Directed by King Vidor
Written by Borden Chase and D.D. Beauchamp
One of the joys of reviewing a genre in its near entirety is to see how different stars might interact with the space, and potentially with each other. With Man Without a Star, unfortunately, Kirk Douglas does not have another A-list movie star to go toe-to-toe with, but it is just his second entry into this Western marathon and as such we get another opportunity to see a Hollywood legend play cowboy. Douglas is not a star I’m super familiar with, even outside of the genre, but his legend is certainly well known. In his only other western to this point, The Big Sky, I came away mostly mixed. I don’t think Douglas did anything to elevate that Howard Hawkes film, and it was a largely forgettable movie. Man Without a Star is similarly forgettable, perhaps for many of the same reasons.
Douglas plays a nomad named Dempsey, who is travelling along on his own in an anonymous freight train when a railroad employee catches a fellow trainhopper, Jeff (William Campbell). Dempsey, smart enough and experienced enough to elude the employee, saves Jeff, bringing him back on the train. When the employee ultimately ends up dead, Dempsey helps identify the real killer, saving Jeff for a second time. Now in his debt, Jeff follows Dempsey along to a Wyoming town, where Dempsey’s connections with a local (Claire Trevor) lands them a job for the areas largest cattle baron, Reed (Jeanne Crain). But when Reed’s plans to expand the ranch mean taking over the other, smaller farmers in the valley, Dempsey comes at odds with not only Reed, but also Jeff.
Admittedly, it has been about a week since I watched this film and when I’m not finally sitting down to write about it. Part of that is because there wasn’t much motivation after the film. It’s nothing spectacular, while also being nothing so horrible that it’s notable to talk about. It’s just…bland. And that is perhaps the worst offense a western can make, or any movie for that matter. The other part is that it’s simply forgettable, and likely for the same reasons that the film is bland. Other than some decently high production values (the cinematography is something that particularly stood out as very beautiful), there is nothing to take from this film. It’s just another rancher baron story with heroes and villains. The twist of making the evil baron a woman is a nice new touch, but Crain brings little to the role and performance to make that bait and switch overly effective.
Douglas is fine in the lead role as well, but nothing great. He has a demeanor and stature that seems well suited for an alpha cowboy type role. He is clearly a leading man, but the problem with both the performance and ultimately the film in general is the overall tone throughout. King Vidor was a big name in early Hollywood with such titles as The Crowd, The Champ, and The Big Parade, but he never excelled much after the silent era, never found that next major hit. But his handling of the story here sinks the proceedings, mixing moments of high drama with what appears to be almost slapstick comedy. His roots in silent cinema are definitely showing, but the problem is it doesn’t suit the material here, or the performances he’s getting from the cast. Kirk Douglas is up to the task, but this constant shift between tone really makes for a confusing movie, and one that already doesn’t have much in the way of plot or set piece to really remember it by. It serves its purpose as an artifact of Kirk Douglas’ career, but not much else.