"Choosing the way to die -- what's the difference? Choosing the way to live -- that's the hard part." When grinning fugitive Robert Ryan points this fact out to bounty hunter James Stewart in Anthony Mann's The Naked Spur -- screening at "Mann's World," a 20-film retrospective of the master's work -- we can't help but nod.
Mann's choice seems to have been to try everything: He moved easily among movie genres. Early in his career, he directed B-noir/melodrama alloys such as The Great Flamarion, with Erich von Stroheim as a jealous vaudeville sharpshooter who badly wants to shoot Dan Duryea dead, and the bizarre Strange Impersonation, about a single-minded chemist (when her boyfriend kisses her, she scolds, "Stephan, remember science!") who tests a new anesthetic on herself and becomes disfigured.
After earning his noir wings with Desperate and Railroaded!, Mann directed a number of low-budget noirs with the celebrated cinematographer John Alton. The pinnacle of this collaboration was Raw Deal, which transcends its strained plotline with Alton's use of luminous inky blacks, misty fog, and blazes set by pyromaniac villain Raymond Burr. The film flouts noir convention with a whispered female voice-over (by the resentful, heartbreaking Claire Trevor) set to an eerie theremin score. Alton also shot two of Mann's westerns, Border Incident and Devil's Doorway, the latter a pioneering historical-revisionist piece about Native Americans during white settlement.
Admission is $8, and $2 for a second show
Mann's sometimes hilarious historical thriller/noir The Black Book goes back to the post-French Revolution Terror of 1793. The screenplay by frequent Mann collaborator Philip Yordan (who fronted for blacklisted writers) offers irresistible comparisons to another Terror, the anti-Communist crusade prevailing at that time in Hollywood.
Next came Mann's collaboration with James Stewart in a series of westerns that brought a noir sensibility to the wide-open skies. In them, Stewart plays taciturn men who roam the landscape, obsessed with the need to inflict great violence to settle old scores. Rushing rivers, steep cliff faces, and the endless plains render the external landscape of a disturbed psyche and a ruined conscience.
The movies emphasized agony. It's hard to forget, for example, Stewart's wild-eyed psychotic look as he threatens to wrench Dan Duryea's face off in Winchester '73. In The Naked Spur, Stewart, shot in the leg, painfully mounts his horse and pauses to stare at a sprawled dead Indian before slowly moving on. Mann's westerns introduced more overt violence to the genre, but it was a violence with repercussions -- intense pain, debilitation, and the awareness of one's mortality -- that were keenly felt.
Mann's later films, of uneven quality, dealt with war and ancient history. One that stands out here is El Cid, about the psychologically untroubled hero who drove the Moors from Spain. Called "one of the greatest epic films ever made" by Martin Scorsese, it shouldn't be missed.