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The Misfits (1961)
Directed by John Huston
Written by Arthur Miller
Starring Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Thelma Ritter, and Eli Wallach
125 minutes, Not Rated
Did you ever hear the story about the city man out in the country? And he sees this fella sittin’ on his porch. So he says, “Mister, could you tell me how I could get back to town?” The fella says, “No.” “Well, could you tell me how to get to the post office?” The fella says, “No.” “Well, do you know how to get to the railroad station?” “No.” “Boy,” he says, “you sure don’t know much, do ya?” The fella says, “No. But I ain’t lost.”
This very bad joke is uttered by Gay Langland early in this film. At the time, the joke just seems to be a throwaway piece of dialogue, an improvised moment of levity to ease the awkwardness he has created by making a move on Roslyn Taber. By the film’s end, though, it is clear that, on a thematic level, there may not be a more important line of dialogue in the entire film. The Misfits is nothing if it isn’t about people who are very, very lost.
The Misfits defies categorization. It’s about cowboys, but it isn’t a western. It’s about love, but it isn’t a romance. Its sharp and quick-witted dialogue provides plenty of laughs, but it isn’t a comedy. It’s now regarded as a classic, possibly the best performances in the entire careers of the five main actors, but it was a box-office failure upon release, raking in only a paltry million dollars more than the estimated budget in its initial United States release.
So, what is this film? Besides being very good, I mean.
The Misfits is a film probably better known for the trivia that surrounds it than for the actual film itself. Director John Huston was well-known for falling asleep on set and for spending more time gambling and drinking with the extras than rehearsing. It is Clark Gable’s final screen performance. He would have a heart attack two days after filming ended, and would then die ten days later. The screenwriter, playwright Arthur Miller, wrote this script as a vehicle for his second wife, but production of the film would eventually destroy their marriage. That second wife was none other than Marilyn Monroe, whose repeated admittance into a rehabilitation hospital for addiction to drugs would force production to shut down for many weeks more than once. This film would, ultimately, wind up being her final performance on film as well. Unable to get work due to her erratic behavior, fired from any movie she was cast in afterwards, she would die a year and a half later from a barbiturate overdose. There are those that believe this death was a conspiracy, a murder perpetrated by the Kennedy family. Myself, I think it was more likely a suicide.
In reality, none of the errata I have just shared has anything whatsoever to do with the film or its quality. But it does cast a considerable pall over it. This is a sad film, made all the more melancholy by the knowledge that this movie is not only the apex of the careers of two beloved, iconic performers, but it is also the culmination. This film is, quite literally, what the careers of both Gable and Monroe were building to, and one wonders what other brilliant performances they might have achieved had tragedy not had its way with them. In that regard, time has been incredibly kind to this movie. Not because of its content or story, but because it has become increasingly more and more powerful every year since its release. Because of everything about making the film that we now know. This film was an incredibly personal work for almost everyone involved. It ended lives, destroyed careers, and dismantled psyches, all effects that haunt a viewing 58 years later.
On a narrative level, The Misfits is a very hard film to describe. It does not have a plot that moves resolutely from point to point. There are parties. There are long drives in cars and tow trucks. There is a rodeo. Our characters narrowly escape a bar fight. They drunkenly refurbish a house at two in the morning. They garden. They argue over the best way to dispose of rabbits. They have conversations about painful and personal things. They drink too much. By the end, we have tagged along on a trip to gather wild mustangs in the desert. Plot is not the main focus of this film.
This is a film about character, and The Misfits is full of vivid ones. There’s ex-stripper Rosalyn Taber (played by Marilyn Monroe), who has landed in Reno to seek a divorce from a largely-absent husband. While in town, she meets Gay Langland (Clark Gable), an aging cowboy with children whom he has not seen in years. Because of him, she decides to stay in Reno. Functioning as satellites around this couple are Isabelle Steers (played by Thelma Ritter), Rosalyn’s best friend and landlord, long-divorced from a man who left her for another woman, and Guido (played by an utterly-enchanting Eli Wallach), a war veteran, tow-truck driver, and Gay’s best friend. Guido stopped building a house for his wife when she died years before in childbirth. He met Rosalyn first, but gifts his unfinished house to Gay and Rosalyn, a project for an unlikely couple to build together. Along the way they meet up with Perce Howland (played by Montgomery Clift), a damaged rodeo rider and the third partner in “the misfit business”, the film’s coined term for the men who ride out into the desert and round up wild mustangs for sale to a dog-food factory.
