Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) is nervous today because this morning she has to visit court to attend the divorce procedure as she cannot go on with her marriage. However, her car, a gift from her husband (Kevin McCarthy), is too beaten up to drive so the mechanic from the garage she has sent for, Guido (Eli Wallach), helpfully drives Roslyn and her landlady companion Isabelle (Thelma Ritter) to the Reno courthouse. Of course, Roslyn being such an attractive woman Guido has designs on her, but she is used to that kind of attention even if she doesn't always enjoy it. Then she meets ageing cowboy Gay Langland (Clark Gable)...
The stories behind the filming of The Misfits would make a movie all on their own as it was a notoriously difficult time for all involved. All three main stars were nearing the end of their lives - indeed, Monroe and Gable died shortly after completing this - and Monroe was splitting up with her husband Arthur Miller who had written the screenplay for her, much to her indignation when she saw the character he wanted her to portray. Not only that, but Gable hated Wallach, and although he was understanding to Marilyn her utter lack of reliability had health repercussions, not least because he opted to perform his own stunts out of boredom waiting for her to turn up.
For this reason, many blamed Monroe for Gable's death days after the end of the filming, which can't have helped her mental health any: she was sacked from her next film, and the rest is tragic showbiz history. But The Misfits is tragic showbiz history too, and while there are films which are terrible endurance tests for all concerned both behind and in front of the camera yet are a dream to watch, here you can feel the tension. They all seem to be at breaking point, Roslyn especially as she frets and worries about just about every other character, as if she were born with one skin too few: this cannot help but wear you down.
This in a study of how masculinity, in its own allusions being a cowboy whose time has past, has become neutered by the modern world that no longer wants manly men and prefers the world of women to show the way. You could see this a predecessor to those westerns that arrived in the next decade where there was a clear change in the mood of the genre, but few felt as sorry for themselves as this film does. It doesn't quite reach the stage where you're exasperated with the people here, but it can test the patience as the tone shifts from portentous end of an era theorising to outright sentimentality, and lots of it.
All this and Montgomery Clift too, curiously cast as one of those manly men, but perhaps not too wide of the mark as a cowboy who is short of work and reduced, like Langland, to rodeo riding though in a far more self-destructive manner. Clift and Monroe were very respectful of one another, probably because they recognised kindred spirits in being two of the most psychologically messed up movie stars of all time, and their scenes together are the real highlights of the film, displaying a touching tenderness that goes beyond Miller's disappointing script. The most famous sequence comes in the final half hour where the three men take Roslyn (why on Earth did she go with them?!) to trap wild horses, not for any noble reason but because a dog food factory needs meat. It is here where the film becomes hardest to take, looking all too convincing as animal cruelty and unpalatable as metaphor, so while The Misfits has abundant historical interest, it's stodgy and over-inflated melodrama as a viewing experience. Music by Alex North.