For anyone who has seen an Anthony Mann western and/or had the chance to see MAN OF THE WEST (1958) at the IU Cinema on Thursday, January 18, 2018, it’s clear Anthony Mann had a unique style. And while it probably wouldn’t matter to the director himself, his Westerns aren’t often thoroughly discussed—at least not in many of the classic studies on film genre. (Jim Kitses’ HORIZONS WEST is an exception.) His films weren’t always known as canonical westerns, but if you watch enough Mann films it becomes obvious he had a fascination with genre films (the western and film noir especially), was a true artist, and made some pretty spectacular westerns!
When it comes to Mann’s westerns, specifically, he toyed with narrative tropes (revenge stories, for instance) as well as generic aesthetics and technical and industry practices (like long shots featuring the western “hero” AND the landscape surrounding him, and the western star—men like Gary Cooper and James Stewart). Yet, the beautiful thing about these films is the way in which Mann often twists them into recognition. That is, often when I’m watching a genre film for fun I don’t need to think about all of the typical pieces falling into place, they simply do; and I recognize it as the type of film it is—a western, a musical, a thriller. When it comes to a number of Mann’s westerns, it is these very pieces that become the film’s focus. In fact, many of his films are studies of genre or works of art that know how to highlight (often through a mutation of sorts) the very elements we recognize as representative of the genre itself. I’ve found that in most cases the films that seem the most twisted out of shape are also the ones that cause me to think the most about what actually makes a genre film a genre film. What makes a western a western? It’s a question many scholars have answered, and in many different ways. I like to think that many of Mann’s westerns like to ask this question of their viewers.
While MAN OF THE WEST is certainly one of my favorite Mann westerns, here are three more that I think stand out and always make me ask myself: “Why don’t we talk more about Anthony Mann westerns?”
- THE FURIES (1950)
Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston, THE FURIES is my favorite Mann film. It’s part western, part film noir, and just a bit eerie. I love Stanwyck in pretty much anything, but she’s truly a force to be seen in this film. When it comes to Stanwyck as a westerner, most people think of Jessica Drummond in Samuel Fuller’s FORTY GUNS (1957) or the Barkley family matriarch on ABC’s THE BIG VALLEY (1965-1969). I, however, think of her as Vance Jeffords.
- BEND OF THE RIVER (1952)
If you were to ask which Mann-James Stewart western you should see, most people would recommend THE NAKED SPUR (1953). But when it comes to those notorious darker westerns that Mann and Stewart worked on repeatedly in the 1950s, I prefer BEND OF THE RIVER. Its setting in the northwestern territories and Rock Hudson’s role as a trouble-making gambler-turned-frontiersman always strike me as odd, but fitting for this beautiful western.
- WINCHESTER ’73 (1950)
Mann was known for creating not only darker, striking westerns, but also what people often refer to as “psychological westerns.” MAN OF THE WEST is one of those films, as are THE NAKED SPUR and BEND OF THE RIVER to some extent. In fact, Mann and Stewart’s partnership is well-known for its production of several of these kinds of films. However, the one that keeps drawing me back is WINCHESTER ’73. Of all his westerns—perhaps with the exclusion of MAN OF THE WEST—this film seems to provide the most explicit statement about the genre—its typical narratives, themes and icons, and their hold over Americans.
MAN OF THE WEST played at the IU Cinema on January 18, 2018 as a part of this semester’s The Wide, Wide West series. The following films will also be shown as part of this series: RIVER OF NO RETURN (1954), RIDE LONESOME (1959), and RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY (1962).
A PhD Candidate in Communication and Culture, Katherine studies film and media, genre (particularly the Western), gender, and performance. She has a BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and has been fascinated with film since she could remember.