The Man from Laramie (1955)
Directed by Anthony Mann
Produced by William Goetz
Written by Phillip Jordan and Frank Burt, based on the story "The Man from Laramie" by Thomas T. Flynn
Cinematography by Charles Lang
James Stewart made seven Westerns between 1950 and 1957. In all the years leading up to the 1950s, he made only one, Destry Rides Again (1939). (Make it two if you want to count 1938’s Of Human Hearts.) Five of those 1950s Westerns were directed by Anthony Mann, who also directed several film noir titles. I’m not sure what attracted Stewart to either Westerns or Mann, but clearly this is not the laid-back “aw, shucks” Stewart of the 30s and 40s. This Stewart isn’t best friends with an imaginary six-foot rabbit or the reluctant head of the Bailey Building and Loan. This James Stewart is an inferno of anger.
Was that anger learned or was it always hidden somewhere inside Stewart? Was it something he discovered how to tap into after WWII? Or was he simply acting? “Hate’s unbecoming on a man like you,” says Charley (Wallace Ford) to Will Lockhart (Stewart) in the opening moments of the film. We the audience might be thinking the same thing, especially if we’ve seen any of Stewart’s pre-war films. The two men are ostensibly delivering a wagon train of supplies from Laramie to the little town of Coronado, but we know Lockhart has another purpose in mind. When they discover the charred remains of a wagon, Lockhart’s guard goes up, but there’s more to it than that. He believes he’s found evidence that may lead him to uncover the truth behind his brother’s murder.
Lockhart and Charley unload their supplies to a Coronado mercantile store whose owner, Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), really doesn’t want the supplies, even though she admits to ordering them. This confuses Lockhart, but only long enough for him to wonder why the store contains a repeating rifle that was used as trade from an Apache, a tribe which has been terrorizing the local community. Lockhart’s questions meet an abrupt end as he and his men attempt to fill their wagons with salt from a local salt mine, which Barbara had promised him was free for the taking. Not so.
Cinematographer Charles Lang shows us a line of men riding in the distance down a high hill. We’re not sure at first whether they are Apaches or someone else, but the camera follows them as they descend, their determination purposeful and urgent. In one unbroken shot, they arrive several yards from Lockhart and his men, who look on, their shovels of salt half-raised. Once we realize this isn’t an Indian attack, we feel a sense of relief, yet we soon realize the anticipated carnage could be equally devastating, perhaps worse. Not a word has been spoken, but our stomachs are in knots.
Many things happen in the space of only a few moments. The leader of this group, Dave Waggoman (Alex Nichol) - Barbara’s cousin - accuses Lockhart of stealing from his father’s salt mine. Lockhart assures Dave that he was told the salt was free for the taking and that this misunderstanding can be cleared up, but Waggoman’s having none of it. In a scene that is brutal, swift, and shocking, Waggoman has Lockhart roped and dragged by horse, his wagons torched, and his mules shot. In just a few seconds, Mann has given his audience enough violence to fill an entire motion picture. Mann also makes some brilliant decisions here. The quickness of the carnage takes our collective breath away. We wonder what type of man would so indiscriminately wield such violence with such speed? We can’t tell; Mann never gives us a good look at Dave Waggoman. Even in a medium shot (the closest we get at this point), his features are indeterminate, vague. He could be anybody. And the fearful idea is further conveyed that he could appear at any time. (The basic structure of this scene is cleverly repeated later in the film in a different situation with a different outcome.)
Although much damage has already been done, the violence is stopped with the arrival of Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy, above center), foreman of the Waggoman Barb Ranch. Vic doesn’t answer to Dave, but rather to Dave’s father Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp, left), who’s hired Vic partly to keep the rambunctious Dave in check. From Thomas T. Flynn’s original story, Philip Yordan and Frank Burt give us the structure for a family conflict worthy of a Shakespearian tragedy. The aging Alec won’t be able to run the family dynasty forever, and Vic - although he’s not family - hopes that his years of service will count for something, certainly far more than Dave’s profligate ways. The stage is set for more drama and fireworks: Lockhart - now looking not only for his brother’s killer, but also for compensation (and a little revenge) for the injustice done to him by Dave, is taken in by local rancher Kate Canaday (Aline MacMahon), who was once engaged to Alec. And let’s not forget the mysteries: who’s selling all these rifles to the Apaches, and what happened to Lockhart’s brother? And, just for good measure, let’s have Lockhart fall in love with Barbara, knowing full well that she’s Vic’s girl.
All of this is wonderful stuff, but let’s get back to Stewart. He was 47 when The Man from Laramie was produced and had been back from military service for ten years. His return to Hollywood was somewhat hit-and-miss, a combination of good roles in pretty good - if not entirely successful - films (It’s a Wonderful Life, Call Northside 777, Rope), but also some clunkers (Magic Town). If nothing else, that collection of postwar films could easily be called scattershot. After meeting Mann and working with him on Winchester ’73 (1950), Stewart seemed to settle into a groove, perhaps exploring parts of himself he didn’t know he had. In each of the Mann Westerns, audiences saw a side of Stewart they hadn’t seen before. His characters in the Mann films were weathered and weary, but driven by a sense of anger, usually in response to an injustice done to him or someone he loved. You get the feeling watching Stewart during this era that if we could look back at the characters he played a week or two before the films’ stories began, we’d find a decent, hard-working cowboy/rancher/etc. But something happened to those characters and the normally affable Stewart tapped into whatever that was, breathing (and vengeance) life into them.
Watching a Jimmy Stewart movie, we’re always conscious that we’re watching a Jimmy Stewart movie. You come for him, you stay for him, and you appreciate him. You like him, feel you know him. But when his character’s anger rises to the surface, when the lust for revenge overwhelms him, we’re not sure how to handle it. It unhinges our world. But we watch in fascination.
We see the injustices done to these characters and recall former roles. George Bailey doesn’t deserve to be lassoed and dragged through a fire. Senator Jefferson Smith doesn’t, either. And good gracious, who can imagine Elwood P. Dowd watching helplessly as his wagons are burned, his mules killed? This is Jimmy Stewart, he’s our guy.
We love Stewart and even casual fans were probably a bit unnerved at seeing an easy-going movie icon showing that he’s clearly had enough. Whether audiences knew it or not, the darkness of Anthony Mann’s film noir work was being transferred to the Western and Stewart was able to jump onto that train and ride along with Mann for five films.
What was it that attracted Stewart to these roles? Postwar feelings? A general sense of wrongs that needed to be righted? Or just something different? Clearly something about these roles (and Anthony Mann) spoke to him and kept speaking to him. Mann was scheduled to direct Stewart in Night Passage (1957), but that picture was given to James Neilson, who had only directed for television up to that point. Reports vary over why Mann left the project (some citing a disagreement between Mann and Stewart), but Stewart and Mann never worked together again. The Man from Laramie was their final picture together.
Photos: DVD Beaver, Blueprint, Cineoutsider