Will Lockhart (James Stewart) is leading a wagon train across Apache country and tells them to halt as he believes he has found an ideal place for them to stop for the night. Or at least he does until he dismounts and surveys the scene: the rocks have obscured the aftermath of carnage, with the burnt out remains of a Cavalry platoon apparent on the ground where the Indian tribe have attacked them. Sadly, this is much as Lockhart expected, and he agrees with his right hand man Charley (Wallace Ford) to move on to Coronado, the closest town and their destination; on arrival, he asks to see the boss, and is surprised when she is a woman, Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O'Donnell) who is not too pleased to learn he has brought her supplies...
All good things must come to an end, and The Man from Laramie was the final Western to be directed by Anthony Mann that starred James Stewart. They would make one more film together, the military flagwaver Strategic Air Command, but when set to team up once again on a Western it was Night Passage, which Mann felt was substandard and led to them falling out. Though Stewart asked his old collaborator to allow him to star in Man of the West, Mann had burned his bridges and refused, so Gary Cooper starred instead, and a what might have been question was left unanswered for good. Nevertheless, we had the five Westerns they did complete, and the debate goes on as to which was best.
At least most can agree that the two men never made a bad Western together, each deploying Mann's interest in the psychological aspects of morality, what drove people to compromise themselves and go after revenge or sadism or alternatively stand up for what was decent and take the high ground. As often, Stewart was playing a man with vengeance in his thoughts which was consuming him, but here things were a little different in that he didn't have some dark secret in his past he was making up for, and suffered no doubts that he was in the right, as the film did not either. The dilemma was rather whether he would go through with doling out the justice he righteously believed was his to administer.
Oddly, Lockhart's grudge was not against the Apache, who the story accepts as they are, a force of nature that only a fool would mess around with. Step forward one fool, Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol), Barbara's cousin, who we learn has been selling rifles to the Indians, effectively playing with fire, though as ever with Mann events are complicated, here with Dave's father, the most successful rancher in the territory, Alec (Donald Crisp), who dotes after his son while realising that he is far from the man his father is. Indeed, Dave is practically a psychopath, prone to flying off the handle as Lockhart discovers when reluctant to leave he does Barbara a favour by collecting salt in his wagons, only to have Dave appear with his men in an outrage, setting fire to those wagons and shooting Lockhart's mules.
The power of seeing a man like James Stewart humiliated, who after all was a symbol of upstanding American citizens for generations of moviegoers, was not lost on Mann, who seemed to delight in undercutting that image. Here it is not personal mental anguish that leads Stewart's character down murky roads, it is others' weaknesses, and it happens twice here in two scenes that shocked nineteen-fifties audiences with their savagery. It's bad enough that he would be roped and dragged as his property is destroyed, but later Dave snaps once again and starts shooting at Lockhart, who is a better shot and hits him in the hand. Dave, considering he started it, is as petty as ever, but nasty with it, putting a bullet through his rival’s own hand in a tit for tat; Stewart's whimpering is disturbing to hear but it was sequences such as this that raised the stakes so that we were clear these men were battling for their souls, and whoever gave into the impulse of evil was going straight to Hell, living or otherwise. Couple that with stunning scenery as ably as ever captured by Mann's camera, and if The Man from Laramie was not the best of their works together, you could not go wrong with any of their Westerns. Music by George Duning; Frankie Laine sang the hit theme song.
[Eureka's Blu-ray has a handsomely restored print, a commentary, Kim Newman discussing the film in a featurette, and the trailer. There's also a booklet that has a rare interview with Mann inside.]