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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.