The Man From Laramie

James Stewart in The Man From Laramie.
(© 1955 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All rights reserved.)

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Anthony Mann’s westerns concern coming to grips with obsessive revenge and understanding crises in male identity.

In the earlier Winchester 73 (1950), James Stewart tracks down and kills his brother for murdering their father. In Naked Spur, bounty-hunter Stewart hunts down wife-killer Robert Ryan, but revenge is hollow. He still obsesses, unable to let go of the past, and the body of Ryan becomes a metaphor for the unconscious mind. Through the pleading love of Janet Leigh, Stewart sets Ryan’s body adrift in the river, forgoing his bounty.

In The Man from Laramie an obsessive Stewart tries to find the men responsible for the death of his brother, a lieutenant in the US Cavalry who was killed by Apaches toting repeating rifles. And when he finds the killer, Stewart is unable to act.

Stewart’s obsessed heroes are always on edge. Unlike John Wayne who exuded a western machismo of invulnerability, Stewart’s characters had their moments of doubt, mental anguish, and vulnerability. In Winchester 73, Stewart loses control, his face rippling into a series of uncontrolled paroxysms as he twists Dan Duryea’s head into a bar counter. In The Man From Laramie, Captain Lockhart (Stewart) is captured by Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) and shot in the shooting hand. He writhes in pain, bubbling, "Why you scum," and then rides away wounded and defeated.

stills from
The Man From Laramie

[click photos for larger versions]

Stewart’s vulnerability is just one in a series of masculinities undergoing crisis. Man from Laramie traverses the same thematic ground of bad fathers found in Red River. Mr. Waggoman (played with forthright dignity by Donald Crisp) is physically and emotionally blind to what’s going on around him. He overvalues his son, Dave, and under appreciates his hired hand, Vic. He’s so oblivious to Vic that he fails to see that the figure who haunts his dreams lives under his roof.

Dave, too, has issues of masculinity to work through. He wants to be as strong as his father but isn’t, and after Lockhart bests him in a gunfight, he stupidly wants to give all of the repeating rifles to the Apaches so that they’ll kill Lockhart and everyone at the Half-Moon ranch. Dave doesn’t care that such action would place the people of Coronado in danger.

Vic does care about the people of Coronado and that caring brings about a series of events that precipitates his demise. In trying to stop Dave’s bloodlust, he has to kill him. Vic, as portrayed with earnest hardship by Arthur Kennedy, represents one of the most interesting bad-guys to appear in a Western. Kennedy possesses the charm and dynamism of King Lear’s Edmund, the bastard son of Gloucester. He is a man, who without a birthright, lacks a legacy and wants one; however in trying to acquire a stake in Waggoman’s Barb Ranch, he only brings about further tragedy for all.

The Man From Laramie is now available on DVD from Columbia TriStar Home Video. This two-sided disc includes a widescreen version on one side and a full-frame version on the other.

If you've only seen The Man From Laramie in a pan-and-scan version on television, you've been missing much of the movie. Filmed in Cinemascope (2.35:1 ratio), The Man From Laramie becomes claustrophic when viewed in a full-frame version--which lops off the wide vistas and focuses all the atttention on James Stewart's anguished face. Without the rocky valleys, empty salt flats, and bare ridges, Stewart overwhelms the movie. But viewed in widescreen, Stewart's mono-mania becomes balanced by the exquisitely composed images provided by director Anthony Mann's camera.

The DVD contains digitally mastered audio and video, as well as a theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $24.99.