Monday, November 1, 2010

The Misfits (1961) - John Huston

A group of aimless people fall in together in Reno, all searching for something missing in their life, true misfits who are adrift and lonely. Gay Langland (Clark Gable) is more or less the leader, an aging cowboy struggling to remain independent and relevant. When he meets Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) he feels a stirring he hasn't felt for a long time. So does Guido (Eli Wallach), one of Gay's friends. He works in a garage and owns a biplane, which he and Gay sometimes use to round up wild horses that they sell for dog food. Along for the ride are a busted up rodeo rider, Perce (Montgomery Clift), and Roslyn's friend and landlady, Isabelle (Thelma Ritter). 

Gay and Roslyn share a quiet moment.
There is a sadness about this film--in part because we know it as the last for two Hollywood legends, Gable and Monroe--but more for its subject matter. All the characters are lost souls who cling either to broken dreams that they know are beyond their reach, or to pasts that somehow went awry. The men drink too much and wallow a little too much in self-pity, and are burdened by bitterness. Speaking of women, Guido says, "You struggle, you build, you try, you turn yourself inside out for 'em, but it's never enough. So they put the spurs to you." Gay is estranged from his children. You sense that under his amiable surface there's a meanness.

Gable looks the part, a once strong man whose waistline is getting soft, with sun-baked face and tired eyes. He might not admit it out loud, but he knows his best days are gone. That Roslyn is attracted to him might be a stretch--she looks thirty years younger--but she is disillusioned by a failed marriage and maybe on the verge of a breakdown. Besides her obvious beauty, she still shines with a sweat innocence. Gay likely seems a safe haven, and perhaps, a father-figure. And despite his circumstances, he's able to at least appear hopeful. Trying to explain himself to Roslyn after realising a captured mustang, he says, "It's like roping a dream now. You just gotta find another way to be alive, if there is one."

The wordy script by Monroe's husband, playwright Arthur Miller, somehow works thanks to the uniformly fine acting. Gable and Monroe give the best dramatic performances of their careers. More importantly, we can relate to these characters as people. A wrong turn here, or an unlucky event there, and they could be us.

Montgomery Clift's Perce is the most poignant character; again, in part by Clift's own life's circumstance. An immensely skilled actor whose self-doubts and emotional instability always affected his roles, increasingly so after a nearly fatal 1957 car accident scarred his face, his performance as the fragile Perce hits close to home. The others first meet him on the side of the road near a phone booth, hitch-hiking to a rodeo. He's waiting for a call from his mother. When it comes they have a rushed, awkward conversation, not really connecting with one another. We only hear Perce's side of the call. There's an allusion to a hospital stay and a face injury, and Perce tells her "it's all healed up now." You later learn his mother remarried after the father's death and now is "changed." Perce, embarrassed by the call, closes the door for privacy, turning his back to the others. You understand better why he drifts from one rodeo to the next, unable to go home.

Three screen legends 
The treatment of Monroe's character in the film similarly borders reality. An emotionally fragile and tragic figure, she wanted desperately to be taken as a serious actress by Hollywood. She must have seen herself in the part of Roslyn, a beautiful, sensitive girl, whom men view merely as a sex symbol. And that's how Gay and Guido first see her. 

Gay:       What makes you so sad? You're the saddest girl I ever met.
Roslyn: You're the first man who's ever said that. I'm usually told how happy I am.
Gay:       That's because you make a man feel happy.

                       [He tries to kiss her, but she demures]
Roslyn: I don't feel that way about you, Gay.
Gay:       Don't get discouraged girl, you might.

Director Huston includes two disturbing scenes: Monroe/Roslyn is shown playing with a ball and paddle in a bar as men shoulder their way for a closer look; they holler and ogle her rump moving with the motion. In another she and Gay are on horseback. He lags behind, leering as her butt bounces in the saddle. Neither is really necessary for the story and seem almost cruelly exploitative in retrospect.  
The best scene is the roundup on the salt flats, beautifully shot but horrifying in its brutality. Russell Metty handles the cinematography (He won that year's Oscar for another film, Spartacus). Gable reportedly performed most of his own stunts, including being dragged 400 feet over the hard ground at 30 miles an hour. It's a physically and emotionally tense sequence that leaves him gasping, sitting on a running board, bent and exhausted. Roslyn's fierce reaction is a turning point in Gay's life. Gable uses his leathery face and gravely voice here to great effect. He's taking an honest look at whether his life stills holds any decency.

The exhausting work may have contributed to the actor's death, just a few weeks after film production wrapped. The horses are symbolic of the characters, misfits in their own right, threatened by hardship.   
Roslyn is appalled on learning the horses' fate.
Alex North's score contributes wonderfully well to the haunting loneliness of the film.   

What Makes The Misfits Special:

The disquieting mood of the film is perfect for the story. Seldom has a film and script mirrored the real lives of its cast so forcefully and honestly. And this is a powerful cast. Its three main stars were giants of American film in the 20th Century. People today forget how large a presence Clark Gable was, but he was called "The King." By 1960 he had long since ruled the box office. That at age 59 he would produce such a fine performance is surprising and remarkable. And though they know something more of Monroe, it is certainly more as a cultural icon than actress. Her insecurities led to a troubled life and inconsistent performance in film. As Roslyn, she came closer to realizing her potential than any other role, and gives us a glimpse of what might have been. Clift would have just one more great performance, as a physically and mentally ravished former Nazi prisoner in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961). A four-time Oscar nominee, his erratic behavior eventually got the best of him. He died just 5 years later.  It is wonderful seeing these three actors together. That the film veers toward over-sentimentality at the end can be forgiven.       
Inside Story:
The film was not well received critically upon its release. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times said of the characters: "They are amusing people to be with, for a little while, anyhow. But they are shallow and inconsequential, and that is the dang-busted trouble with this film."

Major Awards:
John Huston was nominated for Best Director by the Director's Guild of America.

Other Huston Films of Interest:
  • The Maltese Falcon - 1941
  • The Treasure of Sierra Madre - 1948
  • Key Largo - 1948
  • The Asphalt Jungle - 1950
  • The African Queen - 1951
  • Moby Dick - 1956
  • The Night of the Iguana - 1964

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