The failure of John Huston’s The Misfits is not due to lack of talent. Built from an Arthur Miller script, which had begun as a short story culled from the playwright’s experiences while living in Nevada, the film came at a particularly stagnant season in director John Huston’s career. Between 1953 and 1967, Huston busied himself with a line of half-interesting literary adaptations, a few theater adaptations, and a couple of original works, of which The Misfits is often regarded as the most substantial and memorable. A half-century later, it’s remembered under gloomier circumstances, as this would be the film that split up Miller’s marriage to star Marilyn Monroe, killed co-lead Clark Gable, and prompted Monroe’s further descent into pills and booze, 19 months before she died of an overdose.
These dark clouds may have become more visible in hindsight, but they are all palpably felt in the film, which is one of the few things that can be said positively about The Misfits. Set largely in the desert terrain outside of Reno, the narrative concerns the relationship that builds between a gaggle of outsiders after they meet at a bar one afternoon and decide to spend the rest of the day drinking at a small, abandoned home in the desert. The house was once the home of Guido (Eli Wallach) and his late wife but he hasn’t returned since she passed away from an unexplained illness. Nevertheless, upon his return he shows little hesitancy in using the demise of his wife as a way of showing off his sensitive side to at least one of his guests, the newly divorced Roslyn (Monroe). Having been charmed and seduced by Guido’s pal Gay (Gable), an old-fashioned cowboy, Roslyn decides to stay and fix up the home with Gay when her friend, Isabelle (a very good Thelma Ritter), and Guido return home.
Monroe’s Roslyn is an odd duck to be sure, and a great deal of the film’s dramatic tension derives from her bouncing off the hardened archetypes of Gay and Guido. There’s one dazzling sequence in which Roslyn, drunk on bourbon, dances out into Guido’s garden in a black dress and wraps herself around a tree lovingly. Here’s a woman deeply affected by all life, no matter what its perceived value, and in this moment we see how this is at once bewitching and unsettling to men. Roslyn isn’t a temptress, but her ability to embrace life without a single caveat makes her desirable in ways that forego her earthly body. This, sadly, does not come through often in Huston’s direction, or in Miller’s script for that matter, but is inherent in Monroe’s performance, which toes the line between fearlessness and train wreck.
There’s a sense of unease in the group dynamic, which grows to include a friend of Gay’s, Perce (Montgomery Clift), but misery fully overtakes the narrative following Perce’s disastrous performance at a rodeo. Gay and Guido front the money for Perce to enter the rodeo on the condition that Perce will go mustanging with them, a proposition that Roslyn ignores at first but finds horrifying when she realizes what it entails. The mustanging trip is the main attraction of the film’s second half and it’s indeed a desolate, grim set piece, pitting Roslyn’s ultra-humanist sensibilities against the hard-bitten “live free or die” philosophies of Guido, Gay, and, to a lesser extent, Perce, in an overwhelming landscape of dry, cracked earth and formidable valleys and canyons.
The actors, and Huston, sustain the mood of dread along with these images of a world beyond civilization; one member of this eponymous group remarks that the setting is reminiscent of an alien planet. Whatever the minor successes of this sequence, and a handful of other scenes, might be, however, the film as a whole is incredibly wrongheaded in its covertly generic morality and displays none of the visual bravado that Huston had shown and teased in his early career, which would bloom fully in a string of late-career masterpieces, of which Fat City, Under the Volcano, and Wise Blood are the most striking. A great writer of novels and plays, Miller embeds the screenplay with his empirical thoughts on masculinity and philosophical glances at intrinsically American notions of freedom, but there’s a muffled theatricality to the film’s structure that belies its wide-open, cinematic environs. The film justifiably feels like a misfit western, held-over to a time where cowboys had become relics and high noon had gone atomic, but unlike even the weaker work of John Ford and Anthony Mann, there’s an unwavering stiffness to Huston’s aesthetic, and the emotional trajectory of every character plays out in utterly languid and unconvincing ways.
There’s a sense that there were perhaps too many cooks in the kitchen, but Miller, inarguably, is the voice heard most prominently, and his treatment of the character of Roslyn, which he had written for then-wife Monroe, unveils a deep flaw in the film’s thematic arcs. Roslyn’s attachment to nature is at first beguiling and unpredictable but soon grows cloying, overbearing, and ultimately embarrassing. It would have been interesting if this was on purpose, to balance out the more admirable and seductive facets of Roslyn’s persona with the more grating and overtly serious ones. And yet, Miller finds it appropriate to make her the ultimate and consistent voice of reason throughout, which bolsters the already deeply bogus sense of emotional sincerity that all involved are striving for. A perplexing misfire more than a complete dud, The Misfits‘s true legacy remains in the personal histories of those involved with the production rather than in the far more exceptional careers of the artists who brought it to its dull fruition.
Despite my general displeasure with The Misfits, the work MGM has put into this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer should not be disregarded. This is a largely peerless treatment with a crisp picture with unyielding clarity. Debris is hardly a factor and problems with the original print are near-unnoticeable, and few and far between. Blacks are deep and lush, whites are bright but not overwhelming, and the overall gray scale is beautifully handled. There is a healthy layer of grain throughout and the sense of detail, especially in the clothing and in the decayed western locales, is superb. The audio follows suit, handling a generally minimalist mix with precision and suitable muscle. Atmosphere noise and dialogue are lovingly balanced with more detailed sound effects (the mustangs galloping toward the end of the film, the horses and bulls at the rodeo). Dialogue remains just a little bit out front but holds court nicely with Alex North's score. This is one of MGM's more remarkable treatments, despite the fact that it is given to an unremarkable film.
The disc includes a trailer for the film, but that's it—a disappointment, considering some insight into the context of the production would have been greatly appreciated.
An overpraised mediocrity given good faith for its pedigree, The Misfits wrangles a very good transfer from MGM, but very little else.