As much as any other filmmaker who found a niche in a given genre, in the 10 Westerns Anthony Mann directed from 1950 to 1958 he carved out a place in film history as one who not only reveled in the conventions of that particular form, but also as one who imbued in it a distinct aesthetic and narrative approach. In doing so, Mann created Westerns that were simultaneously about the making of the West as a historical phenomenon, as well as about the making of its own developing cinematic genus. At the same time, he also established the traits that would define his auteur status, formal devices that lend his work the qualities of a director who enjoyed, understood, and readily exploited and manipulated a type of film's essential features.
Though he made several fine pictures outside the Western, Mann as an American auteur is most notably recognized for his work in this field, where his own characteristic approach is inseparable from the traditional norms on the genre. By the time he started making Westerns, Mann had directed nearly 20 films, the best of which were low-budget features like T-Men, Railroaded! and Desperate, all 1947, and Raw Deal, in 1948. These were accomplished and expertly crafted film noir, and despite any budgetary constraints he may have had, Mann displayed an extraordinary visual technique, highlighting the distinctive imagery of this film form: shadows, guns, cigarettes, trench coats, canted angles, urban structures, etc. Taking the manner in which he exalts the standard stories and style of noir, when Mann next set his sights on the Western, he similarly explored the composition of that genre and called explicit attention to its specific generic traits.
Mann the author, as Robin Wood notes, is therefore a divided individual. There is Mann the author of these "B movie noirs" and later, Mann the author of epics like El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). "Certainly one can trace, through all of these, specifiable recurring characteristics of style and theme that would point to an overall author called Anthony Mann," writes Wood. "Yet when an artist shifts into a new genre he becomes, inevitably, a somewhat different author. …Which is to say that one cannot isolate 'authorship' from the conventions, narrative patterns, audience expectations, through which it is expressed."1 Given the comparable quality and quantity of Mann's Westerns, and despite these outlying generic visits that bookend his career, to know Anthony Mann the filmmaker is to know the Anthony Mann Western. For without having found the genre within which he could most evidently express his stylistic and thematic concerns, Mann may not have developed into the unique filmic artist he became, and the Western as an ever evolving form would not have entered one of its key transitional phases as it did. Wood also cites Roland Barthes, who, he writes, "proclaimed the 'Death of the Author,'" adding that, "The author did not write, s/he was written—by ideology, primarily, but also by all the conventions, narrative patterns, generic formulae which support it and are, in their turn, at root ideological."2 It is perhaps into this that one can place Anthony Mann. Yet far from killing off his role as an author, when Mann began to shape and be shaped by the Western, he and the genre thrived in ways impossible had that relationship not been founded.
In line with the structurally self-conscious Western that was emerging in the 1950s, in which a "new sensibility comes into contact with the traditional forms of the genre,"3 Mann's continued exploration of the very anatomy of the genre emphasizes the placement and purpose of its traditional iconography (the landscape, rifles, horses, ropes, wagons, and attire) and showcases variations on its central themes (vengeance, familial responsibility, Native American interaction). André Bazin has argued that Mann is "probably the one postwar American director who seems to have specialized in a field into which others have made only sporadic incursions." And as he did, his films revealed a "touching frankness of attitude toward the Western, an effortless sincerity to get inside its themes and there bring to life appealing characters and to invent captivating situations."4
This being said, every Mann Western subsequently bears most if not all the significant hallmarks that designate it as a distinctive take on the genre. One film in particular that strikingly refines the quintessential themes, techniques, and generic investigations that so preoccupied Mann is The Man from Laramie (1955), the final of eight films he made with James Stewart, of which five were Westerns. This picture is exceptionally emblematic of how the two mutually deconstructed one of Hollywood's staple genres and concurrently redefined one of its most amiable star personas. In Stewart, just as in the Western genre itself, Mann found a cinematic mechanism with which he could redefine the Western while also now having the embodiment of an individualistic, auteurist worldview.
