July 11, 2013
The Misfits – U.S., 1961
John Huston’s The Misfits may be one of the saddest movies I’ve ever seen. It is a film that looks at the post-World War II years and sees very but decay. Chivalry is on its last breathe, and many men have regressed into voyeurs with little impulse control. Divorce is rampant, and very few of the people in the film have the slightest notion of what love is, which makes their pursuit of it all the more challenging. The film stars Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and it would be the last film for both of them. Gable died of a heart attack shortly after completing the film. He was 59. Monroe died at the age of 36 in 1962, and her death, so inconceivable to a great many people, would go on to be associated with the kinds of conspiracies many hoped only took place in movies.
In the film, Monroe plays Roslyn Taber, an unhappy woman who, in the film’s opening scene, is preparing for her upcoming divorce hearing. Her companion, an older woman named Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter), listens patiently as Roslyn rehearses her testimony, and when she can’t remember what to say, Isabelle feeds her lines to her calmly. The words are a lie, but they are the kind that a judge at this time will accept as grounds for divorce. Roslyn’s real reasons for seeking to end her marriage provide a revealing look into both America’s changing attitudes and its collective mental health. Roslyn’s husband, she explains, was never there, even when she was, and if she’s going to be alone, she’d rather be alone by herself. It is a sentiment that hints at both women’s newfound sense of personal freedom and the effects that the Second World War and the Korean War had on some of the men who fought them.
After the divorce is granted, Roslyn and Isabelle go for a drink and happen upon Guidi (Eli Wallach), the mechanic who gave them a ride to the courthouse and Gay Langland (Clark Gable). The two of them are cowboys, “the last real men in the world,” according to Isabelle, and “as reliable as jack rabbits.” The two men convince Roslyn that what she needs is a trip to the countryside, and she agrees, but only if Isabelle goes with them and if they go in their own car. That way she won’t have to rely on either of them for transportation back. The move shows Roslyn’s determination to take control of her life and to protect herself. However, something she says in the same scene reveals a third reason for her caution. When asked how she feels about being free once again, she replies worried, worried that she’ll find herself in the same situation all over again. Is it the men she’s worried about, or is it her troubling tendency to choose the wrong men? Perhaps it is both. How else can you explain the fact that she winds up with Langland?
The romantic in all of us may want to see The Misfits as a romance. However, reality should convince us otherwise. At one point, Langland calls Roslyn the saddest girl he knows, which surprises her for everyone else says she’s happy. That, he explains, is because she makes them feel happy. Left unsaid is the reason she makes them happy, which has much more to do with physical attraction than it does spiritual connection. After all, someone that felt deeply connected to Roslyn would try to understand the way she thinks and not dismiss her somewhat peculiar musings with condescending remarks such as you say the dardest things. Roslyn though is blind to this. She prefers to give simple acts of politeness much more significance than they deserve. She has to. It is her last effort to cling to the romantic notions placed in her by fairy tales and movies.
Throughout The Misfits, its characters continually grasp to the familiar, even as time and technology render it obsolete. The Wild West is now tame, and the cowboy can no longer roam as he once did. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, we witness an act that countless cowboys have engaged in over the years, and yet it has clearly lost its grandeur. It now seems cruel to forcefully pull animals out of their natural habitats, especially given what happens to them after they are captured. Equally troubling is the rodeo. If the cowboy, one of the symbols of America’s pioneering spirit, has lost some of his significance, what then are we to make of those activities associating with modern cowboys? Is there a point to mounting an animal against its will and competing to see who can ride it the longest? Perhaps not, and yet these are the actions that the characters in The Misfits cling to as proof of their continual relevance. They are not completely blind, though. As Langland astutely observes, he’s doing the same thing he’s always done. It’s other people that have changed. He’s right. He and his friends are just a few of the many people that technology and changing attitudes have left behind.
The Misfits is filled with fascinating characters, each given life and poignancy by very talented actors and actresses. Along with Monroe and Gable, there’s Wallach as Guido, Langland’s longtime friend who has two very tragic stories tell, and Montgomery Cliff as Perce Howland, a traumatized cowboy reduced to doing rodeo shows for a living. Both of these characters are well written, and each one gives the audience a different view of the changes taking place. From one, we see evidence of neglect and emotional trauma. From the other, evidence of vanishing tradition and lost purpose. In a way, both are brought back to life by Roslyn and given a sense of importance by the old-fashioned round-up. However, both are red herrings, and they know it. After all, you cannot bring back what doesn’t exist anymore. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
4 and a half stars