Friday, July 8, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Misfits (1961)

The Misfits (1961) *** ½
Directed by: John Huston.
Written by: Arthur Miller.
Starring: Clark Gable (Gay Langland), Marilyn Monroe (Roslyn Taber), Montgomery Clift (Perce Howland), Thelma Ritter (Isabelle Steers), Eli Wallach (Guido), Kevin McCarthy (Raymond Taber).

The story of the making of The Misfits is at least as interesting as the movie itself. It was the last film of both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe – he died just 12 days after shooting wrapped of a heart attack (which many blamed on the strenuous shoot – although the man did smoke 3 packs of cigarettes a day), she died just over a year later of a drug overdose. Monroe was already struggling with alcohol and drug dependency during the shooting of the movie, often showed up late to set and struggled to learn her lines, written by her then husband Arthur Miller, who was constantly re-writing the script. When the project started, they two were recently married and completely in love. When they started shooting the movie, they bloom was off the rose, Monroe had moved out, and Miller, deciding perhaps to try and embarrass her, put many uncomfortable autobiographical details of her life in the script. Co-star Montgomery Clift was also struggling with drug addiction, and was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Then there was director John Huston, who was suffering from emphysema at the time, and was sometimes too sick to show up on set. When he was there, he was often exhausted, because the film was shot in Nevada, and Huston was a chronic gambler who stayed up all night at the casinos. They even had to shut down production for a week when Huston went over his “gambling allowance”, and had to come up with more money. When the movie opened in February 1961, critics and audiences both disliked it, and it became a high profile flop for all involved. But over the years its reputation has grown, and now watching it 50 years, it is considered a minor classic.

Miller’s purpose in writing the script was to debunk the myth of the rugged, individualist life of cowboys. Instead, he saw them as lonely, pathetic men, whose days was over, but they simply could not admit it to themselves. The movie stars Clark Gable, in one of his greatest performances, as Gay Langland, an aging cowboy who was once a star of the rodeo and could make money “mustanging” in the mountains of Nevada – where they round up the wild horses to sell to people who wanted them for kids. He still mustangs, but now there are fewer horses, and the only people who will buy them are dog food makers. The romanticism of his life is over.

Until, at least, he meets Roslyn (Monore), a free spirited, yet spiritually pure, ex-stripper who cannot help it if every man she meets falls in love with her. Roslyn first meets Guido (Eli Wallach), when he comes to fix her car – that her soon to be ex-husband gave her as a “divorce present”. He convinces her and her friend (the acid tongued Thelma Ritter, great as always) to come to his house out in the country with him and Gay. Guido is still reeling from the death of his wife, but thinks that perhaps Roslyn can cure him – but of course she falls for Gay. Later, they meet up with Perce (Montgomery Clift), a younger, more idealistic version of Gay, who has hit the road because when his father died, he left to family ranch to her mother, who has now remarried and her husband runs the ranch. He spends time at the rodeo, but agrees to come mustanging with Gay and Guido – who bring Roslyn along, who is horrified when she discovers what is going to happen to the mustangs.

The Misfits is a Western, but it is a modern day one – and one without action until its final sequence out in the desert when they all go mustanging. Watching the film, I was reminded of another film I reviewed earlier in this series – Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty men. Both films are about aging, broken down cowboys, realizing their lives are empty. Perhaps that’s why Huston wanted to cast Mitchum in the Clark Gable role in this film (apparently, Mitchum thought the script was incomprehensible, so he dodged Huston’s calls until Gable was cast). Both are very good films, but I think I prefer this one – which isn’t quite as obvious. This is a movie about buried secrets and resentments, coming forward. Clark Gable saw much of the film before he died (Huston shot in sequence and edited as they went), and he felt it was the best work of his career, and it certainly gave him a more complex role than he normally had. We immediately like Gay, because he is Clark Gable, and is so charming and likable, but as the movie progresses, and his darkness and loneliness comes out, we start to have our doubts about him. Gable plays it brilliantly. It is certainly the best dramatic performance of Monroe’s career. Yes, the movie still views Monroe as a sex object, but in this case, it isn’t so simple – it’s almost more of the fact the characters view her as a sex object, a woman who can redeem them, even though they don’t even know her. Whatever her problems on the set were, Monroe was able to give the most complex performance of her career in this film. The underrated performance in the movie is by Wallach, you seems like such a nice guy, who is really a lout. He hates Gay, while pretending to be his friend. He may have even hated his “beloved” dead wife. When Monroe finally calls him on it, something inside of him breaks. Thelma Ritter does what she was cast to do in her brief performance – dole out sarcastic comments, as an aging woman who the men take along to get to Monroe. For the most part though, Montgomery Clift is wasted as Perse – I understand he was supposed to be a younger, more idealistic version of Gay, but his character isn’t developed enough for him to truly fill that roll.

Ultimately, although The Misfits is not a great movie, it has greatness in it. Yes, critics at the time were right to call the film flawed. And yet, there is so much in the film that works wonderfully well, that I cannot help buy love it. If you ever wondered if Marilyn Monroe could actually act, rent The Misfits, and she’ll remove all doubts.

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