Saturday, 15 May 2010

The Man From Laramie (1955)

Man from Laramie. Alternative title: King Steer (d'you see what I've done there?)

Synopsis: James Stewart is the titular hero who delivers goods and some ol' fashioned revenge on some baddies who have done 'im wrong. He gets involved in some complicated King Lear nonsense with local cattle baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp - last seen by me as the lovely Dad in National Velvet). Ends sort of well for Jimmy and very mixed for all the others.

A few scenes into this brilliant psychological Western from Anthony Mann and James Stewart (see Naked Spur below), we see the hand of a Native American on a stair rail (in the trading post where Stewart is delivering goods) in sharp left of frame. The camera pans out to reveal the character but the camera moves in such a way that the hand ends up in the dead centre of the frame. This hand is a huge clue to as why Stewart is here and how the denoument will play out.

Our Jimmy makes his deliveries but insists on taking some goods back with him to stop it being a wasted journey. When he is sent out to some local salt flats, little does he realise that they are on the land of local cattle baron Crisp. His son Dave plus sidekicks turn up, burn Stewart's wagons and shoot his mules. Oh dear. Jimmy himself also gets a whooping and dragged through a fire on a rope. The scenes at the salt flats had a touch of the Lawrence of Arabia's about them. We first see Dave's gang from a really wide shot that with their approach on horseback becomes closer and closer until the camera has swung around to focus on Dave and Jimmy.

So, Jimmy's been done wrong and keeps hinting that something else is keeping him in town, so he sets about getting even with the Waggoman's. He soon gets imbroiled with the father, son, stepson/cattlehand Vic and Vic's girlfriend, Waggoman cousin and trading post manager Barbara. Stewart has the help of grizzled old guy Charlie (taking the place of fool/conscience if we're taking the Shakespeare analogy to the extreme).

It all turns a bit prophetic when Donald Crisp says he's been expecting Stewart, and starts to get really interesting when we realise that ol' Donald's eyesight is faltering (blindness and "seeing" being another Shakespearean theme). There's also power relationships aplenty between Alec, Dave and Vic and it all gets a bit King Lear/The Big Country. Themes of destiny, death foretold. Dave is a hot-headed, jealous, paranoid, power-hungry psychopath but the real culprit is kept pretty well hidden until the scene between Dave and Vic. The scene when Alec comes to kill Will (shooting blindly at a stock still Stewart) reminded me a little of Cronenberg's History of Violence, another film about father/son/boss relationships.

As the climax builds Vic's paranoia just gets worse - it's played to absolute perfection by Arthur Kennedy. As the final scenes roll around, it all kicks off big time with Stewart revealing the real reason for his revenge and leaving Vic to his fate at the hands of some really quite cross Apache.

A real blinder from Mann/Stewart. (Ha! D'you see what I did there?)

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