I got into Westerns through John Ford and John Wayne, but along the way, I have quickly discovered that this is only scratching the surface. While the collaboration between Ford and Wayne is legendary, there is another Western actor/director team-up that is just as important. During the early 1950s, Anthony Mann made five Westerns with James Stewart, forever changing the way audiences viewed their favorite “boy next door.” Suddenly, Stewart became an actor who had realized his full potential, thanks to Mann’s direction. He was pushed into a darker world, as Mann explored aspects of the American West that Ford never bothered to see.
The partnership was sadly short-lived. The five movies were made between 1950 and 1955, with the last one being possibly the best, The Man from Laramie. All of them are brilliant, particularly Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur, but Laramie is about as dark as a move starring Stewart can get.
Stewart stars as Will Lockhart, who comes rolling into Coronado to drop off a delivery ordered by a local store. That store is run by the Waggomans, who own much more than just the general store. In fact, patriarch Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) has bought up most of the land surrounding the isolated town. Lockhart’s real purpose for going to Coronado from Laramie was to find out who sold repeating refiles to the Apache, as the Apache had massacred a U.S. Calvary group, including Lockhart’s brother. At first, Lockhart thinks that Alec was responsible, but his investigation gets him caught in the middle of the rivalry between Alec’s wild son Dave (Alex Nicol) and the man Alec trusts to run his ranch, Vic (Arthur Kennedy). Lockhart also meets Barbara (Cathy O’Donnell), Alec’s niece. Vic is hoping to marry Barbara, but it’s clear that Barbara may actually like Lockhart when the two meet.
There’s a lot that goes on in this brisk, 102-minute film. Mann keeps the action tight, bringing his clear love of Shakespearean theater to the West. There’s family rivalry, disappointed lovers and a stranger who comes to throw a perfect situation out of whack. For anyone who has been watching Mann’s films for a long time, it’s clear that these are all themes he enjoys exploring (especially if you are – like me – a fan of his 1950 film The Furies).
Having Stewart around as a vehicle to explore these themes through makes it easier. Stewart’s career is incredible in that it allows us to actually see an actor learning on the job. He was in films for such a long time that we can see how events in his life changed his style and how he learned the craft over time. By 1955, he learned how to be in serious projects like Laramie and to use the persona he had built in the late ’30s and ’40s to his advantage. He could play with audience expectations like no one else. No matter how many times we see Stewart tackle dark material, it still seems jarring. But that’s part of his genius as an actor.
It’s not only Mann’s direction and Stewart’s performance that work so well. There’s also Charles Lang’s beautiful photography of New Mexico, so perfectly restored on the 2014 Twilight Time Blu-ray. And just like all great Westerns, there’s some fantastic supporting performances. Arthur Kennedy and Cathy O’Donnell are wonderful, as is Donald Crisp.
Perhaps I’m a bit too excited about the film at the moment, but Laramie truly should be held as one of the Top 10 best Westerns (or at least in the Top 20). It’s endlessly entertaining, but puts forth some serious questions about how far is too far to go for revenge.
The fact that Laramie is the last Mann/Stewart collaboration is noteworthy, because they walked away from the partnership when it was clear that they could still make great movies together. Perhaps they realized that they were in danger of getting stuck in a rut or that it was best to go out on a high note. But when Stewart walks off into the sunset, it’s not mourning the death of a partnership. It’s really celebrating the birth of Stewart’s second career.