James Stewart had been working in Hollywood for 15-plus years, most of those years as a go-to star who audiences and critics alike liked and appreciated. In 1950 though, he starred in a western called Winchester '73, teaming with director Anthony Mann. It ended up playing a key -- if unappreciated -- role and movie as Stewart headed into the next portion of his career. From there on in, Stewart was a regular in the western genre, by my count starring in 17 westerns. Today's entry? That would be 1955's The Man from Laramie.
Having endured a long trip on the trail, Will Lockhart (Stewart) and his packed-to-the-gills freight wagons have finally arrived in the small, isolated desert town of Coronado. Lockhart sells his goods and is in no rush to get back to Laramie. Actually...he'd like to stick around. He's got some questions he would like answered about a cavalry patrol being massacred several months before by an Apache war party using repeating rifles. Where did those rifles come from? Who sold them to the Apaches? Now, Will isn't letting on to his real goal of being Coronado, but he quickly draws the ire of the local rancher, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), who with his weak son, Dave (Alex Nicol), and loyal foreman, Vic (Arthur Kennedy), rule over the surrounding area. The clock is ticking on Lockhart if he wants to get his answers before he ends up six feet under with a bullet or knife in his back.
Early in his career, Stewart did star in one pretty excellent western, 1939's Destry Rides Again. Some more years under his belt, his service in World War II behind him, Stewart was a little more weathered, a little more grown up when he really dove into the western genre in the 1950's. He just looks like he belongs in the western, from the beat-up hat he wore in so many to the tall, lean look that screamed authentic cowboy. He's likable -- as always -- but as necessary, Stewart is able to call up this rage and fury as needed. That's especially important as we discover exactly what his Will Lockhart is up to in Coronado. It's an excellent performance from Jimmy Stewart all around, an actor and a man who appears quite comfortable in a genre that is and was happy to have him.
John Wayne had John Ford. Randolph Scott had Budd Boetticher. Jimmy Stewart....he had Anthony Mann. This is actually the fifth and final pairing of the actor/director combo, and it's a good one. They also paired in Winchester '73, Bend of the River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, and this film. So many 1950's westerns were clean and polished, but there's a meanness, a darkness to these pairings. With touches of Shakespearean storylines, even some mythological storylines (greed, betrayal, lust, murder), Mann added a much-needed darkness and depth to the western. It wasn't always a cut and dry good and bad. It was tortured anti-heroes (a sign of things to come in the genre). It was realistic -- if not graphic -- violence. There are a fair share of pretty weak westerns from this decade, but when they were good? They were pretty good overall, like here, and so many Stewart/Mann, Scott/Boetticher pairings.
'Laramie' doesn't feature a huge cast or a ton of recognizable names, but the casting in general is solid because of the script with all that Shakespearean, mythology-based storylines. Crisp is excellent as the aging rancher who's desperately clinging to what he carved out of the wilderness. He's trying to keep it all together, balancing things between his whiny, weak-minded son, Dave (a sniveling Nicols), and the tougher, ruthless Vic Hansbro. Kennedy is excellent, as he usually was, without resorting too much to chewing the scenery. Cathy O'Donnell plays Barbara, Waggoman's niece and Vic's fiance, caught up in the middle of all the family drama, Aline MacMahon is a weathered, ranching rival to the Waggomans with a history with her rivals, Wallace Ford is Charley, Lockhart's quasi-partner and a tried and true wagon driver with experience to burn, and an underused Jack Elam doing what he did best as shifty, two-faced supporting villain.
This is a western with a ton to offer. It has elements of film noir storytelling, the mystery of the massacre playing out against a western backdrop. Lockhart's secret doesn't come as a huge surprise, but it works because the tension and mood is built up more with each passing scene. The final reveal in the closing scene is dealt with in almost matter of fact fashion, but getting there is a ton of fun. The score is nothing to write home about, but my goodness, the visuals from the on-location shooting in New Mexico are Stunning. What a beautiful picture, the rocky mountains and sand-swept plains and vistas filling the background with each passing scene. It is a sun-drenched western with seemingly no clouds anywhere near or around the location shooting. Story, twists and characters aside, you can just sit back and appreciate the natural beauty.
If there's a weakness, it's in the last 45 minutes or so of a 104-minute movie. As certain things are revealed, the story loses some momentum. The ending itself features some twists and betrayals and backstabbing along the way that do make it fun, but there isn't the same energy as was there in the first half. Still, it's a solid, well-made adult western from the 1950's and Jimmy Stewart is always fun to watch. Definitely worth seeking out.
The Man From Laramie (1955): ***/****