star and personal friend of Gay’s, who is desperate to compete once again. Gay pays for Perce’s registration in the rodeo, knowing that he has just thrown away his money. Perce is a broken man, his thirst for competition unequalled by his abilities. As if to reiterate the point, Perce rides a wild buck, but is thrown from his mount in a most unglamorous middle-age sprawl. Sympathetic, Ros’ urges Perce to go to hospital. Instead, he advances to the bullpen where he is thrown again, this time suffering a concussion.
Still playing the part of the he-man, Perce ignores his injuries. He takes Ros’ dancing at a rowdy nightclub with Gay, Isabelle and Guido, but passes out in her arms in a back alley. Terrified and saddened Ros’ weeps over his body. Her tears revive him and Perce confides a sad little truth about his own life; that no one ever loved him enough to genuinely feel his pain. He tells Ros’ that his mother betrayed his late father’s wishes to leave him their ranch after she remarried.
A slovenly and intoxicated Gay bursts in on the scene, dragging Ros’ inside the club to meet his adult children who just happen to be inside. However, upon returning to their table Gay finds that his children have already left – apparently embarrassed at having run into him. His pride wounded, Gay makes a public spectacle of himself inside the club. Ros’ leaves with Guido, Isabelle and Perce. Guido inquires whether she has broken off with Gay for good and even offers to take Gay’s place.
Back at Guido’s house Perce awakens and begins to tear at his bandages. With great compassion, Ros’ convinces him to settle down before gingerly putting him to bed. Afterward, Gay – still very drunk but now rather contrite - confronts Ros’ with a sheepish apology. He asks if a woman like her would ever consider having a child with a man like him. Understandably surprised and confused, Ros’ skirts the issue and Gay, assuming her evasiveness to be outright rejection, decides to go to bed.
The next afternoon, Gay, Guido and Perce set out to catch some mustangs. The men’s brutal wrangling manages to corral a stud and four mares. Ros’s reluctance at observing their capture turns to horror when she learns that these vibrant animals are to be sold for dog food. She tells Gay she did not expect to fall for a killer and pleads with him to set them free. Gay refuses. Guido tells Ros’ he will do as she asks if she agrees to be his woman. Disgusted by the quid pro quo offer Ros’ rebukes Guido. Perce, who is genuinely compassionate, offers to release the horses. But Ros’ declines, afraid that his actions will result in a confrontation between him and Gay. Undaunted, Perce unties the horses. They waste no time in running wild. Gay pursues the stallion and manages to subdue him but then decides to let it go.
He tells Ros’ that he didn’t want anyone to make up his mind. But his actions have spoken louder than his words and Ros’ willingly takes her place alongside him in the cabin of his truck. As the two drive away under a starlit canopy, Ros’ reveals that she would have his child, so long as someone is around to ensure it grows up with a genuine sense of humanity.
In hindsight, it’s easy to see why The Misfits tanked at the box office. The film’s downtrodden themes of human corruption and betrayal, typified in the story’s climactic capture and release of the mustangs, seem grossly at odds with the moralizing tenor of the late 1950s. And while counterculture would come to dominate 60s cinema throughout the latter half of the decade, the complete annihilation of sweetness and light in American movies did not occur until well into the 1970s, ergo, The Misfits was a film perhaps ahead of its time and very much out of step with then current audience’s expectations.
The Misfits also takes three of Hollywood’s biggest stars – Gable, Monroe and Clift – and turns their iconography asunder. Gable’s magnetically rakish persona is remade into a brutish, often socially repugnant antihero. And while Gable acquits himself quite nicely of this refurbishment, his star power isn’t enough to convince the audience that he’s only fooling around – that, somewhere beneath his disreputable Gay there still lurks the old Clark we’ve all come to know and love.
The same is true for Monroe and Clift. Arguably, Clift’s greatest strength as an actor was always in being able to retain an air of masculinity while playing morally ambiguous and fundamentally flawed heroes like George Eastman in A Place in the Sun (1951) or Father Michael Logan in I Confess (1953). But these films had the benefit of Clift’s own inner confidence. This was destroyed along with his face in the 1956 auto accident. Without that inner glow of male bravado Clift’s performance in The Misfits becomes that of an utterly catastrophic, somewhat emasculated, lost and very haunted soul His lasting impression on the audience is more pathetic than sympathetic.
As for Monroe, she eschews all sense of glamour – the one immediately identifiable hallmark associated with her usual on screen charm. Worse, her years of alcohol and pill abuse are apparent in the way she looks on camera. Does this make her more ‘real’ in the part of Ros’? Arguably, yes. But she is still Marilyn Monroe - suddenly at odds with our expectations – the worst kind of conflict any actor can have and a real uphill climb for Monroe, who has to double her efforts to alter that perception for the film’s benefit. Monroe’s Ros’ never scales such heights. Instead, and perhaps even more so in hindsight, we see the glaring cracks in her own paper thin ego. She’s exposing too much of her inner demons in service of the character and it serves neither the actress nor her alter ego well.
Don’t get me wrong – I genuinely enjoyed The Misfits. But in hindsight at least its unerringly bleak outlook on life in general seems a bitter brew of obvious reflections on Miller’s part, shaped by his divorce from Monroe. (Miller would marry staff photographer Inge Morath shortly after the film’s completion). Knowing that Monroe would be dead within a year following The Misfits premiere undoubtedly also coloured my viewing of the film. Although she embarked upon the filming of a frothy screwball comedy, Something’s Gotta Give, this was never completed before than untimely end – and until recently, shelved and never seen in its fragmented form, leaving The Misfits as Monroe’s final cinematic legacy to the world. It’s a dower note, and one that foreshadows the heartbreaking finale of a most unhappy life.
MGM/Fox Home Video offers us a mostly satisfactory 1080p transfer. There are instances where the B&W transfer seems slightly off – a hint of blurriness or out of focus quality that I’m fairly certain the original elements did not contain. Troublesome, but overall, it doesn’t last very long, so negligible at best. The image is at last properly framed in 1:66.1 and enhanced for widescreen monitors so good news there. Film grain is naturally reproduced and contrast seems solid. The audio is mono DTS but very accurately rendered. There are no extras, and that’s a shame.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)