Saturday 16 April 2011

The Misfits (1961)

THE MISFITS is a modern day western that was directed by John Huston, from a screenplay by Arthur Miller.  It stars Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter.  Sadly it has become impossible to separate the film from the the deaths of Gable and Monroe, whose final film this was, and Clift, who made only three more.  That it is a downbeat film about a group of damaged people living on the fringes of society who are almost paralyzed by regret and self-delusion only adds to its sombre reputation.  What gets forgotten is that it is also about a group of people who help each other, who are certainly troubled but are at least attempting to overcome those troubles.  It is harrowing at times but it does ultimately offer the possibility of self-realization and therefore happiness.

It has been said that one of the themes running through John Huston's impressive body of work is that of the impossble quest: a group of individuals coming together to tackle a difficult objective, and perhaps failing, but realizing some important truth in the attempt.  In that respect, you can immediately think of TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948), THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951), MOBY DICK (1956) and even FAT CITY (1972).  It's similar to, but distinct from, the type of team ethic that you often get in Howard Hawks' films.  Hawks tended to go more for the practical, military-style 'okay guys, let's pull together and get this job done' sort of teamwork, whereas Huston's interest is more in the emotional support that people can give each other.

In that sense, Monroe's character Roslyn is pivotal in THE MISFITS.  She comes to represent a missing piece in everyone's lives.  To Gay Langland (Gable) she represents unconditional love - like that he might once have had from his now estranged daughter.  To Guido (Wallach) she represents the ideal woman - the ultimate replacement for his dead wife.  To Perce Howland (Clift) she represents the sympathetic, consoling mother figure - in contrast to the strained relationship he has with his own mother.  She is objectified by practically every man she meets, even those whom she gets to know well.  So Monroe was the perfect choice for the role and it's tempting to read a lot across to her own life, in that she appeared to be able to give pleasure and happiness to other but was doomed never to experience it herself.

There's an interesting contrast in acting styles in this film.  Gable was known as the King of Hollywood and even this late in his career was still a huge star.  He came from a tradition of being a movie star first - a screen presence - and an actor second, a bit like Humphrey Bogart.  Wallach and Clift were full on Method actors and Marilyn Monroe was somewhere between the two.  She was famous for her looks as much as her talent but was clearly interested in improving, studying as she did at the Actors Studio.  Bearing their respective roles in mind, they all do extremely well.  Gable apparently regarded Gay Langland as the best acting of his career and, in my admittedly limited experience, I'd agree with him.  There's a sequence where he drunkenly believes his estranged children have come to visit him and clambers on top of a car to try and spot them in a crowd.  His cries become increasingly heart-rending before he collapses and slumps to the floor; it's mesmerizing.  Wallach and Clift are really able to get their teeth into their parts - damaged personae being the very stuff of the Method.  Wallach is great - slowly turning Guido from a pitiable loser, all bonhomie, into a bitter and treacherous creep.  Clift is another who wears a mask to hide his inner pain, and takes his mind off it by replacing it with physical pain as a rodeo rider.

The horse wrangling sequence, high up in the mountains is epic but harrowing stuff.  In their own way the characters are wrestling their own desires, like Ahab in MOBY DICK.  Gay Langland has a great speech where he recalls how his job used to result in the broken horses being sold as mounts for children; now "it's all got turned around" and instead the horses are sold to be ground up as dog food.  His job hasn't changed but the end result of it has - and he can't quite accept that.  It's not until Roslyn, with her empathy and compassion for all things, shows him the pointless cruelty of his actions that he begins to examine his conscience.

It's really high-quality film-making, and I include Arthur Miller in that.  His script is wordy, sure, and occasionally a bit pretentious but it is filled with humanity, decency and warmth.  That can't have been easy at a time when his marriage to Monroe was falling apart but it reveals something about his irreducible core.  Gable died within two weeks of the final days shooting and Monroe was dead inside a year but far from being a muted end to their careers they actually went out on career highs.

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