Title: The Misfits
Director: John Huston
Major Players: Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift
Out Of Five: Four
When a film is so steeped in movie history, separating it from all those stories is a big ask. Only something special will stand up to it.
Cue John Huston’s The Misfits (1961), on re-release in selected cities and screened at the BFI as part of its Marilyn Monroe season. By the time it originally opened, it had already lost its leading man, one of the biggest names in Hollywood: Clark Gable died just ten days after completing filming. Stories about difficulties on set with both Monroe and Montgomery Clift were legion and the film was also famously written by Arthur Miller for his then wife, Monroe. It started as a short story he scribbled in Reno while waiting for his divorce, so that he could marry the iconic blonde.
Yet, despite all that – and that Monroe was quoted as saying she hated her character in the film – the resulting film has turned into something of a classic. The story centres on Rosalyn (Monroe), who’s recovering after a shattering divorce. In a bar, she meets Gay (Gable) and Guido (Eli Wallach), a couple of aging cowboys with a half-built house out in the wilds and she moves out there for some respite. But then Guido suggests a road trip to round up some wild mustangs. They pick up some reluctant help, drifting rodeo rider Perce (Clift), but in the desert tensions rise as Rosalyn realises the fate of the horses and forces the men to face their outdated lifestyles and their personal failures.
Described at the time as an “anti-western”, this is more of a bitter eulogy to the disappearing breed that was the cowboy, a romantic icon living a life free of responsibilities, described by Gable’s Gay as “like trying to rope a dream.” And it was certainly the life for a young man: Gay, now in his mid-forties, is having to compromise by roping horses to sell to meat factories and spends a lot of time just getting drunk to blot out his guilt about the past. But that assumes, of course, that the cowboy way of life ever really existed.
For the first two thirds of the film, we’re on typical Arthur Miller ground, character studies set mainly in interiors, so it almost looks like a Miller play transferred to the big screen. But the final segment takes place in the Arizona desert when they hunt the horses and that’s where the drama ramps up, with Rosalyn proving to be more of a challenge than any of the men could have imagined.
The scenes roping the horses show that the film has lost none of its power to shock. They’re distressing and you have more than a twinge of sympathy with Rosalyn’s objections, even if she is essentially very naive. What we see on the screen reflects that, at the time, film makers didn’t have to abide by any rules governing the treatment of animals, so the horses are genuinely as angry as they appear.
Despite much comment when it was released about Gable looking ill and Clift showing signs of substance abuse, there’s no doubt that the film is superbly cast. Strictly speaking, Gable was ten years too old for his role but he brings an easy charm mixed with world-weariness and more deep-seated regrets. Monroe’s Rosalyn attracts men like a magnet but is totally oblivious of why and her trusting nature means she’s always destined to be let down and learn about life the hard way. There is a fifth character as well, Rosalyn’s older friend, Isabelle, played by the great Thelma Ritter, who brings her trademark acerbic wit to the party. Sadly, though, when the group go out to the desert, they leave her behind.
The Misfits may have a PG certificate for its re-release but its themes make it very much an adult movie. Fifty four years later, it’s still a powerful picture about a time gone by – and people dreaming of another time gone by.
The Misfits is currently re-released in selected cinemas and screened at the BFI in London as part of its Marilyn Monroe season, which runs to 30 June. It’s also reviewed on the latest edition of the Talking Pictures podcast.