In 1958’s Man of the West, the past is a coiled rattlesnake waiting to strike, lurking in the shadowy rock faces and dancing on the howling prairie wind. From the very moment Link Jones (Gary Cooper) re-enters civilized society, the reformed gunslinger hears the threatening rattle of his former life in every casual conversation and inconspicuous glance with strangers. Link’s fears materialize almost immediately when he’s caught up in a botched train robbery perpetrated by a trio of outlaws. Knocked down and left on the side of the tracks, Link, saloon singer Billie (Julie London), and harmless card shark Sam (Arthur O’Connell) seek refuge hoping to find food and shelter. Instead, they stumble upon Link’s former mentor and uncle, the volatile murderer Doc Tobin (a sweltering Lee J. Cobb), whose disintegrating mental state is only protracted by his prodigal nephew’s return. In order to survive, Link must become the violent demon he has spent year’s successfully repressing.
Anthony Mann’s brilliant CinemaScope study in western angles and shapes situates archetypes like they were natural formations of the open landscape. Public displays of humiliation set each standoff in motion, and Mann’s wonderfully fluid camera paces around the action like a circling wolf waiting for the weakest prey to fall. Whether it’s Billie’s forced strip tease performed in front of Doc and his gang, or the knock-down drag-out fisticuffs between Link and his cousin Coaley (Jack Lord) through a small campsite, conflict unfolds as if it were a constant battle between past and present. Generational tension and guilt is personified in the way bodies surround a specific space, slowly close in, and taint what was once pure and innocent.
Whereas Mann defined heroism by his character’s compassion and restraint in The Naked Spur, Link’s survival (and the safety of his friends) is based on primitive aggression. This ideological push into the heart of darkness has its consequences, and Mann doesn’t shy away from the more disturbing elements of his character’s decisions. Man of the West ends in one of Mann’s vintage jagged-edge climaxes, a shootout that bridges the hollowed-out ghost town of Lasso with the steep cliffs surrounding what will become many character’s desert grave. By this point, Link’s emotional terrain is just as riddled with pockmarks as his physical surroundings. The deep wrinkles on his face are like weathered signposts, telling the story of the West in all its disturbing and vengeful glory.