THE MAN FROM LARAMIE
(Anthony Mann, 1955)
Reviewed: July 30 - 31, 2002
"What's The Man From Laramie about?" my friend asked me recently.
"It's about a loner who--"
"Aren't all Westerns about loners?"
He has a point of course. Most are. But The Man From Laramie's up-sleeved ace
is star Jimmy Stewart, and the film succeeds so hugely in its specific loner characterization
(where countless other Westerns have obviously failed, reducing their loners to
the worst of Western clichés) because it expertly combines: one spoonful
It's a Wonderful Life (1946) decent, kind Jimmy Stewart; one spoonful fucked
up, tortured Vertigo (1958) Jimmy Stewart; plus healthy seasoning of typical
gruff, brooding, Western-male-loner machismo.
The Man From Laramie marked the eighth and last teaming of director Anthony Mann/Stewart--appropriately,
Laramie plays as a textbook example of why a helmer intimately familiar with the
strengths/weakness of his on-camera talent is so frickin' advantageous.
I'll always be a sucker for CinemaScope films. Just hearing the word CinemaScope
triggers a pleasurable little geek explosion in my brain-stem.
A Brief History: While CinemaScope technically denotes a film with
a 2.35:1 or 2.55:1 aspect ratio (meaning that a movie's images are 2.35 and 2.55
times more horizontal than vertical, respectively) which was shot using specific
CinemaScope camera lenses and equipment, it's my opinion the term CinemaScope
has been bastardized over the years by filmic culture the world over (I've done
it myself here on the site). Reasoning? Hell, because CinemaScope is a kick-ass,
dynamic word that rolls off the tongue with ease.
The actual CinemaScope process is rarely used anymore (to give you an idea
of how rarely: in a search run over at the imdb,
only 12 of the first 200 matches for movies shot in CinemaScope were post-1970),
as it's long been replaced by a standard 2.35:1 Anamorphic Panavision process
(undeniably the direct descendent of CinemaScope). Thus I am of the mind that
when people refer to post-1970 movies shot in "CinemaScope" or "Scope"
(as it is often abbreviated), they are virtually always actually referring to
said 2.35:1 Panavision.
So............... to account for all possible abuses of language and to put all
of this technical jargon into an ultimate, supremely simple lexicon, let's leave
it at this: Saying "Scope" or "CinemaScope" is basically just
a fancy-schmancy way of saying a given movie was shot very widely, and
thus the image is very big.
Please hold a moment while I catch my breath and clear my head............
To further complicate matters, lemme note: Until the magic of DVD, I'm
betting most casual moviegoers over the last few decades (since the official decline
of CinemaScope) never realized that some movies are shot in 1.85:1, while others
are shot in the aforementioned, wider 2.35:1. Not that I blame them-- it can be
strenuous to mind-wrestle with this concept since at a movie theater the size
of the screen stays constant, while all that physically changes (aside from the
film's negative of course) are the behind-the-scenes lenses and masking on the
projector. (Well, unless there are also flexible curtains flanking the screen
that the projectionist can adjust based on the film's ratio, an all-but-extinct
commodity in this day and age of mutiplex-ical domination.)
The first movie shot in CinemaScope was 1953's biblical The Robe, as initially
the CinemaScope process was a favorite of historical epics and its ilk (for obvious
reasons -- after all, spectacles are by their nature large in every sense). The
Man From Laramie came only two years later in 1955, and I strongly feel Mann's
choice to shoot Laramie in CinemaScope can not be written off as merely a flagrant
desire to sample the latest cinematic toy. Nay, Mann's intentions were precise--The
Man From Laramie's underlying themes are grand, its large cast of characters all
boldly etched, its landscapes striking and vast--I'm sure Mann felt the massive
CinemaScope frame was the only format which could contain his hulking beast of
In general, I've long believed CinemaScope (translation: 2:35.1 Anamorphic Panavision
et al.) to be a quality beacon. It indicates to me that a director's gone
the extra mile, that a director's visually inclined, that a director populated
their expansive, luxurious frames with veritable eye-feasts (even if this all
turns out not to be the case, hey, I'm an optimist @ heart). It says to me that
a director is thinking big and that a director wants to overpower you with the
sheer force of the imagery they're wielding.
