An interesting film with picture and sound elements as old and faded as its protagonists
Man of the West Film Review
Man of the West, Anthony Mann’s darkly operatic 1958 oater sees the iconic Gary Cooper playing Link, a former outlaw trying to carve a new life for himself.As always, though, fate intervenes, and when a train robbery strands his charity mission to hire a schoolteacher out in the middle of nowhere, his path ultimately crosses with that of the gang he once rode with and the villainous uncle he abandoned long ago. Unavoidably he must take up arms once again and commit to one last job if he wants to stay alive and protect the woman he was ditched with, Julie London’s sensuous Billie.With Westerns ten-a-cent during the fifties, Mann deliberately crafts a deeply psychological re-rendering of the clichés and conventions of the genre. Whilst it would be a mistake to label it as being revisionist, Man of the West takes a defiantly askew look at the traditional cowboy picture and, using one of its most indelible actors, carves out an altogether tougher, more sombre and haunting reflection of earnest, moral gunslinging.
Cooper is superb, as is Lee J. Cobb as his twisted, Fagin-like uncle. Support from a young Jack Lord and the always excellent Royal Dano ensures that the many lulls are saturated with sickly malice. London has the difficult job of suffering what was then highly controversial sexual abuse, and to see her dignity struggling to survive as her body is lusted over makes for squirm-inducing viewing. Errant knockabout comedy notwithstanding, Mann’s film is unsettlingly brilliant.
Blu-ray Picture QualityThere is a reassuring patina to Eureka’s UK Blu that reflects a pretty much unmolested transfer. The grain appears quite natural, with only the occasional spike. There isn’t any smearing or banding and egregious DNR is absent. I was initially put out by what looked like an unfair amount of edge enhancement though. This seemed quite apparent with bright haloing around objects and characters during early sequences. However, I am willing to concede that this is probably down to the source photography. Although, since I watch an abundance of vintage fare I am very acutely aware of this and to be honest, here, I did find it more than a touch distracting. But this seems to calm down once the film really gets under way.
The transfer exhibits quite a degree of flickering and contrast wavering, and even if specific age-related wear and tear is actually quite minimal the hi-def image cannot mask or milk the movie’s vintage. A few nicks and pops lacerate the 2.35:1 frame but the AVC encode is able to generate a reasonably pleasing sense of depth both inside the glowering old ranch-house and out amidst the landscape. There is definitely a fine level of detail to be seen in close-ups. Costumes and ragged faces certainly exhibit the sort of clarity you would expect, with Royal Dano’s eyes really shining.
Distant objectivity is not as keen, of course, but it can be rewarding at times – for instance, the locomotive steaming through the countryside; a view from the stable down to the ranch as potential villainy approaches, framed by the open doorway; the vista of an imposing rock canyon and the rolling high plains that play witness to the protracted duel between Link and his vicious cousin Coaley, played by Hawaii-Five O’s Jack Lord; the dusty ghost-town of Lassoo (their spelling). Under Mann’s typically large-scale direction, even an image that has only three or so figures in it – one in the foreground and two in the distance, say – can have tremendous composition and topographical atmosphere.
There is some zing to the primaries, as you would expect
Skin-tones tend to look artificial, but this is not an error of the transfer, rather they are part and parcel of the makeup, the lighting and the film-stock of the times. But this isn’t problematic at all. Again, in cahoots with the antiquity of the film, colours are wan and drained of vitality. In fact, the image can sometimes resemble a weathered watercolour, with its thin palette. There is some zing to the primaries, as you would expect – Billie’s coral-pink dress, the trickle of blood down Link’s throat - but this is rarely enough to project any visual energy from the screen. Shadows are variable, with washed-out blacks sometimes but fine murk in the recesses of the ranch and the barn. Contrast can suffer from these fluctuations, though it would be rather churlish to expect otherwise.
On the whole, it would be a disservice to criticise the transfer, although I did somehow think that it would look somewhat cleaner, crisper and perhaps a little more robust. The flickering and overall anaemic quality tends to grate. All things considered, Man of the West gets a very respectable, and some would say charitable 6 out of 10.
Blu-ray Sound QualityWe get a mono LPCM audio track that really doesn’t have a whole lot to say for itself. The soundtrack is a pretty thin and shallow affair that, although consistent, fails to ignite much excitement in either its violence or its verbosity. No fault of the transfer, of course. This is just how an old and somewhat lacklustre original source should sound, after all, and we should be relieved that no silly remix has been attempted.
The track sounds relatively clean with dialogue and effects all coming through unhindered by hiss or crackle. There is some activity and detail with the train shunting about and jerking comical unease into Gary Cooper’s frontiersman. Rifle-shots try to make an impact amidst thundering hoofs and panicked shouts. Pistol shots have a fair crack, but still sound rather tinny and insubstantial. The various chin-slugs and roundhouses come across as ineptly synched and fairly meagre. Cooper utters his lines in a terse low-key, but there is no problem hearing them. Cobb chews the scenery with an insatiable and unstoppable appetite, but his dialogue is endlessly ripe and his speech amply delivered. Nuances like clicking spurs, spades thrust into earth, splashing water and creaking floorboards are present too, but this isn’t a track that strives for subtlety.
Rifle-shots try to make an impact amidst thundering hoofs and panicked shouts
As with most Westerns, the score is very important. Composer Leigh Harline was a veteran of many genres, with a couple of saddle-scores to his credit but he would receive Academy Awards (yep, two) for Disney’s Pinocchio. Sadly this does not boast typically rousing, open-range music. Oh it has rollicking material as befits Gary Cooper, but this is primarily a darker-hued score, lyrical but full of foreboding.
