Although he directed films in a number of genres, Anthony Mann’s career played out largely in three discrete stages: early low-budget noirs; the westerns of the 1950s, his most personal works; and lavish historical epics shot in Europe during the 1960s. At first a New York stage actor and director, Mann left Broadway in 1938 to join the Selznick company, where he supervised screen tests for Gone With the Wind. His directorial debut was in 1942, but it wasn’t until 1948 that he made his first real splash with two gritty noirs, T-Men and Raw Deal, both in collaboration with the great cinematographer John Alton. In T-Men, a semi-doc about treasury agents who infiltrate a gang of counterfeiters, they create one of the most memorably stylized moments in all film noir—a dreamlike murder scene in which a steam bath’s eerie blackness is ripped by flashing bullets.
Mann teamed up again with Alton for Reign of Terror/The Black Book (1949), a stunning period production in a class by itself—the only film noir ever made about the French Revolution. Robert Cummings stars as an emissary of Lafayette working undercover to overthrow Robespierre—played by Richard Basehart as a monstrous sadistic godfather. Mann creates a heady mix of noir and gangster movie conventions—his Terror seems to be a war between bloodthirsty gang factions—while Alton does wonders, evoking a fantasy 18th-century France from shadows and silhouettes.
Mann’s reputation rests principally on the series of classic westerns he made in the 1950s, five of them starring James Stewart. The pairing with Stewart, which kicked off with Winchester ’73 (1950), was one of the great actor-director partnerships, with few precedents in American movies. Mann adopts a tougher approach to western mythology than John Ford; his West is not Ford’s majestic pastoral. It’s a lonely, primal, often savage place, where the landscape, if striking, is indifferent or hostile to man. He brought noir techniques to his oaters—nearly all of them pick up on elements from the early thrillers. His western heroes are rarely true heroes—when Stewart acts heroically, it’s usually with great reluctance. His main characters are nearly always haunted by the past and the action is triggered by a reaction to a traumatic incident that took place before the story begins—a betrayal, the murder of a loved one. And the good guy is often out to destroy a bad guy who mirrors all his own worst impulses. The boyish, endearing pre-war Stewart, once billed as “America’s Favorite Feller,” is not on the payroll in Mann’s films. This joker is grim, vengeful, and neurotic—but because it is, after all, Jimmy Stewart, we know he’s eventually redeemable. In Mann’s first color picture, Bend of the River (1952), with Stewart as a wagon-train leader guiding settlers through Indian country to the Oregon territory, landscape takes on major importance, and the director’s sensitivity to the sensual properties of nature leads to an immense opening up of the scale of the film. Natural location is an even more powerful element in The Naked Spur (1953), in which Stewart plays an obsessive bounty hunter. Mann strips his narrative archetype to the minimum in this extraordinary picture, filmed in the Colorado Rockies, with nary a house or town in sight, not a single interior shot and only five characters. It remains one of the major works in the genre.
In The Man From Laramie (1955), the last of the Mann-Stewart westerns, Stewart isn’t from Laramie, or anyplace else in particular—he’s as rootless as all of Mann’s other heroes and has come to town to track down the man responsible for his brother’s death. There are more warped sadistic characters and Freudian tangles here than anywhere else on Mann’s map of the West—Stewart is humiliated, lassoed, dragged through salt flats, and in the most brutal scene in any ’50s western, shot in the hand point-blank. The performances are superb, with particularly fine work from veteran Aline MacMahon as a tough old ranch lady.
During the following decade’s fascination with sheer size, Mann’s El Cid (1961) and The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), both filmed in Spain, rank as two of the most sober and intelligent grand-scale spectacles ever made. Both were shot in 70mm and will be shown in 35mm during Walter Reade’s extensive 25-film retro. When Anthony Mann died in 1967, he was planning a long-cherished project, The King, a western version of King Lear. Chalk it up as one of the greatest films never made.