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How, in a Mann western, do we know the good guy from the bad? The simple answer is: Waall, shucks, because he's Jimmy Stewart, who almost never played a villain. (Instant spoiler alert: the only two exceptions that leap to my mind are After the Thin Man and The Greatest Show on Earth.) But how heroic is the Stewart character in a Mann movie? Frequently he is, or has been, every bit as twisted as a regular-issue movie villain.
And while Stewart, or Gary Cooper in Mann's Man of the West, is terse and unyielding, the bad guy Arthur Kennedy in Bend of the River and The Man from Laramie, Robert Ryan in The Naked Spur is slick and ingratiating, with a salesman's charm that initially seduces the supporting characters (and the audience). He wears a wide and deeply untrustworthy smile until it sours into a grimace, and finally, when Stewart has worked his vengeance, a rictus. Further, the putative villain can be much quicker to do a good deed than the hero is. In Bend of the River, Kennedy, before turning on Stewart, saves his life no fewer than three times: from an Indian with a knife; in a saloon brawl; and when a renegade rigger attacks him. (It's not all one-way: Stewart saves Kennedy from a hanging.) Yet at the end of the film the narrative satisfaction comes when Stewart kills him.
In her absolutely essential book on Mann (which may soon be reissued but is now unavailable, so you'll just have to take my word for it), Jeanine Basinger argues that Mann's pictorial eloquence brought clarity to such ambivalences. "Viewers understood and accepted a man who came from nowhere, and a revenge based upon a conflict never shown." I still think that Mann's merging of, or confusion between, hero and villain set up a tug of loyalties for '50s moviegoers. They must have felt like the Millard Mitchell character in The Naked Spur. He is supposed to aim his rifle at the bad guy but confesses, "It's gettin' so I don't know which way to point this no more."
Even when Stewart is not trying to outrun some old demon, he isn't instantly honorable. In The Naked Spur, Stewart (with the not-so-heroic name of Howie) is a bounty hunter toting a killer, Ryan, back to Kansas. He has the mercenary motive; Ryan has the best lines. "What'll it be?" he asks Ryan. "A bullet here or a rope in Abilene?" Ryan, the philosopher-knave, muses: "Choosin' the way to die what's the difference? Choosin' the way to live that's the hard part." Later, Stewart is ready to kill Ryan even though the man‘s hands are crippled. With great effort (and a wonderful play of fury on his features), Stewart reins in his murderous impulse. It happens over and over in these movies: the hero's recognition that his old self is his own worst enemy.
Through most of The Far Country, Stewart watches and does little while good people get pushed around. He enunciates his creed to his one pal, salty Walter Brennan: "I don't need other people. I don't need help. I can take care of me. And in a pinch," he adds with a rare smile, "I can take care of you." But he can't. Brennan is killed. The wrongful death of a defenseless friend that's the kind of mid-film crisis that galvanizes Stewart to dig down and find his latent hero-ness.
The other kind is that Stewart suffers a near-fatal injury, usually by his old partner-nemesis. In Bend of the River Kennedy leaves him for dead. "I'll be seein' you," says the ever-puckish villain. And Stewart whispers, "You'll be seein' me. Every time you bed down for the night you'll be lookin' out into the darkness and wond'rin' if I'll be there. You'll be seein' me." (After that, Stewart might be a vengeful ghost, picking off those who dare to confront him.) The Far Country has a similar death and resurrection. Stewart is shot with such force, he's blown into a river. Then he rises slowly, spectrally, like the creature from the Black Lagoon, and cathartic Act III the revenge kicks in.
By the end of each film, Stewart has killed the main bad guy and made off with the good girl, if he wants to. But the "happy" endings won't stick in your mind as much as the moral struggle that preceded them. For the kind of loner played by Stewart (and, for sure, Wayne in The Searchers), his temperament suited his mission. He was the Moses of the American West: he could lead the faithful to the promised land but not dwell with them there. The kind of man it took to forge the West was not the kind it took to settle it.