Oedipus West: The Man From Laramie (1955)

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The five Westerns that Jimmy Stewart made for director Anthony Mann proceed with the inexorable grim fates of Greek tragedy. The Man From Laramie (1955), their final collaboration, circles around the perverse machinations of the Waggoman family, rich ranch owners who are overflowing with cattle and Oedipal anxieties. Stewart is the rootless antagonist who triggers their fears into violence. These are characters weighted with symbolic significance, from the blinded patriarch to his spoiled, elaborately dressed son, but the film never sinks under that weight. Mann’s widescreen cinematography of the parched New Mexico desert keeps nature in balance with the corroded psyches of his protagonists. The West is not an expressionist tool for Mann, but a hard reality that is irreducible to his film’s characters. As Andre Bazin wrote in his 1956 review of The Man From Laramie, “when his camera pans, it breathes.” This breathing is made visible in the superb limited edition Blu-ray from Twilight Time, remastered from the original negative in a 4K scan, and presented in its original 2.55:1 aspect ratio for the first time on home video. It’s available exclusively through Screen Archives.

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Anthony Mann and his screenwriter Philip Yordan were very consciously going after mythic resonances in their Westerns together. Yordan said he was trying to, “find again the purities of heroes of ancient tragedies, of Greek tragedies, and on this I was in perfect agreement with Anthony Mann.” Adapted from Thomas T. Flynn’s 1954 novel by Yordan and Frank Burt,  The Man From Laramie circulates around the Waggoman family, a doomed gene pool overflowing with hubris. Patriarch Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) is an aging dictatorial ranch owner, one who built up his land through intimidation, but now desires a life of quietude. His son Dave (Alex Nicol) denies him any peace, a short-fused man-child decked out in leather fringe who lashes out against any perceived slight. Dave is Alec’s sole heir, while it is Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) who in actuality manages the ranch, keeping Dave out of scrapes and hoping for a large slice of inheritance himself. When Will Lockhart (Stewart) rolls into town, all of the festering insecurities of the Waggoman family ooze into the open. Lockhart comes from his own broken home on a mission of vengeance – seeking the man who sold repeating rifles to the Apache, rifles that gunned down his Army cavalry brother.

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Lockhart’s presence activates the Waggoman’s pre-ordained doom, foretold in one of Alec’s dreams, in which a tall slender man kills his son and destroys his family. As in Oedipus Rex, Alec misreads the symbolism of the dream, and suffers his inevitable fate. The family atmosphere is suffocating, but the world of the CinemaScope frame is airy and free. Lockhart is introduced  in a long shot in the desert, traveling from left to right in the frame, pausing to peer at the horizon. He appears as if he is the traditional Western hero, exerting his will over the land. But as the narrative will prove, no one has control other than the fates, and nature rolls along on its own, indifferent to the violence executed amid its beauty. Bazin again:

In most Westerns, even in the best ones like Ford’s, the landscape is an expressionist framework where human trajectories come to make their mark. It Anthony Mann it is an atmosphere. Air itself is not separate from earth and water. Like Cezanne, who wanted to paint it, Anthony Mann wants us to feel aerial space, not like a geometric container, a vacuum from one horizon to the other, but like the concrete quality of space. When his camera pans, it breathes.

Humanity’s imprint on the land is transient. In the opening, Lockhart finds scraps of his brother’s cavalry troop, bits of torched wagon wheel and army uniform. All signs of life have been effaced, and soon there will be nothing. The same can be said for Waggoman’s ranch, Alec’s gesture towards permanence threatened with extinction thanks to Dave and Vic’s rivalry for Alec’s affections.

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As the film’s instigating force, Lockhart is a man of abiding hatred. As his old coot sidekick will tell him, “hate’s unbecoming on a man like you. On some people it shows.” While Mann prefers to depict the arid landscape in long shot, his few close-ups are used to emphasize Lockhart’s humiliation. In the inciting act, Dave Waggoman orders Lockhart to be tied up and dragged through a fire. Jimmy Stewart’s face turns into an agonized rictus, his voice a swallowed down yelp. The Man From Laramie is a brutally violent film, and Mann claims to have pushed the Stewart and his character to his limit:  ”That [film] distilled our relationship. I reprised themes and situations by pushing them to their paroxysms. So the band of cowboys surround Jimmy and rope him as they did before in Bend of the River, but here I shot him through the hand!.” The Man From Laramie is a gorgeous paroxysm, one that depicts suffocating, doomed intimacy in the open air. It features one of Stewart’s finest performances, pitched between his natural gentle demeanor, seen in his guarded flirtation with the Waggoman niece (Cathy O’Donnell), and  blinkered, self-destructive rage, whenever his physical boundaries are violated. He is a docile animal except when cornered, when he attempts to carve his own fate out of others’ flesh.

