Our first Mann out of the gate is a bit of a disappointment. This northwestern took sleeping pills, and only occasionally rouses itself to muster a few moments of tension. Stewart is Jeff Webster, a socially disaffected serial killer who is one step ahead of the law. He rides with a little bell on his saddlehorn that was given to him by Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan) a couple years back. It's a reminder of their dream of settin' up house together in Utah. Says Ben:
"we're going to hang it right over our front door, on the inside, so when you open the door the bell jingles, you see, on account of I like to know when my friends is comin' so I can put on another pot of coffee."
Jeff and Ben figure that if they can drive their Wyoming cattle up Klondike way, where beef's bringin' a dollar a pound on the hoof (that's better than ten dollars a pound dressed in Dawson) then it'll bankroll that ranch they want in Utah. Geographically, we're looking at a Seattle- by steamship to Skagway- through mountain passes to Dawson progression, but most of the locations were actually filmed in the Canadian Rockies. Here's Ben...
... his love of coffee will get him killed. When Jeff and Ben finally get their cattle to Dawson, they end up grubstaking a claim in yet another detour to that ranch in Utah.
I love James Stewart, but I think he's coasting a bit in this one. It is commonplace with critics to remark how directors liked to use Stewart's charm and boyishness as a platform to walk the audience through some of the weirder, darker regions of one of his roles. I'm not sure what Mann and screenwriter Borden Chase had in mind here, but Stewart's character looked at objectively is an asshole. We get some of this:
"Nobody ever did anything for nothing. What do you want me to say?"
"That's a term I seldom use."
"You don't like people much, do you?"
"Any reason I should?"
And we get a lot of this:
"I don't need other people. I don't need help. I can take care of me."
"I take care of me, when you're older you'll find out that's the only way."
Poor coffee lovin' Ben. This old-timer has followed Jeff all over the west, from one scheme to another, and pretty much done whatever Jeff told him, and still Jeff is ready to up and leave him with hardly a moments notice. I'm not sure what's going on here. It's not exactly a George and Lennie relationship, and anyway I'm too endeared to Walter Brennan to call him dimwitted. He's just a simple man who likes his coffee.
"Now look, Jeff, you and me's been together a lot of years. It's been good, real good. I ain't gonna be around much longer. I'm gettin' old, but I sort of figured we'd go on together until my time comes."
And what does Ben get in return for all his slavish devotion? Well, near as I can tell, every once in a while Jeff puts his pipe in his mouth and lights it for him.
"And in a pinch," strikes a match, "I can take care of you too."
"I guess you can at that."
Some friends of mine used to have a silly running joke about how we each had our own Boris Karloff monster that did all of our bidding. When we got together to play cards or watch t.v. we would leave our monsters parked in the hall or at the dining table. Well, now I think I want to update my model to a Walter Brennan. Just so that when my life takes a nasty turn, and I feel I'm all out of options, and I want to light out west, I can turn to him and hear something like this:
"How much do we have left? Uh, fifty dollars or thereabouts. Enough to buy flour and salt and coffee, and a shovel and a pan. We can kill our meat."
It turns out to be a long, hard trail to Dawson, with plenty of complications. Ruth Roman will serve as our Dark Woman, Miss Castle.
Ronda Castle is a saloon owner. She kindly helps the miners spend their hardearned gold on women, booze, and gambling. She owns the Skagway Castle and later, the Dawson Castle. She takes a shine to our Jeff the moment she sees that he's a killer who has troubles with the law. For a bad woman, she's boring.
More complications ensue when we meet our villain, the corrupt law in Skagway.
Mr. Gannon is the boss in Skagway. He likes hangin' people. He doesn't like it when somebody interrupts his hangin' people. He likes Jeff, but he still wants to hang him. And rob him of his cattle in plain sight. John McIntire's performance is the most spirited in the movie.
This here is Renee... or 'freckle face'. "I'm not a freckle face. I'm a woman."
Remember, them's boobs under that thar flannel. She's what I like to call our a priori love-girl. The a priori love-girl is that girl that seems always to have loved our hero unconditionally, while he looks past her with neglect, and craps on her emotions. Maybe he will come around to her by the end, but only at the very end, and sometimes that's too late. For an example of the a priori love-girl par excellence, see Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running.
Here we get some movie romance between Jeff and Miss Castle. This happens only hours after Jeff wasn't going to bother himself to rescue her from an avalanche. He warned her. He told her to take the trail less traveled. But you see, she's a strong-willed woman.
"Nothing wrong with that (being strong-willed.) That is, if you don't mind getting a broken neck."
"If I had, would it have bothered you?"
This does not make Renee happy. "I'm a woman." (He doesn't think so, you're the a priori love-girl.)
You see, Jeff didn't know that avalanche was going to happen, he just figured it might happen and it did. "Well, let's move along."
"We've got to go and help those people!"
"Of course we do, they may be dead."
"I didn't kill'em."
"But you may be able to save them if they're still alive!"
"You're wrong, Jeff. You gotta help."
"Why, if you don't know why. Hyup!"
"You're wrong, Jeff. You're wrong."
Once we get to Dawson, and and Ben and Jeff start panning for gold, the movie becomes a conflict between the good folks of Dawson that want to make it a real town, and that sinful seductress Miss Castle and the evil corrupt Mr. Gannon who try to muscle in on the action.
"Sure enough, we're gonna have lamposts and sidewalks. Might even have a church."
"All this fool talk of schools and churches and law and order."
The good townfolk need a sheriff to stand up to Mr. Gannon and his thugs. Jeff is handy with a gun, up close and far away, but he'll have none of it. It's time for him to move on. The townfolk end up pinning a star on the local drunk, Rube.
As so often happens with James Stewart, he's very effective when angry or seething with a glaring intensity.
Say it through clenched teeth, "Did you sell Ben that coffee?!"
Over at the Hash House, Hominy, Grits, and Molasses entertain us on their new piano with 'O Pretty Little Primrose'.
This baddie's evil grin reaches an 8 on the Jack Wilson Thug-ometer.
There is some nice scenery photographed by William Daniels, but I found my mind wandering to other things like Stewart's tailored cowboy get-up, and the soundtrack's post-dubbing. With some of these locations, I don't see how the microphones picked up anything but a prevailing atmospheric roar.
I went into this movie with the single, modest desire to see the interior of a supply store stocked full with provisions for the 'far country'. The closest I came was this exterior in the background of the shot below. Oh well, maybe my desire will be fulfilled next time at the Bend of the River.
Others more dedicated can go spelunking through the caverns of this western's latent thematic content. They'll probably find about what they'd expect. The violence sanctioned by the public as a necessary foundation of law and order, or even the existence of a public at all. The dynamic between the roaming individual and those good town folk with their dream of streets, churches, and schools. Nation building. A civilization raised from a chaotic wilderness of corruption and greed. And other Liberty Valence type stuff. It's all in there somewhere, but really, why bother?
Not a great movie, or even a good movie, but western aficianados will have to look, and of course, this will be a must-own film for Jack Elam completists.