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Rediscovering an American Original

The dark, unsettling films of director Anthony Mann finally get the treatment they deserve at a major retrospective.

April 12, 1998|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Even in this auteur-obsessed age, which idolizes directors past all reason, a handful of gifted filmmakers from Hollywood's past have resisted deification. Names like Frank Borzage, the most fearless of romantics, or Monta Bell, a master of silent sophistication, are rarely on anyone's lips. But no director's career presents quite the problems, contradictions or unnerving, disorienting fascination that characterize the work of Anthony Mann.

Mann's career was certainly a prolific one, 40 features over 25 years. He directed some spectacular films noir, completely changed James Stewart's image (remaking the western in the process) and captivated French critics like Jean-Luc Godard, who liked to call him "Supermann." But during Mann's lifetime, as one British writer tartly put it, American "critical opinion on his work was broadly unanimous: his films were either ignored or dismissed as negligible." And, notes biographer Jeanine Basinger, his untimely death at age 60 in 1967 meant that "he did not live to participate in the great reevaluation" of Hollywood directors that Andrew Sarris' 1968 "The American Cinema" began. All that, however, is staring to change.

Kino, one of the most adventurous of video companies, has recently put a quartet of Mann noirs out on tape. And, starting Friday, the equally adventurous American Cinematheque is beginning "How to Be a Mann," a monthlong tribute to the director that's being billed as the first major U.S. retrospective of his work.

The series features 24 of Mann's most noteworthy films, all but two of them ("Railroaded" and "The Far Country") showing in the 35-millimeter prints that insure appreciation of what a remarkable visual stylist he was. Taken together, these films demonstrate not only why Mann demands to be better known and admired, but why the respect he deserves has been slow in coming.

In some respects Mann, born Emil Anton Bundsmann in San Diego's Point Loma neighborhood, is an atypical candidate for auteur status. He worked in a wide variety of genres, finishing his career doing top-heavy historical epics like "El Cid" and "The Fall of the Roman Empire," and he was indebted for his success to such supremely talented co-workers as cinematographer John Alton, screenwriters Borden Chase and Philip Yordan and, of course, Jimmy Stewart, who starred in a remarkable string of seven consecutive Mann pictures.

What has hampered Mann most, however, is a double-edged time warp caused by the unusual nature of his films. The brooding westerns that are the heart of his reputation clashed with the wholesome zeitgeist of the 1950s, unnerving people because their bitterness seemed to come out of nowhere. And while today's audiences are quite at home with darkness, they tend to be turned off by the recurring schmaltzy and sentimental elements, like Stepin Fetchit's cliched performance in "Bend of the River," that earlier viewers accepted.

But Mann's greatest works rise above these problems, and to see them is to experience a director with a powerful and disturbing world view and the means to get it across. Films like Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven" owe as much to Mann as to anyone, and as the Cinematheque's Dennis Bartok, who programmed the series, points out, American film today looks a lot more like Anthony Mann than John Ford.

If there is an element of poetry in Mann's lack of recognition it's that his best films invariably focused on fierce loners bent on revenge--often against the people closest to them--in a world where those who stopped to smell the flowers could count on getting knifed in the back. As Mann himself memorably said, his typical hero was "a man who could kill his own brother." And sometimes did.

It's no coincidence that four of the director's key titles ("T-Men," "Men in War," "The Man From Laramie," "Man of the West") have men in the title. His films are intensely masculine, focusing on complex man-to-man relationships involving questions of honor and betrayal more than romance.

More than anything, Mann, without many illusions about the nobility of the human spirit, understood the fury of men under pressure. Scenes of dreadful humiliation occur again and again in his films, as do episodes of violence. But, unlike the cartoonish MTV thuggery in vogue today, Mann's violence was no joking matter: every punch carried a weight that was impossible to avoid.

The key question Mann's best films asked was what doing the right thing meant in a world so venal no one in it escapes unscathed by corruption. Even Mann's heroes, the figures of rectitude, were often self-centered, conflicted, suspicious of everyone but most of all frightened of what they knew was inside themselves. If they do the right thing, it's because they have no choice, because they realize, as Gary Cooper's Link Jones says with palpable disgust in "Man of the West," "there's a point where you grow up and become a human being or you rot with that bunch."

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