Anthony Mann Festival
June 25-July 15 at Film Forum
There's ecstasy in the agony of Anthony Mann's films. His is a cinema of anger and sorrow, of psychological torment and physical suffering, and if there's a signature sight to be found in his canon, it's that of a face in sweaty, grimacing misery. For Mann, whose three-decade career behind the camera from the 40s to the 60s is now the beneficiary of a comprehensive 32-film retrospective at Film Forum from June 25-July 15, the world is a place of hard men and harder choices, of nocturnal noir landscapes and open Western plains. There is perhaps no greater encapsulation of his work than the image of frequent leading man Jimmy Stewart, in 1955's The Man From Laramie, being lassoed and dragged through a fire, and later shot point-blank in the hand, the hero's quest for vengeance recast as a brutal test of body and soul. In Mann's universe, paranoia (frequently of a sexual/romantic nature) runs deep and cruelty is pervasive, the director's films thrilling not only as pure genre exercises but as thorny psychodramas, ones in which inner turmoil and conflict are expressed via strikingly choreographed, expressive visuals.
Mann began as an actor and Broadway director before catching on in the early 40s as the helmer of compact, gritty small-budget films, many of which would set the stage for his forthcoming noirs. In particular, The Great Flamarion (1945) and Strange Impersonation (1946) established a rough template for the remainder of Mann's decade. Both revenge dramas fueled by sexualized passion and betrayal, the films are full of stark portraits of anguish and—in the latter's case, the tale of a chemist who enacts an identity-shifting plot after being facially scarred by an experiment-gone-awry—nasty disfigurement. A sense of reality coming unglued permeates Mann's noirs even when, as in T-Men (1947) and He Walked by Night (1948), the director casts his material in the guise of a pseudo-documentary via newsreel-style narration. And this vision of a frighteningly off-kilter landscape is in large part attributable to his collaboration with cinematographer John Alton, whose stark chiaroscuro lighting and geometrically arranged visuals—never more blistering than in the subterranean finale of He Walked by Night, or Raymond Burr's crime boss hideout in Desperate (1947), illuminated only by a single, swinging overhead bulb—create an ominous mood of claustrophobia, suspicion and obsessive neurosis.
Mann's framing is paramount, his stories' players always arranged to reflect their shifting relationships and moment-to-moment emotions. His direction's intimacy with its protagonists' plight, enhanced by empathetic (if slightly detached) close-ups of men being pummeled by fists, choked and held at knifepoint, elicits forceful engagement. One can feel the sweaty terror and distress of Ricardo Montalban's undercover immigration agent in Border Incident (1949), not merely through the actor's anxious countenance but the way in which Mann situates him in an environment of constricting shadows, wide open spaces and looming architecture. The director's settings are intrinsically entwined with his characters' states of mind, creating in his noirs an archetypal atmosphere of dread and doom that would reach its apex, ironically, in a period piece. Reign of Terror (1949), a thinly veiled allegory about dawning McCarthyism, may take place in a 1794 France where democratic liberty is under siege from Robespierre's dictatorial aspirations, but in Mann hands, the story becomes nothing less than a noir-par-excellence. Defined by sumptuously angular imagery and fretful light-dark interplay that amplify the story's personal and political psychosis, Reign of Terror is the apex of Mann's collaboration with Alton, and paved the way for his subsequent transition into oaters.
Though Mann and Alton parted ways after their first Western, 1950's stinging Devil's Doorway, the director's Old West efforts nonetheless retain the bleak spirit of his noirs, and in doing so prefigure Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Clint Eastwood and their 60s-70s revisionist Western compatriots. Just as his seedy noir metropolises parallel their inhabitants' disintegration, so too do the expansive plains and rocky terrain of the prairie loom large in Mann's 50s output, expressing and refracting the Shakespearean tragedy, Freudian hang-ups and carnal appetites of its gunslingers, bandits and barons. It's Jimmy Stewart's face—screwed up in pain, or twisted into craziness by corrosive bitterness and hatred—that dominates this high-water mark phase of the director's career, the actor complicating his clean-cut persona with a variety of morally knotty roles just as the films themselves challenge the easily delineated good-vs.-evil paradigm of their 40s Western predecessors. From the brother-against-brother showdown of Winchester '73, to the struggle within (dramatized as a fight between Stewart and a figurative doppelganger) of Bend of the River, to the Sierra Madre-ish mistrust of The Naked Spur, Mann warps the Old West into an arena of internal and external warfare, one where goodness and evil simultaneously coexist and do battle in the hearts of men.
While Mann would eventually segue into monumentally scaled epics with 1960's Cimarron, 1960's El Cid, and 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire, he achieved true grandeur in his Westerns, populated as they are not only by restlessly conflicted heroes but by mythic individual and familial dynamics. Larger-than-life patresfamilias vainly striving to maintain dominion over their broods (and squash those who threaten their power) abound, from Walter Huston's hubristic cattleman in 1950's Barbara Stanwyck-starring The Furies to Robert Ryan's obsessive gold-digging fool in 1958's God's Little Acre. Yet control is something only rarely achieved in Mann's films, and even then at great sacrifice. However, just as the director's oeuvre is marked by a progressive Civil Rights-era empathy for minorities (African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans), there remains hope in this violent world, not only for survival but, as in many of his Stewart-headlined Westerns (and in opposition to some of his earlier noirs), also for internal transformation. In Mann's view, life is tough but, for those willing to pay the physical and emotional price, as in Bend of the River, The Far Country (1954) and the Gary Cooper gem Man of the West (1958), personal change and redemption is attainable, a subtle optimism almost as well-earned as this director's resurrected reputation as one of American cinema's preeminent artists.