Friday, 20 March 2015

man of the west

i often hear people complain that they don't like westerns, i guess because with each passing decade the western environment seems more and more alien and distant and i think there's also an idea that the themes handled by westerns are somehow outdated. the thing is, that's so not the case. like all films, westerns are about everything. they're about life. man of the west is a perfect example of that.

the film opens like many westerns do, with a stranger arriving in town. in this case the stranger is link jones, played by gary cooper. gary cooper was one of the great western icons and is probably most famous for high noon. if you haven't seen high noon stop reading this right now, go watch high noon and then come back. seriously, high noon is one of the most left-wing, rebellious, revolutionary movies ever made. i could go on about high noon forever, but back to this film...

so link turns up and all we know about him is that he has a bag of money and a gun, both of which he conceals. he's catching a train across country and when a travelling businessman asks what his plans are he claims he needs to hire a school teacher to work in his home town, except we don't entirely believe him. cooper plays link as a man with something to hide, and we later find out that he really does.

link catches a train, and on the way the train is robbed by bandits. three passengers make it off - link, the businessman and a saloon singer named billie ellis, played by julie london. this julie london -

stranded, the three of them decide to walk to the nearest town and along the way they come across a cabin. link decides to check it out because they need shelter, and it's never clear whether he knows what's waiting for him in that cabin or not. when he opens the door he is confronted by his old gang, led by aging outlaw dock tobin.

what follows is a series of unfortunate events that continuously put link in a position where has no choice but to join up with the gang for one last heist.

what doesn't come across in what i've described is how dark, moody and existential this film is. link is a man haunted by his past; a man who desperately doesn't want to kill again. at the same time there is a sense that it's not a case of his past catching up with him, but that he caught up with his past; that there's an inevitability about what happens to him and how the story plays out.

cooper plays the torment perfectly, because throughout the film he is in a position where he either has to go along with the bandits and become what he was before, or kill them all to escape and become something worse. at the same time he has to protect billie from the gang and this creates a constant tension. there is one excruciating scene in which one of the gangmembers puts a knife to link's throat, pressing it in so hard it draws blood, and orders billie to strip for them while link is forced to watch.

perhaps even more tense is the scene in which link gets some payback against this particular thug and the rage coarsing through him as the beats the crap out of this monster is palpable. it reminded me of jack nicholso's character in the last detail and how he just has this capacity for violence boiling inside him at all times.

i'll be honest, my only issue with the film is that julie london has a particularly thankless task playing billie and it was a shame she didn't get to do more. later there's an implication she has been raped by one of the characters, but because this happens off screen it makes it seem more unnecessary. i'm not a big fan of the rape-revenge movie at all, but it would have been nice to see billie kick some ass.

that said, no one in this film comes off well. even link is portrayed as a terrible person and in those moments where his rage and killer instinct somes through it's never heroic. the fistfights and shootouts in this film are messy and raw; the violence never glorified.

man of the west is not an easy watch, but then anthony mann's grim westerns never are. that said, there is so much that makes this worthwhile, from the extreme tension created in the setpieces to the twists and turns in the story and not forgetting cooper's permanently haunted performance. if you like westerns you will love it, and if you don't then you should watch it anyway because it may just convince you that there is more to the genre than men with guns shooting at each other.

man of the west is released on 23 march 2015 on blu-ray and dvd.

for further details check out the eureka website.

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