The standard line on filmmaker Anthony Mann is that he’s an underappreciated artist, and that’s true up to a point. Your regular multiplex moviegoer, the one standing in line to see Paycheck, has never heard of Anthony Mann; of course, he’s probably never heard of Buster Keaton or Fritz Lang, either. By any standard, the San Diego-born, NYC-bred director Mann (1906-1967) is hardly a household name; he’s perhaps best known as the guy who was replaced by Stanley Kubrick midway through Spartacus because of Mann’s disagreements with the movie’s star and producer, Kirk Douglas.
By contrast, Mann’s stature among film professionals is huge. He is the quintessential director’s director, studied by auteurists and lionized by such behind-the-camera stars as Martin Scorsese and Curtis Hanson — all because of his talent for telling a story vividly and unforgettably. Whether he was giving us a film noir, a Western, a war picture, or an action epic, Mann’s characters were always larger than life, his writing sharp and flavorful, his frames filled with telling detail, his brushstrokes grand and electrifying.
Mann’s world is as appropriately masculine as his name would suggest. One reason his career is so routinely overlooked is that he tended to work in the so-called unfashionable genres of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s — films usually populated by taciturn tough guys (on or off a horse), hard-luck dames, and guns and ammo. The noirish 1947 Desperate, the opening-night feature of the Pacific Film Archive’s twenty-title retrospective “Mann’s World: Anthony Mann on the Big Screen,” shows the director at his early, basic best in the tale of a stand-up-guy truck driver named Steve (stolid Steve Brodie), cursed with shady pals and a faithful wife (creamy Audrey Long), on the run from the cops as well as the crooks trying to frame him. The story is standard urban crime stuff, but the director throws in a treasure trove of flourishes: Steve and his wife hiding among huge carnival masks in a truck, the bulky menace of hood Raymond Burr, the Czech-style wedding in the country, a blazing shootout in a stairwell, and the snide amiability of the DA, played by Jason Robards Sr.
Genres bloomed when Mann put his hand to them. One reason he was revered by the same critics who “discovered” Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, was that he stocked his ordinary studio assignments with an abundance of grace notes, those little nuggets of character that can turn a run-of-the-mill shoot-’em-up into a garden of delights. T-Men and Raw Deal, both screening at the PFA Saturday night on the program with Desperate, are a case in point. The two RKO noir-boilers, both starring Dennis O’Keefe (a forgotten face of the 1940s) and both drenched in atmospheric shadows by the great cinematographer John Alton, stand out from the film-noir herd with strong dialogue (a Mann specialty) and the director’s sense of space. In T-Men, Treasury agent O’Keefe goes undercover to catch counterfeiters. In Raw Deal, he stars as an escaped California convict trapped between two women — his sweet-natured hostage (Marsha Hunt) and his raw-nerve girlfriend (shrill Claire Trevor).
Mann’s noirs — including the Farley Granger-Cathy O’Donnell in-over-our-heads melodrama Side Street (1950) and Border Incident (1949), with Ricardo Montalban as a US immigration agent on the Mexican border — capitalize on antsiness and frustration in the claustrophobic environs of urban and suburbanized post-WWII America. But all that compressed angst found a new place to explode in Mann’s marvelous series of Westerns with James Stewart: the wide open spaces of the Old West.
Mann dwelled on the same dark facet of Stewart’s screen personality — the annoyed, vengeful, borderline psychotic — that Hitchcock exploited to such advantage in Rear Window and Vertigo. The all-American nice guy of It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington came back from World War II with a bitter edge to him. That driven edginess, ruled by unspoken obsessions and a thirst for vengeance, inform a magnificent series of Westerns Stewart made in the early ’50s with Mann at the helm. Produced at the height of the genre’s screen popularity in the backwaters of the John Ford-Howard Hawks tradition, these elevated films are the ones Stewart and Mann aficionados return to again and again. The harsh, unforgiving tone they share seems somehow right to our 21st-century eyes, but their true richness is in careful, painstaking characterization.
