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Although his performances for Capra, Hitchcock and Ford were at the core of a string of undeniable classics, James Stewart may have had his most mutually defining relationship with a director in Anthony Mann. They would collaborate eight times over the five years in which Stewart entered middle age, and of necessity had to shed the last of the aw-shucks, amiable juvenile from his screen persona. This transition was never more stark than in Stewart's four westerns with Mann, as is evidenced in their last effort together, The Man From Laramie (1955).
At first blush, it seems odd that a director who made his early reputation with hard-boiled film noir thrillers would wind up regarded as a grand master of the American Western. In truth, Mann actually brought the same sort of foreboding sensibility from his previous works to the sagebrush story; whereas Ford stressed the opulence of the open West, Mann's prairies were harsh and unforgiving. Stewart knew that he wanted Mann for Winchester '73 (1950) after seeing how the director handled the genre in Devil's Doorway (1950) and The Furies (1950), and Winchester '73 opened a new phase in both men's careers.
It's been reported that Mann had long wished to direct a Western-dress version of King Lear, and the viewer can see similar themes touched upon in The Man From Laramie. As in his other Mann Westerns, Stewart is a man fixated on a mission, an AWOL army officer whose brother died in an armed Apache raid. His quest for the gunrunners that supplied the weapons brings him to a New Mexico town that lives under the effective rule of an aging cattle baron (Donald Crisp).
It doesn't take Stewart long to run afoul of Crisp's psychotic son (Alex Nicol), as well as his more level-headed ranch boss (Arthur Kennedy), who is devoted to the old man and believes that he has earned a share of Nicol's birthright on merit. Both have an agenda in making sure that Stewart never uncovers the source of the rifles, and the increasingly infirm Crisp's declaration that the family spread will belong to Nicol sends the various factions into final, fatal conflict.
Mann's depiction of the depths of the Nicol character's sadistic streak remains as disquieting today as it must have been for audiences of nearly fifty years past. For the early scene where Nicol has his mounted minions rope Stewart and drag him through an open campfire, the star was adamant about performing the stunt himself, despite a nervous Mann's concern over the real possibility of serious injury. As Roy Pickard recalled Stewart's protestations in Jimmy Stewart: A Life In Film (St. Martins Press), "You know it'll look better if I do it, Tony...It's a short scene. And you'll be able to use close-ups. I'm not going to die." Mann shrugged, and the grueling sequence was completed in one ninety-second take.
Stewart and Mann's partnering reflects a rapport and respect that quickly developed during their initial effort, Winchester '73. As quoted in Pickard's work, the director found that the performer "didn't seem to realize what a great quality he had in westerns, not at first anyway. But it was obvious from my side of the camera. He was magnificent walking down a street with a Winchester rifle cradled in his arm. And he was great too when actually firing the gun."
In light of the deepening appreciation that film fans have developed over the years for the Stewart/Mann films, it's a profound shame that the two men came to such an early parting of the ways. Stewart had tried to sell Mann on taking the helm of Night Passage (1957); Mann considered and ultimately demurred, opting instead to devote his energies to The Tin Star (1957). Stewart was hurt by the snub, and The Man From Laramie stands as the last roundup for a storied Hollywood tandem.
Producer: William Goetz
Director: Anthony Mann
Screenplay: Philip Yordan, Frank Burt
Cinematography: Charles B. Lang
Editing: William Lyon
Music: George Duning
Cast: James Stewart (Will Lockhart), Arthur Kennedy (Vic Hansbro), Donald Crisp (Alec Waggoman), Cathy O'Donnell (Barbara Waggoman), Alex Nicol (Dave Waggoman).
by Jay Steinberg