Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Misfits: Misfire or Masterpiece?

Dark and downbeat, poignant and profound, The Misfits (1961) is an unflinchingly clinical examination of the inner psyches of a group of disparate unfulfilled characters played against a backdrop of the arid and cheerless Nevada desert, filmed in silvery black and white. To some film fans, it’s a masterpiece of motion picture truth. To others, it’s an unrelentingly dry and joyless two hours and four minutes, difficult to watch in one sitting.

Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning American playwright Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman, All My Sons) and directed by the legendary filmmaker John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Treasure of the Sierra Madre), The Misfits assembled some of the greatest talents of the mid 20th century for this original story about a group of cowboys whose lives are touched by a beautiful, lonely divorcee. The cast includes Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe (the final film for both stars), Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter and Montgomery Clift.

The performances are faultless, the characters well-drawn, and some of the language among Arthur Miller’s best and most perceptive observations of the human experience, but this is far from the perfect movie, and the fault rests chiefly with the author himself.

Miller and Marilyn on the set
Miller’s recent years had not been productive or artistically satisfying. He had spent more time fighting House Un-American Activities inquiries into his supposed Communist leanings, and playing nursemaid to a needy and narcissistic movie star wife, than he did creating theater magic. By 1960, his four-year marriage was crumbling. As he adapted his 1957 short story, originally published in Esquire magazine, into a vehicle for Marilyn, he was obviously in a state of deep depression.

Clearly written by a man in need of a prescription for one of today’s serotonin reuptake inhibitors, Arthur Miller’s screenplay for The Misfits is a negative and gloomy tale of lost hopes, unrealized dreams and an inability to change—almost everyone we meet finds their life frozen with regret and despair. Artfully articulated, yes...but entertaining? If you are a fan of fine acting, perhaps.

Clark Gable in his final film role, as Gay Langland
Gable’s portrayal of disillusioned cattle rustler Gay Langland plumbs the depths of the actor’s capacities. He hasn’t had a juicy acting role like this since Rhett Butler, and we see moments of surprising vulnerability from one of Hollywood’s most iconic he-men. The brilliant Eli Wallach is intense and raw as Gay’s sidekick Guido. The reliable and real Thelma Ritter adds a much-needed dose of ironic humor to the often lugubrious proceedings, but she is also touching and wistful as Roslyn’s Reno landlady. Monty Clift’s physically ravaged rodeo rider Perce reminds audiences of the actor’s own horrifying car accident three years earlier, which left him permanently disfigured and hooked on pain medication. His scene in a phone booth speaking haltingly with his mother is among the very best Montgomery Clift moments ever captured on film.

Montgomery Clift as Perce
Veteran character actress Thelma Ritter as Isabel

Eli Wallach as Guido

Roslyn and Gay follow the star that will take them "right home"
Monroe is a revelation as over-30 divorcee Roslyn Tabor. If you’ve never seen The Misfits, this is truly a Marilyn Monroe you’ve never encountered on the screen. Here is one of the few performances in which she was able to fully use her Actors Studio training to realize a character who is more than a cartoonlike depiction of beauty and seductiveness. Monroe’s Roslyn is disappointed with life and can find little to hold onto or believe in...yet her sheer life force has the power to bring magic to the moment.  To use Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio technical jargon, we see Marilyn “make contact” perfectly with her character, particularly in the scenes where she describes feeling abandoned by her mother and let down by her ex-husband. Though Monroe disliked her character and the story, feeling Miller stole intimate details from her own life and their marriage, her performance in this dark film strikes a poignantly incandescent note.

Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn
Much has been written about the filming of this movie, and in the ensuing years the surviving players all seemed to point to Marilyn Monroe as the reason for the film’s failure. Marilyn was difficult. Marilyn was ill—drinking—overweight. Marilyn was late. Marilyn was mean to her soon-to-be-ex. That may all have been true, but the real culprits in the film’s failure to entertain are the author and the director, who were reported to have indulged in countless gambling and drinking binges during location filming in the Nevada desert. The drama offscreen was far more exciting than the action being photographed, and Miller used Huston as a surrogate therapist and confidante as his marriage fell to pieces. 

All the major players involved in putting together this quirky film displayed behavior perfectly in keeping with the movie’s title. It's a fascinating film, but only if you're in a deep and reflective mood.

Three misfits—director Huston, star Monroe and writer Miller
Last dance for Mr. and Mrs. Miller


Ken Anderson said...

I'm a big fan of this movie too, but you're right, it's quite a downer.
I sort of have to be in the right mood for it.
I like Monroe a great deal in it, I like the black and white photography, and I especially like Montgomery Clift. But you'd better not pop this one in the DVD player if you're depressed. It can send you over the edge.
By the way, you found some really terrific images to post. Thanks for so thoughtfully highlighting one of my favorites!

angelman66 said...

Thanks for your comment, Ken! And yes, some of the most fascinating images of all the stars were captured during the making of this film. Apparently, there was a vast press junket in Nevada to help hype the film, and a whole slew of talented photographers were given unprecedented access to the cast. In fact, Arthur Miller met a young photographer named Inge Morath on the set of The Misfits, married her in 1962 before Marilyn's death, and the pair stayed married until Morath died in 2002.

J.D. Lafrance said...

I'm definitely in the "this film is masterpiece" camp. It's a dark and ugly trip into the raw emotions of these three characters that never feels watered down. In fact, sometimes it is painful to watch.

This is, hands down, my fave Monroe performance. She is so good, so raw and authentic in this film, playing a character that was beaten down by life just like she had been in real-life. It makes you wish that she had been able to dig as deep as she does in this film more often in her career but alas, audiences wanted to see her play the same kinds of characters again and again.

angelman66 said...

Glad you love this one as much I do, J.D. it's deep and unsettling, and I love Arthur Miller's poetic despair as illustrated by these fine actors at the top of their game, directed by master storyteller Huston.
I like it more and more each time I see it.