1961. Directed by John Huston. Screenplay by Arthur Miller. Cast: Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter, Eli Wallach, James Barton, Kevin McCarthy, Estelle Winwood. Music by Alex North. 124 minutes. Black and White.
There's probably no more quintessentially American movie genre than the western. Not just movies. Pop culture, period. Think of all the western TV shows, books, comics, and, though I'm too young to remember this first hand, radio dramas. But what exactly is it that makes a western a western? That it takes place out west? By that standard, A Star is Born is a western. That it takes place on the frontier? Then why has there been more movies about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday than about Lewis and Clark? The latter two were born about 60 years too early. The vast majority of westerns take place in the second half of the 19th century, usually after the Civil War, when there was much LESS frontier. When you had trains and telegraph, the cutting edge technologies of the day. And that's what most westerns really are about, the gradual decline of the frontier. The passing of a way of life, until there's nothing left but the myth.
The Misfits is a movie shrouded in myth, perhaps unintentionally. See, it stars Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift. If these three were in a shaving cream commercial, it'd probably be shrouded in myth. I even can visualize such a commercial. A doped up Marilyn and drunk Clift spray Gillette Foamy all over each other while Gable stoically applies little pieces of toilet paper to the cuts on his face. But it's a movie, so the mythology is increased exponentially. Not only is it Gable's last film, it's damn near his last breath. It's Monroe's last film, too, though she won't breathe her last for another year or so. Meanwhile, her marriage is breaking up with the film's writer, Arthur Miller, who, when he sat down a dozen or so years earlier to write a play about a suicidal salesman, probably couldn't imagine in his wildest wet dreams that it'd be such a success he'd end up with a suicidal Sex Goddess as a wife. And it's Clift's last film, too, for he will soon die. Well, no, that's not quite right. He still has five years and three more films to go, but nobody will remember what the hell they were, so he might as well be dead. Finally, there's the film's Hemingwayish director, John Huston, hitting the bottle between takes as he wonders what the hell's happened to his career since Bogart died.
Strangely, the movie opens with neither Gable, Monroe, or Clift, but with a couple of supporting characters. Since when do you begin a myth THAT way? Actually, I don't mind. I have a soft spot for supporting characters. And supporting actors. And these two--Thelma Ritter and Eli Wallach--are among the best there is. Wallach is a middle-age garage mechanic named Guido Racanelli. He's just arrived at a rooming house run by Isabelle Steers, played by Ritter. Now, Ritter's known for portraying common-sense-no-nonsense-suffer-no-fools wisecracking working class working women. But in this particular film she's perhaps a little nonsensical herself. Her one arm in a cast (she fell down while celebrating a former tenant's divorce), she wants Guido to tow away a banged-up car with only 28 miles on it. The reason this car's all banged up, Isabella explains, is that it was driven by her latest tenant. This tenant's not a bad driver, but so drop dead gorgeous that, just as the mythical Helen of Troy launched a thousand ships with her own beauty, so, too, she inspires legions of male motorists to not watch where they're going when they pass her on the road...Can you guess the actress who plays her?
Isabelle also convinces Guido to give her and her tenant a ride to the courthouse. You see, this is Reno, Nevada, which in the early '60s is the easiest place in the country to get a divorce. Not only does Isabelle cater to that kind of tenant, but even coaches them what to say in front of a judge. As Guido waits outside, Isabelle does some last minute coaching of that gorgeous tenant, Roslyn Taber, played by Marilyn Monroe (who else?) I've always felt Monroe has a kind of uneven acting style. But unlike other uneven actors, she's better, and more convincing, the more emotional the scene. The less emotional, the more tentative her recitation of her lines, as if she's afraid of mangling the dialogue, and that sometimes gets in the way of the acting. Actually, her character here is afraid of mangling what's she's going to say to the judge. Isabelle expects her to tell him that her husband was cruel and physically abusive. In fact, Roslyn's spouse was merely inattentive. Huh? Come again? Did I mention Roslyn is played by Marilyn Monroe? In the words of her real life husband, attention must be paid!
Roslyn has certainly captured Guido's attention. He gladly drives her and Isabelle to the courthouse. There, on the steps leading to the building, is her soon-to-be ex Raymond, played by Kevin McCarthy. Real life soon-to-be ex Arthur Miller is not known for his clever dialogue, but working on this film seems to have released his inner Joseph L. Mankiewicz. When Raymond tries to reconcile with Roslyn, she replies:
"If I'm going to be alone, I'd rather be by myself."
She won't be by herself, at least not for the rest of this film.
And it's a film that will date very little in the next half century. We're now coming to that little part. Miller could have named the Clark Gable character Happy. Instead, he chose Gay, which, in 1961, means, as far as mainstream audiences are concerned, happy. The word's other meaning never comes up (though that would certainly put a whole new twist on the film's theme of freedom and individuality.)
Gay Langland, in fact, seems to be a love 'em and leave 'em kind of guy. We meet him at the train as he bids farewell to a reasonably attractive woman (if you're wondering why I'm qualifying it with reasonably, consider this film's female lead.) She wants him to go with her, she'll get him a job with her father. He says no. He's a cowboy.
After her train leaves, Guido shows up. Guido tells Gay about the hot blond he's just met. Gay just laughs it off, he's had plenty of women (are you getting an inkling why I think that name might date this film a bit?) He, instead, has a business proposition for Guido. There's a herd of wild horses up in the mountains. He and Guido can round them up, and then sell them to, well, more about that later. To discuss this further, they light out for the nearest bar.
It turns out it's the same bar that Roslyn and Isabelle has lit out for. First, the ladies sees Gay's dog, a mangy dalmatian mix (I'm guessing here), to whom they throw some food to. This, in turn, draws Gay's and Guido's attention. Guido introduces Gay. From the look on Gay's face, it's obvious that he's entranced, or at least turned on, by Roslyn.
Gay's face. Gables's face. Not quite what it used to be. Imagine Rhett Butler getting a skin graft from a World War II bomber jacket, and you'll get an idea what Clark Gable looks like at 59. Handsome more in the past than present tense. Minus the star power, 46 year old Eli Wallach as Guido really should have at least a fighting chance with the 35 year old Monroe as Roslyn. Maybe that's why Guido will come to look so pissed off as this film progresses and he gradually realizes he doesn't.
But before he gets to that pissed off stage he invites Roslyn and Isabelle to look at his house in the desert (where he no longer actually lives), and that's where they all four end up. It's a house unfinished. No front step. No heat. No electricity. In one of the bedrooms there's a picture of, and a shrine to, a young woman. It's Guido's late wife, and he tells Roslyn the tragic, if somewhat odd, story about how his wife died in labor because both the phone didn't work and his truck had a flat tire.
Things lighten a little after that as the foursome share a bottle of wine. This scene, for a while, belongs to Thelma Ritter. I said earlier that her character was eccentric. This eccentricity gives away to a kind of wisdom, as she expounds on the virtues of Nevada. According to her, people come to Nevada to get rid of things. Husbands to get rid of wives, wives to get rid of husbands, the government to get rid of atomic bombs. Arthur Miller wrote these lines, but Ritter says them like she just thought them up right there and then.
More drinking. Roslyn wants to hear some music. Guido hurries to the truck to turn on the radio (remember, the house has no electricity.) When he comes back in, Roslyn is dancing with Gay. Just look at that expression on Guido's face. Boy, is he pissed! He butts in and starts dancing with Roslyn. Now, look at the amused expression on Gay's face. No insecurity there! Soon, Roslyn is dancing by herself, right before she passes out
Roslyn comes to in the front seat of Gay's truck on the way back to town. Gay tries to kiss her, and she replies,
"I don't feel that way about you, Gay."
I want you to keep that line in mind, for in the very next scene...
...she sleeping in a bed, apparently nude (I haven't seen it but in an European version, you can supposedly see her breast), when Gay (himself fully dressed) comes into the room, and awakens her by giving a little kiss. Roslyn kisses him right back. She must now feel SOME way about him! What changed?
You probably thought I was being mean earlier when I made fun of Gable's old, weathered face. But his past good looks were only part of his appeal. The rest was a tremendous charisma that he'll have right to the very end (basically this movie.) So, yeah, it's not hard to believe Roslyn's now won over.
Anyway, the two are now keeping house. In Guido's old house. Now, he did offer Roslyn a place to stay, but Gay? Apparently, that charisma must have won Guido over, too.
Earlier in the film, Gay, revealing a sensitive side, tells Roslyn that she's the saddest girl he ever met, but she seems happy now. Such as when she frolics on a Lake Tahoe beach (the only time, I believe, that Monroe wears a bikini on screen, though in Let's Make Love she wears a similarly revealing chorus girl outfit.) But there's an even more tantalizing scene than that. Gay and Roslyn are horseback riding. She's wearing what looks like a flannel shirt and jeans. Gay is riding behind her. Smiling, he looks down, and we're all treated to a close-up of Roslyn's tight jeaned ass.
Let's just focus on that tight jeaned ass for a moment, but not for the reasons you might think. Why is it in the movie? For the reasons you might think? Well, if the idea is titillation (the main reason why any studio would green light a Marilyn Monroe project in the first place), why preface it with Gay smiling? That seems to undercut his earlier sensitivity. Now, he's a dirty old man. Of course, that earlier sensitivity could be just an act. Except "saddest girl I ever met" is an odd come-on line for a lecher. Or a stud, no matter how many notches in his belt. And, anyway, he says it after they've apparently had sex. So maybe he meant it. But, he's never met anybody sad before? She's it? It's easy for US to believe that about her, as we know the actress who plays her will soon end up on a gurney with a sheet pulled over her face. But Gay doesn't know that. My guess is she's the most beautiful sad person he's ever met. And the sad person with the nicest ass.
As happy as Gay and Roslyn seem together, a problem sprouts up. Examining their garden, Gay notices a rabbit's been nibbling at the lettuce. His first instinct is to grab a gun and hunt the critter down. Roslyn, a thou-shall-not-kill type, begs him not to. Gay, in some way threatened by this, begins to lose his temper (charm suddenly transformed into anger is something Gable's especially good at.)
Their first lovers quarrel (they have to be lovers, right? She was in bed naked...) is interrupted by the arrival of Guido and Isabelle. So Gay and Roslyn give them a tour of their desert idyll, nibbled lettuce and all. Guido's impressed, or at least he's acting like he's impressed, saying things like, "You've got the gift of life, Roslyn! The rest of us, we're just looking for a place to hide and watch it all go by." Poetic, ain't he? Roslyn may not want to hide herself, but when Guido opens up a door covered with cheesecake pics of her (including the famous skirt-blown-upwards-by-the-subway scene from The Seven Year Inch), she quickly closes it, explaining it's just something silly Gay did. Guido opens it up again, and she closes it again. Just another thing for him to get pissed off about.
Somehow, all four of them end up in a car headed for the rodeo, where Gay hopes to find another hand to help him and Guido catch mustangs up in the mountains. As the car approaches a phone booth outside a gas station, the two men recognise Perce Howland, played by Montgomery Clift. Finally, the film's third lead character, at least according to the opening credits. Clift actually has less screen time than Eli Wallach, but he's still the bigger star, if not for much longer, as his career's been in decline since the 1956 car wreck that left him disfigured. Now, by "disfigured", don't get the idea he looks like Lon Chaney in The Phantom of the Opera. Before the accident, he had, appropriately, movie star good looks. After the accident, he looks...normal, average, plain, nondescript. Except for those expressive eyes of his, a kind of built-in Greek chorus for the pauses between the dialogue (giving him a distinct advantage, artistically speaking, over rival Marlon Brando's squinty face.) Not that it's necessarily his looks that's killing his career. He's turned into a booze and pill addict, perhaps because of his accident, perhaps because of issues that predate the accident (issues, that had they been addressed in this film, might have put a whole new twist on it's theme of freedom and individuality). Anyway, he's fucked up, but that's what in the past made him so appealing. Role after role of fucked-up guys with movie star good looks. But no more.
So anyway, we now have fucked-up average-looking Montgomery Clift as fucked-up average-looking Perce Howland arguing with his mother on the phone. Near as I can tell, he doesn't get along with his stepfather. A common complaint, but this is no common fellow. The call ends, and fucked-up average-looking Perce gets into the same car as fucked-up average-looking Guido, fucked-up drop-dead gorgeous Roslyn, eccentric average-looking Isabella, and craggy, charismatic, possibly fucked-up Gay. On to the rodeo we go!
In the car, Perce asks Roslyn what did she do before coming out West. Instead of saying "housewife", which up to now I assumed she was, she instead replies that she was an "interpretive dancer". Every one in that car knows she means "stripper", except me. I'll catch on a little later in the picture. I can be a bit dense sometimes.
I'm not too dense to appreciates what's next. Marilyn Monroe, wearing one of the sexiest dresses she's ever worn in a movie, does one of the sexiest things she's ever done in a movie. Here's what happens. They all stop in a bar on the rodeo grounds. There, Roslyn gets into a paddle ball contest with some old guy. What? That doesn't sound too sexy? It is when the camera focuses on her ass bouncing to the exact beat of the ball bouncing on the paddle. It was at this point that I finally understood what she meant by "interpretive dancing." Roslyn wins both the contest and a bunch of money that was placed as bets. Veteran actress (even back then) Estelle Winwood shows up as a religious woman collecting money in a hat, and ends up with some of Roslyn's winnings (I wonder if the Hays Office sent her.)
The foursome walk outside of the bar where Isabelle spots her ex-husband and his new wife. She decides to leave with them, taking the film's humor along with her.
The rodeo finally begins. And ends. At least for Perce, as he's thrown from a horse and knocked unconscious. Gay, Guido, and most of the people in the stands take this as a matter of course, but Roslyn's shocked. She thinks Perce is going to die! Gay decides to comfort her:
"Honey, we all have to go sometime, reason or no reason. Dyin's as natural as livin'. The man who's too afraid to die is too afraid to live."
Personally, I think, "Aw, he'll be all right" would have sufficed.
And Perce is all right, if a little woozy. That night they're all back at the bar, and Roslyn and Perce, who now has several rolls of bandages wrapped around his head, share a little dance (again pissing off Guido, who apparently has even less sympathy for the injured than Gay.) The dancing is making Perce a little dizzy, so they both go out into a back alley. I wouldn't think that's the most therapeutic place in the world to be, but it seems to work to Perce's benefit. It helps that his head in cradled in Roslyn lap.
The two of them have a nice little talk. Roslyn has a way of bringing out the introspective in people. Or it could just be that fucked-up knows fucked-up.
Gay comes out into the alley. Now, he's fucked-up in the three-sheets-to-the-wind sense of the phrase. Clark Gable's always good playing drunk. He tells Roslyn and Perce that his children, from a marriage that didn't work out, have arrived, and he wants them to get acquainted.
But when they go back inside, the kids aren't there! Gay asks Guido where they went. Guido first looks puzzled, then, perhaps humoring Gay, points to the bar's front entrance. Gay runs out, but his kids have left. Were they ever they're to begin with? You have to be pretty drunk to imagine people who aren't there. Or pretty lonely. In a biography I once read about Gable (I'm sorry to say I no longer remember the author's name), it said he refused to do a scene in Gone With the Wind that called on him to cry. 22 years later, he no longer gives a damn, and a good thing, too, as it's one of his best scenes in the film, as Gay pushes through a puzzled crowd of people, screaming out to a lost family.
On the ride back to the house, Guido is the designated driver. He really shouldn't be, but Gay and Perce have both passed out. And Roslyn? I don't know. Maybe she's too sad to drive. Guido tries to make her sadder still, describing his guilt over bombing Japanese civilians during World War II. Keep this scene in mind.
