James Stewart enters The Man from Laramie with such righteous fury that his whole performance is framed through a prism of rage. Surveying the desiccated remains of a burned wagon train, Stewart’s Will Lockhart, the brother of a cavalry soldier murdered by armed Apaches, doubles down on his mission to kill the man who sold the rifles to a tribe of Native Americans. As he continues his search in the small New Mexico town of Coronado, Lockhart speaks through a clenched jaw, as if the thought of potentially exchanging words with the person responsible for his brother’s death sickens him too much to risk pleasantries with anyone.
But if Lockhart’s determination and thirst for revenge instantly marks him as an intimidating presence, Coronado swiftly establishes dominance over him. Before he even reveals his true reason for traveling to the town, Lockhart runs afoul of the Waggoman family, whose patriarch, Alec (Donald Crisp), owns nearly everything in the area. The protagonist soon finds himself embroiled in the growing schism between Alec’s two heirs, his legitimate but entitled and sadistic son, Dave (Alex Nicol), and lifelong employee Vic (Arthur Kennedy), who believes his loyalty deserves greater reward than Dave’s genetic birthright.
The film regularly receives comparisons to King Lear, with Alec as the eponymous, ailing ruler and Vic as both Regan and Edmund. But the character similarities matter less than the psychological intensity Anthony Mann mines from the material. The desolate, sparsely adorned landscape shots emphasize the hollowness of Alec’s kingdom and the cold expansion-at-all-costs mentality of the old baron and his heirs. Shadows darken nearly every frame as Alec goes blind, Dave impatiently waits for his coming inheritance, Vic wrestles with his own greed and Lockhart grapples with his anger. In one of the film’s best moments, Lockhart sits in a cell at what appears to be dusk, with cool lighting and deep shadows as he and Alec exchange tense words. When the camera follows the latter outside, however, it emerges into the blinding daylight of mid-afternoon, a sudden reorientation to an objective reality after spending time in the two characters’ headspace.
The film’s most vivid moments, however, involve violence, highly stylized to avoid explicit depiction while giving the impression of seeing every gruesome detail. The wild braying of Lockhart’s off-screen mules as Dave shoots them conjures images of the slaughter in the viewer’s head, as does the infamous scene when the camera tilts away from Dave putting a pistol to Lockhart’s shooting hand up to the man’s panicked face as the hammer falls. Mann also employs long shots to great effect, as in a scene of Lockhart walking alone at night as a figure emerges on the roof of the building next to him to attack, or of Vic inadvertently sending Alec tumbling down a hill.
The Man from Laramie marked the end of Mann and Stewart’s collaborations, and while it’s not the bleakest of their films, it shows how far the two had pushed themselves together. Lockhart caps off a series of roles that allowed Stewart to shed his goody two-shoes image with self-serving, violent characters, paving the way for his dark work with Hitchcock and the craven, impotent idealist of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. As for Mann, he went on to make bigger films and, occasionally, better ones, but the thematic ambition he showed here at last made his modestly scaled westerns seem as huge as the genre’s marquee titles. Mann at last made it into the western canon, and he did so as a revisionist avant la lettre.
Sourced from a 4K master, Twilight Time’s Blu-ray is one of the best-looking in their catalogue. Excepting a brief flicker in the opening credits, the film looks pristine from its first dust-caked frames. Anthony Mann’s grim thematic material and modest budget is reflected in the film’s muted, worn color patterns, but even parched and faded desert flora retain their full texture in this transfer, and the flashes of color, like the red bandana Lockhart wears around his neck or the azure sky, provide an even greater contrast to the brown-green that surrounds them. The 5.1 lossless track is equally robust, with clearly mixed dialogue and a booming emphasis on the active score.
Twilight Time’s disc comes with an isolated score track and a trailer, and an accompanying booklet contains a brief essay on the film by Julie Kirgo.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray of Anthony Mann’s Shakespearean western may not come with significant extras, but the 4K transfer makes the film look better than ever.