Thursday, March 4, 2010

Into the West: James Stewart, Anthony Mann, and a Bell on the Saddle

James Stewart and director Anthony Mann made five classic Westerns together between 1950 and 1955. In order of personal preference, they are: The Far Country; Winchester ’73 (1950); Bend of the River (1952); The Naked Spur (1953); and The Man From Laramie (1955). Although Stewart plays a different character in each film, his protagonists are social misfits that share traits such as bitterness, shady pasts, and, when necessary, ruthlessness. As cowpoke Jeff Webster in The Far Country, his mottos are: “Nobody ever did anything for nothing” and “I take care of me.”

The Far Country begins in Seattle in 1896 with Jeff and partner Ben (Walter Brennan) loading cattle onto a steamer heading to Skagway, Alaska. The boat hasn’t even left the dock when Jeff runs into trouble with the law when two cowhands accuse him of murder. Jeff avoids capture by ducking into a stateroom. Its occupant, pretty saloon owner Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman), hides him from the authorities (in her bed, no less, with her in it!).

Once Jeff and Ben reach Skagway, their real problems start with Jeff running afoul of Mr. Gannon (John McIntire), the town’s self-appointed judge, mayor, and sheriff. Apparently patterned after the real-life Judge Roy Bean, Gannon provides a semblance of law and order as long as he can make a personal profit. While he holds court at a poker table in a saloon, Gannon tells Jeff: “I’m gonna like you. I’m gonna hang you, but I’m gonna like you.”

As with Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River, the narrative goes down several unexpected paths before the final showdown. But the plot is less important in The Far Country than its characters and theme of civilization overtaking the frontier. Even in a small, isolated goldmining community, its residents dream of making it a “real town” with a school, a church, and a sheriff. The townsfolk don’t like Ronda, because her saloons attract the wrong kind of people. Ironically, the townspeople want Jeff to be part of the community (as does Ben), but Jeff rejects that idea. It could be that Jeff resists the notion of civilization conquering the West. As Ben points out, Jeff always keeps going from place to place—talking of settling down one day, but never doing it. Only when he suffers a personal loss does Jeff finally take action against Gannon and his henchmen and become part of the community.

John McIntire stands out among a fine cast, bringing roguish charm to the role of villain. It’s probably his best part in a long, successful career of supporting performances (including the sheriff in Psycho).

Director Mann is also at the top of his game, pitting the clean vistas of white, snowcapped mountains against the muddy streets of the ugly towns. But it’s the little touches like the bell on Jeff’s saddle that make The Far Country memorable. Ben explains that he bought the bell to hang over the door of the house where he and Jeff will settle down (“I like to know when my friends is coming”). It’s not until the final scene that Mann reveals the important role that the tiny bell (which represents community?) will play in the proceedings. Even after the somewhat too convenient denouement, it’s the tinkle of that bell that lingers in memory.

7 comments:

  1. Rick, Awesome review! The Bend in the River is my favorite of the two films. I thought the story line was believable how Baile did not know anything about McLyntock's past and trusts him completely, a trust McLyntock truly values and tries to live up to. Stewart was wonderful as the outlaw trying to reform. Also another one of my favorite actors Harry Morgan who gave a wonderful performance. I also enjoyed seeing Rock Hudson in a Western..

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  2. Rick, as you know I'm a Big Fan of thee Stewart Mann westerns. I place Winchester 73, ahead of The Far Country ,but not by much. Mann really does use color locations, and sound (the bell on Pie for example) as a story telling technique .Mann get's good performances from the entire cast. These five films changed the "Western "for ever. I wonder if John Wayne would have done The Searchers if not for these films.

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  3. Dawn and Paul, I own all five of the Mann-Stewart Westerns. For me, it's a virtual tie among the top three: WINCHESTER '73, THE FAR COUNTRY, and BEND OF THE RIVER. What I love about WINCHESTER is how the narrative unfolds: You meet a character, he or she encounters someone else, and then you follow the second character. Then later, the storylines intersect. It's a narrative "trick" used by filmmakers as diverse of Max Ophuls and Tarantino--but it's sure unusual for a Western...in the 1950s. Paul, you are absolutely correct about how these films pioneered the "adult Western." They also changed the film industry, since Stewart became of one first stars to get a percentage of the profits when he signed up for these films. Dawn, I agree that BEND OF THE RIVER is excellent. Thematically, it and THE FAR COUNTRY are both about community and redemption. They'd make an excellent double-feature. Harry Morgan is a baddie in FAR COUNTRY, too.

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  4. Rick, the Western genre is not my favorite, but your write-up of THE FAR COUNTRY is fascinating. And a five-movie marathon of the Stewart/Mann collaborations could be a treat! Of the five, I've only seen the one which provided the focus of your post, so hopefully you can follow up with reviews of the other movies. I always enjoy reading your write-ups, Rick.

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  5. Anthony Mann and James Stewart made a wonderful team. Mann made Westerns look beautiful and larger than life. The pictures you posted help show that, Rick. Excellent post!

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  6. I am agree witch Rick 29 about Bend of the river and Far country are similar thematically. For me the best of mann/stewart team.

    Bud

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  7. Would someone please, please email me and tell me which movie has the bell on the saddle and pie walking down the street. brickboo2@yahoo.com

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