A reformed outlaw becomes stranded after an aborted train robbery with two other passengers and is forced to rejoin his old outlaw band.A reformed outlaw becomes stranded after an aborted train robbery with two other passengers and is forced to rejoin his old outlaw band.A reformed outlaw becomes stranded after an aborted train robbery with two other passengers and is forced to rejoin his old outlaw band.
This is hailed as a cult classic and it's obvious why: To compete with so-called adult TV Westerns of the mid-late 50s, like Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, Maverick and the brutal The Rifleman (for which Sam Peckinpah directed several segments), Mann made "Man of the West" so 'adult' that there would be no comparison. He obviously wanted to spur people away from their TV sets and into the theater, along with the added attractions of widescreen, color, spectacular locations and just all-around superior filmmaking.
What's so 'adult' about "Man of the West"? The portrait of the West it paints is decidedly harsh with its band of psychotic killers and an ex-outlaw as a protagonist who's constantly on the verge of letting loose his long-held-in-check violent nature to stamp out the specters of his past. On top of this you have risqué and risky moments for the era (which are rather tame today), like London's character being forced to strip in front of the dudes and an off-screen rape. The other gang members, by the way, are played by Jack Lord, John Dehner, Royal Dano and Robert J. Wilke.
Some reviewers criticize the film for reasons that aren't very justified; for instance, the fact that Lee J. Cobb, who plays the half-mad uncle of Link (Cooper), was ten years younger than Cooper. Yet Cooper's role was originally slated for the younger Stewart Granger. (James Stewart, Mann's go-to man in five of his previous Westerns, desperately wanted the role, but Mann overlooked him due to their falling out during the pre-production of 1957's "Night Passage" wherein Mann pulled out). In any case, Cobb is made out to be about 10-12 years older than Link and I think it works for the most part, particularly since Cooper was still lean & mean at 56 during shooting, although his character is supposed to be 20 years younger. (Cooper would incidentally pass away a mere four years later). True, Link's face looks withered, but it could be argued that that's what a hard life in the Old West does to a man.
Another criticism is the idea that Dock believed the bank in Lassoo would be full of money when the settlement turns out to be a virtual ghost town. Yet ghost towns were birthed overnight back then when mines would suddenly shut down, etc. The looney Dock obviously based his scheme on data from years earlier and an update on the town's status hadn't yet come to him or his gang. They were used to hiding out in their spare time and there was no internet or cell phones. Where's the beef?
That said, there are some justifiable criticisms, like the surreal and lame melodramatics, the slow-pace and the dubiously choreographed fist fight sequence. These elements are so bad they might send modern viewers running away screaming. Thankfully, lame aspects like this went out of vogue by the 60s.
If you can roll with these issues and enter into the world of the movie, however, it has a number of attractions, including the subtext: Cooper's character is named Link because he represents the link between the barbaric and the cultured, the primitive (his old gang) and the civilized (his new life). Unfortunately, with the gift of volition some people inevitably choose to eschew progress and continue in their ape-headed, animalistic ways (which is actually offensive to animals).
After the aborted train robbery, Link starts to recognize his old stomping grounds and is drawn to the hidden shack for shelter & refreshment; yet perhaps also to revisit his past and "the good ol' days." He vacillates between his new identity and the temptation of regressing to the wild "freedom" of his lawless youth.
Interestingly, "Man of the West" is very similar to the slightly superior "The Law and Jake Wade," which debuted four months earlier. As good as the subtext is in "Man" it's meatier in "The Law" (see my review), which is also a little less talky and melodramatic. Yet "Man" has since emerged as a cult classic while "The Law" has fallen into obscurity; no doubt because the latter lacks the two strip sequences and the iconic Cooper.
Although obviously flawed, "Man of the West" was the precursor of the Leone and Peckinpah styled Westerns that came into fashion in the mid-late 60s. The grim, laconic Link is the predecessor of future antiheroes, like Eastwood's 'Man with No Name,' but Link is better IMO because he has more human dimension.
BEST LINE: "There's a point where you either grow up and become a human being or you rot, like that bunch."
The film runs 100 minutes and was shot entirely in California (Santa Clarita, Red Rock Canyon State Park, Jamestown, Thousand Oaks, Newhall, Sonora and the Mohave Desert, with studio-bound scenes done in West Hollywood). The script was written by Reginald Rose from Will C. Brown's book "The Border Jumpers."
- May 7, 2017