Higher Ground: Anthony Mann and his Battles of Will


‘I am something from underneath a rock—a whole pile of ’em. . . . Well, I’m climbing right up on ’em until I reach the top.” This is from Raw Deal (1948), among the best of Anthony Mann’s film noirs, spoken by Dennis O’Keefe, a rusty-voiced Irish slugger. That scrabbling image is essential in Mann’s films: The bruising uphill climb—over treacherous terrain, on top of an enemy—to the Sisyphean finish line. (“To what end?” replies Marsha Hunt, one of the director’s uncompelling hearth-and-home girls.)

The prime cut of Anthony Mann’s career crosses 20 years of popular genres—postwar noir, ’50s western, ’60s epic. Film Forum’s 32-film retrospective serves it all.

From the hills of San Diego, Mann’s family moved to New York City to cultivate his theatrical ambitions. Emil Anton Bundsmann became actor Anton Mann, then a stage director, then imported to Hollywood to shoot screen tests for David O. Selznick. Finally Anthony Mann, he directed films after 1942, doing his reps in rinky-dink musicals and thrillers, then making a quantum leap from stinker The Bamboo Blonde (1946) to the tensely rigged Desperate (1947). He found his talent for writhing emotionality in noir, and a kindred spirit in never-a-dull-frame cinematographer John Alton. Together, they created a hideout/backroom/loading-dock world where tar-black shadows swallowed everything outside the light of ubiquitous hanging factory lamps. Especially recommended are Mann-Alton’s agency-as-protagonist films T-Men (1948) and Border Incident (1949), with O’Keefe and Ricardo Montalban good in undercover roles, and a visceral sense of the underworld’s currency in naked cruelty.

In 1950, Mann went West with The Furies, a baroque, Electra-complex western, with Walter Huston feasting on open vistas as Mann’s favorite archetype: the outsize, lordly Father. “You can have patricide, every kind of ‘cide in a western, and you can get away with it,” said Mann, explaining his borrowing from Sophocles and King Lear to a BBC-TV interviewer in 1967, the year of his death.

At 60, Mann looked more solid German-American burgher than veteran of the bohemian ’20s Greenwich Village. No great theorist, it’s his movies that articulate his bone-deep understanding of eternal tragic myths. He found a Caesar in a cattle baron, and vice-versa, and made the French Revolution noir in Reign of Terror (1949). Border Incident and Devil’s Doorway (1950) are sympathetic toward Mexican laborers and American Indians, respectively, but his only issue was man-against-man, with the Gods/ Nature as witness. His most fruitful screenwriter collaborations were with Borden Chase and Philip Yordan, the former a right-winger, the latter a friend and front for blacklistees—only the credits tell who wrote what.

Between 1950 and 1957, Mann made eight movies with James Stewart, five of them rough westerns. Cursed stranger-in-town Stewart rides in on the same chestnut colt, gargling the same mouthful of vengeful hate. It is true that these movies should be seen LARGE, so the viewer can be enveloped, with the protagonist, in the high-altitude landscapes; they need also be endured with their protagonists, without pause or bathroom break. The agonized apotheosis is Man of the West (1958), with a battered Gary Cooper dragged down to atavistic violence by Lee J. Cobb’s dysfunctional father-figure.

Breaking down a flanking maneuver during the West‘s climactic ghost-town gunfight, Mann delineates space clearly through camera placement and cutting, an art as common today as fine lacemaking. In a Mann film, you understand who’s shooting, from where, the bullet’s path, where the ricochet goes—and the results. A new widower’s cry lingers after this gunfight—a reckoning moment like the quick-cut of the body dropping at the end of Winchester ’73, as the movie’s fever breaks. Even the “justified” violence of his ostensible heroes is a queasy triumph. His protagonists, he said, ended up not “exalted,” but “exhausted.”

Mann’s outlier works are equally fascinating. Men in War (1957)—the title encompasses his career—is set in Korea, 1950. A lost patrol trudges across a snared landscape toward rendezvous on “Hill 465,” behind foils Lieutenant Robert Ryan and Sergeant Aldo Ray, a gruff, unshaven, overgrown toddler (“They’re dead pigeons,” Ray gloats over fresh kills. “Any money you can find, you can keep—any cigarettes or candy’s mine. Can I drive the Jeep now?”) Along with a frequent laxity in casting actresses—one prays for an avalanche to remove Corinne Calvet from The Far Country—comedy was Mann’s weakness. He’s stretching for the corncobby farce of God’s Little Acre (1958), with Ray and Ryan again, a movie of wild mood swings to match Ryan’s erratic, daffy performance, alternating gorgeous, lyric moonlit passages of erotic longing and fulfillment with sweltering fistfights over heaving, sweat-beaded bosoms and Buddy Hackett hamming a hard-on.

Mann’s last great collaboration was with Samuel Bronston, an open-wallet independent producer who built history to scale in his Spanish studios for 70mm spectacles. The coronation parade bringing Christopher Plummer’s Commodus to the Temple of Zeus in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) is Mann’s most lavish climb, a world away from Poverty Row, with every penny of Bronston’s bankruptcy onscreen. Commodus earlier tells of Rome’s “new generation, a whole new feeling.” He might be reporting from Hollywood. Mann didn’t live to work amid the industry’s barbarian invasions—but America’s great midcentury tragedian remains the model of classical style.