An established authority on film, Professor Basinger has updated her monograph on the films of Anthony Mann for good reason.  Not only has her original edition of 1979 long been out of print, it has been in much demand.  This second edition of Anthony Mann will mean that a new generation of students of film, and of American film in particular, will again be indebted to her.

Anthony Mann (1907-67) is remembered today chiefly for his direction of Hollywood films in the 40’s and the 50’s—he did his best work from 1947 to 1958, in two cycles.  Having learned his craft, he was a creative force in film noir, working with the great cinematographer John Alton, among others, in the production of B-movies that are cult objects today, the best of them being Desperate (1947), T-Men (1947), Raw Deal (1948), Reign of Terror (a.k.a. The Black Book, 1949), Border Incident (1949), and Side Street (1949).  Basinger is brilliant on Border Incident, and perhaps that is the best of these movies.  But nothing can erase the memory of the outré Reign of Terror, a cinematographically radical treatment of the French Revolution!

The two noirish Westerns that Mann made for MGM in 1950, Devil’s Doorway and The Furies, were transitional works that took him in that year to Winchester ’73 and James Stewart, with whom he would make seven more films: the ones for which he is most widely remembered, and those that were instrumental in securing the career and image of Stewart, whom Andrew Sarris called “the most complete actor-personality in the American cinema.”  Anthony Mann and James Stewart in effect competed with John Ford and John Wayne, and Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott, as these teams supplied in their different ways a glorious Indian summer for the Western in the 50’s.  Winchester ’73, Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1955), and The Man from Laramie (1955) are the Mann/Stewart Westerns, and they are quite a set.  But Mann also made outstanding Westerns with other leading men: The Last Frontier (1955), with Victor Mature; The Tin Star (1957), with Henry Fonda; and Man of the West (1958), with Gary Cooper, as well as other films with Stewart that weren’t Westerns.  Of these, I will say only that Basinger’s uncritical treatment of Strategic Air Command (1955) made me miss the contribution of Peter Biskind in his Seeing Is Believing (1983).

After the 50’s, Mann seemed to pivot with the industry toward new trends.  He still made good movies, such as El Cid, perhaps the best of its kind.  But a heart attack took him away before he had established a new pattern, and before he received the recognition that would have led to greater documentation of his life and personality.  Even so, Mann’s reputation has grown over the years, and there is no other treatment of him that compares with the attention that Basinger has provided.  And that is just the point.

Precisely because Mann left little in the way of materials and records, Basinger has been free, or forced, to treat his films in a formalist manner, and she makes no bones about it.  “I still believe that it is bogus to approach a movie for any purpose without first understanding film as film.”  Seeing in Mann’s career “a clear progression towards purity and simplification,” she insists upon his achieved simplicity, holding it up as “an achievement . . . among the greatest in all of film.”  Seeing in his work “image wedded to idea,” she insists upon the created fusion, the total image: “This means that Mann’s work is crystal clear.  What it says it is is what it is.”  And we could say something similar about Basinger’s book.

I, for one, appreciate Jeanine Basinger’s forthrightness, her ability and willingness to get to the point, her honesty, and her abstemious refusal of theoretical entanglement and the clotted gobbledygook that goes with it.  Like most other fields in the liberal arts, film studies has been infested with ideological gnosticism and blighted by analysts who have preconceived conclusions to which they think films must fit, but Professor Basinger’s memories of obsession, of a collision with film art, take us back to a time when we too could react and respond and analyze without a preset paradigm:

It was 1953, and I was ushering at the local movie theater in Brookings, South Dakota.  I watched The Naked Spur fifteen times in four days.  What was initially an entertaining experience became a sobering experience and ultimately an overwhelming experience.  The film’s impact grew.  On the fifteenth go-round, I was as much a set of exposed raw nerves as Jimmy Stewart himself, and my reactions to events were as shaky and psychotic as his.  For the first time in which I was clearly aware of it, I did not identify with the female character in the film (Janet Leigh), but instead allied myself with Stewart.  I seemed to have no choice in that matter.  Why? . . . I’m still thinking about it.  The attempt to figure it out forms the basis of this book on Mann’s work.

Jeanine Basinger’s fidelity to her own experience is not only a denial of feminist ideology but an affirmation of the power of film art.  That energizing confrontation precipitated her career and this book, and we are the beneficiaries of the process.  For one reason and another, “Anthony Mann” has come to mean his films, and the book on that topic has been written by Jeanine Basinger—a must-have for film buffs, Stewart fans, lovers of Westerns, film-noir fanatics, and indeed all students of film.


[Anthony Mann: New and Expanded Edition, by Jeanine Basinger (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press) 215 pp., $27.95]