You can label almost any film as a ‘movie about movies.’ Eating up cinemas right now is Jurassic World, which constantly nods and winks to the ever-evolving stream of sequels and franchise-building that’s dominating popular film; only a few years ago, Chris Nolan assembled a team not unlike a film crew to bring dreams to the masses. And so on and so on. John Huston, director of 35 films over 46 years, was America’s grand journeyman; a master of the underlying notion that dark things exist in even the brightest character’s hearts, regardless of genre. You can see it in his first film, the classic The Maltese Falcon; it’s even clearer in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and his many later adaptations that ranged from monolithic classics (Moby Dick) to literary labyrinths (Under the Volcano). But somewhere in the middle – 1961, to be exact – Huston made The Misfits, starring a royally mismatched quartet of performers who, through their masterfully weaved tales of loneliness, told the story of the downfall of the Western. But not only is this a well-timed rerelease – being a movie-about-movies – it’s also so much more.
Roslyn is an incredibly beautiful young woman (she is played by Marilyn Monroe, after all) who has just gotten divorced. But she’s escorted to the courthouse by Guido (Eli Wallach), a man who falls almost instantly in love with her on first sight, and afterward, she’s introduced to his friend, Gay Langland (Clark Gable). After a spontaneous trip away from it all at Gay’s ranch, he and Rosyln fall in love – but their romance is quickly imperilled by Guido’s jealousy, their own wildly differing values and concepts, and the appearance of a new player, Perce (Montegomery Clift). But Huston was too wise to let this play as simply an expertly crafted romance picture, which it is on its sheeny surface; through the dark hours when Rosyln is dragging the three drunken men back home, or feeling terribly alone in a desert where her closest friends are the wild horses the men are attempting to capture, The Misfits slowly engrains itself as a heartbreaking look at the demise of the Western genre. Gay is an ageing cowboy, commented on at one point as one of the last of his kind; but Rosalyn’s more humanist, emotional perspective threatens to blot out his way of life once and for all, even if that means dragging it (quite literally, toward the film’s climax) through the dirt. The picture frequently takes on a life of its own, signalling that these Misfits could definitely belong somewhere; they just happen to have been born at the wrong time.
At its core, however, this intimate epic is a performance picture. Monroe, Gable, Wallach and Clift are all extraordinary, pulling the jigsaw pieces of the snazzy-for-its-time intro sequence toward psychologically familiar – and sometimes worrying – territory. Each of the players pull their weight; Gable is routinely fantastic, a veteran screen heartthrob who still oozes charm despite his visible age difference since classics like It Happened One Night. Clift and Wallach are both excellent at being paranoid, borderline-schizoid messes, tangled up in their own emotional webs. But the real star here is Monroe: following on two years from her doolally powerhouse performance in Some Like it Hot, here, Monroe silenced any naysayers left who shunned her abilities. In the first few seconds of the film, she might be doing nothing more than putting on her make-up – but every motion is imbued with a wise sadness that belies a facade of naivety, Monroe expertly poising it as defence mechanism. Or perhaps she’s just a girl who hasn’t yet realised she’s the smartest person in the room.
The Misfits has plenty to say about not only the Western genre, as it gradually branches out into scenery that’s familiar toward its conclusion, but perhaps the decline and eventual disappearance of the Old West itself. Not only as a loss of the physical kind, but of the mindset that went with it too, and the electric sexuality that buzzes up and down Maslow’s hierarchy of desire and ambition. But that’s only one ideology you can draw from this excellent picture; while it may not quite be Huston’s best film (and why would it, when The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is in his back catalogue?), it does feel particularly relevant in today’s age of handing the steering wheel over to the woman, and The Misfits is Huston showing us that no matter how much of a fight you put up to hold onto your old ways, letting go is probably a good idea.
The Misfits is rereleased in UK cinemas now.