THE MAN FROM LARAMIE —-the last of the five much-lauded westerns James Stewart starred in for director Anthony Mann came in solid #30 in 1955, grossing $9,400,000. As in their other outdoor sagas, Stewart is out to get-even, though his character this time is more easygoing than in the other stories, and is subjected to enough false accusation and physical abuse to fill the lot.
“This is the most unfriendly country I’ve ever been in. Why is everybody so touchy?”
Written by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt, this handsome-looking melodrama has King Lear elements infused into its scripting as wagoneer ‘Will Lockhart’ (Stewart) arrives in the New Mexican burg of Coronado and in short order runs afoul of the ruling family, domineering rancher ‘Alec Waggomann’ (Donald Crisp), tough but fair, his devoted foreman/adopted son ‘Vic’ (Arthur Kennedy) and blood-son, the undisciplined and vicious ‘Dave’ (Alex Nicol). The old man’s pretty niece ‘Barbara’ (Cathy O’Donnell) is engaged to Vic but is intrigued by the laconic Lockhart. Someone, make that everyone, is gonna get hurt before the 103 minutes conclude.
Well acted, it’s heavy on continual reversals of fortune that while unlikely, are put across by the pro cast. Quite comfortable for a lazy afternoon watch thanks to the excellent widescreen cinematography of Charles Lang,Jr., who provides some striking landscape shots. Director Mann stages much of it in late afternoon/early evening light, making for a redolent sense of “being there”. Filming was done in New Mexico, around Sante Fe and Taos and at Window Rock in Arizona. All the Mann-Stewart westerns bore a rugged look with extensive location shooting.
They also all featured jarring violence: this is the one where Stewart gets dragged through a campfire, sees his teams of mules slaughtered and then sadistically gets a hole blasted in his hand by a .45 (which in reality would have been rather more of an impediment than the movie presents).
Stewart’s relaxed but determined manner and ingratiating smile are winning, Kennedy ably delivers pent-up anxiety, Crisp is solid as ever, O’Donnell sweet (if saddled with abrupt character course reverses). Nicol has to ham it up more as the psychotic ‘bad son’, and at 39 he seems a mite old to be acting like such a delinquent. All in, the cast and crew are stronger than their material, which paints some broad strokes in quick flourishes that are more convenient for propelling plot than locking logic.
With Aline MacMahon (good), Wallace Ford (not convincing), Jack Elam, John War Eagle, James Millican, Frank DeKova and Beulah Archuletta (‘Look’ from The Searchers). The awful title tune is one of the lamest of the decade.
* Mann and Stewart also teamed in a bigger hit that year, Strategic Air Command, but their five-year, eight-picture partnership ended with hurt feelings when Mann declined directing Jimmy in 1957s Night Passage. I’m a big fan of their first, 1950s shoot’em’up Winchester ’73 and enjoy Bend Of The River (1952) and ’54s The Far Country. Critics are usually gaga over 1953s The Naked Spur, but I think that overwrought item the weakest of the bunch. The likeable, tuneful sentiment of The Glenn Miller Story (’54) and the visually impressive Strategic Air Command were their biggest successes, while the dumbo Thunder Bay is best left floating. Mann’s non-Stewart westerns are Devil’s Doorway and The Furies, both from 1950, both excellent, 1955s offbeat The Last Frontier, 57s dull The Tin Star, the mean Man Of The West from 1958, and the big-scale disappointment Cimarron from 1960. Stewart’s other saddle stories: Destry Rides Again, Night Passage, Two Rode Together, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, How The West Was Won, Cheyenne Autumn, The Rare Breed, Firecreek, Bandolero!, The Cheyenne Social Club and The Shootist.