Nobody can hate like a good man, and maybe that’s why Jimmy Stewart was so magnetic and moving in the hard-bitten Westerns he made with Anthony Mann after World War II. Stewart was a huge star at the outbreak of the war, during which he served with distinction. When the All-American, gee-whiz nice guy every dad hoped his daughter would bring home returned from military service, he was different, the country was different and his films didn’t do great box office. He might easily have appeared on a few TV shows and then drifted into retirement, as did many stars of his generation.
But two magnificent directors saw other qualities in Stewart, including a capacity for rage, bitterness, grief, longing, cynicism and violence. One of them remains famous (Hitchcock), the other, sadly, has mostly been forgotten. His name was Anthony Mann, and you could summarize much of his ouevre worse than saying it was “film noir goes west”.
Their first collaboration, the 1950 movie Winchester ’73, remains famous today because it was a massive hit that revived the then somnolent Western genre. It’s entertaining on any dimension, but for Stewart fans it’s particularly fascinating to see the darkness in his acting. When Stewart’s grief-ridden character (Lin McAdam) mashes Dan Duryea’s face into the bar and painfully twists Duryea’s gun arm, the rage in Stewart’s eyes is frightening; Duryea looks scared that Stewart is really going to hurt him.
The next two Mann-Stewart collaborations are somewhat less known today, which is too bad because they allow Stewart to go deeper into less seemly human emotions. They also both deliver thrilling action scenes. I offer them here as double feature recommendation: 1952’s Bend of the River and 1953’s The Naked Spur.
In Bend of the River, Stewart plays Glyn McLyntock, a former Kansas raider now helping a family of good-hearted pioneers settle in Oregon. They know nothing of his past, but slick gunman Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy) who becomes attached to their party, does. Cole too seems to want to go straight, and helps defend the party as they make their perilous journey. The pioneers warn McLyntock that a bad man is always bad, and therefore Cole cannot be trusted, but McLyntock knows that he himself needs redemption just as much as Cole does. Ultimately, the pioneers are betrayed by unscrupulous villains, and Stewart, with his old violent nature returning, must try to settle the score.
As foils, Kennedy and Stewart play off each other effectively, and Rock Hudson also does well as a (ahem) charming dandy from San Francisco (Rock liked to watch his own movies with gay friends and laugh at the subtext — they must have chuckled here when he tells a smitten young woman to go away because he wants to be with the men). The violence is extreme for the early 1950s, with dozens of people being wounded or killed on screen. What is unfortunately not out of place in the early 1950s are some mercifully brief but still off-putting scenes with Stepin Fechit as a stereotypical African-American character. But to close on a positive note, the scenery is gorgeous and everyone seems to know how to handle horses and guns, including during the climactic shootout.
The Naked Spur features another psychologically damaged Stewart character who cannot accept that what is lost is lost forever, no matter how much vengeance you take. With able assistance from Mann and two other noir icons (Ralph Meeker of Kiss Me Deadly and Robert Ryan of The Set-Up), Stewart delivers a cowboy movie with psychic weight. The film’s emotional dynamic is the reverse of Bend of the River. Instead of a once bad man trying to be accepted by good people by showing how good he is now, Stewart plays a once good man telling good people that they should not accept him anymore. That’s what makes Stewart and Janet Leigh’s heartfelt closing scene a knockout.
In addition to being a movie star and director, Clint Eastwood is a student of film history, and I am going to give him the last word on the multi-talented, multi-dimensional Jimmy Stewart: