Last night I watched a great Western by director/actor pair Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart called Bend of the River -- also starring Arthur Kennedy as black-hatted gunslinger, Julia Adams as a pretty girl/arrow victim, and Rock Hudson, in a somewhat arbitrary-though-fun role, as a fancy gambler. The film thematically deals with betrayal and whether a man has the ability to change who he is, played out primarily through the relationship between two ex-outlaws who are contrasted against sweet-natured settlers and antagonized by gold-hungry opportunists.
Although most westerns focus on the relationships between men -- with female characters filling out more-or-less static roles as Latinas/whores and virgins/tough-but-sweet lasses-- Mann's westerns seem to push the male relationships further emotionally and psychologically more than any other westerns I've seen. There is a level of intimacy that exceeds the buddyisms or Western code of honor in films such as The Magnificent Seven or The Professionals; Mann's protagonists stare into each other with an intensity that rivals the heat of any romantic melodrama.
In Bend of the River, that intensity is created between the relationship of Glyn McClyntock (Jimmy Stewart) and Emerson Cole (Arthur Kennedy), who understand each other completely within an instant of seeing each other. That understanding is deepened by their both being outlaws on the run from their past, by having saved each others lives, and by deep looks into each others eyes. The relationship between McClyntock and Cole seems to be so deep that when Laura (Julia Adams) gets together with Cole, McClyntock's hurt (expressed again through his eyes) seems to suggest that the pain is from the loss of Cole more than the loss of Laura, though we are supposed to believe the latter. And when Cole finally betrays him, McClyntock loses it.
It is that moment of losing it that I especially love to watch in the two Mann/Stewart films I've seen. In The Naked Spur Stewart is in rage mode almost from the beginning of the film through the end. In Bend of the River it marks a climax in which Stewart becomes a killer that's gone over the edge. These states of rage work so well for two primary reasons. First, because they are triggered by betrayal after emotionally and psychologically vulnerable moments in which Stewart's character places a degree of trust in others, against his better judgment. Second, because of Jimmy Stewart's baby blues. They are a shade too pale to be romantic eyes. Instead, they are faded out and worn down, eyes which had once been shining and clear, but have now been dulled by the repetition of disappointment and disillusionment.
Those intense moments of rage caught in the eyes of Jimmy Stewart are just one of the purely cinematic pleasures I get from the right combination of actor, director, and genre -- pictures don't do it justice. Watch for the 1:13 mark on the trailer below.