With the ample dexterity of a fine tailor, modern cinema has always come down to the craft of weaving two delicate threads upon the loom. From the social fabric of the filmmaker’s surroundings, he or she eloquently intersperses string from another yarn; this comes from the influence and inspiration of generations passed.
A patchwork of moving images, all great movie makers have an innate understanding that no idea is entirely new; however there are innumerable creative viewpoints from which to assemble it.
Now, with all that in mind, allow me to explain why Anthony Mann is the favourite filmmaker you probably never knew about…
One of the most prolific and consistent filmmakers of all time, it is surprising that his name isn’t as widely known as others in his circle. Mann had an intrinsic understanding of the complex nature within us all, and used this to craft psychological crime melodramas and layered westerns that presented it’s characters not as ‘goodies and baddies’, but unpredictable, emotive beings.
Put in short, his films weren’t simply black and white; they were painted with a myriad of off-whites, grey shades and jet black shadows… or as Mann’s cinematographer John Alton liked to call it ‘painting with light’.
Anthony Mann had roots in the theatres of New York City in the roaring 20’s. Comfortable centre stage or behind the scenes, his promising talent for drama was twofold. He appeared in several New York stage plays between 1925 and 1926, before trying his hand as production manager and eventually working at the famous Theatre Guild.
When he made the transition to film and shipped off to the west coast his recognition was instantaneous. Tinseltown bigwig David O. Selznick hired Mann as a casting director and talent scout, working on screen tests for such films as Fleming’s Gone With The Wind (1939) and Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940). Mann even worked as an assistant director on Sullivan’s Travels (1941) with Preston Sturges.
After leaving his work with Selznick, Anthony Mann had a brief foray with Paramount, Republic and RKO studios in the early 40’s. It was with the latter that Mann’s knack for noir began to materialise with ‘Two O’Clock Courage’ in 1945. Dubbed by The New York Times as ‘a modest little item of second-rate cinematic fun’, the film follows a charming amnesiac (Tom Conway) and an enchanting cabbie (Ann Rutherford) as they roam the Big Apple trying to piece together the fragmented memories of a man accused of a murder he has no recollection of.
Interestingly so, much of the visual characteristics of noir came about from hefty budget restrictions and scanty quota demands from studio executives. Dimly lit sets were utilised to draw attention away from cheap props, whole films were shot and rushed into cutting rooms within a week. Within this environment such archetypal noir as This Gun For Hire (1942), The Seventh Victim (1943), Detour (1945) and Gun Crazy (1950) were forged.
But it would be the latter half of the 40’s- the golden age of film noir, that Mann’s cinema would become more rich, more complex, more layered. Making the move over to the low budget studios at Eagle-Lion he would team up with Hungarian born cinematographer John Alton. A fruitful relationship between likeminded creatives, Mann’s cinematic style of directing the stark psychological tussle of the desperate protagonist served hand-in-hand with Alton’s artistic vision to stage sets with moody lighting and camera set ups that he learned from the great European painters and German Expressionists.
Teamed together on such films as T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and Border Incident (1949) the two had an imaginative flair to take the crime melodrama into an unfamiliar frontier. The subject matter was gritty, the violence terse and unnerving, the outcome almost always austere.
Similarly, T-Men and Border Incident take the newsreel, semi-documentary structure; both told from the viewpoint of undercover agents working to dismantle crime syndicates. Raw Deal tells the story of tight-lipped prison escapee Joe Sullivan (a rampaging Dennis O’Keefe) who fights the ticking clock and a sinister mob figure (played with almost sadistic glee by Raymond Burr) in order to clear his name.
Baring all the aesthetic hallmarks that would cement Mann’s reputation within the industry as a master of noir, these three notable films are bleakly void of any clear-cut conclusions… no heroes riding off into the end credits. On the other hand, these films come thick and plentiful with striking imagery and enduring drama that has undoubtably influenced those after him. From the bath house murder scene in T-Men (the first, but not the last to be staged in cinema), to the claustrophobic close-ups of desperate workers crammed into trucks in Border Incident, to the atmospheric motif clock sequences peppered throughout Raw Deal, there is a rewarding ‘pot of gold’ for the cinephile that manages to track these films down.
More than worthy of a mention were other notable noir films such as Railroaded! (1947), Desperate (1947), and Side Street (1950).
Throughout the 50’s Anthony Mann would continue to make waves with his string of Western films (eight of which starred James Stewart), and what critics dubbed as ‘the new wave of psychological western’. Such films as Winchester 73 (1950), Bend Of The River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Man From Laramie (1955) and Man Of The West (1958) bore such a profound impact on moviemaking that they deserve an in depth analysis of their own.