Thursday, July 10, 2014

THE MAN FROM LARAMIE: Blu-ray (Columbia 1955) Twilight Time

The careers of director, Anthony Mann and James Stewart were greatly enhanced by their mutual alliance in the western milieu; Mann’s unrelenting thirst for the exploration of a man’s true merit and the testing of the limits of his soul in these seemingly godless wide-open spaces, ideally married to Stewart’s emeritus introspection as an actor. MGM had perpetually cast Stewart as something of the milquetoast male ingénue; a la the likes of their own Robert Young and Robert Montgomery. And while a few of the movies James Stewart made at MGM have retained their luster over the years (1939’s The Shop Around the Corner and 1940’s The Philadelphia Story immediately come to mind); none strain the boundaries of his acting prowess.
But by the mid-1950’s, James Stewart had begun to accrue an impressive array of psychologically darker portraits, bringing his trademarked brand of the ‘aw shucks’ mid-western everyman forward and down a peg or two from the congenial good-time Charlie of his youth. Arguably, there had always been something unsettling about Stewart, a flinch of the eye or quiver in the voice; cracks in this quiet man on the edge of desperation, despite the surface appeal of his undeniably fresh-faced good looks. After WWII (in which Stewart fought like hell to enlist and distinguished himself as a Lieutenant in the Air Corps) the overall tenor of his acting, began to ripen. Although regarded as a classic today, 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life was a financial failure. Ultimately, however, Stewart’s characterization of George Bailey caught Anthony Mann’s interests.
On the surface, it really does seem like an ill-fit; the good-natured everyman meets the purveyor of gripping/gritty film noirs and lust in the dust/gun-blazing westerns. Ah, but the art these polar opposites wrought together remains unparalleled. There’s little to deny the rapid succession of Mann/Stewart collaborations helped to mature the Hollywood western; beginning with 1950’s Winchester ’73 and culminating with The Man from Laramie (1955); crystalizing the iconic image of the saddle-bag and sagebrush loner typified in the John Ford/John Wayne classic, The Searchers (1956). In retrospect, Mann is probably the only director able to rival Ford in the western; perhaps, even to bypass his reputation on occasion. And in James Stewart, Mann has one of the greatest all-around talents. While Stewart undeniably used the Mann movies to reshape his public image, Mann exploits Stewart’s ensconced traits to deliver into our hands a spellbinding narrative complexity. Between these bookends, Mann and Stewart contributed three more classics to this fertile and deeply satisfying body of work: Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953) and The Far Country (1954). By the time we get to The Man from Laramie, Stewart is decidedly older and looking weather-beaten and embittered. There’s an edge to Stewart’s Will Lockhart; an air of mystery, danger and yes - even decay and death.  
Mann and Stewart make magic from Thomas T. Flynn’s classic story, first serialized in the Saturday Evening Post and adapted for the screen by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt. Like all Mann’s movies, The Man from Laramie seeks to deepen our understanding of the more corrosive aspects of human sacrifice: greed, lust and betrayal; the wounding and rebuilding of the male ego, and, the penultimate loss of self in trade for the superficial gains of avarice-driven prosperity.  It ought to be pointed out Anthony Mann was never principally interested in what drives a narrative ahead; only in the nefarious inner workings of the mind that pit men against each other, forcing the various situations on to their inevitable conclusion. 
At 102 minutes, The Man from Laramie combines Mann’s verve for desolate western landscapes with atmospheric touches that hark back to his other great love - the noir thriller; Stewart, quite superb as the undercover Cavalry officer, blindly obsessed with discovering the identity of the man who sold repeating rifles to the Apaches. Stewart and Mann permeate The Man from Laramie with almost Shakespearean undertones; the stage set for a master class in high stakes drama, intermittently peppered with scenes of excruciating (and thinly veiled, homoerotic) masochism. The mutilation of hands at the point of a gun, as example, attests to another subtext: to gleefully maim and/or cripple a man’s dignity by virtual emasculation. Needless to say, such transparent references seem to have sailed right over the heads of Hollywood’s governing board of censorship. Mann’s psychological complexity is almost Hitchcockian (perhaps not surprising, coming as it did on the heels of James Stewart’s first for Hitchcock - Rear Window).
Mann also uses settings as a tertiary character; the Adobe village and sprawling estate of the Waggomans, the cramped mercantile trading outpost of Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell) – even the darkly lit and claustrophobic jail cell Will momentarily finds himself in after an intensely violent confrontation with the Waggoman’s fair-haired, though decidedly psychotic heir apparent, Dave (Alex Nicol) and the unscrupulous, Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy); all of these are oppressively atmospheric, lensed with moody magnificence by cameraman extraordinaire, Charles Lang. Mann doesn’t draw undue attention to these sets per say, only in how best to exploit them as part of his heightened and impressionistic emotional conflicts brewing from within; advancing and elevating the overall tenor of each character’s thought processes.  
