Director Anthony Mann defined the cowboys of the ’50s, creating what critics dubbed the psychological Western. Taking a note from film noir, Mann’s heroes were beset by past tragedies, frustrated ambitions, and desperate to come to terms with their own torment — often by battling villains who were all too similar to themselves. A capable director in multiple genres, Mann didn’t need the Western — but the Western needed him.
10. The Last Frontier (1955)
Victor Mature plays a Davy Crockett-like frontiersman who signs up to fight off warring Indians. Typically, Mann adds an element of moral complication: Mature serves under a hawkish colonel whose main interest isn’t in ending the conflict — but prolonging it! While a minor work that just scratches onto this list, The Last Frontier shows that even when he’s painting with light strokes, Mann deals in more sophisticated themes than his contemporaries.
9. Devil’s Doorway (1950)
Mann’s first Western is even more ambitious in describing the toxic relationships between Native Americans and white-folk. Robert Taylor plays a Shoshone Indian chief who fights courageously in Gettysburg, even winning the Medal of Honor. But when the Civil War hero returns home, he find truculent whites squatting on his land. The audience is meant to root for the Indians — Mann’s boldness earns this one the ninth slot.
8. The Tin Star (1957)
Here, Henry Fonda plays a typical Mann outsider. A former sheriff turned bounty hunter, he likes living on the periphery with no one to answer to but himself. But soon he gets stuck helping an effete Anthony Perkins learn some pistol skills so he can clean up a town. This one’s made of more conventional material than some of Mann’s Westerns, but it’s done so well you’ll hardly notice the shift.
7. The Far Country (1954)
You know the type: Solitary, introverted, doesn’t play well with others. They usually have delusions of grandeur. In The Far Country, Jimmy Stewart plays a prospector in the Klondike who doesn’t care about anyone but himself and his precious gold flakes. But will the death of a friend finally make him care about someone but himself? Part of the genius of this movie is the sheer level of unscrupulousness it allows Stewart before he changes his ways.
6. The Man from Laramie (1955)
Poor Jimmy Stewart suffers numerous indignities in this movie as he infiltrate a frontier town in an effort to shed light on his… shadowy past. (His efforts earn this one sixth place.) But all his sufferings only amp up the audience’s bloodlust for revenge! You don’t mess with a man’s mules (they get shot) or his shooting hand (which gets plugged at point-blank range). It’s easy to imagine fans of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington chomping at the bit for dear old Stewart to blast away the bad guys.
5. The Furies (1950)
This was a switch-up pitch from Mann — a lesser known work that’s also one of his most interesting. Taking its cues from Greek tragedy, The Furies focuses on the subtly unseemly relationship between widowed cattle-baron Walter Huston and his daughter Vance Jeffords (a typically wonderful Barbara Stanwyck). The movie’s bold Freudian symbolism and fraught familial conflicts were ahead of its time — and make this one a lock for the top five.
4. Man of the West (1958)
Gary Cooper puts in a great, latter-day performance in this dark, unsung Western. Like a lot of Mann’s heroes, he’s a man who’s wounded by the past. And when the past returns — in the form of his former outlaw buddy Dock Tobin (a malicious Lee J. Cobb) — he must find a way to maintain his new identity. The movie didn’t generate much enthusiasm when it was first released, but later reappraisals (Jean Luc-Godard was a huge fan) have asserted it as one of the great psychological Westerns.
3. Bend of the River (1952)
Stewart plays an ex-Missouri raider who’s found a new career: escorting wagon trains out West. But along the way he discovers an uncomfortable fragment of his own past: an old chum (Arthur Kennedy) who hasn’t given up his outlaw ways. Stewart saves Kennedy and invites him to join the journey, but Kennedy decides he’d rather steal the settlers’ goods for his own profit. Will Stewart go along with it? For the suspense hanging over that question, this one bends its way right into third place.
2. Winchester ’73 (1950)
This moody, noirish Western follows the gun of the title as it passes through many, many hands. What could have been a gimmicky frame device (see the short-lived Robert Altman TV series, Gun) becomes a powerful symbol of the history of violence that interconnects its characters and finally leads to a showdown between heavies Waco (Dan Duryea) and Lin McAdam (Stewart). For its formal daring and and crackling suspense, it’s one of Mann’s best.
1. The Naked Spur (1953)
Our number-one flick features Jimmy Stewart as you’ve rarely seen him — completely and utterly immoral. This is the pinnacle of Mann and Stewart’s long run together, and one of the best Westerns ever made. From start to finish it’s engaging and provocative, and Stewart’s quest, to catch an old friend for reward money, increasingly becomes not a noble mission but a crazed pursuit for money no matter what the cost.