60 Second Movie Review: The Misfits (1961)
June 15, 2012 Leave a comment
This was my first time seeing The Misfits, which was the last film for Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. Filming finished on November 4, 1960, and Gable passed away on November 16, 1960. The movie was released on February 1, 1961, and Monroe herself died on August 5, 1962. Add into the mix a Montgomery Clift who had limped along in his life and career since a 1956 car accident, and you have a John Huston flick that gains emotional resonance from the personal lives of the stars — and that’s without even mentioning how Monroe’s husband Arthur Miller wrote the film, although their marriage was already fading by the time it was made, and they divorced on January 24, 1961. If you’re keeping track, that’s a week before The Misfits opened.
Regardless, that’s the last date I’ll mention in my remarks, I swear! Although be warned that I’m not going to avoid mentioning spoilers or pieces of the puzzle…
The Misfits is about the dying West, with down-on-their-luck cowboys who are being eclipsed by a world in which horses are symbols of the past. The action starts out with cars, with the movie camera in a pickup truck driven by Guido (played by Eli Wallach), pulling into a driveway to examine a busted up car owned by Roslyn Tabor (played by Monroe).
And the action will end with horses anchored by automobile tires, with a weary couple heading toward the highway. The horses are eventually cut free, sure, but we’re not left overly confident that either the actual stallion or the Clark Gable stallion will survive the next battle. Cars, trapping us, and also providing escape.
Roslyn is busted up as well, spiritually speaking, but it doesn’t stop the men from flocking to be near her.
GUIDO: Is that the right mileage? 23 miles?
ISABELLE STEERS: Yeah, we only took two rides in it. It’s the darn men in this town. They keep running into her just to start a conversation.
That’s part of her problem throughout the picture, as all the guys want to be with her. It’s about contemporary America in this way as well, as they want to own her even as the guys — Clark Gable’s character Gay Langland, in particular — want nothing more than their fantasy of freedom.
Roslyn and Gay are polar opposites in many ways. When we meet Gay, he’s busy discarding a woman as if she were a task that needed completion on an assembly line. Monroe’s character, in contrast, leaves her husband with depth and understanding.
ROSLYN TABER: You can’t have me now, so you want me, that’s all. Please. I’m not blaming you…I just don’t believe in the whole thing anymore.
The dialogue is unmistakably Miller. Conversational yet pristine in a way that rarely happens in real life. People articulate their turmoil but are unable to correct it or communicate to others for more than a moment or two. And he’s also able to make use of silence. Lovely, awkward, silence.
In Reno, Miller unites the myth of the old West with the myth of the contemporary. Welcome to Reno, long before Vegas came up with its current slogan of “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.”
ISABELLE: Here’s to Nevada, the “leave it” state. The “leave it” state. You got money you want to gamble, leave it here. You got a wife you want to get rid of, get rid of her here. Extra atom bomb you don’t need, blow it up here. Nobody’s gonna mind in the slightest. The slogan of Nevada is “anything goes — but don’t complain if it went.”
Despite all that — or because of it? — Isabelle wants Roslyn to settle in Nevada. It’s a world in which men can easily quit jobs in order to go off with their friends, because there will always be another one, and real men can’t be dependent. Just buy some cheap property and build a house and keep on building, that endless construction that makes us all feel comforted by the promise of capitalism, until one day we discover that it can’t go on forever.
ROSLYN: We’re all dying, aren’t we? All the husbands and all the wives. Every minute. And we’re not teaching each other what we really know, are we?
The Misfits both believes and disbelieves in the cowboy myth. The guys keep talking about wanting to be independent, and yet they have to work together, and Guido had a wife who died because he was so free from civilization that he couldn’t reach a doctor. It’s a similar situation when Montgomery’s character, Perce Howland, takes a nasty spill at the rodeo and there aren’t any doctors for 60 miles.
PERCE: Did I make the whistle?
There’s a danger of the characters drifting into stereotypes…
RODEO ANNOUNCER: We still have some real men in the West.
…and sure, we have the flighty girl along with the tough guys who decry chatty women, but it’s less about the surface than it is about showing what keeps us all stuck in neutral.
PERCE: I don’t like to see the way they grind up women out here. Although I guess a lot of them don’t mind, do they?
ROSLYN: Some do.
So is Perce talking about Reno or Hollywood?
Roslyn is inevitably a mother or a wife to these boys, and Monroe is also the centerpiece with her mere presence. There are multiple reasons for her legend, and one of them is how her magnetism could reach right through that damned screen and attract the audience in a visceral fashion that’s almost out of our control. Kind of like Guido, Gay, and Perce. So who’s to help
Marilyn Roslyn? When she cries out “Help,” she has to say it to the empty air.
The weak point for me was the extended horse-hunting at the end of the film, which put me into a space of boredom more than it did contemplation. The point of the film had already been made. I suppose it’s possible to see Gay as having redeemed his manhood by defeating the stallion and making sure that Roslyn knows who’s boss, but really, is that success? Is freedom being free from human relationships?
GAY: I hunt these horses to keep myself free. So I’m a free man.
In the end, I’m more inclined to Roslyn’s viewpoint.
ROSLYN: Killers! Murderers! You liars! All of you, liars! You’re only happy when you can see something die! Why don’t you kill yourselves and be happy?…
Sure, it’s not the cheeriest sentiment out there, but it’s at least it’s an honest attempt to confront what’s wrong with the world. That’s The Misfits at its best, when it shows us those pained moments when we open ourselves up, and become vulnerable, over-exposed to the elements and to each other.