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10 Responses Oedipus West: The Man From Laramie (1955)
Posted By swac44 : June 17, 2014 4:03 pm

I first saw Man From Laramie on a pan & scan VHS tape in university at the urging of a friend, and was immediately captivated by it, and I credit the Mann film with reinvigorating my interest in the Hollywood Western. Stewart’s performance was a marvel to me, one of the most intense things I’d ever seen, and it set me off to find the rest of the Mann/Stewart films, along with the work of Budd Boetticher, Andre de Toth, Delmer Daves and of course, John Ford.

I swore I wasn’t going to double dip and buy yet another copy when Twilight Time announced they were releasing this on blu-ray, but thanks to this article, they’ve racked up another sale. Curse you, Movie Morlocks! (I mean that in the nicest way possible, of course.)

Posted By Jenni : June 17, 2014 4:30 pm

Just watched Winchester 73 and Bend of the River last week. Now I need to add this one to my viewing list. Thanks for the info!

Posted By Dan Heaton : June 18, 2014 2:53 am

The Man From Laramie isn’t my favorite of the Mann/Stewart westerns, but it has some incredible scenes. It may be Stewart’s best performance, and the intensity from Lockhart is surprising from an actor with his persona. It’s great to see so many people catching up with these films!

Posted By tdraicer : June 18, 2014 4:50 am

Arthur Kennedy also gives one of his best performances as (in some ways) the most reasonable person in the story, so that by the time the final confrontation takes place I had mixed feelings as to which side I was on.

Posted By Juana Maria : June 23, 2014 2:36 am

Swac 44: Calm down! TCM and its Morlocks just want to entertain us! That and get us to buy, tape or watch hundreds of films! Ok, I can’t afford to buy all the films I love, but I do tape a lot of them off TCM. As for Jimmy Stewart and this movie, this one is not particularly my favorite. I hate seeing Jimmy get his hand shot. I know it isn’t real but it tears me up anyway! Have you ever seen where “The Man From Laramie” was compared to Shakespeare’s “King Lear”? There was a night of Shakespeare inspired stories on TCM years ago. This was one. Oh, if you like “Man From Laramie”, or even if you don’t, check out “The King of Texas”. It stars Patrick Stewart. It is “King Lear” set in the Old West.

Posted By george : June 23, 2014 5:23 pm

The Mann Westerns (and VERTIGO) serve as rebuttals to the popular notion that Stewart was always the nice, wholesome guy of the Capra films … although there’s a lot of darkness in his performance in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, which a lot of viewers somehow will themselves to overlook.

The scene of Stewart’s hand being shot was shockingly violent for its time, much like Gloria Grahame getting coffee in her face in THE BIG HEAT. Today I’m afraid it would barely be noticed.

Posted By Juana Maria : June 26, 2014 2:35 am

George: Your comments are so true! Yes, I did find them to be quite violent for the time. Nowadays the commercials for the latest TV show or movie is way more violent. That and pretty much every Western and Action movie since “The Wild Bunch” is just like what Bill Holden says: “If they move, kill them!”
Another 50′s movie I thought was quite violent, especially one scene where a man is shot in the forehead, ” Johnny Guitar”. I didn’t like that scene or a very similar one in “Pale Rider”. Ok. I know I mentioned “The Wild Bunch”, but I fast forward through shooting. I watch it for my favorite actors. (sigh)

Posted By robbushblog : July 11, 2014 4:52 am

I used to have this movie on an old VHS. It’s been too long since I owned it, and since I already have Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, and The Far Country, I should get this well. Are there any good copies of The Naked Spur on the market?

Posted By swac44 : July 11, 2014 12:20 pm

MGM/UA put out a good looking DVD of The Naked Spur, you should be able to find it for $10 – $15. Great Robert Ryan and Ralph Meeker performances too, which is always a plus, not to mention a young Janet Leigh.

Posted By robbushblog : July 11, 2014 1:20 pm

Yeah, I really like The Naked Spur. AND young Janet Leigh!

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