Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Friday, April 23, 2010

The Man from Laramie

Directed by Anthony Mann
The United States of America

Barbara Waggoman: Did you have any trouble getting here?
Will Lockhart: No, we came from Laramie.
Barbara Waggoman: Oh, is that your home?
Will Lockhart: No, ma'am. No, I can't rightly say anyplace is my home.
Barbara Waggoman: Oh, but everybody should have a place to remember and feel they belong to.
Will Lockhart: Well, I-I always feel like I belong... where I am.

In the history of the Western, there have been times when an actor and a director would break and subsequently rewrite the rules of the genre. John Ford and John Wayne proved that Westerns could be more than pulp pictures with their work on Stagecoach (1939) and in fact reach the levels of high art. Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood reinvigorated the genre with the Dollars Trilogy with the creation of the Spaghetti Western. But there is one more actor/director duo that forever changed the face of the Western. They are Anthony Mann and James Stewart. Even though they only worked together on five Westerns, their impact shook the foundations of the Hollywood establishment.

Both had worked in Tinsel Town and made names for themselves long before collaborating. Everybody knows about James Stewart, the dependable everyman whose “aw shucks” attitude helped him conquer any odds that society threw at him. He was most especially known for his successful runs with Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock, creating such legendary films as You Can't Take it With You (1938), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Rope (1948), and Rear Window (1954). He had even starred in Westerns before. Probably his most memorable early Western was his first, Destry Rides Again (1939) where he played “No Gun” Destry, a pacifist lawman who brings order to a crime-ridden town.

But as time went by, his roles became more and more dark. His can-do attitude was replaced by cynicism. Just take his work with Hitchcock. He went from being a voyeuristic, but basically good hearted character in Rear Window to becoming a paranoid, obsessive police investigator ten years later in Vertigo (1958). Maybe it was destiny that in the 1950s he teamed up with Anthony Mann.

Mann, who had cut his teeth apprenticing for Preston Sturges, had established himself as a director of great film noir, such as the magnificent Desperate (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), and Raw Deal (1948). But his best work lay in directing Westerns. Instead of focusing on clashes between good and evil, or cowboys wearing white hats and cattle barons wearing black hats, his work was centered on anguished heroes trying to escape their pasts or personal demons. One of his greatest films, The Furies (1950) with Barbara Stanwyck, plays more like a classical Greek tragedy than a Western.

And so when Stewart and Mann joined forces, their five Westerns redefined the way that Westerns worked. Suddenly, the Old West was a hostile, amoral place. Heroes were often flawed and morally ambiguous, driven to extreme (and frequently violent) ends in order to avenge wrongs done to them. In their first collaboration, Winchester ’73 (1950), Stewart pursued a group of outlaws who had stolen a Winchester rifle that he had won in a contest. His almost suicidal obsession for revenge was only matched by the rifle itself, which seems to be cursed, as its every holder would meet an untimely end.

So it should come as no surprise that their last film, The Man from Laramie (1955), would be one of their best, and one of their darkest. Here, we find Stewart as Will Lockhart, the leader of a wagon train bringing supplies into the small town of Coronado. The town is owned and ruled by the Waggomans, a powerful ranching family. When Lockhart starts harvesting salt in a field that he was told was free, a posse led by Dave Waggoman shows up, attacks him, burns his wagons, and shoots his mules. It is likely that Dave would have killed Lockhart if not for the appearance of ranch foreman Vic, who tells him to stop. Vic, although not related by blood to the Waggomans, considers the family patriarch, Alec Waggoman, to be a father figure. He is constantly at odds with Dave who is an arrogant, violent man who secretly sells rifles to the local Apache Indians. Though Vic is clearly the right choice as successor to Alec, who is quickly ailing and almost blind, he is passed up in favor for the incompetent Dave.

