The Agony and the Ecstasy of Anthony Mann

06/23/2010 4:00 AM |

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.