AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT
RUNNING TIME: 104 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Will Lockhart delivers some supplies from Laramie to Barbara Waggoman in the isolated town of Coronado, but he’s also searching for information about someone selling repeating rifles to the local Apaches; his brother, an Army Lieutenant, was killed in an Apache attack nearby. He immediately ends up at odds with Barbara’s family. Cattle baron Alec Waggoman is haunted by dreams of a stranger who intends to kill his son Dave. He’s also gradually losing his eyesight and cannot count on Dave, an immature, vicious and arrogant man who refuses to learn how to run the ranch the way his father wants it done and who keeps on provoking Lockhart…..
Having been very fond of Bend Of The River and The Naked Spur for some time, I was very excited to finally see The Man From Laramie, the film that seems to be generally regarded as the best of the five Westerns directed by Anthony Mann and starring James Stewart, and one of those films that I’d always meant to see but had never been able to do so. Having just watched it, I’m not sure that it’s quite as good as its reputation, but then again I expected more of a typical western and here was a picture that, along with continuing the toughness and the moral ambiguity that Mann had already been bringing to the genre [something that filmmakers much better known to modern viewers like Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah would develop even further much later on, but I don’t think Mann has really received his due by pretty much starting this kind of thing], seemed to subvert many of the expected elements and was in some ways more of a film noir-tinged drama than a typical western. It’s held back a little by some very noticeable plot holes and a few moments that just don’t make sense, as if the screenplay, despite being co-written by the usually very good Philip Yordan, was done in a rush, but it’s very well acted and at times feels even quite contemporary, partly because I thought I knew how the story was going to go quite early on and was surprised several times with how it was turning out!
For many years, Mann wanted to do a film version of King Lear transposed to the old West, and was never able to make it, though he actually came quite close with The Man From Laramie which makes me wonder if it was partly a deliberate dry run for the project he was never able to realise. It was the last of seven Mann-directed films that starred Stewart and the screenplay by Yordan and Frank Burt was adapted from a story of the same title by Thomas T. Flynn, first published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1954, and thereafter as a novel the following year. Originally Lockhart was going to be revealed as a member of the Waggoman family and Alec was going to be much more of a villain, but the script evolved somewhat. The Man from Laramie was one of the first Westerns to be filmed in CinemaScope to capture the vastness of the New Mexico scenery. It was mostly shot at Big Barb and Half Moon ranches near Santa Fe where 18 mules, 24 horses and 800 cows were hired. For the early scene where Stewart’s character is dragged through an open campfire, the star was adamant about performing the stunt himself, and, despite a nervous Mann’s concern over the real possibility of serious injury, the gruelling sequence was completed in one 90-second take. The film was a hit and its theme song was recorded twice by different artists and on both occasions charted in the UK – but not in the US.
Truth be told, it’s not a great theme song and this one really does have some ridiculously literal lyrics, seemingly about Will Lockhart, which appear to have been thought up on the spot i.e. “No one seems to hear anything about him. He has an air of mystery”. O well, we then join Lockhart and the old guy he’s hired to help him transport the provisions he’s taking to the town of Coronado, Charlie O’ Leary. The recipient of the supplies, Barbara Waggoman, tells Lockhart that she wishes that the supplies had not arrived so she can give up her job as a shop keeper, and then we get a rather sweet scene where the two talk and Lockhart clearly hasn’t spent much time with women, though it’s hard to believe that Barbara has never been complemented before when she seems to be the only attractive young woman in Coronado. Lockhart is on a mission to find who’s been selling guns to the Apaches who killed his brother, but he soon runs into a problem: the other members of the Waggoman family. Well, old Alec isn’t so much of a problem, but his wayward son Dave, basically a juvenile gang leader, is. Then there’s also Vic, the ranch foreman who is no blood relation but who is as loyal and devoted as a son and feels that he should get far more recognition from Alec. Much time is spent with these three, and this slows the pace down a bit and means that less time is spent on Lockhart’s vengeance mission, though I have the feeling that the next time I watch The Man From Laramie I’ll enjoy this aspect more than I did the first time when the film wasn’t always giving me what I expected.
