Thinking Mann

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Anthony Mann

Anthony Mann

 

William Darby, Anthony Mann: The Film Career, 304 pages, McFarland & Company (www.mcfarlandpub.com)

I learned how to make movies from Anthony Mann: why the shots, how the shots, traveling shots, location shots, strategies and techniques in editing — he was my sense of movement.

-Wim Wenders

Mystery is at the heart of all that is appealing about movies; and Anthony Mann, born Anton or Emil Bundsmann in 1906 or 1907, is one of cinema’s mystery men, as well as one of its few thinking men. He remains unfairly neglected, in part because he came to prominence sometime after the shiniest years of the golden age. In looking at the important directors of Hollywood’s creative pinnacle, say, from the mid-1930s to the late-1950s, it is clear that there was an advantage to making one’s debut as early as possible. The big three — John Ford (born 1895), Howard Hawks (born 1896) and Alfred Hitchcock (born 1899) — were each born in the nineteenth century. They had the advantage of establishing themselves in the silent era (though obviously Hitchcock worked in England until 1940) and were well established directors throughout the salad days of the factory system, when studios were vertically integrated under one roof, or at least all within one great big enclosing fence. These three beloved giants then moved smoothly into the era of independent production in the 1950s and managed to outlive the old Hollywood which had made them, working well into the 1960s and beyond.

William Darby’s book, Anthony Mann: The Film Career is one of very few books about Mann. Because he started making movies in later, leaner times than the aforementioned big three, Mann’s was a more uncertain career, and he died before he had the chance to tell his story to the auteurist critics who revered him. In the 1940s, while the aforementioned big three were making big films for big studios with the biggest stars, Mann was turning out 70 minute B movies for studios such as Eagle-Lion and Republic. I have not seen the Mann Bs myself, but according to Darby his growing skills as a filmmaker are hindered by inexpressive actors, uninspiring scripts and poor production values. Mann was not a director who sprung fully formed into the world. He made a dozen pictures before he eventually broke through with a series of important and violent films noir such as T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948), which were distinguished by the collaboration of the great cinematographer John Alton.

Then came Mann’s series of famous westerns, starting with Winchester ’73 (1950). Darby’s book is organized by genre, which in Mann’s case means that it is almost chronological. With a few exceptions, Mann progressed from B movies to noir to westerns and finally to the two historical epics he made in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Mann’s westerns are neither revisionist nor traditional, and it is the difficulty of putting your finger on precisely what makes them so special that makes Mann so intriguing. As Darby continually demonstrates in his analysis of every Mann film, the director’s sensibility was inseparable from his aesthetics. His strong philosophical and literary interests were never imposed from outside, they were instead ever-present in his mature style. It is unfortunately sometimes easier to characterize less interesting films, and I would imagine that the seriousness of Mann’s purpose (his films are not laugh riots) made it impossible for him to glibly turn out imitation masterpieces. The difficulty of achieving a total integration of style and sensibility is perhaps one of the reasons he danced around, but never achieved his dream of a western King Lear; the conceit, and it could have been a fabulous one, might have overwhelmed the experience of the film itself. There is a keen intelligence at work in the westerns, even though they are most assuredly action movies. At some point around 1950 Mann suddenly seemed to realize that the western, arguably the king of genres, a genre vast enough to encompass Stagecoach (1939) and Dead Man (1995), is uniquely open to personal interpretation.

Darby fills most of the book with close analysis of the films themselves and it is critical to be familiar with them in order to benefit from his intelligent readings and the subtle comparisons he is able to draw across Mann’s oeuvre. As a result of Darby’s seriousness of purpose, his book is a worthy companion to the films, rather than a superficial introduction to Mann’s style. He generally confines his reliance on secondary sources to the opening chapter, which quotes contemporaneous newspaper reviews of Mann’s work, and the last, which covers recent critical opinions of Mann. Those early reviews, mostly from the New York Times and Variety, vividly demonstrate how much we owe to the critics of the 1960s on both sides of the Atlantic for rescuing film criticism from its infancy. The more scholarly sources quoted in the final chapter make it clear that Mann is still, with a few exceptions, classified as a mere action or genre director. This makes Darby’s book a valuable contribution to film scholarship.