After its main title sequence, featuring the Lester Lee/ Ned Washington’s forlorn choral-sung title track, The Man from Laramie settles on New Mexico’s stark and petrified natural beauty; Will Lockhart and his wagon-train master, Charley O’Leary (Wallace Ford) leading their team of mules, supplies and hired men (Jack Carry, Bill Catching, Mule Driver, Frank Cordell, Frosty Royce) toward Coronado; a spec on the map of this vast wilderness.  Along their route, Will stops at Duck Creek, taking notice of an ominous precursor; the charred remains of a cavalry regiment decimated by the marauding Apaches. We quickly learn Will’s journey is predicated on more than just seeing these supplies through to the modest mercantile outpost run by Barbara Waggoman. In fact, he’s come to avenge the death of his younger brother killed in this slaughter.
Will meets Barbara under the watchful eye of her hired man, Frank Darrah (John War Eagle); the placid proprietress encouraging him to stay for a cup of tea. Will is fairly transparent in his mission, taking notice of the repeating rifle hanging on the wall of the mercantile shop and asking probing questions Barbara is only too willing to answer. It must be a clear conscience. Or is it? For upon unloading his payload, Barbara suggests Will might wish to turn a tidy profit by loading his empty wagons with salt from the nearby flats. Regrettably, the salt is near Apache country. It’s also on property belonging to her uncle; the sage, but formidable Alec Waggoman (played to perfection by consummate character actor, Donald Crisp; my father’s favorite and whom I readily adore). Will and his men are about to learn what it means to be the unwelcomed in a town dominated by one family.
Alec’s son, Dave is a loathsome hothead, deriving a nauseous pleasure from the opportunity to make an example of Will in front of his men. Dave has one of his posse lasso Will, dragging him a few feet in the dust; ordering Will at gunpoint while his wagon train is torched and his mules ruthlessly butchered. Vic Hasbro arrives; already too late to spare Will this humiliation. As Alec’s hired man, Vic has been assigned to watch over Dave; that he doesn’t get into any trouble. It’s a full time gig and one for which Vic expects to someday be handsomely paid by inheriting half the Waggoman estate. After Vic momentarily diffuses the situation and sends Dave and his posse on their way, Will pays off his loyal men. Only Charlie elects to stay behind. Half Apache/half Irish, Charlie tells Will he intends to make inquiries among the tribe as to the identity of the man who sold them their repeating rifles. Give him time: he’ll report back to Will as soon as he can. When Will asks Charlie the reason for his enduring concern and companionship, Charlie reiterates his respect and admiration for Will. He also recognizes him as a cavalry officer; an identity Will had hoped to conceal. 
Returning to Coronado, Will observes the Waggomans rounding up their cattle. With daggers of revenge firmly imbedded in his heart, Will seizes the opportunity for a rematch with Dave; carpet-hauling him off his horse and knocking him into a nearby water trough before being challenged by Vic; the two brawling in the midst of these startled cattle until Alec arrives to break up their fight. Will explains the situation, barely able to contain his vitriol.  Alec sternly agrees to pay for Will’s damages, inviting him to come up to the house later that afternoon. All this greatly amuses rancher, Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon) who tells Alec “He just gave ‘em what you ought to!” Canady invites Will to ride with her. And although he politely refuses at first, she goads him into getting his mule and returning to her cattle ranch – the Half-Moon. Chris Boldt (Jack Elam), a local, tells Will, “Alec won’t like it” but Will, either out of sheer defiance or merely to prove his point, never to be intimidated again, glibly declares, “Yeah, I figured as much!” before riding off with Canady.  
At the crux of The Man from Laramie is an intriguing mystery; Boldt keeping a keen eye on Will’s comings and goings. Arriving at the Half-Moon, Canady makes her intentions known: she needs a gunman and ranch-hand to keep her cattle protected from Alec’s men. Hers is the only parcel of land not owned or controlled by the Waggomans. Although Will has come to respect Canady for her fairness and honesty, he refuses her offer. Wisely, she gets to the true purpose of Will’s visit; to murder the man who sold rifles to the Apaches. Will is humbled by her directness, though uncompromising in his plans. A short while later, Will and Charlie meet up. Charlie explains he found the atmosphere brewing inside the Apache enclave hostile. Charlie also points out Will is being tailed, Will ordering his loyal companion back into town while he leads the mysterious stranger further into the dessert.