The Man from Laramie also pays particular attention to the natural, scenic environment and its inherent influence on character thought and behavior, punctuated in this film by Mann's use of CinemaScope, a format he was born to work in (here with venerable cinematographer Charles Lang behind the camera). Similarly, The Man from Laramie proves to be one of the most extreme examples of how Mann and Stewart reinterpreted the star's defining traits. Primarily in the Westerns made with Mann, Stewart's roles were markedly dissimilar to his typically good-natured characterizations. This was a darker Stewart, his Will Lockhart character driven by revenge and rage. Stewart's Western leads personified the Mann definition of a hero: "a man who could kill his own brother,"5 or in this case, a man who will relentlessly stop at nothing to find out who killed his brother. Like their other collaborative Westerns, The Man from Laramie delves into the functioning of generic and star attributes, representations, and how audience expectations regarding such can be both met and defied. With this film, Mann said he wanted to recapitulate his years of collaboration with Stewart: "[T]hat work distilled our relationship. I reprised themes and situations by pushing them to their paroxysm."6
Mann's expressed interest in adapting "King Lear" finds its most apparent outlet in The Man from Laramie, which was scripted by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt, based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Thomas T. Flynn. Having just penned Johnny Guitar the year prior, Yordan in particular knew a thing or two about creating emotionally precarious characters and generally idiosyncratic Westerns, and like Johnny Guitar, The Man from Laramie seems to be as much about the genre itself as it is about the basic plot presented. (The inclusion of fine china in decorative white and blue design contrasted against the otherwise subdued earthy tones that illustrate much of the rest of the film may indeed be a Mann reference to Sterling Hayden's delicate coffee sipping in the earlier picture.)
Stewart's Will Lockhart is a classic Western loner, with frequent mention made to his indecipherable solitude and his own professing that he has no home. He states early on, "I belong where I am," an ironic declaration given what transpires. While he is in the town of Coronado, New Mexico with a clear purpose, one gets the sense that he is bound to be a perpetually aimless wanderer, that after this, just like after Ethan Edwards accomplishes his goal in The Searchers, Lockhart too will be faced with an infinite space ahead of him and an indefinite final destination. There will no doubt be yet another journey to take, another traveling experience to be had. Mann's Western heroes are ideally representative of a genre that thrives on movement and exploration.
Also like Ethan Edwards, Lockhart comes with a background of clouded military experience ("Army's a good place for a man who's alone," he declares). He has a war-savvy aptitude for gun fighting and a resolute discipline, but aside from those surface features, he is reluctant to divulge too much about his past.
Seemingly casual though he may be when entering town, ostensibly there to sell some goods, Lockhart has his motives. Six months ago, his brother was among those murdered when a group of Apaches massacred their Calvary patrol. To make matters worse, those Apaches were using repeating rifles, weapons they obtained from someone in the territory. Find the source of the guns, find the men or man ultimately responsible for his brother's death. Lockhart knows he is in the right place when he sees just such a rifle behind the counter at Barbara Waggoman's store. When he asks the Native American employee where it came from, he is told that an Indian traded it to them. Yes, this is where he needs to be all right, but finding the source of the rifles will not be so simple. Temporarily in the background of this private quest is the ever-expanding land empire reigned over by Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), and the antagonism that goes along with it. Soon, Lockhart finds himself wrapped up in the hostilities linked to this initially peripheral enterprise and discovers that his personal search and the Waggoman domain may in fact be connected.
The repeating rifle is the second signifier of Lockhart's deceased brother. In the film's opening sequence, Lockhart rides upon the remnants of the attack, and there in the rubble is a Calvary hat, which Lockhart associates with his deceased sibling. The generic icons here not only stand in for his brother and function as tangible reminders of his goal, but they are also indicative of a larger and frequently reoccurring Anthony Mann strategy, one where the defining features of a particular film genre become more than just select ornamentation. They emerge as pivotal devices that suggest character background and influence character action, while also serving as self-conscious commentary regarding the respective genre.
With Mann, his use of traditional Western symbols and their representative associations were present in the very titles of his films. There is Winchester ‘73 (1950), where the rifle is itself the catalyst for the ensuing drama. Then there are those movies that single out the natural landscape, which has always been so crucial to the Western, films like Bend of the River (1952) and The Far Country (1954). And finally, there are those, also like Winchester ‘73, that focus on specific generic props and tools of the trade, films like The Naked Spur (1953) and The Tin Star (1957). Taken together, these are essentially Westerns about Westerns. In the telling of their tales, Mann’s films delve into the functioning of generic features, how they represent what they do and how that, in turn, works with audience expectations when it comes to the genre. In other words, as Jim Kitses argues, "Mann's response to the Western was not a response to history, as with Ford and Peckinpah, but to its archetypal form..."7 He knew what made a Western—what individual features defined it and what one associated with its traditional appearance—and he used this to his advantage, to clearly indicate an allegiance to the genre and to distinguish himself as one who knowingly implemented these key characteristics.