Eventually they arrive at the house. Gay and Guido (alliterative, huh?) have a good laugh at Perce's expense as struggles with his bandages. Roslyn's not laughing, which annoys Gay. As does her overall naivete. Now, I've said Gable was good at playing angry, and I've said he was good at playing drunk. Now, as a special treat, we get to see him play an angry drunk !
"What's the matter with you, anyway?" Gay asks Roslyn. "You act like you just were born?!"
Good thing he didn't say "born yesterday" or else Huston would have had to cast Judy Holliday.
Sorry, I couldn't help myself. (Both women did specialize in playing dumb blonds. Maybe that's what Gay was getting at.)
The next we see the four of them, they're all sobered up and ready for act III, the trip out to the mountains to catch some wild horses. First, they camp out for the night. This little campout almost ends the trip before it begins. Roslyn finds out that these horses, once caught, are destined to end up in cans of Alpo, and she objects. Gay explains that back when he first started doing this kind of thing, the horses, being smaller than average, were sold as children's pets. But kids these days have scooters and the like, so the cowboys have to go where the dollars are. When Roslyn rejects the free-market argument (Arthur Miller, incidentally, belonged to the Communist Party back in the 30s), Gay uses this line:
"Honey, nothing can live unless something dies first."
You might recall he said something similar when Perce was thrown from the horse. When that doesn't work, Gay gets personal, pointing out to Roslyn that he's not judgemental about her "interpretive" dancing. That kind of does the trick, but, as we shall see, only for a very short while.
The next morning they're all set to catch some horses. Here's how it works. Guido will use his airplane to chase the horses out of the mountains and onto the desert floor, where Gay and Perce will further chase and corner them with the truck.
Now, I'd like to take some time out to explain this film's title. Or rather, Gay will. As he now tells Roslyn, these horses are called misfits because of their odd size (they actually look normal to me, but what do I know about horses?) You probably assumed this film is called The Misfits because that's what the four main characters are. And you'd be right. The horses are a metaphor. Personally, I don't think Miller should have waited all the way until act III to spring this metaphor on us. I mean, we know what this film's about by now. When Tennessee Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire he sprung his metaphor at the very beginning of the play. In the title, in fact. Maybe Miller should have done that. Some Horses Called Misfits. Then, as the movie progressed, we could say, "Ah, this is really about human beings!"
OK, maybe not.
Metaphors or not, the horses don't want to be caught. There's only three of them, Momma, Poppa, and Baby, and that first horse, which may be getting on in years, gives Gay, Guido, and Perce one hell of a time. After some struggle, the Momma horse is tied to the ground, it's child loyally by it's side. Gay, disappointed that there's not a whole herd (as he had promised), suggests giving both horses to Roslyn.
Unfortunately, Roslyn, pissed, and unaware of this pending offer, makes an offer herself. She'll pay cold, hard cash for the two horses. Insulted, Gay turns her down, forgets about his own offer, and angrily goes after the remaining horse. Guido uses this moment of human conflict to, of all things, hit on Roslyn. He tells her he never wanted this (never mind he quit his job in order to go on this little expedition), and, he'll call the whole thing off if she'll just, you know...
Roslyn knows only too well. Listen to her shoot him down while at the same time accusing him of false sensitivity: "You could blow up the whole world and still feel sorry for yourself!"
You're not going to get anymore poetry out of me, he's probably thinking.
Now, all three horses are tied to the ground. Gay, Guido, and Perce and discussing how to split up the money when Roslyn suddenly, well, remember I said before the more emotional Monroe is, the better? Well, I don't know how much more better she can get than when she's throwing dirt in the air and screaming:
"KILLERS! MURDERERS! YOU LIARS! ALL OF YOU LIARS! YOU'RE ONLY HAPPY WHEN YOU CAN SEE SOMETHING DIE! WHY DON'T YOU KILL YOURSELF TO BE HAPPY?! YOU AND YOUR GOD'S COUNTRY! FREEDOM! I'M NOT KIDDING YOU, YOU'RE THREE SWEET DAMNED MEN!"
Well, I know if I was one of those three sweet damned men, I'd feel ashamed!
And Perce DOES feel ashamed. He and Roslyn jump into the truck, drive to all three horses, and set them free, much to Gay's enraged chagrin (Guido, meanwhile, is still peeved that Roslyn jilted him.)
Gay throws a lasso around the man horse, the male horse, the stallion (I knew I'd remember.) It's not as easy as all that, however, and the stallion races across the desert floor, dragging Gay along with him. But is it Clark Gable that's being dragged, or a stunt double? There's some disagreement on that. Eventually, Gay, uh, slows the horse down, and then singlehandedly ties the horse back on to the ground (remember, it took the three of them to do that earlier.)
Stunt double or not, Gay--Gable--is now, drenched in sweat, red (or a very dark gray, as the movie's in B&W) in the face, and PANTING. If the capitalization doesn't get that across to you, it's VERY LOUD PANTING. Not just PANTING, but COUGHING even.
And he then does an odd thing. Over Guido's protests (who, you'll remember, is still nursing a broken heart, or libido), Gay frees the very horse he just singlehandedly captured.
Still PANTING, he manages to spit this out:
"I just don't want anybody making up my mind for me."
"Damn 'em all! They changed it, changed it all around. Smeared it all over with blood!"
And, finally, this: "I'm finished with it. It's like ropin' a dream now. I just gotta find another way to be alive, that's all. If there is one anymore."
Were Clark Gable to live another five, ten, twenty years, the above might be considered some of the best acting of his long and remarkable career. Maybe he'll get the Oscar. Look how convincingly he plays exhaustion.
But Gable doesn't even have five weeks, much less years. Whether because he performed his own stunts (as legend would have it), or was annoyed with Monroe's and Clift's antics (as another legend would have), or, heavy smoker and drinker that he was, had had some heart problems in the past that went untreated (as boring reality would have it), that PANTING is real.
He does, however, stay in character, and THAT'S acting.
Things wrap up quickly after that. Bygones apparently bygones, Gay and Roslyn take the truck back to town (and I'm guessing Guido and Perce fly back.) On their way back in the dark, Roslyn asks Gay, "How do you find your way back in the dark?"
This is, if you think about it, a very logical question. In fact, even if you don't think about it, it makes sense to ask. There's no street lights, and there's no street. Still, Roslyn, or the woman who portrays her, sounds like she wants not logic but poetry.
Gay provides it.
"Just head for that big star straight on. The highway's under it. It'll take us right home."
I said earlier that most movie westerns take place in the second half of the 19th century, usually after the Civil War. I also said westerns are about the gradual decline of the frontier, and the passing of a way of life. For a long time Hollywood treated this as a good thing. By the 1960s, however, movie makers were having second thoughts. And not just young directors. Even John Ford (see Cheyenne Autumn .) And so, too, John Huston. Wait, the Misfits takes place a 100 years after the Civil War. That frontier was over with before Gay Langland was born, a way of life he probably only knew as a little boy watching Tom Mix movies. But now the way of life that replaced that way of life is itself passing. The horse was never the world's primary mode of transportation in Gay's life, but at least it was a great gift for a kid, and now it's a satisfying meal for a dog (incidentally, I did some research, and there seems to be some disagreement as to whether dog food companies still do that. Capturing wild horse on public lands was outlawed for about 20 years, but it's once again legal.) Of course, even if the way of life stays the same, you're own circumstances may change, whether because of divorce, the loss of a spouse, the loss of a parent, or just through the aging process. It's that last frontier that's always in decline. Gable, Monroe, and Clift at least got some mythology out of it.
Of course, that just one interpretation of this film. You could just say it's a movie about fucked-up people by fucked-up people. Hell, for all I know, it's intended audience is fucked-up people.
I think I'll watch it again.