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Man Of The West (1958)
Directed By: Anthony Mann (Winchester '73 • The Naked Spur)
Overview: Link Jones, a man with a shady past, finds himself stranded with two strangers after their train gets robbed. He takes them to a nearby ranch house, also returning to the life he left behind.
Man of the West has all the trappings of the Western we all know and love, but in most cases each icon, each symbol, cliché and formula is twisted just enough to add a streak of the unique. It takes a hero and makes him old and fearful of trains. It takes a villainous bandit gang leader and makes him senile. It takes a common pecking order fight-scene and turns it into a catalyst for so much more. It takes a romantic angle in a different direction. It takes the obvious dramatic finale and turns it on its ear just enough to provoke an approving nod. Whether it deserves to be in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book over countless other Westerns is debatable, but Man of the West certainly enjoyable.
We open with Link Jones (Gary Cooper) getting ready to take a train to Fort Worth, Texas. He and his tidy sum are on the search for a schoolteacher for his little town of Good Hope. As he waits, he meets local confidence man Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell), and eventually Billie Ellis (Julie London), the lady who sings at the saloon. While travelling, they are attacked by bandits. The three of them end up stranded in the middle of nowhere when the train escapes the bandit. Link knows the country enough to walk them to a place he knows nearby, an old farmhouse that dredges up his outlaw past, run by his old bandit leader Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb). A little on the crazy side, Dock is overjoyed to see that his favorite protégée has returned to the life he left long ago, but the others thugs aren’t buying it, most notably Link’s wiser, saner, old partner Claude Tobin (John Dehner). In order to gain their trust, Link must agree to help rob a wealthy bank in the town of Lassoo.
There’s a few problems with Man of the West, and they all revolve around the suspension of disbelief of everything being a little too convenient, a little too scripted: Link meets two people, these are the only two people stranded with him when the train makes its escape. Link loses the money he was entrusted with - the only thing stolen at the robbery. Link’s old farmhouse hideout just so happens to be the nearest place from where they’re stranded. Sam Beasley, the con man/card shark is almost a caricature, and his actions are as transparent as some too-obvious and formulaic scenes. These opportune events are just a little too stretched into a handy little package, but they’re minor issues in the script that don’t linger long.
There's a point where you either grow up and become a human being or you rot, like that bunch. - Link Jones
Man of the West also has a lot of great. Julie London does well in making Billie’s character strong and smart. Gary Cooper plays Link as an everyman with fears and hopes for the future, yet someone who has no qualms playing as dirty as his old band of goons do. When anther thug has it out with him, Link goes a step further, exacting some poetic justice. Lee J. Cobb is without a doubt the reason to watch, playing Dock Tobin with a wonderful histrionic zeal. His madness is perfect, askance yet understated, off-kilter but capable and strong enough to lead murderous ruffians into battle. Man of the West is an easy Western, but it’s just a Western that just as easy to appreciate.
Performance: 8 Cinematography: 7 Script: 7 Plot: 7 Mood: 8
Overall Rating: 74% (Casts A Strong Shadow)
Sam Beasley: Hello, Billie! Billie, you're lookin' very good!
Billie Ellis: Thanks, and I thought the only thing that looked good to you was a marked deck.