“Do you want me to turn them loose?” This is what cowboy Perce asks a sad-eyed Roslyn in John Huston’s elegiac The Misfits (1961), and that one question about untying the mustangs he and fellow wranglers Gay (Clark Gable) and Guido (Eli Wallach) have captured—beautiful horses who will be turned to dog food—is so extraordinarily moving in its quietly weighed delivery that it’s breathtaking. It’s moving because it’s Montgomery Clift asking the question, and because of the power of Marilyn Monroe’s Roslyn and her chemistry with Clift. But it’s sublimely moving because of Roslyn’s preceding scene instigating the request—her scream in the desolate landscape, her testimony:
Killers! Murderers! You’re 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 pity you! You’re three dear, sweet, dead men!
That big, blistering moment is filmed in a gorgeous and almost unmerciful long shot, with a distant Monroe, her blond hair and denim in the desert; viewers fix their eyes to see her better as she rages—a brilliant choice by Huston. By forgoing a close-up, he makes Monroe’s speech feel almost unexpected and shocking, and, oddly, more powerful. There are three men who, throughout the movie, have observed this woman with bewilderment, lust, love, and anger. She’s represented multiple ideas, dreams, or wishes for them (the script was written by her soon-to-be ex-husband, playwright Arthur Miller), but she’s now screaming and nearly tearing her hair out—almost as if to make herself flesh and blood.
Marilyn as Roslyn espouses part of the movie’s thesis—a potential sledgehammer—without the directness feeling unnatural, underscoring the end-of-the-line lives these men lead and the simultaneous empathy and anger she feels toward them. Clift’s Perce, who is already feeling lousy about capturing the mustangs, so much so that he doesn’t even want to be paid for it, gazes with sadness and, perhaps, shame; Gable’s Gay looks on concerned, disquieted, and Wallach’s Guido, at that moment, is all annoyance and anger: “She’s crazy,” he says. “They’re all crazy. You try not to believe it because you need them.”
Don’t Fence Her In: On Women of the West
A string of important midcentury westerns, including Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious, elevated women from their traditionally marginal role in the genre to more potent and central positions.
Blood and Guts in High School
John Fawcett’s 2001 cult classic Ginger Snaps—a highlight of the Criterion Channel’s High School Horror collection—uses the werewolf trope to explore the psychosexual anxieties of female adolescence.
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