Review for Man Without a Star (Masters of Cinema)
It’s funny how you can be surprised by unexpected blind spots. I always thought that I grew up watching Westerns and thanks to being inculcated to the genre by my parents, I didn’t discriminate. It should be obvious that I had inherited my father’s biases and preferences, but it was watching Man Without a Star that made me realise that my Westerns of choice starred John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, James Stewart, and to a lesser degree Burt Lancaster. There are hundreds of actors famous for Westerns whose films I still haven’t seen, or if I have, haven’t truly appreciated. I know Kirk Douglas made Westerns, have even seen some of them (where he starred with three of the aforementioned quartet), but this is the first time I’ve paid attention to a Western where Kirk Douglas was explicitly the star since Cactus Jack.
Dempsey Rae doesn’t like to be tied down, or more accurately fenced in. He worked as a ranch hand in Texas, but then the range started being sliced up by landowners. Wyoming is still open range though, and he’s riding a train (without paying) north to find a new job. On the way he picks up a young greenhorn, Jeff Jimson, naive and cocky, and takes him under his wing. They get a job at the Triangle spread, an incomprehensible 10,000 head of cattle owned by Reed Bowman, an outspoken and ambitious woman from the East. She’s got plans for a lot more cattle besides, on grassland that can’t support that many, and that riles neighbouring ranchers. When she hires more Texas cowhands with bad reputations, Dempsey realises that the range wars that he’s trying to escape have followed him to Wyoming.
Man Without a Star gets a 2.00:1 widescreen 1080p transfer on this disc, with PCM 2.0 mono English with optional SDH subtitles. It’s not an impressive transfer, although that might be down to the source material. IMDB indicates that the film was shot at the Academy ratio of 1.33:1 and cropped for theatrical distribution, something seemingly confirmed by the film’s trailer on this disc. As a result, this isn’t the sharpest of films, detail levels are fair, colours are decent, although I did notice the kind of colour fringing and limited palette common with Eastmancolor productions (this is apparently Technicolor though). Also print damage in the form of blue flecks and flashes on darker elements is evident in a few scenes. The audio is fine though, warm and detailed, with the dialogue clear throughout, the action recreated well. It wouldn’t be a Western without a Frankie Laine theme song.
The disc boots to a static menu, and you’ll find the following extras.
Audio commentary with Kim Newman & Barry Forshaw
Neil Sinyard on Man Without a Star (18:04)
The first run release will also come with a collector’s booklet with essays from film writer Rich Johnson, and critic Richard Combs.
For 1955 when Man Without a Star was made, it’s really an unconventional Western, playing on the strengths of its star to deliver something a little out of the ordinary. It certainly isn’t the first film to relate the tale of the range wars, when ranchers and homesteaders had to resort to violence to resolve their differences, as the inevitability of change forever altered the face of the American West. Here the symbolism isn’t subtle with the presence of barbed wire, the cheap and mass-produced invention that farmers used to delineate their holdings, much to the consternation of the cattlemen who wanted the open range for their cows to graze, and also to move across vast distances on cattle drives. What’s different about this story is that the protagonist, Dempsey Rae winds up being sympathetic to both sides.
He doesn’t start off that way though, heading north in search of the open range that he’d lost in Texas. He’s voluble about his hatred of barbed wire, won’t even break bread with anyone associated with the stuff, and he seems to be a perfect fit for the new owner of Triangle, Reed Bowman who wants to make use of Wyoming’s open range to feed a colossal herd of cattle, far too many to be supported by the local grasslands. Dempsey finds his allegiances start to shift when the nastiness he’d left behind in Texas follows him to Wyoming. When the homesteaders start being attacked and murdered, he realises that he has to make a stand, regardless of how much he hates the dreaded wire.
This is made complicated by the young man he takes under his wing, Jeff Jimson. I’m reminded of something Ricardo Montalban once said regarding the lifecycle of a movie star, from anonymity to ignominy. When one becomes a famous movie star, and priced out of the reach of smaller films, casting directors will search for a named movie star-type. I suspect they went for a Tony Curtis-type for the co-star here, William Campbell as Jeff Jimson, who looks uncannily like a young Tony Curtis. But he’s perfectly cast in the role, young, brash, naive yet cocky, and yet to come to terms with the power he could have. It’s a combination of traits that Campbell would display again when he played Trelane in the Star Trek episode Squire of Gothos.
He’s a total greenhorn when Dempsey rescues him from an obnoxious train brakeman, and again saves him from the noose when he’s accused of said brakeman’s murder (obligatory Jack Elam appearance noted). Dempsey takes it upon himself to teach the kid how to survive in this world, also teaching him how to shoot. Jeff grows up pretty fast, and wants to ‘graduate’ ahead of time, something that Reed Bowman pounces on when Dempsey tells her that he wants to quit.
Man Without a Star came as quite a surprise to me, a Western with shades of grey from an era where such movies seemed more prone to the white hat versus black hat clichés. It’s got a little of everything, an emotionally driven story, verging on the soap opera, plenty of action and drama, and no little comedy as well. It also manages to pack more story and character in its ninety minutes than most modern movies do in two hours plus. The transfer isn’t remarkable, and the extras are minimal, if interesting and entertaining, but the film is very much a cut above.