Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Man of the West

Outlaws are rehearsing for their deaths in ghost towns, each man’s death throes more dramatic than the last. This one, a mute, clutches his gut and bays animal-like through deserted streets until he’s sucking dust. That one, senile and depraved, rolls down a rocky hill when his bullet comes, twirling his arms out like a kid at play. And then the hero, their killer, folds their arms over their chests and moves on to the next.

The outlaws in this case are a cancerous brood of robbers and the hero a weary man named Link (Gary Cooper), a reformed member of the clan who must destroy his abandoned family to maintain his newfound respectability as a father and citizen (he begins the film on his way to hire a school teacher on behalf of a settlement). An autumnal western in August, Man of the West comes at the tail end of the great flowering of the genre in the 1950s, bearing a heavy sense of decline and finality in every scene. It’s like watching a play where the set is dismantled before the actors even take their bows.

Anthony Mann’s direction is at its most flexible and assured here, moving from the dense geometry of cramped interiors (trains, cabins) to the engulfing expanses of the outdoors. What matters are not the landscapes, but rather the empty spaces between people—or in some cases, the empty spaces they leave behind. When the robbers ride into a mining town called Lasso, they expect to find great wealth ripe for the taking, but instead discover a desolate frontier outpost, population one: a poor Mexican woman awaiting her absent husband.

One of the robbers shoots the woman, initiating a tensely filmed series of gun battles that leaves Link the last man standing. As he leaves the town, he passes the returning husband of the dead woman, mutters a terse “Sorry,” and rides on. The camera pulls back to capture the entire town, with Link on one side of the screen shrinking from view, diminished, while the man on the other side stands in a doorway calling out to his dead wife. You don’t look at the figures in this immense landscape portrait—just the great emptiness that surrounds and connects them both.

The whole world might as well be a ghost town now, all empty streets filled up with empty people waiting for nothing. This is a sorrow of such grand dimensions it could only exist in the dry, dusty purgatory of a western, a sorrow momentarily alleviated—but finally sharpened—by the bittersweet ending. “I know there’s no hope for us,” one ghost says to another, smiling wistfully all the same, as if this sense of loss and impossibility is the kindest thing she has ever known, and perhaps it is. “I wouldn’t change this feeling, not for anything.”

No comments: