Later this week, the recently revived Northwest Chicago Film Society presents a screening of Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River, one of the director’s numerous collaborations with actor James Stewart. Mann and Stewart made different kinds of movies together, but it’s the westerns that endure. Psychologically knotty and unconventionally violent, the films’ revisionist nature reshaped the traditional western landscape by acting as allegories of masculinity under fire during the Cold War. Mann’s characters struggle with any number of personal crises—paranoia, insecurity, delusion—and are often searching for things that start out clear but grow murkier as their stories progress. His films are almost always suspenseful, but not in any sort of obvious or cloying way. As much as his legacy is tied to his westerns, he excelled in noir and character drama, and more often than not, he utilized the same stylistic conventions across all genres, transcending Hollywood convention and paving the way for the iconoclastic directors of the late 60s and 70s. (Mann’s influence on the likes of Martin Scorsese and Sam Peckinpah cannot be understated.) You can find my five favorite Mann films after the jump.
5. Winchester ’73 (1950) This western best illustrates one of Mann’s most enduring themes, and it does so in a single image. James Stewart is seen in a low-angle shot shoving his hand into antagonist Dan Duryea’s face, illustrating Mann’s conception of an ambiguously violent world, where good and evil are essentially identical because the good guys seem just as capable of inflicting pain as the bad guys—a key departure from typical western fare that saw good and evil as clearly defined.
4. The Naked Spur (1953) Another divergent approach to the western, a tough and unforgiving film that’s also one of the director’s most beautiful, thanks to cinematographer William Mellor. Mann’s westerns seem congenial, but they also anticipate the grisly, blood-soaked chaos of the Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah era to come. Stewart stars in this one, too, and his character battles the jagged setting’s rocks and hard ground, his body at the mercy of a terrain that, however unforgiving, is also impossibly beautiful. The psychological implications are telling, and the film trades in a series of abrupt dramatic shifts.
3. The Far Country (1954) This ambitious western marks Stewart’s fourth collaboration with Mann, and his casting plays a crucial role in the film’s success. Stewart was a bit of an oddity compared to his fellow leading men: his nasal cadence and awkwardly charming demeanor made him an American underdog, but Mann wasn’t afraid to reveal his desperate side. Hoping to ditch the emotional baggage that accompanies human relationships, Stewart’s character undergoes a series of emotionally and physically colossal tasks that test his individualism, and the far-north setting gives the proceedings an almost apocalyptic feel.
2. Raw Deal (1948) Perhaps the director’s earliest triumph, a uniquely gothic noir with a fatalistic story and some uncharacteristically melodramatic moments. Overall, it has the sort of lean, precise style Mann would build his career on, the kind that eschews needless screenplay contrivances in favor of high visual style and a story that unfolds through decisive, intelligent editing. The film features a number of remarkable close-ups, a trademark for the director, and they’re intensified by the almost oppressively dark cinematography—Mann often fills the frame with pure blackness, occasionally drawing a single slice of light across the screen to keep the audience attuned to the action.
1. The Man from Laramie (1955) The final Mann-Stewart collaboration, and it’s one hell of a send-off. Stylistically, the film illustrates Mann’s masterful use of CinemaScope. The ultrawide landscape becomes a stage for some strikingly violent and chaotic moments, but the director’s artistic maturity and sophisticated approach to editing ensures the format is used in purposeful rather than merely flamboyant or showy ways. That said, Mann has his share of fun here. In the film’s most memorable sequence, Stewart’s character, situated in the back of the frame, is dragged through a campfire and ends up in the foreground, a moment intensified when the camera tracks back to reveal Alex Nicol. It’s a signature moment.