THE MAN who was magnificent in "The Glenn Miller Story" THE MAN who was unforgettable in "Rear Window" THE MAN who was matchless in "Strategic Air Command.
The above charge was the hype surrounding The Man from Laramie for its 1955 release. James Stewart was the man described above, and he gives a very credible performance in this film. It is somewhat darker than most westerns I enjoy, and much has been made about its similarities to Shakespearean tragedies such as King Lear. Still, a very good western of its time and a great anamorphic transfer from Columbia. This is the first of their Western Classics collection I have seen, and except for a lack of extra content I am very pleased.
Anthony Mann is the director of this film and two of the hyped names above when he worked with Stewart. In addition, he directed some other excellent films such as El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire. This was actually the 8th film Mann and Stewart collaborated on, including some other westerns I have fond memories of, such as The Naked Spur. An interesting and little known fact about Mann is he was the uncredited director of the first hour of Spartacus, before he was fired for a difference of opinion with producer/star Kirk Douglas. In my opinion the first hour, up until the escape from the slave camp, was far better than the rest of the film that Stanley Kubrick finished. I like Kirk Douglas, and to a lesser extent Kubrick (as a film critic I think that last one is grounds for eternal damnation) but it is a tragedy that Mann was not allowed to finish the film.
The Man from Laramie is the story of a man driven by revenge, who is thrown into the lives of some pretty complex characters (very complex for a western). James Stewart plays Will Lockhart, an Army Captain who has taken off his uniform in search of a gun-runner who sold repeating rifles to the Apaches, which enabled them to kill a cavalry patrol including his younger brother. His search takes him to a town called Coronado, a New Mexico town predictably owned by a cattle baron. Certainly these elements, along with the evil and spoiled son of the powerful rancher, are staple plot elements in a western. But formula breaks down quickly after this. For one thing, the rancher, Alec Waggoman, is a tough but fair man who hasn't corrupted the local sheriff. Like King Lear, he is going blind; and has strange forebodings about a man who will kill his son. His ranch foreman Vic, played by Arthur Kennedy in one of his best roles, is sort of an adopted son to Alec and is given the job of reigning in the nearly psychotic son Dave. At least here the rancher doesn't automatically support every evil act the son does, as is stereotypical in westerns. But he does love his son, and intends to leave the ranch to both Vic and Dave once he is unable to control it himself.
Will Lockhart (Stewart) arrives at the town with several mule drawn wagons delivering supplies. Forget the B side pan-and-scan version as this is the first of several scenes where you will lose a lot of the picture; you wouldn't see the whole wagon in full frame. He's taken up freight delivery now that he has left the Army to devote his efforts to finding the gun runner. He quickly meets up with the lovely shopkeeper Barbara, who it later turns out is a Waggoman herself, but a cousin rather than integral part of the ranching family. There certainly appears to be chemistry between them, but alas she is engaged to Vic.
Lockhart's sidekick Charley, a half-Apache, has gone to question his relatives about the repeating rifles being sold to them in the area. Hearing about a salt deposit in the desert free for the taking, Lockhart decides to load his now-empty wagons with it for a return freight to Laramie. But when his men are loading up the salt, they are accosted by a group of ranch-hands led by the venomously tempered Dave. Claiming the salt belongs to them results in Will's apology and offer to pay for the salt. But instead, in one of the more graphically violent scenes in western films of the time (tame compared to modern films) they rope Lockhart and drag him through a fire, set fire to his wagons and begin shooting his mules. Only the quick arrival of Vic stops the gross overreaction, and Stewart returns to town bareback on one of his remaining mules.
Later he sees Dave Waggoman and gets in a fistfight in town, which is broken up by Alec Waggoman, the father. Hearing the whole story Alec offers to pay him for his lost wagons and mules. At this point Lockhart meets Kate, the rival rancher who stopped the fistfight from becoming a gunfight. She is played wonderfully by Aline MacMahon, who reunites with Stewart in the film Cimarron several years later. She is a character with depth herself, having previously been engaged to Alec but now is on opposing terms. I'm going to leave off the story here because I merely went into this detail to introduce the characters and depth rather than spoil the plot. Suffice it to say that Stewart becomes involved in one way or another with all of these characters, and that the threads of the plot do come to a conclusion, and not necessarily a tragic one such as in Shakespeare's King Lear. [Editor's Note: On August 3rd, 2002, we received an email from someone claiming to be the son of author T.T. Flynn, who wrote "The Man From Laramie." Here are his comments regarding the story's similarities to the Shakespeare play: "I, too, have seen many comparisons of the book and movie to King Lear. I discussed this with my brother, and we agreed that Dad almost certainly never read Lear. He was brilliant, but essentially self-educated. I think he finished high school; if so, it was a vocational school, Tech High in Indianapolis, IN."]
As I wrote above, the film is darker than I'm used to in westerns, perhaps only bested by Unforgiven in terms of darkness. Fortunately that darkness doesn't directly apply to the exceptional transfer done by Columbia Pictures (how's that for a segue?) For a 55 year old film the transfer looks great; with a dearth of film defects or grain and well-saturated colors in the earth-toned palette. Flesh tones are fine and blacks are black enough. The only small complaint about the video is a few scenes do not have the best shadow detail, leaving things a little murky. I'm quite pleased that is my biggest complaint about the picture, which came from an early Cinescope filming and made into a 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer.
The audio is actually better than I expected as well, though that doesn't mean to expect the great soundtracks of say, Silverado. You have a choice of Dolby Digital 2.0 or 3.0, erroneously labeled as 4.0 on the case. The 3.0 track was the preferable one, even though it means your whole soundstage comes from the front. It is infinitely preferable to the mono track you would expect from a 1955 film. Dialogue is always clearly understood. The lacking in the sound is mainly that the musical score comes off a bit harsh and the subwoofer isn't utilized for gunshots or horses running by. While I'm griping, the musical score was just sad compared to even the other western scores of the era. You could hear it well enough, except for the harshness, but as a score it just didn't do anything for me.
Lastly, while I am pleased with the film and the disc, the extras are lacking. The 1955 trailer and a still of the original movie poster is all you get. Not even talent files. You do get a 2 page leaflet of production notes inside the case however. The menus get an honorable mention here as well, they are quite well done.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I mentioned my real gripes above in describing the disc. The sound, while as good as can be expected, isn't exactly going to give your home theater a workout. And the extras are clearly lacking, something I hope will not be standard in Columbia's Western Classics collection.
The film itself has a few complaints. Some of the characters, particularly Dave and Barbara, are not very convincing in their roles. Dave seems too over the top while Barbara seems too wooden. Even Jimmy Stewart isn't quite up to the exceedingly high standards I set for him. He has the range, but somehow it's not quite up to what he is capable of. That being said he fills the role better than anyone I can think of, and as I said, is very credible. These are small complaints, not meant to imply the film is bad because of them.
I'm a bit too picky in my westerns, evidenced by the fact that this is now the fifth western I have in my collection, and I didn't buy this one. It's not my favorite western, and not even in my top 5 favorite Stewart films. But it's pretty good, and an excellent fusion between Mann and Stewart. From what I've read, many people like the film more than I do. So it is certainly worth a rental, and so long as you are a fan of westerns and not too hyped about extras, a purchase.
I have no complaints to lodge with the film or its director or cast. Columbia is commended on a fine transfer to preserve this classic film, but I still wish they had included more extras for the package, as they do in their other Classics collection. They are as usual commended for the huge number of subtitle languages in these collections though.
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