From coppers and gangsters to cowboys and cattle barons (with a few soldiers, wildcatters and ancient warriors thrown in for good measure), Film Forum’s three-week retrospective of director Anthony Mann offers an unbeatable rogue’s gallery of hardboiled antiheroes. Paul Brunick tackles some critical misconceptions of Mann’s work throughout his career.
From coppers and gangsters to cowboys and cattle barons (with a few soldiers, wildcatters and ancient warriors thrown in for good measure), Film Forum’s three-week retrospective of director Anthony Mann offers an unbeatable rogue’s gallery of hardboiled antiheroes. Whatever their role—unflappably laconic he-men who play close to the chest (Dennis O’Keefe, Gary Cooper); paper-skinned pretty boys whose toughness trembles and wavers (Farley Granger, Anthony Perkins); discomfortingly charming, soft-shoed psychotics (Robert Ryan, Dan Duryea); or awesomely arrogant, codgery old patriarchs (Walter Huston, Lee J. Cobb)—he actors in Mann’s films consistently deliver some of the leanest, meanest performances of their careers. And yet for all this assembled greatness, the above players are mere planets orbiting the true star of this oeuvre: the ultimate Mann’s man, and one of the richest, most equivocal personalities to ever emerge from the Hollywood dream machine: Jimmy Stewart.
Starting out as a director of no-budget B’s and modest programmers in the ’40s, Mann worked his way up to A-pictures in the ’50s and widescreen mega-productions in the ’60s, tackling and exhausting a new genre each decade: the noir thriller, the Western, and the historical epic. Commercially successful (with the exception of a few high-profile flops), Mann’s films were initially either ignored by the critical establishment or subjected to begrudging, condescendingly qualified praise. As genre pictures largely devoid of liberal message mongering, Big Idea intellectualizing or self-consciously theatrical performances, Mann’s work was received in its time as standard boilerplate only partially redeemed by its craft. Bosley Crowther and his critical colleagues at the New York Times, reviewing the five Westerns Mann made with Jimmy Stewart, repeatedly lamented the films’ “standard” or “formulaic” accordance with “familiar Western rules” before acknowledging their technical precision and narrative economy.
This critical consensus started to shift in the late 1950s when mise en scène-minded auteurists triumphed the formal virtuosity and career-long coherence of Mann’s visual style. The appeal that Mann had for auteurists is obvious enough; like them, he explicitly and self-consciously valued visual over literary narration. “Films above everything else are pictures and you ground them pictorially,” Mann explained in a 1965 Sight & Sound interview. “I don’t believe in talk, not for films. That’s the theatre. Here you see it.” But—despite the auteurists’ inversion of aesthetic hierarchies, which catapulted Mann from a minor talent to an almost master—what’s surprising is how much continuity there is between the appraisals of a middlebrow reviewer like Crowther and a high-low pop aesthetician like Andrew Sarris. For how different are Crowther’s above appraisals from Sarris’ assertion in The American Cinema that “Anthony Mann is a style without a theme”?
The suggestion that Mann is more of a brilliant metteur en scène than a bona fide auteur was carried still further by critics like Paul Willeman (in his 1983 essay “Looking at the Male”): “Mann’s stories are mere excuses to replace one image by another, pretexts for the renewal of visual pleasure.” Counterintuitive yet coherently argued, Willeman’s appraisal is intellectually quite interesting. It has the unfortunate downside, however, of being objectively wrong. Even a brilliant scholar like Sarris, despite his sensitivity to Mann’s formal intricacies, seems to miss much of the substantive core of his project. I would even go so far as to say that Sarris’ above-quoted appraisal gets it exactly backward: there is a consistent theme across Mann career (he is a moralist working in the philosophical tradition of social contract theory) but there is not a singular visual style (in the transition from the film noirs to Westerns I detect a fundamental shift). I’ll tackle these issues in reverse order.
The 1947 police procedural T-Men (lensed by the justifiably feted John Alton) is both the pinnacle of Mann’s work in the ’40s and the most illustrative example of the visual style operative in the first half of his career. From its News on the March opening montage, jet-setting investigation of a nefarious private empire (here a counterfeiting ring), and baroque visualizations that weld deep-focus composition to neo-Expressionist chiaroscuro, T-Men is nothing less than the Citizen Kane of B-pictures. Framed as a pseudo-documentary composite of several real-life Treasury investigations (awesomely named the Shanghai Paper Case), T-Men is shot through with so many subtly self-reflexive moments that it plays equally well as a meta-film about its own production.
Two Treasury agents (Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder) go undercover to infiltrate a counterfeiting ring. Like Hollywood actors, we see them doing background research on their roles, rehearsing lines together, dressing up in the natty suits they receive from the Treasury’s wardrobe department. The counterfeiting ring, like the film industry, is a vertically integrated organization with an elaborately delineated division of labor. The detectives start out working for a small-time Detroit operation, adhering counterfeited liquor labels to bottles of bootleg (the underworld equivalent of the mail room) and slowly work their way up the hierarchy, eventually crossing over to one of the “major” operations in San Francisco. The Frisco counterfeiters’ technical expert works in the processing lab of a photo studio (where John Alton began his own career); he discusses the quality of the counterfeit plates and paper stock the way a cinematographer might discuss the technical specs of a lighting set-up and film stock. “It has a certain European flavor,” he muses admiringly, in a subtle echo of the formal affinities between film noir, Weimar Expressionism and French poetic realism. The idea that Hollywood films are little more than commercial product, and thus inimical to personal authorship, is carried to its reductio ad absurdam in this analogy with counterfeit currency—it’s quite hard to think of a “craft” more venal or artistically self-effacing. And yet even here an observer with a well-trained eye can detect the evidence of a personal signature.