Jeanine Basinger, in referencing Winchester '73's emphasis on its titular firearm and what it stands for, writes, "All conflicts, all love, all motivation, are developed through the rifle. It is the rifle the brothers are fighting over … the rifle that the chief villain wants for himself … the rifle that the Indian chief steals … a unification of plot motivation through a visual metaphor is solidly built … the foundation of the Mann Western."8 Mann himself noted this style of referential generic construction when he said, "As for Winchester '73 … The gun which passed from hand to hand allowed me to embrace a whole epoch, a whole atmosphere. I really believe that it contains all the ingredients of the western and that it summarizes them."9
In The Man from Laramie, by comparison, that Calvary hat is as good as being Lockhart's brother himself and that rifle is his killer. They are concrete images that temporarily stand in for the humans they signify, and they are key icons that have become cinematically bonded to tales of the West. As a result, they carry with them a host of more broad associations, including to other films and to historical significance; that kind of hat and that kind of rifle are of a particular genre and of a particular place and time. Mann may not be responding to history (cinematic or otherwise), but that is not to say he did not signify it and make it a part of his all-purpose narrative backdrop.
Will Lockhart's initial confrontation with Alec Waggoman's son, Dave (Alex Nicol), and hired hand and surrogate stepson, Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy), comes over what the former sees as Lockhart's trespassing and theft at the salt flats, but it seems it is the trespassing more than the theft that is the true outrage. Though Barbara (Cathy O'Donnell) permitted Lockhart to take what he needed from the flats, Dave views the intruder's mere presence as a blatant violation, his simply being there an aggressive action, and the accusation of theft is a pretense for a larger concern that had to do with the land itself.
Dave is overzealous in his attempts to assert his own strength and authority. Rather than even try to civilly discuss the misunderstanding with Lockhart, he has one of his men rope the newcomer, has him dragged through the fire, has his mules shot, and burns his wagons—an overreaction to say the least. And later, Dave goes even further in his perverse cruelty, subsequently violating Western conventions of warranted justice and a fair fight, something frequently skewed in a Mann Western. His sadism as he shoots Lockhart point blank in the hand is an extreme affront to typical codes of Western masculine behavior. "Mann," Robin Wood writes, "… consistently emphasizes the effort and horror of killing, the pain of an inflicted wound, the agony of violent death. Where Ford keeps us at a distance, Mann forces us in close, sparing us as little as contemporary censorship would permit." He argues that perhaps the most extreme example is this "deliberate, point blank, shooting of James Stewart's gun hand … our view transferred from the gun pressing into the forcibly extended hand to a closeup of Stewart's face as the bullet is fired."10
Though he is aware of the excessively drastic measures taken by Dave, Vic's hands are tied. He works for Dave's father, and if he works for the old man, he works for Dave. Their relationship is further strained by the fact that Vic is viewed as the more responsible, dutiful heir. On the other side of this is Lockhart's own vendetta, driven by a familial vengeance. Here and elsewhere, The Man from Laramie is preoccupied by the family ties that keep one bound, for better or worse. With The Furies (1950), Winchester '73 and, later, Man of the West (1958), this film joins a notable Western faction in which Mann uncovers the rifts and responsibilities that influence relative drama. These are no standard John Fordian home fronts, with a comfortable family structure and easily identifiable family positions. This picture of domesticity is one wrought with psychological complexity and fluid individual functions.
Lockhart is no saint himself though. He can be amicable, but he also has a hair trigger of hostility. The Naked Spur features the remarkably disturbing scene in which Stewart's Howard Kemp drags the body of Robert Ryan's Ben Vandergroat through the rocky river, but in The Man from Laramie the shot that most resonates with Lockhart's vengeful resolve is the receding dolly shot that leads him a considerable length down the street as he advances toward Dave, seeking revenge for the destruction at the flats. Kitses describes Stewart's progress as a "barely controlled, infinitely determined march," noting the intensity of the camera's concentration and the "relentlessness of its retreat."11 The suspense builds as the combustible violence is primed and gradually set to erupt with each step Stewart takes forward. To see the actor like this is a fascinating exercise in upending star persona expectations. Still, in comparison to Winchester ’73 or The Naked Spur, as Basinger notes, here "Stewart plays a more balanced human being. … He is capable of love, humor, and warmth. His seeking of revenge for his brother's death is not presented as an act of madness of which he must cleanse himself."12
This returns us to the idea of icon integration and manipulation. One of the other major ingredients of nearly every film genre is the stars who regularly appear in them. For example: Bogart and crime and detective films, Cagney and Robinson in a gangster picture, Astaire, Rogers, and Kelly in the musical. So it is interesting that the actor Mann featured in his doom-laden Westerns was one not usually associated with dark, disturbed characters, nor even, at the time, the Western itself (although Destry Rides Again  is an entertaining entry into the genre). An actor like James Stewart effortlessly flowed in and out of genres while establishing and maintaining a screen persona consistently adored from film to film. Yet in a darkened post-war Stewart, Mann found the perfect star vessel for his curious version of the Western hero. His characters blurred the typically black and white distinction established between the good and bad guy; his characters were the "charming 'villain' and the near-psychotic 'hero.'"13 Lockhart is told, "Hate's unbecoming in a man like you," and surely such a statement applies to the atypical nature of Stewart in these films as well, yet to the contrary of being unbecoming, it actually gives the Hollywood luminary a chance to operate in a wholly different tenor. Howard Hughes argues that in the Westerns with Stewart, Mann even used the actor himself almost as a reoccurring filmic representation. Stewart embodied a certain character type distinct from his prior roles, a character with associative accessories developed and repeated by Mann over the course of these features: the same basic costume, the same hat (a lucky one Stewart apparently kept locked away between shoots), and the same horse, "his beloved Pie."14 This was indeed James Stewart, but a James Stewart envisioned film after film by Anthony Mann.
