The Man from Laramie (1955): Movie Review

The 1950s is arguably the finest decade for western films, with not only the work of Anthony Mann, but fine work from John Ford (The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, Rio Grande), Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo), Fred  Zinnemann (High Noon)  and Delmar Daves  (3:10 to Yuma, Broken Arrow, Cowboy) among some lesser known works. The Man from Laramie was the final collaboration between Anthony Mann and James Stewart and the first in Cinemascope, culminating a brilliant artistic partnership with one the finest westerns of all time.

James Stewart gives another mesmeric performance as Will Lockhart, one more in the line of Mann’s obsessed cowboys on a revenge seeking mission. Here Stewart’s character is looking for the man responsible for his brother’s death, a soldier in the Calvary whose unit was wiped out by repeating rifle toting Apaches purchased from white men. Three men become Lockhart’s prime suspects: land baron Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), his hot headed insecure son Dave (Alex Nicol) and the head ranch foreman Vic (Arthur Kennedy).

Like past Mann/Stewart characters Will Lockhart is not your typical machismo cowboy. He’s unsure and remains vulnerable at times, similar to lead characters in Winchester ’73 and The Naked Spur. Mann’s other male characters in this film display signs of stunted masculinity. Papa Alec is overly protective of his uncontrollable son Dave (who reminds me of the John Cassavetes role in the 1958 film Saddle the Wind), struggling to meet the stature of his father and acting more like a spoiled child who cannot get his way than an adult. And then there is Vic the foreman, who has been like the son Alec never had. Vic will come to realize that, no matter what Alec has promised him he will get when he dies, Dave is his blood and will get everything. A sense of tragedy hangs over Alec, who was once the most ruthless and powerful man is now forced to face his own vulnerability; He is going blind and with it goes his strength.

Unlike other Mann westerns I have written about so far this film has two female characters instead of one. First there is Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), Alec’s niece who runs the general store. Barbara has no love for her callous Uncle Alec as she watched him cheat his brother, and her now dead father, out of their shares of land. Like other Mann heroines she is in love, at least in the beginning, with the “bad” guy in the story, in this case Vic. The other main female, and the more important role, is Kate Canady (Aline McMahon), the only rancher not afraid to stand up to the Waggomans’ greed, though she does shares a secret with Lockhart, that she has been in love with old Alec for years. With his oncoming blindness and sense of helplessness she will finally get her man.

The Man from Laramie struck me as one of the more sadistic westerns I have come across, two scenes in particular stand out, first during Lockhart’s first altercation with the Waggoman empire when he and his men are surrounded by Dave and some ranch hands for “stealing” salt from the Waggonmans’ flats. Lockhart was told by Barbara Waggoman he could take the salt claiming nobody cared. Lockhart discovers otherwise when he quickly finds a rope around his waist and is dragged across the flats. Dave then orders Lockhart’s wagons burned and his mules shot. The second scene is even more unsettling. After being wounded by a gunshot to his hand in an earlier shootout with Lockhart, Dave gets his revenge when his boys capture Will. They hold Lockhart down and–with Mann’s camera up close in Lockhart’s face–Dave puts a bullet in Lockhart’s shooting hand. While you do not see the gunshot on screen, the scene is so powerful you wince more than once feeling the pain.

Another interesting aspect of this film are the dreams land Baron Alec Waggoman suffers. He wants Lockhart out of town and is even willing to pay to get him out. We find out the this is due to a fear from a continuous dream Alec has experienced two or three times a week for a long time where a tall, lean stranger is going to come to town and kill his boy. The old man wants Lockhart out. In the end the old man’s dream is deadly to his son as anticipated but only partially correct.

The film is based on a short story by Thomas T. Flynn that originally appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, with a screenplay by Philip Yordan and Frank Burt. One problem I had with the film is the lack of motive given to the son Dave for selling rifles to the Indians. It does not do him or his family any good. In fact it probably was a dangerous move since the Apaches, it is assumed, would use the weapons against them. One other minor thing is that the film’s title is a misnomer. While he came from Laramie with goods that he initially was delivering in the wagons, Lockhart states later in a conversation with Barbara Waggoman that he has no home and is basically a drifter.

John Greco has had a life-long fascination with cinema and photography. Raised in New York City, he is now living in Florida. For more information, visit Twenty Four Frames.

 

James Stewart Articles:

James Stewart: It’s a Wonderful Career

James Stewart: His Five Best Performances

The Man From Laramie

Suspicion: First Viewing Experiences

  • tony payne

    And who can forget Shane! There are so many good scenes in this film with little Joey and best of all is the menacing Jack Palance smirking his best smirk as he guns down the defenceless and weasley Elisha Cook. Fabulous western.

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  • Allen Hefner

    A great movie, but Winchester ’73 was really Stewart’s breakout role, and the one that shattered his earlier image. I wrote about that movie in my blog back in June. http://bitactors.blogspot.com/2010/06/winchester-73.html
    Stewart went on to play that sort of confused, real-life character again many times, but he also continued to play to his family audience in The Glenn Miller Story (1954), Spirit of St. Louis (1957) and others.
    And don’t forget how many Hitchcock films he was in. James Stewart had talent we will not seen many times. He could do anything he wanted!

  • hiram

    The 50s are indeed the great decade for Westerns, but how can anyone commenting on that fail to mention the extraordinary contributions of Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott. John Sturges had a pretty good decade, too.

  • William Sommerwerck

    It’s been about a year since I’ve seen “The Man from Laramie”, and though I don’t remember the details, I was not impressed. My memory is that the film is generally “overwrought” and lacking solid characterizations.

