Directed by Anthony Mann
Written by Philip Yordan & Frank Burt
James Stewart is one of my favorite actors of all time, with a filmography chock full of classics and great performances. His on screen presence has always drawn me into his characters, and often by proxy his movies. And as a result of being one of the best working actors in his time, Stewart managed to build relationships and collaborations with some of the best directors in Hollywood. Perhaps his most famed partnership is with Alfred Hitchcock, the master. Their films include Rear Window and Vertigo, two of the most acclaimed movies of all time. But Stewart was so versatile that he made quite the number of impressive westerns as well, including a lasting and fruitful collaboration with Anthony Mann, a director not often cited alongside the likes of Hitchcock. But his work with Stewart shows him as one of the most capable western hands available, and that includes The Man from Laramie, the last of their official collaborations.
Will Lockhart (James Stewart) and his troop have just arrived into Coronado with a wagon load of goods for the local general store, run by Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell). Hoping to return back to Laramie without empty wagons, they begin loading with salt from the nearby salt flats at Barbara’s recommendation, but soon the son of the local cattle baron, Dave (Alex Nicol) rides by to set their wagons ablaze for attempting to steal the salt. Promised reparations for his damaged goods, Will meets with the baron himself, Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), but instead of heading on his way afterwards, he still has a bone to pick with Dave. And soon enough, the foreman of the ranch, Vic (Arthur Kennedy) gets involved and the plot thickens: someone in town is supplying the nearby dangerous Apache with repeating rifles. Perhaps a lucrative proposition at present, but one with potentially long lasting and deadly consequences.
One of the things I like most about Jimmy Stewart as a performer is his wholesomeness. I think of roles like the ones in his Frank Capra films: It’s a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and perhaps especially his role in the quirky but magnetic Harvey. I think most people remember Stewart most fondly as the charming, funny, sweet good guy. And while he is all those things in his westerns mostly as well, the western setting also forces a certain level of grit and edge that we don’t see in his other, perhaps more notable roles. In The Man from Laramie for instance, he’s just a enterprising businessman who gets into trouble in Coronado for trying to bring a wagon full of salt back instead of empty handed. But when the conflict arises, he doesn’t back down. He’s not afraid to throw a punch or discharge his firearm in defense of himself and others. So it’s a dynamic, a different side of the same shape. This element of edge and rough-and-ready, that to be fair we’ve seen from him in previous westerns, brings a new level of appreciation for his career and accomplishments, making his filmography all the more interesting.
What is great about The Man from Laramie specifically is the supporting cast around Stewart, some of which are familiar faces and welcome sites. Arthur Kennedy is a good example. His Vic is a layered character with a full, well thought out story arc all on his own. Kennedy is not someone I’ve seen often, but to this point in my westerns journey, he has been a welcome site each time he has appeared. Donald Crisp and Cathy O’Donnell, even Aline MacMahon as the older rival rancher Canaday, are all a delight as well. Sometimes the casting maters, and sometimes it just adds value and quality to a story, where good or bad. In the case of The Man from Laramie, Anthony Mann crafts a complete picture, with great story and cast, which results in an entertaining, engaging ride from start to finish. Come from Jimmy Stewart, stay for the intrigue. Some of the best westerns are built upon a good story. The great ones often come with memorable performances as well. And while not Stewart or Mann’s best work, it’s further proof that the pair are more than capable players in the genre. The Man from Laramie is an easy recommend as a result.