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Anthony Mann, who would have been 100 this year, had built a solid reputation in the '40s directing low-budget melodramas film noir, the French later dubbed them that were pregnant with a sense of dread and doom, drenched with slick streets and humid rooms where nobody thinks to turn on a light, peopled with losers on a toboggan toward disaster and the women who love-hate them. Railroaded!, T-Men, He Walked by Night, The Black Book, Border Incident titles that in their day got little recognition, let alone informed appreciation today are seen as seminal works in the cycle: tersely eloquent, boldly designed and, in those films shot by cinematographer John Alton, brilliantly noir.
Then Mann appeared to do a 180. Though he roamed across a wide variety of genres including the historical thriller (The Tall Target), the war movie (Men in War), the musical drama (The Glenn Miller Story, Serenade), an adaptation of a famous novel (God's Little Acre), a military recruitment film (Strategic Air Command) and that oil-fever movie (Thunder Bay) he concentrated on westerns.
His work in sagebrush sagas began with the 1950 Devil's Doorway and continued with another 11 films for the rest of the decade, including five terrific oaters with his signature star, James Stewart: Winchester '73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country and The Man from Laramie. Mann's last western was the 1960 Cimarron, which also served as his transition to El Cid and the epic form he embraced in the '60s. (Mann died of a heart attack in 1967.)
No two genres seem as opposite as those two intrinsically American forms, film noir and the western. It's the difference between dark and light, black-and-white and color, cramped interiors and expansive exteriors, personal nightmares and the collective dream, inevitable doom and Manifest Destiny, degradation and redemption, falling into the sewer and looking up at the sky.
Yet both forms focus on hard men in crisis, talking with their guns. And by the '50s, westerns had evolved beyond the moral simplicities of the courtly, white-hatted hero (Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, the early John Wayne) who vanquishes the mustachioed, black-hatted villain. Mann westerns, and lots of others, blurred the line between good and evil. Now the hero, if such we must call him, was a bitter loner, slow to offer a helping hand, suspicious of taking it. In The Far Country, the Stewart character defines such a man: "Maybe he likes to be lonely, d'you ever think of that? He never asks any favors, because he can take care of himself. Never trusts anybody, so he doesn't get hurt. That's not a bad way to live." And of course he's describing himself.
The Mann western hero has learned wariness the hard way, because he usually has something to hide. He is a man with a past: some psychic shadow or criminal activity that has left him gnarled and calcified. Not so long ago he was a raider, a rustler, maybe a killer. If a movie were made of some previous chapter in his life, he'd be the villain, and he might be gunned down before he had the chance at redemption that Mann's films offer. Thus, the dramatic conflict, though ostensibly between two men, hero and villain, is in fact one man's fight to determine his true identity. It's an internal battle between the villain he was and the hero he tries to become.
"Whatcha runnin' away from?" the Stewart character in Bend of the River is asked, and he replies, "A man named Glyn McLintock" his own name; his old self. A hard man on the run from his demons: that's a plot device familiar from Mann's '40s melodramas. Indeed, it adds the crucial genre element that was missing in those films: the hold of a sordid past on a desperate present. In other words, Mann's westerns fulfilled the crucial conventions of his early films. They were film noir, al fresco.