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Rediscover:

The Misfits

Dir: John Huston

1961

Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.

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Norman Mailer wrote “Film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for far too long.” We often forget that when we are watching movies, we are watching ghosts. I mean that both the image we see is unreal -a strip of film- and that, if we’re watching an older movie, most everyone involved with it is dead. So films of the past become a kind of vast secular heaven (or limbo) whose stars are forever present, forever beautiful, forever young, and forever there for adoration. Undercutting this immortality is the specter of death and decay, both in movies and real life. No medium has so relentlessly confronted an audience with represented death; it’s as much a staple of movies as love or song and dance. And how many of our favorite stars have died young, died too soon, or just burned out? This is why Sunset Boulevard is so fascinating: it lays these tensions wide open and puts a star’s fear of aging and neglect at its center.

The Misfits is a film that is famous, but not particularly popular. Notably, it did provide the horror punk band with its names and is referenced in the Clash’s song about Montgomery Clift, “The Right Profile.” It’s famous/notorious for containing the final performances of two icons, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. She would died the following year at 36, still Hollywood’s most famous female martyr, Gable would die in 1960 at 59 before the film was released. The third star of the film, Montgomery Clift, who nearly died in a serious car accident years earlier, would die in 1966 at the age of 45, although acting teacher Robert Lewis called his life “the world’s longest suicide.” None of these are advanced ages by any means. Watching these three actors, each unique, navigate their way through a film of broken, lost, lonely characters in a vanishing culture, is both fascinating and morbid. In a Lonely Place could be an alternate title. It’s not only those three actors that make The Misfits interesting though; Monroe’s then husband playwright Arthur Miller wrote it, John Huston directed it and the supporting cast includes Eli Wallach and Thelma Ritter.

After a perhaps too literal credits sequence with puzzle pieces, it opens in Reno, then the divorce capital of the country. Monroe and her earthy older pal Ritter are preparing for Monroe’s impeding divorce. Ritter’s already had a few drinks. At a bar, they run into Gable’s aging, but still virile cowboy and Wallach’s lonely tow truck driver. Wallach’s a widower who lives outside of town in a half-finished house, where they all crash. It’s a sometimes uneven contrast or clash in acting styles. Even though Gable’s best years were behind him and he hadn’t made any notable films for years, he’s still hale, robust and hearty. He’s an old school actor and he retains the aura of the dashing leading man he once was. Think Rhett Butler older, more weathered and a little gone to seed. Monroe’s talents as an actress are debatable, but she took it more seriously than some think; in The Misfits she’s sexy, vulnerable, a little lost and more than anything, very sad. Gable’s the old fox and she’s the young vixen, but more like one whose foot is in a trap. Clift, who enters the film later, came from the in vogue NYC method tradition and is suitably brooding, raw and a little desperate. I don’t know how much Miller was pulling from real life, but casting Clift, who had surgery after his car accident and became addicted to painkillers, to play a broke, alcoholic rodeo rider who has had one too many falls feels eerily close to home.

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Clift enters a rodeo, gets tossed and is badly banged up. Like the other men in the film, he’s attracted to Monroe and seems to see her as a savior, even though she’s the one in need of saving, given to statements like “We’re all dying, aren’t we?” There are no actual deaths in the film, but it’s fatalistic and loaded with mortality. Huston shoots in a classic manner, showing his usual intuitive feel for the outdoors and employing rich, dramatic black and white cinematography, which only emphasizes the spectral quality of these actors/characters, who are “floating around.” In the climax, they head to the flats outside Reno to round up mustangs. Although Gable, whose character is the classic aging cowboy in a changing land, laments the shifting society and his displacement, they go after the wild horses with a truck and a plane. Also, they are capturing them not to ride (“Kids ride motor scooters now”), but to sell them to a company that turns them into dog food.

When Monroe learns this, she’s horrified and calls the men murderers. In the film’s most famous scene, they subdue the horses, which are attached to heavy tires. Horses are a ready-made and heavy-handed symbol of freedom and the American spirit, and here, they are both an image of the dying mythic West and, of course, Gable’s rugged individuality. They release the horses and Monroe and Gable drive off together. Gable says, “I’m finished with it. Gotta find another way to be alive.” It’s a deceptively subdued ending, but anybody watching it knows the outcome. The grim reality of the actors’ lives threatens to overpower the film. There’s a skull lurking beneath the film and it’s an interesting viewing experience because it feels unwittingly torn between the fading studio/star system and the emerging, fractured, cynical films of the ’60s and ’70s. The Misfits, despite its high wattage cast, wouldn’t be out of place in ’70s cinema and it has something in common with the elegiac Last Picture Show and even Brokeback Mountain, which is also about lonely cowboys.

Miller’s script doesn’t avoid the heaviness and earnestness of his plays, but he created custom fit roles for the actors, and the dialogue is (if somewhat self-conscious) more natural and subtle than in The Crucible. His marriage with Monroe was unraveling during the filming and he would later write a somewhat nasty play about her, After the Fall. She would become a too easy symbol, “the hapless saint of being mad from the movies,” as David Thompson calls her. Gable, who did his own stunts on the film, reportedly said on the last day of filming “Christ, I’m glad this picture’s finished. She [Monroe] damn near gave me a heart attack.” Gable died of a heart attack less than two weeks later.

Director John Huston, after a great run in the 40s and 50s (the Bogart movies, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), would continue to work steadily, but seemed to struggle to find the right project, bouncing from genre to genre. Huston was never granted the full auteur status that other tough, masculine, genre hoppers like Hawks and Fuller received; perhaps because he seemed more a highly skilled craftsman than an artist. He did have a weakness for literary adaptations and followed this film with an adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, The Night of the Iguana and a Biblical film. His most significant contribution to 70s cinema was his role as the dark-hearted, corrupt patriarch in Chinatown, which built and expanded on his and Bogart’s The Maltese Falcon. He also made a film of Annie, which should just be left alone. However, he did have a remarkable coda with his final films, Prizzi’s Honor and The Dead.

The Misfits will probably always be famous for Monroe and Gable, but it’s also the rare Hollywood film in which the cracks, strains, and weaknesses of stars are on full display. It’s a little bit frightening. As Gable says to Monroe, “I wouldn’t know how to say goodbye to you.” Nearly fifty years later, we still don’t know how.

by Lukas Sherman
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