Hiding under the rocks, Will awaits this spy at gunpoint, discovering it is none other than Chris Boldt. Chris is the devious sort, refusing to give up the name of the person who sent him. Will lets Chris go with a warning, never to follow him anywhere again. That evening, Will crashes a Pueblo wedding attended by Vic and Barbara, the pair obviously in love and planning their own nuptials at the earliest possible convenience. Barbara later forewarns her beloved. Her uncle is not a man of his word. But Vic promises Barbara he will make Alec give him half the Waggoman estate: a handsome dowry indeed. On route to his rented room, Will is assaulted by Chris Boldt, who leaps from a nearby roof and attempts, unsuccessfully, to plunge a rather large dagger into his chest. Will fends Boldt off. He flees into the night and down a dark alley, the assault observed by another shadowy figure – presumably, Frank – who disappears before Will can pursue him.
Returning to Canady’s ranch, Will is arrested by the sheriff, Tom Quigby (James Millican) for Boldt’s murder – his body discovered in the same alley early the next morning. Will attempts to explain but it makes no difference. The law is in Waggoman’s pocket. It’s a setup, of course, and Will is carted off to jail. To be sure, no trial – fair or otherwise – is planned; Alec visiting Will in his cell, reiterating his strong desire for Will to leave Coronado at the earliest possible instance. When Will presses Alec on his reasons, Alec becomes unusually forthcoming; sharing a reoccurring nightmare about a tall stranger who has come to kill his only son. Will is sympathetic to the old man’s vision; although unwilling to believe it enough to get out of town. After Alec has left him, Will is visited by Kate Canady who makes him a better bargain – actually, the same one as before. She’ll spring him from jail - but only if he agrees to work her ranch. Under duress, and desiring his freedom, Will reluctantly agrees.
His first assignment for Canady is to separate her cattle from the free-roaming Waggoman livestock, lest they are taken over by Dave and his men, rebranded with the family’s logo instead. However, in dispatching his duty, Will is confronted by Dave once more; the two engaging in a shootout ending only after Will manages to wound Dave by shooting the gun from his hand. As retribution, Dave orders his men to hold Will down. Dave cold-bloodedly pumps a bullet into Will’s open palm using his own gun. The men in Dave’s posse are decidedly ashamed. Dave is psychotic, also a coward; unable to inflict such torture without their complicity.
Back at the ranch, Canady expertly binds Will’s wound with Barbara’s help. Will is now more determined than ever to find the man who sold the Apache their rifles. When news of Dave’s wickedness reaches Alec’s ear, he attempts to reason with his vane and belligerent son. It’s no use. The boy is spoiled and uncompromising. Taking Vic into the next room, Alec confides he is going blind; his advanced condition leading to a complete loss of sight within six months to a year. Alec sincerely pleads with Vic to look after Dave; a bond of loyalty soon tested in other ways. Impatient for his father’s inheritance, and considering Vic an interloper besides, Dave decides to turn the bloodthirsty wrath of the Apaches on Will by trading the rest of his consignment of rifles hidden high in the mountains. Vic intercedes and attempts to reason with Dave. The Apaches will not stop once they have the rifles. In fact, they’ll likely overrun Coronado and kill everyone, including the Waggomans. Dave won’t listen to reason, however, and in a heated exchange, Vic shoots Dave dead; blaming the murder on Will.
Alec takes off on horseback to the Half-Moon, determined to avenge his son by killing Will. However, in his advanced state of blindness, he can only take pot shots, his aim so poor Will is able to get close enough and knock Alec off his horse without wounding anything more than his pride. On a hunch, Alec vows to discover Dave’s hidden stockpile of weaponry. Vic repeatedly pleads with Alec to set aside his search. But Alec concedes if his suspicions are realized he will renounce Dave. Since Vic was also in on Dave’s initial plan to trade with the Apaches, he is more determined than ever to keep Alec from discovering their hidden wagon; inadvertently knocking the old man off his horse and down a very steep precipice. A short while later, Will discovers Alec lying unconscious in the ravine. Will takes Alec to Canady’s ranch where he is attended to by Dr. Selden (Eddie Waller); Canady and Will informed by Selden that even if Alec regains consciousness he will be permanently blind.
Canady confides in Will. She has always loved Alec Waggoman, whom she had hoped to marry in her long ago youth. Alas, it all seems like a bygone daydream now. Vic arrives at the ranch, feigning sorrow over Alec’s presumed death. Informed by Will, Alec is still very much alive Vic becomes agitated, bolting from the house. Will, however, is no fool. Certain that Dave’s stockpile is somewhere around the place where Alec’s body was recovered, Will goes in search of the guns himself and finds Vic sending smoke signals to the Apache on a hilltop not far from the ravine. Will confronts Vic at gunpoint, ordering him to topple the wagon over the cliff side. When the Apaches realize the loss of their weaponry, they surround Vic, shooting him in the chest with one of his own guns and sticking an arrow in his back for good measure. Afterward, Will returns to Canady’s ranch; his mission complete, departing for Laramie as Canady and Barbara look on.