Nonetheless, Dave keeps on hassling Lockhart and we get a good brawl [in the middle of a mooing herd of cattle!] where Lockhart also tussles with Vic, Lockhart suddenly punching Vic just for trying to restrain him and which therefore tells us economically that Lockhart is a man used to dishing out violence. We also get two surprisingly vicious moments, one when Lockhart’s mules are shot [okay, it’s off screen but is still a little upsetting], and one when Lockhart shoots Dave in the hand [and yes, you see the blood] before getting his men to restrain Lockhart and he then shoots him in the hand. Such cruelty may have shocked some 1955 viewers and I’m surprised that the film has always been a ‘U’ certificate in the UK though it was originally slightly cut for its initial cinema release. Overall though this isn’t an especially action filled western and may disappoint some after lots of shoot ’em ups. Instead, the emphasis is on quite a cleverly constructed story which gradually brings together its several strands and often in an ironic way, such as Lockhart’s quarry, unknown to Lockhart, killed some time before the end. In fact, while there are certainly deaths in the film, Lockhart doesn’t actually kill anyone throughout its duration. At times it really does seem that Mann, Yordan and Burt are really trying to do some new things with the western.
The often interesting storytelling is weakened by lots of silly details [when you watch it, ask yourself how on earth were two people able to get that wagon up that hill] and some major plot flaws, such as the villain’s plan being extremely self-destructive if you think about it. There’s also an odd moment where the town drunk (Jack Elam in a great little role which feels truncated) offers to sell him any information he wants and Lockhart just shoos him off. It’s foolish to go on about this kind of thing in a film too much, but considering how I can often get myself really sunk into a film to the point where I don’t always notice obvious flaws, it’s not good if I notice them on first viewing .There’s a rather cringeworthy moment when Lockhart states that in a showdown between the Cavalry and Indians, the U.S. Cavalry would never shoot first, though at least Alec gets a line where he says the Indians were there first, and there’s an odd but rather nice scene where whites join some Pueblo Indians in a wedding ceremony. Something I also liked was Mann’s decision to film much of the proceedings in obvious day-for-night shooting. It’s a feature which I often find jarring, but it’s made to look rather artistic here by cinematographer Charles Lang, creating a gently shadowy atmosphere despite the shadows clearly being thrown by an afternoon or mid-morning sun. There’s also plenty of glorious footage of characters riding around in the desert where we can appreciate the rugged landscapes and some appropriately noir-style lighting in some of the interior scenes. And I wonder if it was intentional that early scenes tend to be played out in the lowlands but then more and more of the action tends to take place high up, as if the characters are striving for something forever out of reach. It’s something I’ve noticed in other Mann films and it’s very interesting.
Stewart is great as always; this actor could always register pain, whether physical or mental, so well, and knows when subtlety is the best option. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him give a weak performance. The underrated Arthur Kennedy [Vic] portrays indignation superbly, and Donald Crisp [Alec] does wonders with what could have been almost a one-note part, but the side is seriously let down by Cathy O’Donnell [so good in They Live By Night] as Barbara who is just unconvincing throughout, never seeming natural, though at least on the female side Aline MacMahon is good as a farmer whose role initially seems rather tacked on but who appears to get some of the best lines and then features in a lovely way in the film’s conclusion. I always feel like a bit of an idiot when I see a movie regarded as great and don’t feel quite the same way, though at least I can say that The Man From Laramie still has a lot to recommend it, and at times it seems rather fresh and even original It does seem to me to be a bit sloppy in places though and it really could have used some more work on the script. It still probably belongs in every western fan’s collection, though it may actually appeal more to those who aren’t too fond of the genre than some of the more typical examples.
The Man From Laramie comes on to Region ‘B’ Blu-ray in a typically fine restoration which has exactly the right level of grain and very natural colours. The only slight flaw is that some of the fade outs have some ghosting around them but this is no doubt a fault of the original source material and not something which can easily be rectified. Unlike the Region ‘A’ release from Twilight Time, Eureka have included a couple of special features. I was greatly looking forward to the audio commentary by Adrian Martin as I love listening to this guy, and he doesn’t disappoint, offering an extremely well researched talk track with lots of pertinent quotes from other critics and lots of observations of his own. He’s especially good on Mann’s visual style and as usual makes what could have sounded very dry and intellectual very easy to assimilate, though he doesn’t go into background information as much as I would have liked. We also get Kim Newman, another critic I have a lot of time for, talking about the film, and as usual he’s highly enthusiastic as he adds his own thoughts.
*New restored 4K film transfer, presented on both Blu-ray and DVD
*Restored 2.0 and 5.1 soundtracks, presented in uncompressed PCM and DTS-HD MA respectively on the Blu-ray
*English subtitles for the deaf and hard-of-hearing
*New audio commentary by film critic Adrian Martin
*New video interview with critic and novelist Kim Newman
*Original theatrical trailer
*PLUS: a new booklet featuring a new essay by Philip Kemp, an interview with Anthony Mann, and rare archival imagery