The Misfits (1961) is a beautiful (if hard-to-watch) elegy, not only for the American West it depicts in a slow fade into obsolescence, but also for three of its actors. Plotwise, Roslyn Tabor (Marilyn Monroe) goes through a dismissively quick divorce (for which Reno was already famous by 1931) at the start of the film. Through a divorcee friend Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) she meets Guido (Eli Wallach) and then Gay Langland (Clark Gable); Steers disappears without fanfare about halfway through the film, to be replaced by Perce Howard (Montgomery Clift), met by chance en route to a rodeo. The men are outwardly tough western types, though only Gay is explicitly called a cowboy. Guido is a mechanic, a former airforce bomber traumatised both by the war and by his wife’s unexpected death. Perce (Clift) completes the trio of men, as a youth formerly destined to inherit his father’s ranch, but ousted by his father-in-law, winding up a sort of doomed protégé to Gay, who is himself waning in relevance. Along with Roslyn the four form a strange sort of family and are presumably the titular misfits, though there’s a clear parallel with a handful of horses they seek in the hills, to corral by plane, the pathetic remnants of thousands that once ran wild in the hills of Nevada.
If this doesn’t sound bleak enough, it would be the final film for both Gable and Monroe; Clift made three more. Gable, known from the late 1930s as the “King of Hollywood”, here lives fully up to his honorific, playing a rugged relic of bygone days; the actor was to die of a heart attack before the film’s release. Marilyn Monroe plays the “saddest girl [Gay] has ever met”, and appears, a bit like Bogart in In a Lonely Place (1950), a character almost uncomfortably close to the actor’s own biography. She was married to Arthur Miller, who wrote the film, and was allegedly unhappy with the fact that he had referenced her personal problems in the screenplay. During production, her drug problems were serious enough that her makeup had to be applied while she was passed out from barbiturates, which were to kill her the following year. Montgomery Clift, who had never really recovered from his terrible 1956 car accident in New York (painfully memorialised in The Clash’s “The Right Profile”), has his real-life facial injuries not only referenced but highlighted onscreen with constant bandaging as a result of his character’s ill-advised and brutal rodeo excursions; within a few years Clift would be found dead in his bathtub. Like Monroe (and friend Judy Garland, who would also succumb to them) he was a heavy barbiturate user, and his decade-long decline was described by acting teacher Robert Lewis as the “longest suicide in history”.
These direct references to the troubles of its doomed cast multiply the tragedy of the film, which is itself a dirge for the American frontier. To be fair, it had by then been about 80 years since the frontier ended, so in a way one could say that it’s actually a dirge for even the possibility of romanticising it, and this seemed to be a common theme in film at the time. Unlike The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, though, which is better remembered and came out the following year, it is not so much about the encroachment of the law into what had been the wild west, but rather a look at a sort of internal death of the cowboy out of irrelevance. In this way The Misfits prefigures films like Hud (1963), in which the West is felled by hoof-and-mouth, and The Last Picture Show (1971), in which tumbleweeds blow through its obsolescence (both are based on novels by Larry McMurtry). And yet for all its focus on the decline of the American frontier, its atmosphere feels like nothing more than recent British film and literature, having all the same alcoholic futility of the “kitchen sink dramas” like Look Back in Anger (1959) and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), and its characters’ boozed-up impotent rage and unpredictability are sometimes reminiscent of Graham Greene.
The painful scenes of capturing and incapacitating the pathetically few remaining wild horses is of course a commentary on the misfit characters themselves, and could never be filmed today. “I never thought of it,” Gay piercingly remarks at one point, “but I guess the fewer you kill, the worse it looks.” Moments like this in the film are poignant and powerful; the actors play something close to their own painful selves onscreen, showing their deepening scars, but also brilliant glimpses of the vivacity and charisma that made them stars, and, for some, in the end, destroyed them. Although the film’s nostalgia for hyper-masculinity may not have aged particularly well, the film’s anxiety about slaving away for corporations must ring more true now than ever, with the characters’ constant refrain: “Anything is better than wages.” Well worth a watch.