Anthony Mann’s best-known films were El Cid (1961) and Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), but the ten westerns that he directed between 1950 and 1960 were his greatest accomplishment. In most people’s minds the director most associated with Jimmy Stewart is probably Alfred Hitchcock or Frank Capra but it should be Mann. The westerns they made together were more like film noir with horses, which reflected his background in film noir. Mann’s sudden death in 1967 prevented him from receiving the recognition that he deserved.
Anthony Mann’s background is sketchy but he is believed to have been born in San Diego on June 30, 1906 to Emil and Bertha Bundsmann. He developed a love of theater after the family moved to New York City when he was ten, so his decision to drop out of high school to earn a living in the theater when his father died should not come as a surprise. After trying every possible position, including stage manager, production designer and production manager, he quickly realized that he preferred directing. A number of successful productions during the early thirties won Mann a job as a talent scout with David O. Selznick, a leading Hollywood producer, in 1938. Apparently tiring of the position, he joined Paramount as an assistant director in 1939, and he directed his first film in 1942.
It seems likely that he was given the opportunity to direct because so many established directors had enlisted after Pearl Harbor. In fact, almost all able-bodied males under fifty disappeared within a few months. Even those who were too old to fight, like William Wyler and John Ford, served by producing propaganda films. Since Hollywood needed to continue churning out films to keep people on the home front entertained, many people were given opportunities they might not have had otherwise. Those with talent were able to keep working after the war ended, while the rest ended up in B movies if they were lucky. Mann was obviously one of the talented ones.
Although Paramount had given Mann his first start, he worked for several different studios, usually directing B movies, which was an invaluable experience. Assigned bad scripts and bad actors, he had to learn how to make the camera tell the story; relying on lighting, camera angles and editing to improve the film. These techniques did not lend themselves well to musicals or comedies, so Mann naturally drifted towards thrillers. A quick study, his efficiently produced movies showed that he was establishing his individual style, and most importantly, made money.
In 1947, his career moved forward when he began making films for Eagle-Lion International, which was the result of a merger between the Poverty Row company Producers Releasing Corporation and England’s J. Arthur Rank. Mann was given more freedom and better scripts, but the key factor was his collaboration with cinematographer John Alton. The seven films that he made between 1947 and 1950 were all film noir and he became skilled at portraying the paranoia that ruled the characters. Even his first period piece, Reign of Terror (1949), dealt with the fear that gripped Paris during the French Revolution. T-Men (1947) and Raw Deal (1948) were the first films where he had both a decent budget and the ability to use those budgets to express his vision. The success of those films won him an invitation to MGM to make Border Incident (1949), where two treasury agents are sent to investigate a ring that smuggled Mexicans across the border and then murdered them for their wages. He broke with tradition by killing off the WASP character and letting the Hispanic character survive, but the film did well enough that he was able to move into A movies with an MGM contract.
Although he is now best known for his westerns, Mann made his first western, Devil’s Doorway (1950), simply because that was the movie that he been given. Bringing his background in film noir to the film, he created a new genre, western noir. Unfortunately, Devil’s Doorway was overshadowed by Broken Arrow, which was released around the same time, partially because the hero is an Indian, while the hero of Broken Arrow is a white man who marries an Indian. Mann’s next film was The Furies (1950), which was essentially a Greek tragedy with barely suppressed incestuous undertones, set in 1870s New Mexico. It also began Mann’s infatuation with archetypes like the domineering father, the spoiled daughter, and the weak brother.
Something about westerns obviously appealed to Mann since he would make a total of ten of them during the decade between 1950 and 1960, and they were his best work. Instead of being assigned scripts, he was able to rely on screenwriters like Borden Chase and Dudley Nichols, who would tailor scripts to match his style, so he abandoned the film tricks that he had previously employed to cover up the weak stories. Winchester ’73 (1950) was Mann’s first real western since he had been feeling his way around a new genre during his first two westerns, although all of his westerns would have film noir elements.
Oddly enough, he was chosen to direct Winchester ’73 because James Stewart, the star of Broken Arrow, had been impressed by Devil’s Doorway. The two men forged an extremely fruitful relationship where Stewart exchanged his nice guy image for an intense, almost maniacal violence lurking beneath a quiet exterior. They made five westerns together, and in every movie, the hero is flawed, has a secret and exists outside society, usually by choice. The films followed the same basic structure, where the protagonist’s opponent was always a reflection of himself, he was supported by an older man, and he had to choose between two women. They also made three non-westerns, The Glenn Miller Story (1953), Thunder Bay (1953), a western set in modern times, and Strategic Air Command (1955). Actually, the last film was done as a favor to Stewart, and it had little resemblance to the other Mann films, reflecting instead Stewart’s conservative values.
However, Mann broadened his approach when he made westerns with other actors. The Last Frontier (1955) dealt with the conflict between civilization and frontier. While his Jimmy Stewart westerns always portrayed Indians as a primal force that could not be reasoned with but had to be controlled and killed like a wild animal, Devil’s Doorway and Tin Star (1957) both presented the racism that Indians were forced to bear.
Man of the West (1958) with Gary Cooper ended Mann’s fascination with westerns as if he felt that the genre no longer had anything to offer him. Although he made Cimarron in 1960, it was an epic rather than a western. Just as his first western, Devil’s Doorway, had been a merger of western and film noir, Cimarron was a historical drama that focused on settling the west. He continued to make epic films but they were less successful both artistically and financially. The huge budgets made it difficult to earn a profit and his tight storytelling often became lost in the sprawling stories.