In other words: CinemaScope oozes pure cinema. Or to paraphrase writer/director
Paul Thomas Anderson: CinemaScope is the best aspect ratio because it's as far
away from television as possible.
(Note: For deeper insight into CinemaScope's technical minutiae--which
frankly, I don't even understand all the intricacies of myself--I advise heading
over to the excellent website The
Widescreen Museum, particularly the wing which specializes in CinemaScope.)
The Man From Laramie opens and closes with a horrible title track, a group of
singers harmonizing about The.....Maaaaaaan.......From.......Laaarrrraaaammmiieeee.
It's enough to strike fear into even the most forgiving of the audience's heart,
but worry not. Lame and cheesy and unnecessary as that song is, it's flaws are
not the least bit indicative of the rest of Mann's pull-no-punches, distinctly
unsentimental film (Richard T. Jameson goes so far as state that Laramie contains
"the single most shocking act of violence in '50s cinema." He might
Pic's plot is duel-fold. On one hand pic follows Jimmy Stewart's attempts to discover
who's responsible for his brother's death in an Indian massacre (and by that I
mean, interestingly, that Stewart doesn't even blame the Indians for this death;
he blames--and is seeking--the American who supplied the Indian with the rare
guns to execute said massacre). On the other hand pic follows a King Lear-ish
storyline involving the man who owns/runs the town Stewart has arrived in, his
incompetent, ill-tempered son and his savvy, yet neglected surrogate son. These
two strands tango up and down the aisle in an unforced and always exciting fashion.
There's a few other key reasons The Man From Laramie rises to the top of the Western
pack. One is the way the film brilliantly oscillates the audience's allegiances.
A number of friends who recently saw Laramie at a local arthouse theater remarked
to me they were extremely impressed with the character who in a Western of lesser
merit, might simply be referred to as "the villain." They spoke of how
much empathy they had for this character. I want to be very careful not to tip
you off to any spoilers... let's just say they were picking up on the film's consistently
evenhanded vibe. As I mentioned, there are a number of characters all developed
with exacting care. Despite appearing at first to be a Stewart character study,
this a true Western ensemble piece.
Another reason for Laramie's power is the sheer heft of its drama and emotion.
Whereas a lot of Westerns play out an intimate (and simplistic) battle of good
vs. evil, The Man From Laramie aspires (and achieves) a higher level of danger.
We recognize there is more at stake than just vengeance-- there is betrayal and
redemption, and Mann doesn't rush to solve his film's mysteries (yet somehow Laramie
still clocks in at a taut 103 minutes).
A common Western ailment is terrible handling of male/female relationships (for
a notable example, think Howard Hawks's mostly good Red River--people fall
madly in love by talking to each other for five minutes). The root of this problem
is obvious--for a genre drenched in manliness, the male filmmakers don't have
time for women. Too many Westerns feel the need to tack on an obligatory love
story, and hence that's exactly what it plays like, an afterthought. The results
are unfailingly unconvincing and misogynist, a big fat trite mess. Thankfully
Mann keeps Stewart celibate in Laramie--yes, there's a female character who in
a less accomplished Western would be actively wooed by Stewart, but here she's
kept at an enticing, flirty distance. Mann understands the focus of the story
he's telling--and understands that frankly it has nothing to do with women. I
hope that doesn't sound insulting--trust me that to treat this story as part love
story would be far more insulting to everyone involved. Mann already has his hands
full dealing with the complex familial struggles.
Suffice to say, Mann's visuals are in a league of their own. From barren salt
flats to jagged cliffs to rousing action pieces to an astute use of background
motion, The Man Laramie still packs a hell of a tough wallop.
I love it when movies age this well.