Wanted Mann

06.21.10

Left: Anthony Mann, Winchester ’73, 1950, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 92 minutes. Waco Johnnie Dean and Lin McAdam (Dan Duryea and James Stewart). Right: Anthony Mann, The Heroes of Telemark, 1966, color film in 35 mm, 131 minutes. Dr. Rolf Pedersen (Kirk Douglas).


A MASTER PORTRAYER of postwar trauma, violence, and insecurity, onetime stage actor Anthony Mann began his directorial career performing yeoman’s work, helming several low-budget comedies and musicals in the 1940s on the Paramount, Universal, Republic, and RKO lots. His breakout year was 1947, when T-Men, Railroaded!, and Desperate—each made in economical B-noir style—conveyed the plights of average men and women forced into the dire margins of American society. The last two in particular formed a double bill of wrong-man/family-under-siege plots that more than stand their own against Hitchcock. Mann, via a string of similarly angst-ridden noirs, soon transitioned to the western, where he applied his penchant for expressionistic lighting and compositions to the historical frontier. The Furies (1950) announces this phase with shocking and delirious ferocity, stirring novelist Niven Busch’s father-daughter battle for the family ranch into a Shakespearean drama and unleashing one of Mann’s trademark moments of brutality, in which Barbara Stanwyck’s Elektra heroine gouges the eyes of her father’s fiancée with a pair of scissors.

Violence is never titillating in Mann, but instead always scarily consequential and the product of familial, political, or moral conflict. This almost too-real cinematic philosophy carried over into a legendary partnership with James Stewart, starting in 1950 with Winchester ’73. Nobody shot bloody psychodramas against crags and plains better than Mann—not even John Ford—and by bringing out what had up to that point been Stewart’s mostly dormant inner turmoil, he found the perfect fallible human figure to frame against harsh, cruel, and daunting landscapes. The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954), and The Man from Laramie (1955) are the crown jewels of this collaboration, but under-the-radar Stewart-less gems like Devil’s Doorway (1950), The Last Frontier (1955), and Man of the West (1958) are equally impressive in investigating the specters of racist, authoritarian, and patriarchal misrule that haunt the boundless freedom promised by the West and, in turn, the western itself.

It was with the western that Mann cemented his reputation for thoroughly mining complex material within a single genre, an inimitable talent already anticipated in the noirs. Several themes run through this earlier and frequently overlooked period of Mann’s career—perhaps richest of all is the tenuous and unstable nature of identity in a threatening, suspicious world. Minor masterpieces T-Men and Border Incident (1949), in which cops go undercover to infiltrate a crime syndicate and must negotiate the unsteady parameters of authenticity and duplicity, were written by John C. Higgins, who also co-wrote two other terrific Mann noirs, raw police procedural He Walked by Night (1948) and the strikingly designed revenge yarn Raw Deal (1948). But motifs of disguise, subterfuge, detection, assumed personality, and persuasive artificiality are also at the core of paranoid French Revolution intrigue Reign of Terror (1949), tough Lincoln thriller The Tall Target (1951), and especially Strange Impersonation (1946), the first great Mann. The last film dives into the sexual anxieties of Brenda Marshall’s mousy research scientist as they spill over into a fever dream that places her in the role of a disfigured and presumed dead victim transformed by plastic surgery into one of her persecutors. With her new identity she goes after the other, her romantic rival, only to eventually be implicated in the murder of herself. It’s a proto-Lynchian scenario made even more bizarre by Mann’s giddy, nightmarish, and pressure-chamber sense of direction (you can almost feel the protagonist’s psyche splitting under the interrogation of the camera), the essence of his genius that would flower in nearly everything to follow.

Michael Joshua Rowin

A thirty-two-film retrospective of the works of Anthony Mann plays June 25–July 15 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.