Between 1950 and 1955 filmmaker Anthony Mann made five westerns in collaboration with actor James Stewart. From a structural point of view they adhered quite closely to the traditional western. There was nothing exceptional about them in terms of their narratives and their use of iconography. But the interest in rich characterisation, psychological states, motivation, and back story was very rare for the genre. The Mann/Stewart collaborations are distinctive and cerebral, with every element of the plot in strict synthesis with the story. They are dark affairs with an abiding interest in the hearts of men and women. The Mann/Stewart westerns are less inclined toward the mythological aspects of the traditional western, but at the same time they do not quite embrace what would later be termed revisionist. In these films the hero is not interchangeable with the villains, but the villains are imbued with complex motivations that makes the task of the hero that much more problematic. The Man from Laramie was the final collaboration between the two, and although it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Winchester ‘73 (1950) or Bend of the River (1952), it is still a solid and fitting climax to a generic relationship as equally important as Ford/Wayne.
James Stewart excels as Will Lockhart, an amiable but mysterious stranger who rides into the fractious town of Coronado like a whirlwind. Lockhart has revenge on his mind, and begins the challenging process of attempting to find out who has been selling rifles to the Apaches. He has a personal investment in this because his younger brother was part of a company ambushed by the Indians and killed. Lockhart also happens to be a military man of some considerable rank, but cleverly creates a dual identity in order to cover his origins. This theme of fractured identities is one that recurs through a number of Mann westerns and is encapsulated perfectly in the performance of Stewart. He embodies the paradox of being morally and ethically correct and at the same time a trained killer with an ease and aplomb which is a joy to watch. Lockhart is unstoppable because he is justified in his vengeance, and he never loses sight of his goal despite a number of distractions that come his way. The first of which is the beautiful Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’ Donnell) and the second is Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) the sadistic son of cattle baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp).
The twin narratives of the Waggoman’s power struggle and Lockhart’s undercover investigation intersect continually, and in a manner which is dramatically appropriate. Ultimately all the characters have something to conceal; Lockhart’s origins and motives, Dave’s thirst for power and control, Vic’s desire to be recognised as Alec’s true son, and Alec’s failing health and inability to lead. Once the characters comes to terms with that which they hide they are better able to attain what they wish. The film was produced by Columbia Pictures, shot entirely on location in New Mexico and was presented in Cinemascope. Mann uses the frame excellently, and creates a harsh and impersonal environment, a pitted rock strewn landscape that seems to reflect the emptiness in the hearts of the characters. It is an entirely suitable typography for the type of quest that Lockhart is embarking upon.
© Shaun Anderson 2011