    I just saw the Burt Lancaster “Lawman” on ‘this’ (MGM’s movie channel), and agree with those who feel it’s a forgotten gem. “Lawman” is a “psychological” western (though with a fair amount a fightin’ an’ shootin’) in which none of the characters is wholly “good” or “bad”.

  • Trainman

    I never bash another persons work or their comments but, I just can’t help myself this time. Mr Sommerwerck, I just don’t agree with your findings about The Man from Laramie . The biggest problem we have is, we never try to get the full perspective on a subject and then unload on others your own Ideas. If you want to bash a piece then I think its OK but first you need to understand it. If you can’t understand the story line then say so, don’t ruin the movie for others. If your unhappy with my remarks then take a $150.00 go see a Shrink and tell him whats bugging you, I don’t care what you do but just don’t destroy a good movie because of what might have happened in your childhood.

    • Robin

      A slightly feverish response, surely?

  • BRIAN

    Bend Of The River(1953)Dir Anthony Mann
    Jimmy Stewart,Arthur Kennedy,Julie Adams,Rock Hudson,Jay C Flippen,Lori Nelson,Henry Morgan,

  • Noel Bjorndahl

    I, too, love this ambitious Mann western about how a corrupt landowning family (the Waggomans) finally disintegrate when an outsider, Will Lockhart (James Stewart in his best role for Mann), is drawn into its closed world. Mann’s dramatic presentation, here as in most of his 50s westerns, is Shakesperian in its power and intensity. Mann’s widescreen compositions of the 50s are among the best uses of that then fresh format when people were still exploring its possibilities. His landscapes create a superbly configured canvas against which the conflicts are played out. Donald Crisp as the family patriarch (going blind in more than just a physical sense) is preoccupied with dynastic succession. His natural son (Alex Nicol) is a psychopath who, early in the film, overturns and brutally burns Stewart’s trading wagons, shoots his mules and has him roped and dragged through the dirt, all in a pitiful bid to assert his authority in front of his men. In a later incident, he shoots Stewart’s hand at point blank range, as if castrating him (a violent and potent sequence). Crisp’s foreman and surrogate son (Arthur Kennedy in a fine performance) feigns worthiness but plots to usurp the succession and betray his father-surrogate. Stewart as catalyst and protagonist, fulfils his own quest for justice and revenge with an obsession/pathology bordering on madness. Strong stuff!

  • Chuck Neumann

    Nice review of an excellent film. A couple comments on the problems Mr. Greco had. I believe that Lockhart/Jimmy Stewart is not a drifter but an army officer stationed at Fort Laramie. In the final scenes he mentions to Barbara that he is stationed there and she hopes she might see him there in the future. As far as the gun sales to the Indians, both Dave and Vic are involved and have a deal with the Indians that they are not to bother their ranch. Another powerfull (perhaps “sadistic”) scene is when Lockhart makes Vic ride out to the Indians and cerain death. A fine film, excellent work by Jimmy Stewart.

  • michael jefferson

    I have always loved Western movies from when I was just a kid in the ’60’s. John Wayne, Stewart, Glenn Ford, R. Scott; I loved them all and still do.

  • don snyder

    The first film I ran when I was a projectionist was the Fox picture “The Gunfighter” with Gregory Peck. Even though it is not a slang bang shot em up western, it is still one of the best along with “High Noon.”

  • masterofoneinchpunch

    I’ll agree with hiram about the Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott films (Ranown cycle though technically Comanche Station came out in 1960 :)). Seven Men From Now is easily one of the best westerns of the decade with the great contrast between Scott and Lee Marvin.

    But The Man from Laramie is an excellent western though my favorite Mann/Stewart western is still Winchester ’73. I wasn’t thrilled by the ending and plot change towards the end of The Man From Laramie, but I still consider it a western classic.

  • Ron Black

    Burt Lancaster’s “Lawman” was mentioned. Around that same time he made another movie “Vadez Is Coming”, about bigotry and racism and messing with the wrong person.

  • Chuck

    Everyone has several favorite Westerns- The Wild Bunch comes to mind. But my three favorites are from all over the compass- The Professionals with Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster; High Noon with Gary Cooper, and The Magnificent Seven with Yul Brynner. The first and last each have great supporting casts, and of course Gary Cooper carries off his performance with Shakesperian magnificance.

  • SONNY LACHNER

    TALKING ABOUT GREAT WESTERNS AND JIMMY STEWART, I ALMOST MET HIM IN 1965 IN YUMA ARIZONA… I WAS ON AN ERRAND FOR MY CO AT THE MARINE BASE THERE…JIMMY WAS AT THE TIME FILMING “THE FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX” AND HE WAS COMING OUT OF HIS MOTEL ROOM, I ROLLED DOWN THE TRUCK WINDOW AND HOLLERED AT HIM AND HE WAVED TO ME, WISH I COULD HAVE TALKED WITH, HE WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST ACTORS OF ALL TIME, I’M GLAD I AT LEAST SAW HIM IF ONLY FOR A MOMENT…HOW EVER, I DID MEET AND TALK WITH HIS FRIEND AND CO STAR DAN DURYEA………….HE WAS WASHING HIS CLOTHES AND I STRUCK UP A CONVERSATION WITH HIM…WE TALKED ABOUT WINCHESTER 73 ONE OF MY ALL TIME FAVORITE WESTERNS HE MADE WITH JIMMY…NEVER KNEW DAN HAD SO MANY FRECKLES…BUT WE HAD A GREAT CHAT, BUT HE HAD TO LEAVE TO FILM A SCENE FOR THE MOVIE..ALL WHAT I HAVE SAID, ACTUALLY HAPPENED BACK THEN…I HOPE YOU ENJOYED HEARING ABOUT IT.-30-

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