The farcical nature of the film’s opening is swiftly elbowed aside once Link is unwittingly reunited with his old clan, and this allows for a major mood-swing. Whilst the score is indeed sophisticated and finely crafted, its presentation lacks fidelity and can sound quite hollow and stretched. Just as the picture is worn-down and lacks vigour, the sound feels ragged and often shrill. But this is authentic to the source and you can’t argue with that.
Blu-ray ExtrasMan of the West is part of Eureka’s Masters of Cinema series and combines BD and DVD editions of the film.
Whilst my PR copy does not have the 44-page booklet that will accompany the retail release, I can still safely confirm that it trounces the US disc from Kino in that we get a commentary and a featurette as well as the film’s trailer.
The commentary has been recorded exclusively for MOC and features film critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme. This is generally fine stuff, and the duo presents us with a wealth of observations that cling pretty stringently to the action seen onscreen, with a few Tom Weaver-style résumés of the careers of the cast and crew padding things out.
Douglas Pye steers us through a 17-minute featurette that looks at the state of the American Western during the fifties and how Anthony Mann’s atypical offering shook things up a little. He quite rightly asserts that Man of the West, with its dark heart, was the stepping stone that led to Peckinpah’s much more ruthless explorations of the Old West.
Plus we have the film’s trailer.
Man of the West Blu-ray Verdict“Lassoo’s a ghost town, and that's what you are, Dock! You've outlived your kind and outlived your time, and I'm comin' to get you!”
Although I have a few problems with the comedy support of Arthur O’Connell as a confidence trickster whose scam goes wrong and leaves him stuck with Cooper’s taciturn saviour, and with Cooper’s own early attempts at being a fish-out-of-water in the bustling town, these sore-thumb elements can easily be overlooked once we get into the territory of dark and nefarious confrontation, and gothic psychosis. Dialogue-heavy and redolent with sneering malevolence, the exchanges between Link and Cobb’s Dock Tobin are devastatingly sly and only thinly veiled with skin-crawling threat. Cooper is clearly a decade older than Cobb, even with the latter in aged makeup, but this never intrudes on their calloused sparring and this disenfranchised relationship is as taut as a bullwhip.
Likewise, if watching a stalwart old-timer like Cooper going mano-et-mano against the virile and aggressive likes of Jack Lord’s volatile psychotic also absconds with the more formulaic approach of such moralistic horse-operas, its ill-fitting choreography only supports the age-difference between the two. Indeed, the term “opera” is ideally suited to this profound mood-piece. It is, strictly speaking, designed to be larger-than-life in terms of arch characterisation. Cobb, for sure, is playing his animalistic patriarch as though he is some Shakespearean fallen angel, and this may prove too much for some. Indeed, he skirts perilously close to becoming ludicrously piratical at times, owning every scene he is in, but still manages to invest enough nefarious charisma to keep us alongside his crooked last crusade. Plus, with Cooper reining things in, we need his polar opposite to stir venom into this powerful broth.
Quite honestly, Cobb’s interpretation could very easily be argued as being a major influence upon Sergio Leone’s uber-villain, Jean-Marie Volante, in both A Fistful of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More.Only during the climax does this characterisation seem to spiral out of control with Dock doing the unthinkable, and I can’t help feeling that Mann’s mostly extraordinary tale would have been better suited to a more ambiguous conclusion. The narrative was always going to thrust these two against each other, but this wasn’t the appropriate catalyst, I fear. Dock is a monster, all right. But his last act is actually out of character.
Even with its classic status bolstering it, Man of the West is a strange film.
Yes, we have the typical two-fisted brawl, the final gunfight, the great landscape and the grey blur of the moral divide that are the hallmarks of the Western, but Mann’s take is much more deliberate, soul-searching and cruel. Relationships are anything but conventional and allegiances only built under duress and mostly as a form of defence. Link’s attachment to Billie is an odd but compelling one. There is tenderness and devotion there, but we also know of Link’s own marital status back home and, if anything, this is where the staunch and indomitable character of Gary Cooper is reinforced but unlikely. His bond with Billie is daring to say the least, but somewhat conservative at the same time. And being a tad more critical, it is difficult to believe that Link could ever have been a member of this gang in the first place. Dock continually refers to their past of shared infamy, but no matter how steely-eyed and cold we see Cooper act it is nigh-on-impossible to conceive of him as having ever been an evildoer. He is just too damn righteous.
Thus even with a highly lauded appeal and critical appreciation, the film does have more than a few flaws. It is undeniably far from Mann’s best and certainly suffers from some ill-matched elements, meaning that tonal changes are possibly more uncomfortable than was intended. But that vaguely unsatisfied feeling you get as the end credits roll can be rectified by simply watching the film again. Understanding what is isn’t aiming for is crucial, and allows you to savour the moody eloquence and theatricality of the doomed power-play all the more.
This release of Man of the West betters its US counterpart
Eureka’s UK Blu-ray release doesn’t come with much in its saddlebag of supplements but it still betters the US counterpart. Whilst it has a transfer that I’m sure is faithful and the best that could be delivered with the source material, I’m afraid it still leaves me wanting. Like its key antagonists, it looks old and worn, faded and jaded. But Western fans should still rejoice that Mann’s dark celebration of machismo has come riding into hi-def town - Highly Recommended.
You can buy Man of the West on Blu-ray here
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