The analogies continue (in the film’s epilogue, the triumphant detectives are featured in a magazine spread that suggests a Photoplay-styled fluff piece) but I want to turn now to the visual style. As I said above, the work of Mann and Alton builds on the photographic techniques pioneered by Orson Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland in Citizen Kane, specifically the use of deep-focus cinematography in low-key, shadow-infused scenes. Deep-focus staging has existed since the early days of cinema, but for reasons both technical and conventional was typically limited to brightly lit exteriors and moments of high-dramatic punctuation. Kane both pioneered the technical innovations that allowed for deep focus in tonally textured interiors and integrated the technique as a fundamental component of its visual idiom. T-Men follows in this vein, deploying deep focus across the film and in scenes where much of the fore- and middle-ground is striated by inky, angular shadows. This combination of deep focus and Expressionism seems almost paradoxical: deep focus captures the continuity of three-dimensional space while the impossible perspectives of Expressionism are built on overt spatial distortions. But the way Mann deploys deep focus calls attention to the plane of the screen for several reasons:
(1) the use of wide-angle lenses to register depth of field creates “fish-bowling” spatial distortions;
(2) the juxtaposition of large foreground objects and distant background objects (often achieved by the use of matte paintings) puts more planes of action into sharp focus than even the naked eye could accommodate;
(3) the camera’s monocular reproduction of deeply-staged scenes puts two kinds of visual information (relative size and stereoscopic differential) into conflict with one another, which denaturalizes the perspective.
These effects are complimented by choices in staging (using windows, mirrors and other reflective surfaces to project multiple fields of action on a single plane), editing (the generous use of superimposition in certain montage sequences, overt graphic matches between shots), and camera movement (with the exception of a few whip-pans and standard pans that follow a walking character, the camera is overwhelmingly stationary, emphasizing the compositional self-enclosure of each shot). Deployed in the narration of a story that constantly suggests analogies to its own material production, all of these decisions call attention to the graphic artificiality of the images, the screen itself.
In the Fifties Westerns Mann made with Jimmy Stewart, by contrast, there is a dramatic shift in the visual style. This is typically described in terms of simplification, a turn away from baroque pyrotechnics towards a more subtle stylization. While this account is certainly true, it tends to conceal a more fundamental shift: a turn from the pictorial to the sculptural/architectural, from monadic compositions to spatial continuity, from graphic stylization towards phenomenological realism. Mann never shoots a landscape that’s not populated by characters—the landscapes are spaces that the characters move in and through. These landscapes have the weight of gravity and the texture of materiality. They are spaces that extend beyond the edges of the frame. The noir films evoke an almost Euclidean abstraction (common motifs of that period include road maps, schematics, alienating aerial perspectives). The Stewart Westerns by contrast evoke an embodied perspective (not to be confused with optical POV): an empathetic projection into the concrete physicality of the profilmic universe. Rocks are hard, hills are steep, rain is bone-chilling and dust chokes you—the film helps us to feel these things. There is no graphic distortion (it’s apparent that the 50mm lens dominates)—the plane of the screen is as transparent as a window. Analytically explicated like this, my proposed shift in Mann’s visual epistemology may sound like a pedantic distinction, but I think it greatly affects viewers’ involvement with the film on an subconscious, emotional level.
Where critics have overemphasized the visual continuity in Mann’s work, they’ve largely ignored its thematic coherence. In Mann’s most personal films (and not all of his projects are equally personal) the protagonists are cut off from the social authority of the Law for a number of reasons: they are soldiers stranded behind enemy lines, cowboys living in the wild West, gangsters, undercover cops or “wrong men” trapped in the criminal underworld. There is no social authority to appeal to: it is a Hobbesian state of nature: bellum omnium contra omnes, “the war of all against all.” (In The Furies, cattle baron T.C. Jeffords not only builds his own autocratic empire in the west, he even creates his own currency—none of that e pluribus unum nonsense!) The opening scene of Winchester ’73 visualizes the idea of the Law in a very literal way. Arriving in Dodge City for a shooting contest, everyone who comes into town is required to turn their guns over to the local Sherriff’s office. Just imagine a room filled with racks and racks of guns! It’s an exact visualization of Hobbes’ Leviathan, the state’s monopolization of violence in order to provide peace for all. Once the characters move outside of Dodge City, the state of nature takes over—Mann’s films are centrally concerned with the relationships between morality and power in such a world. By an amazing coincidence, this thematic core is allegorically embodied in the backstory of Anthony Mann’s very name, which at birth was Bundsmann. Bund is the German word for Federation, as in the Bundesrepublik Deutschland (the German Federal Republic). By dropping the first half, Mann had literally separated “Man” from the “Federation.”
As his career evolves, Mann’s films become increasingly schematic in their formal and structural precision, but this does not correspond to a moral schematic. Just the opposite. His films set-up ethical paradoxes and inescapable double binds, and invite the viewer to hash out the complex moral calculus for themselves. Viewed one way, films like The Naked Spur and The Far Country are quite cerebral in their analytical abstraction; they remind me of those thought problems Philosophy 101 students love, “The Runaway Trolley” and its many corollaries. But Mann’s talent is to implicate the viewer emotionally in the proceedings through character identification, enabling us to see how emotions like revenge, jealously, and greed distort our ethical thinking. His films are phenomenological studies of power and ethics—he places man in nature in order to better understand the nature of man.
All of this suggests that the films of Anthony Mann are far from critically exhausted.
The films of Anthony Mann will be playing at Film Forum June 25-July 15.