The proverbial stranger rides into town looking for a place to wash up and grab a bite to eat. We get the sense he might be sticking around. Except, soon enough, he turns right back around and buys a ticket on the first train out of town. Because he has business to attend to.
The train gets ambushed but subverts expectations again by evading the bandits in time; one of the outlaws gets winged as the rest ride off to live another day. The only people left are three travelers thrown together by circumstance. We have reformed gunman Link Jones (Gary Cooper), the incessant chatterbox Sam Beasley (Arthur OConnell), and saloon songstress Billie Ellis (Julie London).
They must make it by foot and find some way to subsist off the land. But it’s precisely this predicament that causes our protagonist to fully revisit his past in the most direct way possible.
We get some hint of it the way a man at the train station looks him over and asks if they’ve ever met before. We receive our confirmation when he walks into an old cabin only to be confronted with the same outlaws who held up the train. Their leader, a veteran rogue named Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb), walks in and so begins the family reunion.
This used to be the place Jones called home working under his uncle and training to be a killer and a thief. He gave up that life long ago. But now he’s back out of necessity pretending he sought out his uncle purposefully. Meanwhile, the old man bemoans the fact nothing has been the same since Link left.
Lee J. Cobb, God bless him, is poorly cast. He is probably too young in spite of the makeup job. Just as Coop is slightly too old, in the final stages of his illustrious career, to be playing such a character. And yet with those minor qualms aside, their performances in most other aspects could not be better. Because they both remain fine talents who elevate the picture.
The cronies are played by a scruffy gun-crazed Jack Lord with Royal Dano as a mute sidekick, and prolific television actor John Dehner as Link’s cousin who warns him he should have never come back. London is our lone female character and her position is perfectly encapsulated by a single line, “Every man thinks he has the right to put their hands on me. All those lonely people looking for some special thrill.”
The prominence of the mise en scene becomes strikingly evident first in the interiors of the cabin in one particular sequence when a knife is held to Link’s throat as his girl is forced to undress. Then, the outdoor scenes are interspersed with close-ups bursting with color set against the backdrop of the prairie at large with deep blue skies. No more boldly then when Cooper and Lord go at each other’s throats and he returns the favor to the sniveling thug by stripping off his clothes as they both flail around bruised and bloodied.
Dock’s ultimate job to rob the bank in Lassoo is our obvious objective and Link agrees to be the one to ride in first to case the area. But imagine our surprise when the town and its bank turns out to be nothing more than an abandoned outpost with next to nothing to suggest civilization. In our heart of hearts, we knew this was never about a bank robbery or the heist. It’s no mistake the opening attempt is botched and the final outing is a far cry from what was expected. Lassoo is a bank robber’s Mecca that never existed. Maybe in the old days but alas not anymore.
Both these outcomes allow the action to be funneled right back to our characters. Because it is the events in question rousing our hero to act, even if it is against his wishes. To put people in danger and resort to violence become necessary choices. It leads to a resoundingly well-executed shootout on par with the best of the genre, both stylish and jolted with trademark tension from Mann. An obvious precursor to some of Leone’s finest rendered gunfights.
But once more, like The Far Country (1954), the western has been rewritten yet again to dwell in the dirt and the dust of the noonday sun. Violence is only an outcropping of some psychological turmoil that must be dealt with and met with some form of resolution.
What becomes crystal clear with Man of the West is how isolating the frontier is as an entity. Though we start in a big city, aboard trains, and look to end in what’s purported to be a bustling bank town, we are slowly diverted away from those spaces.
The film plays out with a small band of figures caught in interplay fraught with an undercurrent of volatility. The fact there are fewer people only seems to magnify this conflict. Because it is man-to-man they must face each other. There’s little white noise or distraction and Mann has staged everything so it’s clear and boldly laid out before us.
Certainly, if it’s about a handful of characters then at its core is a protagonist who must grapple with something crucial to this entire narrative of regression and decay. Where a man must resort to his old ways — dive back into the hell fury of his past — only to come out on the other side of the maelstrom to prove to himself he is no longer that man. In one sense, it’s playing with fire but it’s also a story that calls for a secondary redemption.
Cooper proves himself in the Town of Good Hope, a town we will never see and a town that acts more like an idea than a tangible place. Lassoo is very much the same — this ghost town that manifests itself as an open-air graveyard — an arena for our climactic showdown. They are points of departure imbued with thematic meaning just as the rundown homestead Jones used to frequent represents a part of his old life. He must throw them off once and for all.
Thus, the final wagon ride off into the wild blue yonder is not just a pretty picture. Yes, Anthony Mann has demonstrated a mastery for capturing the scope of the West here yet again but moreover, his hero is riding back toward the straight and narrow leading to redemption. He has seen the other side and comes back out a man of integrity again.
Whereas High Noon (1952) is a picture easy to admire and enjoy thoroughly straight away, Man of The West is arguably no less brilliant, especially rewarding for those who linger over it. Though strained relations meant James Stewart lost out on working with Anthony Mann again, there’s little doubt Gary Cooper was one of the great western heroes and it’s providential he was furnished this opportunity to ride tall in the saddle once more.