In The Man from Laramie, part of what defines Stewart's character is an incessant suspicion. From Barbara and her Native American associate to the sheriff and, of course, the rest of the Waggoman crew, the leery Lockhart looks on everyone with distrust, shaping them up and expecting the worst. In the title song for the film, Jimmy Young sings that the man from Laramie "was a man with a peaceful turn of mind/He was kind of sociable and friendly/Friendly as any man could be." This sentiment is amusing given the hostility Lockhart meets when entering Coronado and his own aloofness that automatically distances him from those around him. Though charmingly bemused by Barbara, as only James Stewart can be, he is generally reluctant to become personally connected to anyone else he encounters. About the only person on Lockhart's side is Charley O'Leary (Wallace Ford), a companion who stays around to help his friend even after the destruction at the salt flats. He sees Lockhart as a fellow lonesome traveler, someone he has come to grow fond of, even if they haven't spoken much during their trip. In time, Lockhart's other main associate is Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon), Alec Waggoman's former fiancée and the only person who dares hold on to her own land rather than see it immersed in The Barb, the moniker given to the growing Waggoman ranch. It is also Kate who fires at Dave as he is about to unjustly shoot Lockhart. "This is the only sense of justice folks respect around here," says Kate, gun in hand, setting up the intrinsic violence in the town and stressing the prominence of a firearm as the quintessential tool of Western enforcement.
As Lockhart gets closer to determining the source of the destructive rifles (we already know it is Dave and Vic), that much of the film's narrative subsides somewhat as the primary confrontation between Lockhart and the Waggoman family grows, and the landscape, as something to be owned and as a distinctive Western feature, emerges as a critical point of focus. In contrast to The Man from Laramie's panoramic vistas, in closer quarters oblique camera positions and a fragmentation of elements in the foreground work to block a full view of the action. This sort of visual approach harkens back to Mann's noir features and creates a claustrophobic and inhibited sense of interior space that juxtaposes nicely with the outdoor locales, which are more suited to Mann's Western sensibilities.
"Mann's landscapes are not those about which one says, 'How beautiful!'" writes Basinger. "Without their characters, his western spaces look ordinary, even meaningless. It is the character placed within the landscape that brings meaning – and relevance – to the settings he chooses."15 In The Man from Laramie, an individual's placement in the landscape is central, literally and figuratively. When Mann focuses on a vast expanse of land, with its natural features and the movement of the characters both in horizontal arrangement, his superb use of the widescreen format gives a full sense of natural scope, yet in so doing, simultaneously emphasizes the comparative insignificance of a man in such an environment. Visually, this appears as a sardonic comment on the aforementioned obsession with land ownership, for despite how much property Alec has amassed, it is the landscape that reigns supreme. All he can do is hope to call it his, but there will be no true conquering.
In the wider shots, more often than not Mann composes in a triptych framing, whereby the ground, the middle sections (buildings, rock formations, etc.), and the sky are give equal space on the screen. When that middle section is missing, however, and we are left with an open horizon line, and when characters cut through that space, it is representative of how man figures in this region and in the Western film, as both a force of natural triumph and a lone symbol of diminutive substance.
Barbara says the area is "one man country," a statement that flies in the face of Western film convention, which very much stresses the openness and availability of land. And Basinger contends that The Man from Laramie could be considered "an exercise in aloneness,"16 with the continual image of a man in a desolate landscape. Be it on the spread of the salt flats or in the expanse of the prairie, this dual visual motif defines Lockhart as a physically and spiritually solitary figure, one who, in this film, is about to find conflict in this twofold environment.
Though Lockhart states he is content wherever he is, by the end of the film he is equally content to simply return home to Laramie. While he kept most of his military past quiet, we do find out he was a captain in the Army. Yet he does not choose this title to define him; instead, he identifies with his town of residence. When asked, "What are you?" Lockhart doesn't respond with his military designation, nor does he explain why he's in town. His answer: "I come from Laramie." To be defined by a place not only fits in with the many Westerns where a sense of location and pride of origin is paramount, but it is of notable concern to this particular film's thematic focus. The proprietary quest that motivates Alec Waggoman to enlarge his empire and leads to the sweeping absorption of the town and the territory that surrounds it similarly conveys ownership of land as what defines him as a man. He is known by what he owns, and when Lockhart, who chooses to be known by where he's from, breeches this understood system, the friction begins.
As sought after as it is though, the landscape can be a volatile one, and Mann parallels the precariousness of the narrative with the setting—"[W]hen a mountain appears in a Mann movie you are pretty certain that it will be climbed, and with extreme difficulty."17 The reoccurring rocky terrain in The Man from Laramie serves the purpose of obscuring people (and the stash of rifles), thus providing a natural cover, but its unstable topography also mirrors the dramatic instability. See, for instance, the two scenes that perch characters high amidst the boulders. Each sequence leads to a dramatic and violent conclusion, the path to which is marked by horses and men treacherously making their way over the jagged ground. We may fear for their stability on these rocks, but there is a man-made danger that is also palpable.
In referencing other Mann Westerns like Winchester 73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, and Man of the West, Wood points out that, "their trajectories are always similar: a progression from low to high, from the fertile valley to the highest … peaks, each stage of the journey marking a development in an increasingly intense conflict of which either the turning point … or the climax and resolution will be reached at the summit."18 The Mann landscape is thus one that goes beyond picturesque beauty or generic signification. It emerges to serve a more metaphoric narrative purpose.
However one looks at it, land is important, and where one roams or calls home does shape their character. Basinger wrote that the Anthony Mann Western exists on three levels:
[T]he literal, narrative line which corresponds to the presentation of the landscape or geography of the film; the internal, psychological state of the hero, which is expressed through the narrative, and thus also through the landscape and position in the frame; and the emotional state for both hero and the audience which is controlled by the shifting landscape, narrative line, and character development.19
And in speaking of the Westerns made by Mann, John Saunders cites Jim Kitses when he states that Mann's cinema was "pre-eminently a cinema of landscape."20 Mann even said of his performers: "The elements make them much greater as actors than if they were in a room. Because they have to shout above the winds, they have to suffer, they have to climb mountains…"21 In other words, just as the landscape can add a level of authenticity to a film's narrative and formal design, so too can it benefit an actor's performance. The struggle against the environment and the natural landscape can be a force for realism in the Western film; being out on these locations works with an actor in a way that studio-bound filmmaking does not. Another level to this is in the fact that, as far as Westerns are concerned, many times the actors found themselves in locations not drastically altered from the period in which the film was set, if they were at all. This would also assist in the realism of the portrayal.
In terms of subject matter, narratives, performances, visuals, and, as mentioned, as redefining samples of the genre, the Westerns directed by Anthony Mann are remarkable achievements. While he and Stewart made other non-Westerns—Thunder Bay (1953), The Glenn Miller Story (1954), and Strategic Air Command (1955)—and Mann made Westerns without Stewart and vice versa, those they created together during the early- to mid-1950s are hallmarks of the genre and, more broadly, of film history. His Westerns, with Stewart or otherwise, are dramatic and didactic, emotional and edifying. Jean-Luc Godard, who would himself relentlessly pursue explorations of generic deconstruction, put it thusly: Mann's Westerns (he speaks specifically of Man of the West though the evaluation is easily applicable elsewhere) presented "both beautiful landscapes and the explanation of this beauty, both mystery of firearms and the secret of this mystery, both art and the theory of art."22 Each also perfectly summarized Mann's overarching approach to the Western, illustrating what made his variations on the form so unique, so in and of the genre yet so individually exclusive. In the way he was able to express his own personal predilections within the conventions of a certain filmic classification, Mann enriched a form in which he simultaneously flourished.