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MGM Studios DVD presents
The Misfits (1961)

"It's better than wages, isn't it?"
- Gay Langland (Clark Gable)

Review By: Jesse Shanks  
Published: June 18, 2001

Stars: Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift
Other Stars: Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter
Director: John Huston

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (adult themes)
Run Time: 02h:04m:53s
Release Date: June 19, 2001
UPC: 027616862938
Genre: drama

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ B+B-B- C-

DVD Review

In Hollywood films it is rare to see anything approaching "art" achieve popularity prior to the 1960s. There are many reasons for this and it could be the subject of a long dissertation reviewing audience expectation and economic factors. Many are the stories in Hollywood lore of artists battling commercialization factors to get a film made. Rarely will a dramatist accept the restrictions on artistic expression that a screenplay might require. From the beginnings of Hollywood, movies have been made that adapted dramatic plays into films, often in severely censored versions as the freedom of expression on the stage outpaced what was allowed to be depicted on the screen.

Another factor is the basic conception of cinematic art that places a priority on the visual over the spoken word. The argument might be that pictures of people talking are not cinematic and the capabilities of editing, changing scene and altering time available in the movies made it a different kind of art from what can be presented on the stage. Often a film that featured a large amount of dialogue, no matter how finely written, was considered too static and too "talky." But, a film that operates on too high a visual level that attempted to communicate its ideas through what is seen is considered to be lacking depth or to be too inaccessible.

A third factor that must be considered is the actors chosen for the film. There has been a dichotomy in American film acting that finds the opposition between the movie star that is a creature solely of the screen and the stage-based actor who has trained for the stage. So often, these two types are in conflict in movies as we see the screen actor using very few expressions to convey emotion and assuming very static poses for the camera against the stage-based actor utilizing gesture and facial expression to add depth to a more physical portrayal of a character.

So, in consideration of these factors, it is even more difficult to find films that create cinematic art in the truest sense, accommodating both the expectations of content and still maintaining full participation of the visual expectations of cinema. A prime example that spans the entire history of Hollywood is the attempts to bring William Shakespeare to the screen. On one hand, it is not enough to just film actors declaiming soliloquies at length. Yet on the other hand, one cannot strip the play of its substance and rely on the action of the script to propel the drama.

The Misfits is one of those rare films that brings to the fore these basic questions about cinematic art.

The script was written by respected dramatist Arthur Miller, who achieved fame with some of the greatest American plays of the 20th Century including All My Sons, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible. The story tells of the end of an era in America as the last gasps of the Old West were extinguished, strangled by modernization. Part of this story is symbolized in the opposition of the characters of aging, "real" cowboy Gay Langland (Clark Gable) and the "rodeo" cowboy Perce Howland. What had been the real work of the cowboy, riding and roping, was now enshrined as entertainment in the rodeo. Another ironic symbol of these changing times presented visually is the use of an airplane to round up wild horses that are then roped from the back of a truck. These horses, wild mustangs that inhabit the open spaces of Nevada, are themselves a potent symbol of a way of life gone by.

However, there are weaknesses in the script as ultimately portrayed on the screen. A certain choppiness emerges that signals late hour rewrites, which reduce the impact that a script relying on a tapestry of feeling and plot requires. Also, some scenes seem overly dramatic as they stand beside scenes that were reduced in their dramatic quality.

Legendary director John Huston films in black and white to give the proceedings a grittier, old-time quality. His style is no-nonsense and lends itself well to providing a fine visual portrayal but there are some scenes that seem to be out of kilter, as if they were thought up quickly. One plot element that exemplifies this choppiness is the way that Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter) disappears from the story abruptly, as if the director or writer could not quite figure out what to do with her in the final scenes.

There can be many explanations for these problems. Conventional back stories for The Misfits point the finger at the erratic behavior of Marilyn Monroe. She has some moments of incredible poignancy in her role of recent divorcée Roslyn Taber, but her performance strikes some false notes. By this time in her career, Monroe had attempted to add depth to her work with studies at the Actors Studio, the leading proponent of the Method acting style, which encouraged actors to reach for more realistic portrayals through naturalistic techniques. Here her performance is a mixed bag. Monroe communicates the complexity of her character very well, but has some moments that seem too self-conscious. Despite this, she delivers the woman that can serve as the center of this drama in a way that few actresses could; her vulnerability is a potent force in this drama.

Opposite Monroe, Gable is every inch the movie star and gives one of the finest performances of his career as the "man's man," a horse poacher who falls in love with this beautiful young woman. The complexity of his character does not escape us; we see him as the grinning, cocksure cowboy, a pathetic drunk and a man grappling with how his lifestyle has been altered and can't quite understand how. His gallant pursuit of the fragile Roslyn is charming and poignant.

Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach contribute to the wide-ranging, emotional roller-coaster of the story. Both help to define Monroe's character in their pursuit of her and add layers to the tale of men lost in a world that they can't control. Clift's Perce has left his family farm and uses his skills as a cowboy in small town rodeos, often ending up with terrible injury or in an alcoholic fog—or both. Wallach is a World War II veteran and widower who fights to avoid cynicism and sees in Roslyn a chance to retain some of his humanity. Both Clift and Wallach employ the naturalistic Method style of acting and although some of their scenes are a bit overdone, they do provoke Gable to some his most meaningful acting.

Ultimately the story reflects the illusions and delusions that are inherent in human relationships. The story attempts much, but the disjointed vision of the film seems to fail somehow in delivering the profundity that is promised. However, its uniqueness and the performances of these stars make the viewing of The Misfits fascinating and the powerful conclusion, rewarding. This film exemplifies the axiom that the failures of great artists are more interesting than the successes of lesser artists.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.66:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: It is wonderful to see this film in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Director John Huston is at his most masterful in capturing both the personal drama and the grandeur of the disappearing frontier in the sagebrush of Nevada, particularly in the final scenes. This film will hopefully be slated for some restoration work in its next iteration because, even though the source seems to be in good shape, there is still quite a bit of film noise in the form of speckles, scratches and hairs. Still, this transfer is imminently watchable.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, French, Spanishno

Audio Transfer Review: The sound transfer provides three Dolby mono tracks in English, French and Spanish. The English definitely has the best quality of the three but there was little to complain about with a decent absence of noise and sound clutter. Alex North's understated but effective score sounds fine.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Subtitles/Captions in French, Spanish
1 Original Trailer(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The only extra available on this disc is the original film trailer. However, this is a prize, as it is one of the finest film trailers I have seen. It is a little piece of art without the usual trappings of overstated narration and focusing on the strengths of the film. A very nice souvenir.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Although flawed, The Misfits is an artistic piece of filmmaking. Director John Huston and playwright Arthur Miller paint a tragic story of changing times and lost souls. Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable both give unforgettable performances and their supporting cast is equally fine. Rarely have so many great talents combined and reached so far for something meaningful on the screen.


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