The Film: 4/5
Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie is one of the best post-war westerns, a gripping and humane widescreen trip into a chapter in America’s past that is deeply reflective of the class and economic struggles we deal with to this day, and a work of surprising complexity that fears not the embrace of society’s ugliest and most appalling qualities.
In this adaptation of a story by Thomas T. Flynn that was first published in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post in 1954 and then expanded into a novel the next year to coincide with the release of the film, the man from Laramie in question is Will Lockhart (James Stewart). Arriving in the town of Coronado with a wagon full of supplies, Lockhart decides to stick around and collect some salt to haul back to Laramie. But the property he digs on is part of a cattle ranch owned by the rich and powerful Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp) and kept in working order by his wayward son Dave (Alex Nicol) and overseen by foreman Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy). Dave accuses Lockhart of stealing from his father’s land and has the man’s wagons burned and pack mules shot.
The elder Waggoman wants nothing more than to reimburse Lockhart for the lost wagons and mules and send him on his way out of town, but Lockhart stubbornly decides to remain in Coronado for reasons that become clearer as the story progresses. He’s come to Waggoman’s little hamlet looking for more than a way to make a decent living, and his search for answers ultimately ensnares him in a simmering struggle between Dave and Vic for control of the Waggoman ranch when the old man passes on that is about to explode in swift bursts of brutal violence.
The Man from Laramie could easily be regarded as one of the key midway points in the western genre’s evolution from the optimistic oaters of Roy Rogers and the Lone Ranger to the bloody, two-fisted adventures brought to the screen by the likes of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. Working from a cracking screenplay adaptation penned by Philip Yordan (Johnny Guitar, El Cid) and television scribe Frank Burt (Dragnet), the great unsung filmmaker Anthony Mann crafted a dark and suspenseful character study that is strong on the careful establishment of the individual relationships and how they connect and intersect with one another in the development of a narrative that never resorts to conventional resolutions.
This is a film not about the West but about the people who made it in their own miniscule ways and the high psychic price they all paid in the bargain. James Stewart was rarely better as an actor than he was when he was teaming with Mann for one of the five brilliant westerns they made together in the 1950’s. The Man from Laramie was their final collaboration in a series of classical big screen adventures that began with Winchester ’73 and proceeded through Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, and The Far Country. It was a legendary partnership that helped redefine what a great western could accomplish and proved that Johns Ford and Wayne and Howard Hawks didn’t have the market cornered on making masterful Old West yarns.
The filmmakers take their time developing the characters and laying out their conflicting motivations. None of the acts committed by Lockhart, Hansbro, and the Waggomans could be considered heroic and villainous because each person is only acting in their own best interest. Lockhart wants retribution for the violence committed against him and his property. Dave wants to live up to his father’s expectations. Hansbro wants to take over the ranch once the elder Waggoman is no longer capable of running it himself because he believes the time and work he’s put in over the years entitles him to the reward he desires. He also plans on settling down with Alec’s storekeeper niece Barbara (Cathy O’Donnell), but the seeds of romance between her and Lockhart are sown the moment they first meet, giving Hansbro further reason to want the interloper out of his way as soon as possible.
There are other reasons conflict arises between Lockhart and Alec Waggoman, particularly in the form of Waggoman’s rival rancher Kate Canady (Aline MacMahon), a gutsy woman of the frontier who retains Lockhart’s services much to the old man’s ire. There isn’t a single trace of fat on the narrative, with Mann giving us everything we need to know about the characters and their clashing ideologies and hopes for the future. Each member of the cast play their three-dimensional role with heart, soul, and simmering anger. The action comes fast and often brutal and ugly; we’re watching these people fight to survive and make their presence known in this land, not strike clichéd poses and spout boilerplate dialogue before exchanging gunfire.
Stewart is at his best here as Lockhart, the man who won’t be trifled with regardless of the abuse he must endure to gain satisfaction. His status as the all-American everyman on the big screen for decades is cleverly subverted in The Man from Laramie as his slow descent into savagery in the name of protecting what’s his and getting the answers he seeks lays bare the dark heart of many a man who went to war against the forces of fascism and came home bearing emotional and physical scars. It’s one of the finest performances this legend of the screen ever gave, and that’s saying a lot in a career that also includes Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life.
The accomplished stage actor Alex Nicol brings fire and rage to his terrific performance as the troubled Dave, and he is matched by Arthur Kennedy (later of Lawrence of Arabia, Fantastic Voyage, and some of the finest Italian exploitation of the 1970’s) as the pragmatic but desperate and conniving Hansbro. Donald Crisp (The Birth of a Nation) appropriately channels Shakespeare’s King Lear in his role as the prairie feudal lord Alec Waggoman. Aline MacMahon (Cimarron) supplies the film with a healthy dose of humor without coming across as a figure of comedic relief, while Cathy O’Donnell (Ben-Hur) becomes The Man from Laramie’s center of empathy as the love interest of both Stewart and Kennedy’s characters. Famed silver screen character actors Wallace Ford (The Informer) and Jack Elam (Once Upon a Time in the West) make the most of their supporting roles as Lockhart’s wizened compatriot on the trail and a shiftless citizen of Coronado who briefly makes life miserable for our besieged main character.
The Man from Laramie was filmed in the CinemaScope format and in the 2.55:1 widescreen aspect ratio and Eureka, as part of their Masters of Cinema series, has chosen wisely to present the film in its proper ratio for this Region B Blu-ray. The 1080p high-definition transfer was sourced from a 4K scan of Laramie’s original camera negative that was first seen on Twilight Time’s 2014 limited edition Region A Blu-ray release and it is a stunning presentation that fans of this classic western will not want to miss out on beholding for themselves.
The transfer has a few distinct advantages over the Twilight Time disc, including a pleasing boost in brightness, but otherwise the picture quality on both releases is practically identical. The vivid Technicolor cinematography and expansive CinemaScope compositions of Charles Lang (Charade, The Magnificent Seven) shine through with rich detail and depth, robust colors, and a remarkable upgrade in fine details, preserving the textures and character in the costumes, sets, and location photography with welcome clarity.
Eureka’s disc also boasts dual English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and PCM 2.0 tracks that both provide an impressive recreation of the film’s original theatrical sound mix with clear dialogue and authentic outdoor ambient effects coming through clear and with vastly improved vibrancy. The lush and occasionally tense music score composed by George Duning (From Here to Eternity) has also never sounded better. English subtitles have also been included.
Supplements include an informative commentary track with film critic Adrian Martin that dives deep into the background of the film and its most important players and talks in detail about the primary themes driving the narrative, an interview with film critic and historian Kim Newman (20 minutes) that provides more of the same but from a different perspective, and the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes). Eureka has also included a collector’s booklet featuring an insightful essay about the western films of Anthony Mann and a reprinted interview with the director from 1969, as well as a bonus DVD copy.
Of the five westerns they made together, The Man from Laramie is without a doubt James Stewart and Anthony Mann’s finest achievement as cinematic collaborators. It’s an engaging and original adventure that prizes the creation of a richly detailed, twisty narrative and characters who capture our interests and sympathies despite what side of the law they stand on over the weary tropes and stereotypes for which the genre was famous. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema Blu-ray/DVD combo pack release is the best edition of this classic to own anywhere in the world. The film alone would merit a recommendation, but with the informative supplements and gorgeous restored transfer this release earns my highest recommendation.