As I said, the film is short on plot. It is, essentially, a character study that plays out on the screen a bit like a stage play. This should not be surprising, given the screenwriter’s history in theatre (this script is, in fact, Miller’s first foray into screenwriting), but Arthur Miller has a better understanding of character than most playwrights did at the time. He has a knack for making character’s interesting simply by letting them talk. The characters never do much, but we eavesdrop on them as they go about their daily lives. We begin to know them well enough to understand when they are lying. We begin to see the motivations that they cannot see themselves. This is a film in which no one ever seems to be saying exactly what they mean. We know that Guido pines for Rosalyn because he talks to her at all, not because of any dialogue he ever speaks. We know that Perce pines for Rosalyn because she is kind to him, and, earlier in the film, we heard him being browbeat on the phone by his mother. The film is more explicit about Gay’s feelings for Rosalyn, but, again, this is shown by actions rather than words– such as, his reluctant agreement to using means other than a shotgun loaded with buckshot to rid the garden of rabbits, or his refusal to try to bed her when she gets too drunk to go home.
So. . . what exactly is this film about? If this is a film about subtext, then exactly what is that subtext? The short answer is that I am not sure. There seems to be a lot about guilt in here– be it Gay’s guilt over his ambivalence towards his children or Rosalyn’s guilt that she is incapable of being all things to all people. Guido’s character, in particular, has long stretches of dialogue that, subtextually, seem to be about the damage that we as humans can inadvertently do to one another (my favorite line in the entire movie: “We’re all blind bombardiers, Rosalyn. We kill people we never even saw.”). In every essay about or review of this film I have ever read, there seems to be a general consensus about damaged masculinity being a recurring theme. For example: Gay is too old for this line of work, Guido is a decorated war hero that cannot make any decisions on his own, and Perce is a rodeo star, kicked by more bulls than any of us have ever laid eyes on, who can’t even stand up to his own mother. Rosalyn seems to function in this regard as a life-force, correcting their apparent indifference to any life that isn’t their own. To that end, she is, without question, the center of this film, despite being the character that has the least amount of action.
With that said, this seems as good a time as any to mention, once again, how fascinating Marilyn Monroe is in this role. It really is a quite remarkable break away from the types of roles she had been, until now, cast in. Before The Misfits, there’s an almost-pornographic dazzle to how beautiful she was dolled up to be. During this film, she is beautiful, to be sure, but there is nothing “artificial” about it. She spends most of the film in blue jeans and t-shirts. Her hair is often mussed. Her close-ups are sometimes ruined by a blurry soft focus. Sometimes, she trips over dialogue. In one sequence, she clearly and continually has difficulty keeping the strap of her dress over her shoulder. There are weird smiles on weird pauses, suggesting that she may be having struggles remembering her lines. For the most part, her eyes seem vacant and glazed. How much of these nuances are cleverly-worked out character quirks? How many of them are a distinct product of the actress’ current state-of-mind? It’s hard to say, but Monroe, regardless, is mesmerizing in this role. Anyone who believes that this is the best performance of her career has a defendable position.
There is a scene toward the end of this movie that captures perfectly multiple aspects of film that cinema scholars would like us to appreciate. Rosalyn has joined the men on their run to capture mustangs. Naturally, she is appalled by the cruelty enacted toward the animals, but her disgust comes to a head when she learns that the horses are being sold as meat to a dog-food company. Further, her complaining about this disgusting act does little to halt the three men arguing over how to best divide the proceeds up betwixt them. Angry, Rosalyn runs into the desert to escape their conversation. From a distance, far in the background of a desolate frame, making us cringe at Rosalyn’s insignificance, she screams a monologue that would have certainly been the clip shown at the Oscars had she been nominated. She shrieks: “Horse killers! Killers! Murderers! You’re liars! All of you, liars! You’re only happy when you can see something die! Why don’t you kill yourself to be happy?” It’s a well-written, well-acted, and beautifully-shot sequence, a cathartic moment for a woman who has accepted a life full of needless banality. Huston was wise to frame it as he did. A lurid close-up on Monroe’s tear-stained face would have cheapened the moment. It would have made the moment about Marilyn and her performance and less about what she was trying to say.
You have probably figured out by now that this is not a film for everyone. Its lack of forward momentum might be exasperating and bore audiences to death. I imagine that a large portion of contemporary audiences would never even finish watching the film, turned off by its stark reality and pathetic attitude toward existence.
But I urge you to stick with this one. Wait it out. This is a truly remarkable movie, an accidental classic by way of the ghosts that haunt it.