Born: 30 June 1906, San Diego, California, United States.
Died: 29 April 1967, Berlin, Germany.
Directing career: 1942 – 1967.
Movement: Post-War Hollywood.
Traits: Mann’s career can be split into three main stages: the late 1940s notable for B-movie film noirs, then the 1950s his series of westerns, most of them starring James Stewart, and finally his later historical epics like EI Cid or The Fall of the Roman Empire. While he worked within the Hollywood genre traditions, he gave these genres his own stamp by making more pared down, psychological films rooted in internal individual conflicts. Recurring themes in his films are psychological struggle, masculinity in crisis, and the role of violence within his character’s lives.
Collaborators: James Stewart (actor), John Alton (cinematographer), William H. Daniels (cinematographer), Philip Yordan (screenwriter), John C. Higgins (screenwriter), Harry Morgan (actor).
The Naked Spur (1953)
As the old auteurist cliché goes, a great director can elevate banal scripted material into something superior on screen. This is a perfect example of the truth in the cliché. T-Men begins as a B-movie docu-drama about the enforcement agents of the United States Treasury Department (the so-called T-men), with a direct-to-camera introduction by Elmer Lincoln Irey, none other than the real-life ‘T-man’ who brought Al Capone to court on tax evasion charges. Irey sets us up for essentially a puff piece glorifying the T-men and soon a monotone documentary-style voiceover runs over the fictional retelling of a supposedly real case being cracked. But watch on and you’ll see Anthony Mann’s direction and John Alton’s cinematography undermine these more officious intentions at every step.
Irey and the voiceover may speak with presumed authority, but nothing else in the film backs up that sense of steadiness. The camera is always tilted, or too high or too low, decentring all characters including the T-men themselves, as if nobody quite has the ability to be in control of this seedy underworld of crime and corruption. The lighting is an extravaganza of expressionistic effects, a choreography of shadows and obliquely-angled flashes of light, of faces peeking in from the darkness, which along with Robert Siodmak’s The Killers (1946) essentially defines the film noir aesthetic at its most stylised. Irey may pontificate at the start about the “six fingers on the fist” of the USTD, but in fact the two undercover T-men infiltrating a counterfeiting ring are conflicted characters, cornered animals who in order to survive are forced to behave like the lawbreakers they are paid to arrest.
Further at odds with the matter-of-fact narration is the fact the rogues’ gallery of secondary criminals are the most vivid characters in the film, brought to life by Mann and his cast of character actors in a way that makes all too obvious the film’s fascination with these larger-than-life figures and the world they inhabit. Finally, the head of the criminal ring turns out to be a respectable businessman hiding his fraudulent activity behind seemingly innocuous antiques deals — in other words, the real villains are no longer easily identifiable gangsters or thugs (as they were in 1930s movies) but are now at large within legitimised capitalism. So much for the official tone of the federal law-enforcer Irey.
All this creates a fascinating tension between the film the producers wanted T-Men to be and the far more exciting, cynical and baroque noir it was turned into, its resulting form and style completely belying the intended content, in the process satisfying the desires of post-WW2 audiences for more true-to-life portrayals of the harsh and violent side of American street life. (July 2021)
The Naked Spur (1953)
After having worked on several atmospheric film noirs in the late 1940s, Anthony Mann spent the 1950s injecting the western genre with the same moral complexity and Freudian volatility that had already revolutionised Hollywood through the noir cycle — in the process also giving James Stewart the chance to give his most tortured, ambivalent performances this side of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
In The Naked Spur, Stewart at his most psychologically unstable plays a bitter Civil War veteran hellbent on retribution after returning from battle to find his wife has left him and stolen his land. As if this and the horrors he must have seen in war give him moral carte blanche, he now intends to do just about whatever it takes to retrieve enough money for a new plot of land in California, even if it means the downfall of another. In this case, a former friend of his and the bounty on his head no less than $5000 — but how much do you lose of yourself in gaining from another man’s death as if he were no more than a sack of money?
All this is backstory, for the film proper begins mid-chase with Stewart and two other hangers-on he’s met along the way (an elderly gold prospector and a morally questionable Lieutenant who’s been dishonourably discharged) having already found and caught the wanted man atop a rugged mountain in the Colorado Rockies. The Naked Spur is thus part of that sub-genre of western charting the perilous journey to bring outlaws from the wilderness in which they were caught to the city where the reward is to be claimed — see also the great Budd Boetticher western Ride Lonesome from 1959. What throws the cats among the pigeons is the presence of Vivien Leigh’s character, the lover of the wanted man, and the only pure and genuinely kind person amongst this motley crew of four greedy self-preserving men all plotting against each other, be it to steal a share of the bounty or in the prisoner’s case attempting to escape. Leigh, soon realising the man she rode with is hardly any better than the rest, becomes split in a love triangle between her amoral outlaw who promises he can become a lawful farmer on the one side, and the former lawful farmer now turned amoral bounty hunter on the other.
The Naked Spur hence becomes a chamber drama with five characters, or really six since the Rockies themselves (the film was all shot on location) form a crucial element to the story and not mere backdrop. From the opening stalemate in which the three ‘hunters’ try to smoke out the wanted man hiding up a mountain so he can come down to them (fitting metaphor for life as one-upmanship) to a finale by the river, the narrative arc takes Stewart on a journey down into the source of his own rage, violence and PTSD, finally exorcising it and cleansing it in the water with the help of Vivien Leigh’s redemptive power. This is classical Hollywood genre cinema at its finest, in the hands of a director who had found in the western a set of rules he could simultaneously make the most of and enhance into new avenues. A western both gripping in adventure and profound in moral and psychological investigation, The Naked Spur‘s exploration of the inner violence buried within man must also have spoken directly to the many who had come back from the battles of WW2. (December 2020)