The Naked Spur (1953) is noteworthy for having been filmed with almost no interiors (though there is one scene set inside a cave) on location in the rugged Colorado Rockies, but it’s populated by city types — a sort of frontier riff on Greed. It’s about a bounty hunter named Howard Kemp (Stewart) who swears he’ll bring in his man (leering outlaw Robert Ryan) all by himself, despite the distractions posed by the bad guy’s girlfriend Janet Leigh, sardonic army renegade Ralph Meeker, and marauding Blackfoot warriors. For Howard, every day is just not his day. His every move meets resistance. In this grim cavalcade of paranoia on the hoof, the verbal jabs never let up. Stewart is similarly hot and bothered in The Man from Laramie (1955), another loner-against-the-world saga. Here, as a man dedicated to avenging his brother’s death, Jimmy is dragged behind a horse and shot in the hand at the behest of cruel rancher Donald Crisp and his henchman Arthur Kennedy. But, of course, that only makes him angrier.
Mann and Stewart made five Westerns together, in the process reviving the actor’s career and springboarding the filmmaker into such putatively prestigious 1960s-era wide-screen epics as El Cid (Charlton Heston as the hero of the Spanish reconquista, showing at the PFA on February 14), The Fall of the Roman Empire, and The Heroes of Telemark.
Their finest Western collaboration is their first, Winchester ’73. The 1950 black-and-white production, written by Sam Rolfe and Harold J. Bloom, uses the familiar La Ronde device of passing a desired object from hand to hand in order to tell its story. But that doesn’t get in the way of one of Stewart’s all-time performances, as Lin McAdam, a cowpoke drifter who rides into Dodge City, Kansas, with his sidekick High-Spade (Mann-Stewart regular player Millard Mitchell) to take part in a rifle shoot. The trophy of the shooting contest is a rare Winchester repeating rifle, “one in a thousand,” but McAdam has his heart set on a bigger prize. He needs to kill someone.
Winchester ’73 contains just about every one of the fundamental ingredients of the classic Western. It has Wyatt Earp, grizzled old coots in coonskin caps, plenty of saloon surliness, men skeet-shooting silver dollars, a card-sharping Indian trader with a beaverskin top hat (note the way he shuffles his cards so that the ace of spades always stays on top), and, of course, hostile natives on horseback. There are Civil War yarns (Lin and High-Spade fought for the Johnny Rebs), picked-on homesteaders, the humiliation of a coward, a foiled bank robbery, saguaro cactus in the Arizona desert, and a dancehall girl named Lola, to whom Lin shows gallantry (she’s played, in an appealing performance, by Shelley Winters).
There’s also a ricochet-filled shootout amid boulders, just like in The Naked Spur. The main desperados are named Dutch Henry Brown and Waco Johnny Dean. Rock Hudson appears as an Indian chief, and Tony Curtis breezes by as a young cavalry soldier. Sounds very much like a list of cowboy-flick clichés, except in Mann’s hands they come alive as if for the very first time. Ultimately it’s Stewart’s acting that ropes us in, a portrait of a man seething inside who still has enough folksy politeness left to chuckle at a group of Kansas kids admiring the famed rifle. Winchester ’73 is simply one of the finest Westerns ever made, in a class with the best of Ford and Hawks. It plays January 30 alongside the 1950 noir Devil’s Doorway.
The PFA’s Anthony Mann series is not a complete retrospective by any means. It’s missing Bend of the River, Thunder Bay, The Far Country, Strategic Air Command, and The Glenn Miller Story among the Stewart collaborations, and the otherwise well-chosen list represents only about half of Mann’s directorial output. But we get to see such rarities as The Tin Star (the prototypical “adult Western,” with Anthony Perkins as a cringing sheriff against a lynch mob that includes Neville Brand and Lee Van Cleef), the sour Robert Ryan-Aldo Ray-Vic Morrow Korean conflict combat pic Men in War (“God help us if it takes your kind to win this war”), The Furies (Barbara Stanwyck on the rampage in New Mexico, a femme-Western companion to Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious), and the curious 1946 Strange Impersonation, a soap-noir melodrama of scientists in love. And of course, some of James Stewart’s finest moments. For further information, log on to BAMPFA.berkeley.edu