Tuesday, February 3, 2015

In short: Man Without a Star (1955)

King Vidor’s western with Kirk Douglas is quite the thing. On the surface, it’s a very typical story about a cowboy who very literally can’t bear to be fenced in, adopts a young man (William Campbell), and gets into the middle of a range war; as such, it is an exciting and economically told tale, with Douglas – as was his wont – throwing himself physically into his performance like few other actors of his generation did.

However, just below the surface, is hidden something quite a bit more complex, not only in the portrayal of the psychology of Douglas’s Dempsey who at first seems to – badly – attempt to hide his humungous amount of compassion behind charm and bravado but actually hides his wounds behind all of these things. There’s an additional dimension to all of the film’s central characters – Jeanne Crain’s ruthless femme fatale turns out to be rather more complicated and human too and Dempsey’s prostitute friend Idonee (Claire Trevor) carries an analytical moral mind beyond the “whore with a heart of gold” thing (which, by the way, always seems to be one of the more humanist tropes in my eyes as far as such things go, turning the least respected members of a society into at least decent people, though unfortunately never granting them the happy ends they might deserve; but then, in Code Hollywood, only the very worst people actually get what they deserve). Okay, William Campbell’s Jeff has not dimensions beyond being a stupid kid, but then I’ve actually met a few of that type; given the film’s general tone, I don’t find it impossible it would argue he doesn’t have much of a personality because he hasn’t suffered much yet.

On the level where plot and character psychology collide, Man Without a Star makes some atypical decisions that see Dempsey in the end taking the side of the people whose fences represent all he has spent his life running away from because theirs is the only side he can pick once he realizes he can’t run away forever; on the socio-economic level as the film represents it (and yes, it actually has that level), he’s in the end fighting a kind of rampant capitalism whose greed doesn’t care that it destroys the future prospects of the things it touches. Yet afterwards, where most westerns would have their now redeemed hero settle down with a decent woman (and one written by me probably with Idonee), Dempsey takes off again; his psychological damage against the ways of Hollywood maybe alleviated but not healed.

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