An additional problem was casting. While Charlton Heston was suitably heroic in El Cid (1961), Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) suffered from a weak leading actor and Heroes of Telemark (1965) was more of a Kirk Douglas vehicle than an Anthony Mann film. The casting issue was due to the massive budgets, so he was stuck with whoever the studio believed could draw in the audiences needed for a blockbuster hit. When he had been making smaller films he had been able to choose the actors, and stars worked with him because they wanted to, not because of a giant paycheck. A perfect example is Henry Fonda, who had been persuaded by his friend Jimmy Stewart to work with Mann as a break from his man of integrity image.
Little is known about his private life. His first marriage produced two children but ended in divorce in 1956 after twenty-five years and a second marriage to a Mexican actress lasted from 1957 to 1963. He was married to a former ballerina when he died in 1967.
Mann died before film became accepted as being worthy of serious study and a new wave of critics rediscovered his work. Unlike many of his peers, Mann missed the lifetime achievement awards and the career retrospectives, which is why he is still relatively unknown today.
Reign of Terror (1949)
Starring Robert Cummings and Richard Basehart
In France 1794, Robespierre schemes to use the French Revolution to make himself dictator of France but his plans are put in danger when he loses his black book, which contains the names of all of the people he intends to execute once he seizes power.
Devil’s Doorway (1950)
Starring Robert Taylor and Louis Calhern
A decorated Indian veteran of the Civil War returns home to raise cattle but sheep herders stir up trouble between the local white population and the tribe to gain control of the land.
The Furies (1950)
Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Walter Huston
The daughter of a powerful cattle baron has a twisted relationship with her father. When he announces that he plans to remarry, she begins a dark quest to destroy her rival for her father’s love and control of the ranch.
Winchester ’73 (1950)
Starring James Stewart and Shelley Winters
A man wins a prized Winchester rifle in a marksmanship contest but it is stolen by the runner-up, his brother, who had killed their father. As he pursues his brother, the gun falls into the hands of a succession of owners until the final showdown.
The Tall Target (1951)
Starring Dick Powell and Adolphe Menjou
A discredited detective learns of a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he travels by rail through Baltimore to his inauguration.
Bend of the River (1952)
Starring James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy
Shortly after the Civil War, two men lead a wagon train of settlers from Missouri to the Oregon territory, although none of the settlers know that both men used to be border raiders. The settlers reach their destination but when gold is struck near Portland, they face starvation when the town leaders decide to sell their winter supplies to the miners.
The Naked Spur (1953)
Starring James Stewart and Robert Ryan
A bounty hunter cooperates with two other men to capture an outlaw worth a large reward but the outlaw schemes to set the men against each other and escape.
The Far Country (1954)
Starring James Stewart and Walter Brennan
During the Klondike gold rush, a man drives a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Dawson to make a fortune feeding hungry miners. He stays and makes more money in the gold mine but ignores the efforts of a ruthless town boss to control the area until he is pushed too far.
Strategic Air Command (1955)
Starring James Stewart and June Allyson
A World War II veteran has returned to his previous career as a major league baseball player when he is recalled to military service because the military needs ace pilots. Despite his wife’s misgivings, he agrees to re-enlist and joins the SAC because he believes it is necessary to defend America against the Communist threat.
The Man from Laramie (1955)
Starring James Stewart and Arthur Kennedy
A mysterious stranger arrives in an isolated town in Apache territory searching for whoever is selling weapons to the Apache but finds himself drawn into conflict with the family that dominates the town.
The Last Frontier (1955)
Starring Victor Mature and Robert Preston
A trapper and two of his friends serve as scouts at a remote fort in Oregon but the trapper becomes involved with the wife of the commander of a nearby fort. At the same time, the situation becomes dangerous when the commander rashly decides to lead the untrained troops into battle against a more powerful force of Indians.
Men in War (1957)
Starring Robert Ryan and Aldo Ray
A US platoon retreats through North Korean-held territory in September 1950, shortly after the start of the Korean War. (full review)
The Tin Star (1957)
Starring Henry Fonda and Anthony Perkins
An experienced bounty hunter and ex-sheriff rides into town and teaches a raw young sheriff how to keep order in a town.
Man of the West (1958)
Starring Gary Cooper and Julie London
A homesteader traveling by train to hire a schoolteacher for his community finds himself stranded when the train is robbed, so he is forced to seek help from the outlaw gang that he used to ride with.
Starring Glenn Ford and Maria Schell
Beginning with the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, a frontier family becomes rich and powerful, but the father clashes with his wife over the price of power and success.
El Cid (1961)
Starring Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren
Moorish and Christian kingdoms fight amongst themselves in eleventh century Spain until one nobleman, El Cid, dares to forge alliances between Christian and Moorish nobles to bring peace to the land.
The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)
Starring Sophia Loren and Stephen Boyd
Emperor Marcus Aurelius is planning to make his adopted son Livius his heir instead his natural son Commodus but dies before he can make a will, so Commodus becomes emperor. As his reign becomes increasingly tyrannical, his sister Lucilla tries to enlist Livius’ aid to overthrow Commodus.
The Heroes of Telemark (1965)
Starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris
The Norwegian resistance attempts to destroy a German heavy water plant that is a key element in Germany’s plan to build atomic bombs towards the end of WWII.
Anthony Mann-Jeanine Basinger, Twayne Publishers: Boston, 1979.
It is a good book, but relies too much on a film study approach, where films are broken down into character types, roles and journeys. This is partially due to the editor’s decision to greatly reduce the scope of Basinger’s original work in order to focus on Mann’s westerns, since they were believed to be more important than his early experiments in film noir and his later films. No disrespect to Jeanine Basinger but it seems almost criminal that a director of Mann’s stature has only one biography.