Anthony Mann directed more than 40 films but is mostly known for his remarkable collaborations with Jimmy Stewart during the 1950s. These five westerns aren’t as well-known as the genre legends but match them in quality and depth. In Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur in particular, Mann finds a surprising darkness in Stewart that Hitchcock would later use to great effect in Vertigo. This intensity carries over into his 1958 picture Man of the West, which provides the stern Gary Cooper with the chance to flex his muscles. Although he spends much of the story quietly observing the action, it’s clear there’s anger lurking beneath the surface. Adapted from Will C. Brown’s novel The Border Jumpers, this spare production drops a small group of characters into the wasteland and asks them where they stand. The Reginald Rose (12 Angry Men) screenplay arranges them in clear dichotomies that match the genre standards. It isn’t the most subtle approach, yet there’s a vitality that makes it a riveting experience.
Cooper stars as Link Jones, a reformed outlaw who’s gone the straight and narrow path. He acknowledges the horrible past deeds but feels he’s grown up and set aside his violent ways. It’s clear that Clint Eastwood modeled William Munny in Unforgiven after Link. He’s settled down in the aptly named Good Hope with his wife and two kids. His trip outside of those friendly confines involves the gentle task of hiring a teacher for that community. He’s representing Good Hope to the outside world, which says a lot about his return to grace. It’s clear that Link isn’t comfortable in civilization, particularly when he boards a train. He awkwardly shies away from the smoke and doesn’t even fit inside the seats. Cooper’s lanky build and unique gait make him stand out in any situation, and it’s particularly evident in the changing world. When outlaws raid the train, Link confusedly responds to the danger and takes a blow to the head. He doesn’t realize it, but this robbery starts the journey back into his past in more ways than one.
Link’s companions in exile are con man Sam Beasley (Arthur O’Connell) and singer Billie Ellis (Julie London), and neither is suited for the wilderness. Link must lead them to safety, but that won’t be easy so far from the closest settlement. They reach his former home, but the forces there may be more dangerous than anything in the wild. The reunion with his uncle Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb) is tricky because they departed on bad terms. He’s a father figure to Link but represents the unruly nastiness he left behind. Link’s been trying to become civilized, yet he can’t shake the wild old devil completely. It’s clear that Dock has a blind spot about his former mentee and cares for him like a son. Playing a guy much older than his 46 years, Lee J. Cobb chews the scenery as Dock but reveals caring underneath. He may want to watch the world burn, but it isn’t the same without his partner in crime. Link recognizes that he’s dead if he doesn’t play the role, yet it isn’t a convincing performance. His eyes tell the truth and show the kindness that remains, but even that could be fleeting.
The story really takes off after Mann sets up the conflict between Link and Dock’s wilder associates. Coaley (Jack Lord) has no use for this steely veteran and wants him gone. Along with threatening his spot in the gang, Link is protecting Billie. This leads to a surprising moment where Coaley forces her to strip while holding a knife to Link’s throat. Although it stops before she completes this demeaning act, it’s clear that Coaley was ready to do a lot more. This ever-present menace hangs above the rest of the movie and connects it to Mann’s best work. Although London does a convincing job, her character gets a raw deal in the final act. She’s pushed to the side and can only pine for Link while he fights Dock’s goons. There’s also a quick scene where it’s implied that Dock raped her. It’s never clearly expressed, but Link’s anger towards his uncle says it all. There’s no place for order or decency in this wild land, which puts everyone who can’t fight in jeopardy.
Man of the West ends in a ghost town with Link having a classic Western showdown with Dock’s goons. The deserted landscape is the perfect location for this type of battle, which will be familiar to genre fans. The surprise is a brutal fistfight between Link and Coaley that precedes those shootouts. If there was any doubt that Link still had a violent side, it’s put to rest in this scene. A few moments before letting loose, Cooper grits his teeth and cleverly reveals what’s about to happen. By goading Coaley into the fight, he keeps the others at bay and can take out his primary rival. Along with some vicious punches, Link rips off the guy’s clothes and avenges Billie in the process. This moment could feel like a victory against the bad guys, but there’s a hint of tragedy in this return to violence. It’s unfortunate that Mann steps back with the strangely ineffective ending. It slightly nullifies the resurrection of Link’s ugly side that still remains. He may strive for a happy ending in Good Hope, but setting aside the madness may not be so easy in this thankless world.