The Misfits
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The Misfits

There are films that represent sheer perfection in the elusive art of cinema. When there is a proper alignment of ‘stars’, writer and director such a movie is lifted above becoming a hit and is transcended to an integral part of our cultural heritage. Fortunately the introduction of high definition Blu-ray as a media for home entertainment has provided the studios a reason to restore and re-release some of the best films in their extensive catalogues. One studio in the forefront of this trend is the much lauded MGM/UA. Not only do they posses some of the best film in history from a technical stand point their collection includes many of the most popular movies in the history of filmmaking. Lately I have had the great pleasure of reviewing some of the movies in their most recent release set and each one has been a true treasure. The selection under consideration here is notable not only on its exceptional merit but also for some historical cinematic significance’ The Misfits’. This would be the last film for two of Hollywood’s most icon stars, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Within a year of wrapping this movie both of these cinematic greats would have passed away. As is the case with far too many great films this one would go unheralded during its award season. Made for $4 million (in 1961 dollars) a sum that even allowing for inflation could never purchase the kind of star power assembled here. This was in the declining days of the studio system when a studio like United Artist controlled the contracts of the best the industry had to offer and would use this power to place the best around to make movies. This movie had everything you could possibly want from a drama from an intensely emotional story with memorable performances under impeccable direction. I have watched this film many times over the years in many formats but nothing could prepare me for just what this fresh edition provides. As with the other movies in this release series the attention to detail during the re-mastering provided a way to experience this film that rivals viewing it in a classic old fashion theater.

This is the fiftieth anniversary of this film which provides some historical perspective on our society. While divorce is unfortunately common place and exceptionally easy to obtain half a century ago this was hardly the case. Back then a place like Reno, Nevada the laws regarding the dissolution of a marriage were more liberal resulting in a constant stream of heartbroken individuals seeking relief from emotionally difficult circumstances. This is the situation for a young woman, Roslyn Taber (Marilyn Monroe). Back then being a divorcée had serious social stigma attached and since the burden of responsibility typically fell to the woman this was not a step taken lightly. In Reno she meets a former cowboy, Gay Langland (Clark Gable). He use to scratch out a meager living rounding up wild mustangs for use as children’s horse but now relegated to a meat source in dog food. This reflects how this once proud individual is now adrift lost in gambling and drink. In another case of historical perspective Monroe was in the midst of divorcing the screenwriter for the film, famed American playwright and novelist, Arthur Miller. Their marriage would not survive the shooting of the film. The mood is reinforced by the despondent mechanic and former Air Force Pilot Guido (Eli Wallach) and Langland’s partner Perce Howland, remarkably portrayed by the legendary Montgomery Clift. Roslyn initially looks to Langland to ease the impinging loneness before moving on to Perce but neither one is able to do much to lighten her dark mood. Both men are displaced by the modern world; stuck in a time they are not suited for. Langland is a womanizer, unable to connect on a lasting basis who finds the parade of vulnerable women much to his liking. Howland had been on the rodeo but finds his current livelihood demeaning; not fit for a man to do. He self medicates with copious quantities of alcohol.

This movie is a study in melancholy and depression. Each of the characters is floating through life due to major changes beyond their control or comprehension. The mustangs are symbolic of a once proud symbol of the freedom of spirit that defined the American West. Now they are nothing more than a dirt cheap source of pet food. The men face a loss more than a decent means to earn a living, they are deprived of the lifestyle that defined their manhood. This is more than a man getting fired from a long held office job; wrangling and rodeo are both fields for the rugged individual; men who are ill suited to deal with the level of change forced upon them here. For Roslyn this was a time when a young woman typically went from living under father’s house to that of her husband. A divorcée was cut away from the foundation provided by a man, sexist now but reality 50 years in the past. Frequently women became social pariah after a divorce. This made each of the characters in these drama misfits; unable to live in the society they were suited for. Although not considered a success at the time of its initial theatrical release the script by Miller is so intense, such a tour de force of emotion that it is now considered one of the great example of American literature. With this cast and screenplay a giant of a direct was required. One of the all-time best directors ever helmed this film; John Huston. For over fifty years this giant of the industry dominated filmmaking as a director, screenwriter and much sought after character actor. A study of his career could provide the syllabus for a graduate program in cinema. Huston was literally a renaissance man in Hollywood often nominated for Academy Awards although he took home the gold only twice making him one of the most slighted geniuses in the business. Take this opportunity to add one of the greatest examples of dramatic film ever made.

Posted 05/14/11

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