The last thing that the Waggomans need is the meddling figure of Lockhart who demands restitution for his destroyed goods. When Alec pays him and asks him to work for him, Lockhart refuses. While he doesn’t want to be with the Waggomans, he intends to stay in Coronado. He intends to find out who has been selling the rifles to the Apaches, as his brother had been killed in one of their attacks. It doesn’t help that on the way to Coronado he encountered the charcoaled remains of a US Cavalry patrol that had been massacred by the Apache. Like Humphrey Bogart seeking his partner’s murderer in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Lockhart will not rest until he finds his the man who sold the rifles to his brother’s killers.

In many ways, The Man from Lamarie plays like a film noir. In fact, the title is one of the main indicators of this theme. Notice that the title doesn’t refer to the plot or the actions in the film. It is concerned with Lockhart’s past. By naming Lockhart as the man from Lamarie, the film establishes him as a man dominated by his past and his obsession to right past wrongs. Like the classic film noir “heroes” of old, the only way he can look to the future is by living through the past.

By the end of the film, two Waggomans will lie dead, one killed by Lockhart and one killed by his “brother.” Lockhart will have his revenge, but at what cost? Over the course of the film, he will transform into a wild eyed madman. There is a love interest in the form of female member of the Waggoman clan, but it is played out as almost an afterthought. What matters is Lockhart and how he interacts with the male Waggomans. Each betrayal and twist feels like a punch to the gut. By the end of the film Lockhart will seem as bloodied and twisted as the very men that he seeks vengeance against.

By introducing elements of film noir into the Western, Mann and Stewart would make sure that the genre would never be the same. Mann’s piercing direction and Stewart’s uneasy, morally ambiguous character in The Man from Lamarie, just like their other four collaborations, would leave a lasting influence in the universe of cinema. Just look at how it affected the king of the Western, John Ford. Before Mann and Stewart’s Westerns, Ford’s morals were black and white. In She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), John Wayne plays an aging US Cavalry captain who acts as a belligerent father figure to his men. As the hero, he fights against evil Indians who want to cause mayhem and destruction. Then, one year after the release of The Man from Lamarie, Ford released The Searchers, where Wanye plays an old racist seeking to rescue his niece after she is captured by Comanche Indians. However, in his mind, the only way to save her after being “polluted” by the Comanche for so long is to kill her. The father figure had been replaced with a man more than willing to kill his own flesh and blood.

The influence of Anthony Mann and James Stewart on the Western genre cannot be understated. Because of them, the genre was able to advance past its infantile stage of good guys against bad guys and explore themes that it had never dreamed of before. Characters became more complex: heroes became corruptible and villains became sympathetic. While it would take the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone to increase the visceral violence that was seen on the screen, it was Mann and Stewart that made the Western enter into its own conflicted adolescence. The Western was no longer a child.

Anthony Mann



  1. Wow, this sounds great! I can't wait to check this out and fill a major hole in my Westerns knowledge! If you're into Westerns, you should check out my Spaghetti Western Concept Rap album, called "Showdown at the BK Corral." It's basically an epic Spaghetti Western over 9 tracks - very influenced by Morricone. I'd love to hear what you think of it! You can download it for free at sunsetparkriders.com

  2. If you like "The Man from Laramie," be sure to check out the other Anthony Mann/James Stewart collaborations. Particularly "Winchester '73" and "The Naked Spur."

  3. The one piece of this movie I don't quite understand is why at the end Dave signals the apache to get the rifles. He had killed Dave earlier in the film to prevent him from doing just that. Was he now trying to wipe out everyone, except himself, to escape his leaving alec to die? Even that doesn't quite make sense.

  4. You know...I'm not entirely sure. I think that we are supposed to believe that by the end he is so hateful and vengeful that he WANTED them all to die. But that's just a theory.

  5. Clerk Gable starred in Capra's ''It Happened One Night'', not James Stewart.

  6. Whoops...you know what happened? I meant to write "You Can't Take it With You" and simply wrote the wrong thing...

    It's fixed now, though.

    Thank you, Dark!

  7. Wonderful article- but Rear Window is 1954. You were talking about Rope, Stewart and Hitchcock's first collaboration in 1948

    1. Ah! Indeed! I fixed the error. Thanks for commenting!