I’ve covered several of the Anthony Mann/James Stewart Western collaborations here. Their final sagebrush outing together THE MAN FROM LARAMIE was shot in Cinemascope and gorgeous Technicolor, features a bunch of solid character actors, has beautiful New Mexico scenery… yet felt like a letdown to me. Maybe it’s because Mann and Stewart set the bar so high in their previous Westerns, but THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is an anti-climactic climax to the director/star duo’s pairings.
Stewart’s good as always, playing bitter Will Lockhart, whose brother was killed by Apaches and whose mission is to find out who’s selling the guns to them. But the film came off flat, feeling like just another routine Western – good, but not in the same category as WINCHESTER ’73 or BEND OF THE RIVER. Those Mann film noir touches are nowhere to be found, replaced by (dare I say it!)… soap opera elements!
Cathy O’Donnell, so good as Wilma in William Wyler’s THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES and Keechie in Nick Ray’s THEY LIVE BY NIGHT , is not-so-good here as love interest Barbara. Granted, the part is underwritten by scenarists Philip Yordan and Frank Burt, as are most of the characters, reduced to mere cardboard cutouts. Even the great Donald Crisp struggles to make something out of mean ranch owner Alec Waggoman. Arthur Kennedy does okay as ranch foreman (and nominal villain) Vic Hansboro, but Alex Nicol is lousy as hot-headed Waggoman son Dave. Wallace Ford seems to be channeling Gabby Hayes as Stewart’s cantankerous sidekick Charley. Only Aline MacMahon as salty rival rancher Kate (“I’ve patched up bullet holes in places I wouldn’t like to mention”) and young Jack Elam as conniving town drunk Chris Boldt manage to create fleshed-out characters – and Elam’s killed off early!
On the plus side, Charles Lang’s cinematography is outstanding, with some truly breathtaking shots of New Mexico’s scenic vistas, enhanced by that previously mentioned Cinemascope and Technicolor. The film can also be violent and bloodily brutal in places, with some incredibly tough stunt work from pros like Bill Catchings, Ted Mapes, and Chuck Roberson. But let’s be honest – when I start talking about the background and stuntmen, you know I don’t have a lot to say about the film! It just doesn’t have that special “something” that set apart the other Mann/Stewart Westerns. Instead, it’s just another 50’s oater.
Anthony Mann and James Stewart were scheduled to team again for 1957’s NIGHT PASSAGE, but Mann backed out over the casting of Audie Murphy as Jimmy’s outlaw kid brother. Mann claimed Stewart just wanted an excuse to play his accordion in a movie, and a rift developed between the two that never healed. NIGHT PASSAGE is more reminiscent of their work together than THE MAN FROM LARAMIE, a mediocre Western that completists will want to see… the rest of us can just go back and enjoy THE NAKED SPUR or WINCHESTER ’73 once again.