A mention of the name Anthony Mann in a room full of cinephiles will undoubtedly be met with breathless enthusiasm. In fact, I can think of few directors as roundly evangelized by that most discerning community than Mann, best known for his series of Westerns with James Stewart in the 1950s. Mention the name to the uninitiated, however, and expect little to no recognition of this director responsible for some of the most important and influential films of the 1940s and 1950s.
This cultural neglect is likely due to the relative indifference with which the director was regarded by top American critics in his prime. The great Andrew Sarris, for one, offered only backhanded praise when he wrote in 1963, “Anthony Mann is a style without a theme. His Westerns are distinguished by some of the most brilliant photography of exteriors in the history of American cinema, yet it is impossible to detect a consistent thematic pattern in his work.” Meanwhile, the French critics at Cahiers du Cinema were picking up on what those fervent cinephiles now regard as the Gospel Truth—that it was Mann who, while working in the firmly regimented Western and film noir genres, imbued his male protagonists with a depth of psychology, humanity, and individualism theretofore unseen at the movies. Of the director, Cahiers’ André Bazin wrote in 1956, “Anthony Mann watches his heroes struggle and suffer, with tenderness and sympathy. He finds their violence beautiful because it is human…”
I came to know Anthony Mann through his early film noir work of the 1940s. Being fortunate enough to attend a university with an exhaustive film collection, I spent countless afternoons and evenings holed up in library screening booths with films like T-Men, Strange Impersonation, Raw Deal, Railroaded!, and Desperate. These films from Mann’s first era are unquestionably part of the noir genre’s rank and file; 75 to 90 minute bursts of instantly recognizable crime tropes. A heist goes bad. An innocent man is framed. A double cross, a shootout, a femme fatale. Within this formulaic context, though, you can see Mann developing his sense of characterization. The innocent boys next door framed for the jobs gone bad turn to cocksure antiheroes bent on personal vengeance and vindication.
And it is precisely the personal aspect of these characters’ motivations that figures so prominently in Mann’s later Western films. An Anthony Mann hero trusts no one, and, more so, trusts no institution. Mann’s protagonists are most often on the run from the cops and the hoods, the Indians and the cavalry, the sheriff and the ranch baron. His men are indeed islands. The emergence of this trait in Mann’s noir era is summed up pointedly in Railroaded! (1947). When Steve Ryan, who’s been framed for a botched beauty salon robbery that also leaves a police officer dead, is pressed by investigators as to what he’s done with the $5,000 taken in the heist, he caustically (and hilariously) taunts the cops by responding that he “spent $1,000 on beer, bought bubblegum with the rest.” The infuriated investigator then asks, “Do you think it’s funny to kill a man?” Ryan coldly replies, “No, not even a cop.”
Mann’s noir films so impressed Jimmy Stewart that the actor handpicked the director to replace Fritz Lang at the helm of 1950’s Winchester ’73. In Stewart, Mann found his perfect aesthetic vehicle. The actor’s expressive countenance, gruff cadence, and acerbic demeanor provided the ideal canvas on which Mann could paint his driven, tormented men. The two paired for five wildly influential films—Winchester ’73, Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man From Laramie (1955)—and each stands among the best of the storied genre.
The famous saying holds that there are but two stories—a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. This maxim holds particularly true of Mann’s work with Stewart. In each of the pair’s collaborations, Stewart plays a man preternaturally driven to avenge a personal injustice from his past. The Man From Laramie, their final, and best, film together, finds Stewart as the stranger, Will Lockhart, who shows up in the town of Coronado with a wagon full of supplies for a local merchant, but also with an eye towards uncovering the circumstances surrounding his brother’s murder at the hands of the Apache. On his way out of town, Lockhart stops at some salt flats to load his wagons for the return trip to Laramie. When Dave Waggoman, the son of the local ranch baron who owns the salt flats, discovers Lockhart on his land he burns Lockhart’s wagons, shoots his mules, and delivers a hearty beating to Lockhart himself. It’s not long until Lockhart discovers a connection between Waggoman and the smuggling of repeating rifles to the Apaches.
Lockhart, of course, becomes positively blinded by rage, and it is in this that Mann differentiates his protagonists from heroes past. Lockhart is no white-hatted good guy tracking a black-hatted villain. He is angry and impulsive, exacting but reckless. In fact, both Lockhart and Waggoman noticeably wear gray hats. Lockhart’s codger of a companion, Charley O’Leary, says at one point of his partner, “Hate’s unbecoming in a man like you. In some men, it shows.”
The Naked Spur and Bend of the River likewise find Stewart playing prickly, conflicted men (a bounty hunter and a reformed outlaw, respectively) on quasi-maniacal quests to resolve their haunted pasts. Private vigilantes in pursuit of personal justice. That characters such as these should not seem so revelatory to modern viewers is perhaps the greatest mark of Anthony Mann’s innovation, and of his lasting influence. Some of the most indelible characters in the history of cinema, to include Don Siegel’s “Dirty” Harry Callahan, The Searchers’ Ethan Edwards, and Unforgiven’s William Munny, were fired in the kiln of Mann’s hardboiled psychology, and for that we owe him a great debt.