A man (Gary Cooper) is in a little local train when it is attacked by bandits. Along with two chance travelling companions, a professional gambler (Arthur O'Connell) and a saloon girl (Julie London), he tries to get back civilization. All three land up at the bandit hideout (among the bandits, the tubercular book-lover from Johnny Guitar), and we suddenly discover that the Man of the West is none other than the chief's nephew, who used belong to the gang but gave it all up to lead a more Christian existence under other skies. But the half-crazy old man (Lee J. Cobb) who leads the outlaws believes that his nephew has really come back. Not to disillusion him is according to our hero, the only way of avoiding disaster for his companions. Unfortunately, a cousin turns up unexpectedly. He proves to be much Iess credulous than the uncle. This odyssey finally ends in terrible slaughter in a deserted town. Gary Cooper and Julie London escape unharmed. But not being in love with each other (kissing figures no more prominently in Man 0f the West than in The Tin Star), they decide to go their own ways as the end-title comes up.
The script is by Reginald Rose, who also wrote Twelve Angry Men. So you can see that Man of the West belongs, a priori, to those 'super-Westerns' 0f which Andre Bazin spoke. Although if one thinks of Shane or High Noon, this is likely, still a priori, to be a defect. Especially as, after Men in War and The Tin Star, the art of Anthony Mann seemed to be evolving towards a purely theoretic schematism of mise en scene, directly opposed to that of The Naked Spur, The Far Country, The Last Frontier or even The Man from Laramie. In this respect, seeing God's Little Acre was as depressing as it was catastrophic. Yet this unmistakable deterioration, this apparent dryness in the most Virgilian of film-makers ... if one looks again at The Man from Laramie, The Tin Star and Man of the West in sequence, it may perhaps be that this extreme simplification is an endeavour, and the systematically more and more linear dramatic construction is a search: in which case the endeavour and the search would in themselves be, as Man of the West now reveals, a step forward. So this last film would in a sense be his Elena, and The Man from Laramie his Carrosse d'or, The Tin Star his French-Cancan.
But a step forward in what direction? Towards a Western style which will remind some of Conrad, others of Simenon, but reminds me of nothing whatsoever, for I have seen nothing so completely new since - why not? - Griffith. Just as the director of Birth of a Nation gave one the impression that he was inventing the cinema with every shot, each shot of Man of the West gives one the impression that Anthony Mann is reinventing the Western, exactly as Matisse's portraits reinvent the features of Piero della Francesca. It is, moreover, more than an impression. He does reinvent. I repeat, reinvent; in other words, he both shows and demonstrates, innovates and copies, criticizes and creates. Man of the West, in short, is both course and discourse, or both beautiful landscapes and the explanation of this beauty, both the mystery of firearms and the secret of this mystery, both art and the theory of art ... of the Western, the most cinematographic genre in the cinema, if I may so put it. The result is that Man of the West is quite simply an admirable lesson in cinema - in modern cinema.
For there are perhaps only three kinds of Western, in the sense that Balzac once said there were three kinds of novel: of images, of ideas, and of images and ideas, or Walter Scott, Stendhal, and Balzac himself. As far as the Western is concerned, the first genre is The Searchers; the second, Rancho Notorious; and the third, Man of the West. I do not mean by this that John Ford's film is simply a series of beautiful images. On the contrary. Nor that Fritz Lang's is devoid of plastic or decorative beauty. What I mean is that with Ford it is primarily the images which conjure the ideas, whereas with Lang it is rather the opposite, and with Anthony Mann one moves from idea to image to return - as Eisenstein wanted - to the idea.
Let's take some examples. In The Searchers, when John Wayne finds Natalie Wood and suddenly holds her up at arm's length, we pass from stylized gesture to feeling, from John Wayne suddenly petrified to Ulysses being reunited with Telemachus. In Rancho Notorious, on the other hand, when Mel Ferrer makes Marlene Dietrich win on the lottery-wheel, the SUdden feeling of the intrusion of tragedy in a Far West saloon is not so much reinforced as created by Mel Ferrer's foot tipping the wheel - and with it we pass from the abstract and stylized idea to the gesture. With Ford, an image gives the idea of a shot; with Lang, it is the idea of the shot which gives a beautiful image. And with Anthony Mann?
If one analyses the scene in Man of the West where one of the bandits holds his knife to Gary Cooper's throat to force Julie London to strip, one will see that its beauty springs from the fact that it is based at once on a purely theoretical idea and on an extreme realism. With each shot, we pass with fantastic speed from the image of Julie London undressing to the idea of the bandit imagining he will soon see her naked. So Mann need only show the girl in her underwear to give us the impression that we are seeing her naked.
With Anthony Mann, one rediscovers the Western, as one discovers arithmetic in an elementary maths class. Which is to say that Man of the West is the most intelligent of films, and at the same time the most simple. What is it about? About a man who discovers himself in a dramatic situation; and looks about him for a way out. So the mise en scene of Man of the West will consist - here I almost wanted to write, already consists, for Anthony Mann is beginning to express in form what among his predecessors was usually content, and vice versa - of discovering and defining all the same time, whereas in a classical Western the mise en scene consisted of discovering and then defining. Simply compare the famous pan shot which reveals the arrival of the Indians in Stagecoach with the fix-focus shot in The Last Frontier of the Indians just appearing out of the high grass to surround Victor Mature and his companions. The force of Ford's camera movement arises from its plastic and dynamic beauty. Mann's shot is, one might say, of vegetal beauty. Its force springs precisely from the fact that it owes nothing to any planned aesthetic.
Let us take another example, this time from Man of the West. In the deserted town, Gary Cooper comes out of the little bank and looks to see if the bandit he has just shot is really dead, for he can see him stumbling in the distance at the end of the single street which slopes gently away at his feet. An ordinary director would simply have cut from Gary Cooper coming out to the dying bandit. A more subtle director might have added various details to enrich the scene, but would have adhered to the same principle of dramatic composition. The originality of Anthony Mann is that he is able to enrich while simplifying to the extreme. As he comes out, Gary Cooper is framed in medium shot. He crosses almost the entire field of vision to look at the deserted town, and then (rather than have a reverse angle of the town, fol· lowed by a shot of Gary Cooper's face as he watches) a lateral tracking shot re-frames Cooper as he stands motionless, staring at the empty town. The stroke of genius lies in having the track start after Gary Cooper moves, because it is this dislocation in time which allows a spatial simultaneity: in one fell swoop we have both the mystery of the deserted town, and Gary Cooper's sense of unease at the mystery. With Anthony Mann, each shot comprises both analysis and synthesis, or as Luc Moullet noted, both the instinctive and the premeditated.
There are other ways of praising Man of the West. One could talk about the delightful farm nestling amid the greenery which George Eliot would have loved, or about Lee J. Cobb, with whom Mann succeeds where Richard Brooks failed in The Brothers Karamazov. One could also talk about the final gunfight, since this is the first time that the man shooting and the man shot at are both kept constantly in frame at the same time. I spoke earlier of vegetal beauty. In Man of the West, Gary Cooper's amorphous face belongs to the mineral kingdom: thus proving that Anthony Mann is returning to the basic truths.
excerpt from the book Godard On Godard