The Man from Laramie—James Stewart, Donald Crisp, Arthur Kennedy, Alex Nicol, Cathy O’Donnell, Aline MacMahon, Jack Elam, Wallace Ford (1955; Dir: Anthony Mann)
This was the last of five westerns in five years with the very effective pairing of director Anthony Mann and leading man James Stewart. It was the only one in Cinemascope, and it’s one of the best. (Mann and Stewart also made three non-westerns, and Mann made three or four westerns without Stewart.)
As this film opens, freighter Will Lockhart (Stewart) is taking three wagons of supplies from Laramie, Wyoming, to Coronado, New Mexico. At his last campsite before arriving in Coronado, he surveys the site of the Dutch River massacre, where a patrol of twelve cavalrymen were all killed by Apaches with new repeating rifles. Lockhart’s brother was one of the twelve, and he’s come to find and kill the person responsible for selling the guns to the Indians.
In town he delivers the supplies to the general store run by Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell), niece of the local cattle baron who basically owns the town and most of the surrounding countryside. He was lucky to get through; the Apaches have prevented most such shipments from arriving in Coronado. He’s looking for return cargo to Laramie, and Barbara directs him to nearby salt flats, where she says the salt is free for the taking.
As Lockhart and his men load their wagons, a number of cowboys led by Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol) ride up with guns drawn. Dave thinks the salt is on Barb Ranch land and isn’t free to just any one. On Dave’s orders, the cowboys burn Lockhart’s wagons, kill his mules, and rope him, dragging him through a campfire. Before matters go any farther, Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy), the Waggoman foreman, rides up and stops the altercation. The next day in Coronado, Lockhart beats up Dave and fights Vic to a draw before Alec Waggoman (Donald Crisp), the cattle baron himself, stops things. Alec offers to pay for Lockhart’s destroyed wagons and animals and suggests that he leave the country.
We see that Vic and Barbara would get married, but Barbara wants Vic to agree to leave the area before she’ll marry him. She needs to get him away from her uncle’s powerful and slightly malevolent influence. Vic feels that Alec has promised him a stake in the Barb Ranch and he is unwilling to leave that. Dave, Barbara’s cousin, is described as “weak,” and we see that he has poor judgment and a sadistic streak. Kate Canady owns the Half Moon, the only significant spread in the area not controlled by Waggoman. She’d like to hire Lockhart as her foreman, but he says he doesn’t know anything about cattle. The inference is that he’s been in the army. Eventually Lockhart takes the job with Canady. Lockhart: “You’re just a hard, scheming old woman, aren’t you?” Kate: “Ugly, too.”
Alec Waggoman is played by Donald Crisp with his usual appearance of stern rectitude, but Alec isn’t averse to breaking his word occasionally. Despite his promises, he seems willing to cast Vic off with nothing if it helps him get what he wants. Alec and Kate have some ancient history and were engaged in their younger days. It’s a pretty complex group of characters, although Lockhart doesn’t have as much of the potential instability that Stewart’s characters sometimes show in other Mann westerns.
As Lockhart trails some Half Moon stock on to Barb range, Dave Waggoman takes a shot at him. Lockhart returns fire, hitting Dave in the hand. When Dave’s backup cowboys arrive, Dave has them hold Lockhart while he shoots him point blank in the right hand in a brutal scene.
This is the low point for Lockhart, but the Waggoman faction is having internal troubles of its own. Alec Waggoman is going blind, unknown to his son and foreman. Dave and Vic are the ones selling guns to the Indians, and when they fall out over how to manage it, Vic kills Dave. When Alec finds a discrepancy in accounts and goes looking for a wagonload of guns, Vic pushes him down a cliff and leaves him for dead. Lockhart finds him and takes him to Kate for medical help. He’s also developing his own romantic interest in Barbara, who seems attracted back despite her arrangement of sorts with Vic.
Ultimately, Lockhart finds the wagon with guns by following Vic. He forces Vic to push them over a cliff before deciding he can’t just take his long-awaited revenge and shoot Vic. Vic’s escape is only momentary, though. He encounters the Apaches who were coming for the guns they’d already paid for, and they surround him and shoot him down.
As things quiet down, Lockhart suggests to Barbara that if she’s going east, she’ll pass through Laramie and should ask for Capt. Lockhart. (Laramie and Fort Laramie were not the same place, and someone headed east from New Mexico would have to go considerably out of her way to pass through either.) Meanwhile, Kate Canady takes over the care of the now-blind but still alive Alec Waggoman. Finally, they’ll be married, several decades after that wedding was initially planned.
These characters are all written to be more complicated than you’d find in most westerns. Stewart and Crisp are both known quantities as actors, and they’re as good as you expect. Alec Waggoman as a character has some Lear-like overtones, if you like that sort of thing. Kennedy as Vic seems better than Nicol as Dave, but some of that may be because Dave’s role is written to be more overtly unattractive. Vic’s motivation is not always clear and seems to be changing during the movie. Cathy O’Donnell manages to convey a certain amount of stubbornness coupled with romantic confusion but is otherwise not terribly memorable. (Stewart seems too old for her. And it’s hard not to think that Joanne Dru, Virginia Mayo or Coleen Gray would have done better with the role.) Aline MacMahon is very good as Kate Canady; she has some of the most acerbic lines in the film. Wallace Ford is good in brief appearances as Lockhart’s scout Charley O’Leary, and Jack Elam puts in an equally brief appearance as the town drunk and informer before he’s killed. It all works, even though there are some loose ends to the plot that are never explained.