The Man From Laramie is a tour de force for Anthony Mann; also a sort of bittersweet farewell to his fruitful alliance with James Stewart.  We can see flashes of the old ‘everyman’ in Stewart’s rich and varied characterization, herein marred by a newfound torturous state of self-reinvention; the proverbial ‘good guy’ corrupted by experience and a past he would rather not discuss: a similar trait infused in Donald Crisp’s portrait of Alec Waggoman. In essence, Alec is Will’s mirror image further along the road of life. Both men are true to their pledge, perhaps ashamed of their pasts and most assuredly uncertain – even deeply afraid – of their futures. Will openly admits to Barbara he calls no place his home. She encourages him to reconsider. Hers is the prescience of the homebody – also the echo of a wounded soul. She knows too well how Alec’s brutal lifelong ambitions for personal prosperity have marginalized the importance of family, utterly destroying her own father in the process. Yet, the bitterness rightfully hers to claim does not run through Barbara’s veins; nor, revenge – nor even hatred; merely a thirst for some sort of serenity far removed from this ancestral strife that has torn the Waggoman clan to shreds.
By comparison, Alec represents the patriarch as absolute dictator…or does he?  For at every opportunity he is willing to concede a terrible wrong perpetuated against this stranger from Laramie; to take the objective moral high ground and see things from the other side.  Alec’s older too – we must remember that – and sincerely mellowed with time; also with infirmity; pondering, but perhaps, also, deeply regretting his youthful indiscretions. Donald Crisp excelled at such characterizations: the stern, but forgiving paterfamilias. Crisp brings everything to the table – even weary compassion; arguably, the quality Kate Canady’s finds most endearing.
In Crisp’s superb performance we see flashes of an ambition-driven autocrat who built his empire from the nothingness of dust and sagebrush; Alec’s memory thick and cluttered with accrued blood, sweat and tears. Alec is not about to let his flat-faced, irrational offspring break everything down to bedrock merely to satisfy a personal vendetta.  Just how a father as invested in his own flesh and blood could so willfully spawn a cancer as malignant as Dave is left unanswered by our story. But Crisp gives us Alec Waggoman in all his misguided folly; in short, a character more human than humane and earthily alive in this unglamorous fiction.
The other great performance is Aline MacMahon’s forthright/careworn, yet feisty Kate Canady. Anthony Mann’s westerns are often colored with such representations: the unbreakable firebrand and/or frontier woman. After all, the west wasn’t conquered by the cowboys alone. Besides, MacMahon is one of the truly great (if sadly underrated) character actresses of her generation – ‘ugly too’ as her Kate Canady points out, just in case our eyes have deceived us. MacMahon isn’t in the movie for very long. And yet, she steals virtually every scene in which she briefly appears. And it’s a telling sign, the Yordan/Burt screenplay concludes on Kate and Alec’s happiness – a counterpoint to Will’s uncertain future as God’s lonely man. Having lost everything – including his sight – Alec is now forced to rely on Kate’s compassion. Ironically, she is grateful for this opportunity to share at least half Alec’s sorrows, along with whatever leftover joys life has in store for the two of them. Love comes in many forms; Mann suggesting a new beginning even in this twilight of fractured lives.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray via Sony is another impressive effort. We commend Sony once again for taking the time to master their library for future generations to appreciate in hi-def. Why other studios cannot seem to do as much for their own archives? Will wonders and short-sightedness never cease? But I digress. Sony’s 1080p source is impeccable, even if the source material – at intervals – is not. The image exhibits bright, bold and richly saturated colors in so far as the Eastman color stock is capable of delivering. Dissolves and fades experience a predictably grainy transition. The credit sequence and a few others suffer from inconsistent levels of grain too.
Sourced from an original camera negative in 4K, Sony again illustrates when it comes to film preservation, they’re in a class apart from the rest. Each of their releases has been given the royal treatment, The Man from Laramie being no exception.  Noticeable in this hi-rez transfer are the inherent shortcomings of Cinemascope – chiefly, its warping of vertical details to the extreme left or right of the expansive image – more obvious when Charles Lang’s cinematography pans to follow the action. Lap dissolves are problematic too, especially during scenes shot at night; a sort of ‘ringing’ and/or noise indigenous to the process, NOT this transfer.
Age-related artifacts are a non-issue; ditto for any undue digital tinkering. It’s just not there. Sony has given us a fairly impressive 5.1 DTS corralled from original four-track stereo elements. I have to say I am always amazed by the reproductive sound quality of these vintage tracks; subtly nuanced and expertly balanced. The audio engineers back then were basically doing what we do now, but with about half the technology and absolutely primitive microphones at their disposal. God bless ‘em. This sound mix still works. The one forgivable disappoint herein is extras. TT’s usual commitment to providing an isolated score and effects track still stands; plus a theatrical trailer: also, Julie Kirgo’s comprehensive notations on the production and its influences. Alas, no audio commentary or featurettes on the making of the film this time around: a genuine pity. Bottom line: highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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