Partly because of Mann’s early death in 1967, we lack an adequate production history of his films. Mann’s westerns were made in a rapidly changing Hollywood. Winchester ’73, for example,was the first film to be made with substantial profit participation by an actor, a situation which opened floodgates. The fact that Mann was able to work with James Stewart eight times is an almost unprecedented collaboration in the history of movies and it would be interesting to know more about their relationship. Darby offers a tantalizing, but highly plausible, hint that the collaboration came to and end when Stewart could no longer tolerate the undeniable physical strain of making Anthony Mann films.

Mann’s progress as a director was not linear. It also does not seem to be the case that after an apprenticeship in the tawdry alleyways of B-movies, Mann found a mature, consistent voice. Lounging amidst his wonderfully austere westerns of the 1950s can be found an impossible to dislike, but ultra-sentimental film like The Glenn Miller Story (1955), and even an outright failure like Serenade (1956). In his reserved entry on Mann in the Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thompson emphasizes the quality of Mann’s collaborators, writers like Philip Yordan and Borden Chase, actors like Stewart or Gary Cooper. Absent a clear production history, who did what is often hard to determine in the movies, but to overplay the role of Mann’s collaborators risks ignoring the rigorous consistency of his best work, especially the westerns.

Perhaps the most powerful characteristic of those westerns is their precise sense of place and their willingness to admit the unruliness of nature. To take one example, within the 87 minute running time of Bend of the River, Mann describes a primal landscape which is pulled four ways. First there is wild nature, which is tamed by the young city of Portland, superficially enticing but ultimately run on greed. The ways of the city threaten the success of the agrarian settlement which James Stewart helps to establish. Opposed to the settlement, which seeks to endure, are the gold mines, which rape the earth for short term gain and are most definitely what we would today call unsustainable development. Not only is Bend of the River a film from which you could practically draw a map, but its themes (the fate of nature is just one of them) are genuinely fascinating. This is Mann’s serious mind at work and to praise his themes for being interesting might seem faint until you think about how many movies, even great movies, tell us things we already know, and how often we forgive this sin in exchange for other compensations. I think this is what Darby means when he compares Mann’s work to novels in that “one can return to them time and again and discover challenging situations and new aesthetic and intellectual delights.” Perhaps one reason Mann remains under-sung is that we are simply not accustomed to his particular variety of greatness, to the way he communicates themes rather than the far more common messages, as in Samuel Goldwyn’s ‘if I wanted to send a message I would call Western Union.’

The fact that Mann still orbits somewhere outside the pantheon of beloved “Golden Age” directors is in a way understandable. In The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris placed Mann just below his “Pantheon Directors” in a category called “The Far Side of Paradise,” reserved for those whose output was compromised by “a fragmentation of their personal vision or because of disruptive career problems.” One may object to such tidy categorization, and to the way it undersells Mann’s genius by grouping him with a director like Capra, but it is understandable. Mann did not enjoy a massively long career. Like Douglas Sirk, about whom tidal waves of ink have been spilled in comparison to Mann, Mann is known for a string of thematically consistent and brilliantly accomplished genre films made in the 1950s. While any filmgoer naturally wishes there were more Mann westerns, it is also possible that he hit his mark perfectly, in that wonderful and odd decade for movies, after the end of the factory system and before the self-inflicted wounds of the ponderous early 1960s.

In Mann’s best films there is a seriousness and a total lack of sentimentality which clearly make him difficult to handle. He is not optimistic like Hawks or nostalgic like Ford or clinical like Hitchcock. Darby’s book helps us to situate Anthony Mann in the history of film and what is clear even considering the four directors mentioned in this paragraph is the astounding richness of the classical Hollywood style in which they all worked. Given all the wonders the seamless style was capable of, the work of this period seems more and more like a vanished avant garde, rather than a comforting anachronism to be revisited on cold winter nights at home. Not only did the Hollywood style achieve the, when you think about it nearly magical, feat of transforming separate images into a coherent and believable world, it admitted and encouraged sensibilities like that of Anthony Mann, a man of action and a thinker.

About the author

Alan Miller

Alan Miller is a graduate of the Sydney University Faculty of Architecture and the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. A fanatical cyclist, he is a former Sydney Singlespeed Champion. He reports on cycling, film, architecture, politics, photography and various mixtures of the above.

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