To put The Man from Laramie down as a simple western, would be a generalisation. The Western, arguably the most prolific genre in the history of cinema, has survived in some form or another for years now. Classic tales from the frontier, on the last boundary between the new age and the old one, have been popular since the 1930’s. Anthony Mann’s 1955 so-called Psychological Western exhibits all the signs of a sub-genre which aimed to tackle deeper thematic issues than its straight-nosed “Cowboys and Indians” counterparts. This wasn’t always as bankable a concept.
For instance, take Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter, released the same year as The Man from Laramie, the Robert Mitchum-starring drama steeped itself in classic western imagery with a melodramatic Southern Gothic twist. Sadly, it bombed and Laughton never directed again. Mann didn’t suffer from that problem though since he seems far fonder of the traditional Western style than Laughton did. This is very much a Western of old, hiding a contemporary dialogue, it just plays out like a charming paperback thriller: family business, a wild-card deviant, small-town politics, and the mysterious stranger.
The Man from Laramie is as dour as you’d expect, full of corruption and senseless bouts of violence. Alex Nicol’s turn as the spoilt sadistic son of a rancher is superb, and deserves a place up there with Mitchum’s pathological preacher in Night of the Hunter. Under all this, Mann orchestrates a tough-talking dialogue on arms dealing and gun violence. Stewart’s character is a reluctant gunslinger out for revenge on the man who sold weapons to the Apache warriors who killed his kid brother. It’s a tough message, that the dealer is as bad as the one who pulls the trigger, and seems disturbing in its depressing poignancy even to this day. Stewart was apparently deeply involved in the film’s conception, and had just returned from the War, so it’s not mad to assume he had a couple ideas about the nature of violence and the mechanics of war.
The Man from Laramie is as gorgeous as any Western, utilising the New Mexico landscape in all its barren beauty. The real treat, though, comes from Stewart’s typically charismatic turn, Nicol’s suitably foul one, and the story’s deep-seated discomfort with the inherent ignorance of arms dealing.
THE MAN FROM LARAMIE / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: ANTHONY MANN / SCREENPLAY: PHILIP YORDAN, FRANK BURT / STARRING: JAMES STEWART, ARTHUR KENNEDY, DONALD CRISP, CATHY O’DONNELL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW