This "modern" Western is a poignant portrait of several, middle-aged Americans whose lives are out-of-kilter.
It is a masterpiece in the careers of director John Huston, writer Arthur Miller and actors Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter and it also contains a fine performance by Montgomery Clift.
None of the characters are heroic. If anything, they could be almost considered has-beens, grasping for a moment of love and respect, if not honor and glory.
Its nature is meandering, wandering from one let-down to another.
These people are lost even though they are at the epicenter of America at the middle of the 20th Century: Reno, Nevada, the home of the nascent gambling industry and the country's divorce capital.
[Editor's note: I spent about 5 months there at Pyramid Lake Ranch, 32 miles north of Reno, when I was about 7 years old with my mother who was getting a divorce. I was the highlight of my life as I attended a one-room schoolhouse for Indians, brought sling-shots from the Indians, packed a real six-shooter as I rode my horse along the shores of the lake where the Piute Indians fished for the large pre-historic qui-wee fish, was awed by the ranch owner, Harry Drackett, who shot bumble-bees out of the tops of tall trees at the ranch with his Thompson submachine gun that he let me try to shoot, unsuccessfully at a howling coyote as the gun's recoil almost made me fly, and hunted wild horses at a valley in the mountains reached by a dirt road not as wide as our jeep, attended rodeos and put people in a jail atop a flat-bed truck. These and other adventures, such as bashing in the heads of giant bullfrogs, at the order of the ranch foreman, before they jumped out of the boiling water in large pots for breakfast, but as the bartender in "Irma La Douce" would later say "that's another story," all before Marilyn....]
film sounds dreary, it isn't. It is an exhilarating and memorable
foray into the raw essence of a dusty and bruised but very real
In his review of the movie at Blu-ray.com, Casey Broadwater observed May 20, 2011 that
"The Misfits has the somewhat unsettling distinction of being the last film both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe ever completed."
Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe
"Just two days after shooting ended in the Nevada desert, the 59-year-old Gable suffered a severe heart attack—he died ten days later from coronary thrombosis—and Monroe would be dead within a year and a half from an apparent suicide. This lends a sadness and sense of weightiness to the film, which has come to be seen as strangely prophetic about the personal lives of its stars. And this makes sense; The Misfits is a deeply personal film, especially for Monroe. The platinum starlet's then-husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller, wrote the script as a kind of present for his wife—who wanted to prove she could play more than just her usual dumb blond roles—but soon after the project started shooting, their marriage began to disintegrate. Miller worked on re-writes throughout production, and many of his additions were semi-biographical, hinting at various troubles in Monroe's private life. The shoot itself was turbulent. By this point, Monroe's prescription drug use was completely out of hand, and filming had to be stopped for ten days while she went through detox in an L.A. hospital. Temperatures on location soared past 100-degrees daily, and iconic director John Huston frequently drank and gambled on set. Yet, despite the behind-the-scenes chaos, is very nearly a masterpiece. Not quite, but nearly."
No. It is a masterpiece, despite its existential untidiness.
plays Roslyn Tabor, an aimless and depressed recent divorcée who has
her husband because 'you could touch him, but he wasn't there.' This
is something of a key to her personality. Roslyn, a one-time dancer and
instructor, is a creature of pure empathy. She feels life intensely—her
others' lives, even the plight of animals—and she simply can't be with
who's walled off emotionally. Immediately after her divorce, Roslyn is
introduced to two 'misfit' men—and, later, a third—whose
spur-of-the-moment, live-for-today lifestyle intuitively appeals to
(Clark Gable) is an aging cowboy, a remnant from a bygone era who
scrapes out a
meager living wrangling up and selling the few wild mustangs that still
the northern Nevada
desert. Time has passed him by, and in Roslyn he sees a chance to start
to do right where he failed in his first marriage. In an early scene,
reaches over to embrace Roslyn, and though she replies 'I don't feel
way about you, Gay,' he remains hopeful: 'Don't get discouraged
might.' Roslyn does move in with Gay, who lives in a run-down house out
the middle of the desert, and they seem to exist semi-platonically,
place up, starting a garden, and joyously living day-by-day. Gay's
Guido (Eli Wallach), however, a bitter mechanic and former Army pilot,
infatuated with Roslyn. 'You have the gift for life,' he tells her,
'the rest of us, we're just lookin' for a place to hide and watch it
Montgomery Clift and Marilyn Monroe
you think you're in for a standard-issue love
triangle, a third man is added into the mix: Perce Howland (Montgomery
a young rodeo cowboy whom Gay—a 'real' cowboy—recruits for a
horse-wrangling mission. Roslyn's innate compassion kicks in when Perce
lightly injured in a bull-riding tournament, and suddenly all three
their own ways—are vying for the vibrant blond's affections. She's
physically, yes, but her function in their lives seems to be as more of
spiritual lifeboat. She gives them purpose. She brings light and
their gruff, workaday blue-collar routines. She seems to be a
panacea, a hope. Seems. Her unobtainableness actually has the opposite
especially in Guido, who grows even more hardened. When the four are at
together, Guido watches in derision as Roslyn dances with the handsome
'Nothin' like being young, is there Gay?,' he snorts, and when Gay
asks what's eating him, you can practically see Guido's blood boiling:
'Just my life.' All of this anger and resentment and dissatisfaction
bubbles beneath the surface until the final act, a hunt for mustangs
out in the
desert. This hunt serves as the film's principle metaphor, pulling
Miller's themes about changing times, the difficulty of being an
in a largely conformist society, and the idea that infatuation in
nurtures delusions that are painful to dispel.
script is emotionally perceptive and subtle in a
way that few Hollywood films are, and his
literary background comes through in dialogue that's frequently
'elevated,' that is, more ornate and poetic at times than the
language your average cowboy drifter would actually use. This is common
literature and on the stage, but it's never been as readily accepted in
Still, this gives the otherwise naturalistic movie a kind of mythic,
Faulknerian quality—it feels larger than life, more laden with meaning.
Thelma Ritter, left, and Marilyn Monroe, right
real problem with the script, and the film as a whole, is that the
seems disjointed in places, as if unfinished. This is most apparent in
character of Isabelle (Thelma Ritter), an older divorcée and friend of
who plays an important role in the first two thirds of the film but
disappears completely and is never mentioned again. While this and
narrative hiccups may have kept the film from being the classic it
been, there are countless reasons why The Misfits continues to be
today. John Huston's camerawork—with cinematographer Russell Metty—is
and brisk, and it feels influenced by the rapidly changing style of
cinema at the time, even while being distinctly American. And then
brilliant cast. Aside from his untoppable turn in Gone With the Wind,
Gable is at his career best in The Misfits—lonesome, grandfatherly, and
unexpectedly tender. Eli Wallach seethes—sometimes cartoonishly, but
convincing—and Montgomery Clift is perfect as the sensitive young
But this is Marilyn's film. Her last. She gives an enigmatic
somewhat uneven, but always luminescent. In an interview after her
Huston explained what we were seeing onscreen: 'She had no techniques.
was all the truth. It was only Marilyn.'"
In his February 20, 1961 review for The New Republic, Stanley Hofmann wrote that "John
Huston's direction is his best in years, well-knit and
hard, at times even recalling The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Too bad
camera occasionally peers lubriciously down the girl's bodice or
remind us that Roslyn is really Marilyn Monroe....
last film Clark Gable has his best part since Rhett
Butler and demonstrates why, although he was a transparently mechanical
he was a world-bestriding star. He radiates likeable, decent-roguish
Eli Wallach dancing with Marilyn
Wallach, as Guido the ex-Army pilot, sounds less bronco-hunter
than Bronx. There is something vulgar in this
gifted actor's reliance on vulgarity as a metier. Montgomery Clift, who
last seen as a Westerner (unconvincingly) in Red River,
here brings moving life to Perce, the battered young exile, who has
live on but his willingness to get thrown off bucking horses.
In his February 2, 1961 review for The New York Times, Bosley Crother wrote that "There is
this to be said for the people that Clark Gable,
Marilyn Monroe, et al, play in John Huston's new film, "The Misfits,"
which came to the Capitol yesterday: they are not what you might call
seekers or organization men. They are simply lowdown variations of the
old-fashioned genus tramp.They are nice tramps, it's true—chummy
equally chummy girls, cowboys, garage mechanics and assorted divorcées,
happen to gravitate together in Reno, Nev., that toddling town, and
soak up a
little whisky before taking off to catch some mustangs in the hills.
scatterbrained, whimsical, lonely and, in the case of the character of
Monroe, inclined to adore all living creatures and have a quivering
turn out to be among the screen’s most memorable
characters: an over-the-hill Nevada
cowboy (Clark Gable) perhaps inappropriately called Gay Langland, his
Hispanic sidekick Guido (Eli Wallach), a sexy blonde just-divorced
named Roslyn Taber (Marilyn Monroe) and the damaged rodeo drifter Perce
Roslyn divorces Ray (Kevin McCarthy) in a shotgun
divorce in Reno, she and her older, sassier confidante Isabelle Steers
Ritter) meet widower Guido, who introduces her to Gay and they all move
the country to Guido’s uncompleted house. There Roslyn tentatively
build a home with Gay, and they start to fall in love.
Guido returns, and takes Roslyn and Gay on a road trip to round up wild mustangs (also ‘the misfits’). They pick up rodeo-rocked bull-rider Perce to serve as an extra pair of hands. But when Roslyn learns that Gay, Guido and Perce are going after the wild horses to sell them to turn them into dog food, she’s mighty upset and kicks up big time. Finally, Roslyn’s simple-minded good nature forces the men to confront their failures and outmoded lifestyle.Monroe, who was married to the author who loomed on set all the time, was apparently in the grip of despair during filming, and caused endless delays in the shooting and couldn’t remember her lines. Somehow none of this shows on screen, in her miraculous, seamless-seeming performance, her best ever.
Gable allegedly precipitated his fatal heart attack a week before filming ended by performing his own stunts. And a gay, alcoholic Clift was haunted by his near-fatal car crash and his troubles with his sexuality, not helped by Huston’s macho attitudes.
But it’s life’s haunting ghosts that now give the movie its unique, melancholic allure. The gloomy performances rivet the gaze, particularly that of Gable, who really is truly remarkable in his old age here....Even in this extraordinary company Wallach and Ritter effortlessly more than hold their own in the most striking of performances. Once again, Wallach may not be very Hispanic but he is very good....
Marilyn's remarkable body english batting a ball with her paddle surrounded by admirers
In a long essay at tcm.com, Frank Miller provides the following excellent commentary about the film:
"The Misfits was a pioneering work in the development of the
American Western. It was a more contemporary take on the genre and reflected a
bleaker outlook than the simple moral world of the traditional Western. As
Miller would write, 'Westerns and the West have always been built on a
morally balanced world where evil has a recognizable tab -- the black hats --
and evil always loses out in the end. This is that same world, but it's been
dragged out of the nineteenth century into today, when the good guy is also
part of the problem.'
"The film's depiction of idealistic losers fits in with
director John Huston's key themes, making it an important work in his
development as an auteur. In particular it parallels his earlier Western The
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and the crime film The Asphalt Jungle
(1950), which helped make Monroe
"The Misfits was one of the first features packaged by a Hollywood agency. Agent George Chasin represented writer
Arthur Miller, Monroe, Gable and producer Frank Taylor.
"The Misfits was the first film Huston had shot in the U.S. in over a
decade (the previous one was The Red Badge of Courage in 1951), reflecting a
deepening in his vision of American life....
"Because of his success in The Misfits, Montgomery Clift won
the leading role in director John Huston's next film, Freud (1962). The results
were disastrous. The two fell out, partly over Clift's insecurities and partly
because he had brought a boyfriend with him for a stay at Huston's Irish
estate. After that, Huston browbeat him mercilessly throughout the production.
"Huston also wanted to cast Marilyn Monroe in Freud as the
patient whose treatment helped the famed psychoanalyst frame his ideas about
infant sexuality. Horrified at The Misfits' financial failure, 20th Century-Fox
president Spyros Skouras refused to loan her to Huston for the film, and the
role went to Susannah York.
"Although a critical and box office failure on its initial
release, The Misfits has developed a strong following among younger critics and
audiences captivated by the glamour of Clark Gable, Monroe and Clift. Genre
critics in particular have praised the film as a new take on the Western, with
its creation of an insular society of losers (a common theme in Huston's work)
brought together by their displacement from contemporary American society....
"At the beginning of production, Marilyn Monroe's entourage
consisted of husband Arthur Miller, her press agent, her acting coach, two
hairdressers, a make-up man, a seamstress, a body cosmetician, her stand-in, a
masseur, a secretary, a wardrobe girl and her personal secretary. Clark Gable,
on the other hand, only had one assistant, his friend Lew Smith, who was billed
as 'dialogue coach.'
"During a press conference for The Misfits, a reporter asked Monroe what she wore to
bed at night. She quipped, "Chanel Number Five!"...
"Wanting to make a film with new wife Monroe, he expanded the
story into what he called a 'cinematic novel,' focusing on a divorce
who had been only a tangential character in the original story. He sent the
novelization to director John Huston, who pronounced it 'magnificent'
and brought Miller to his Irish estate to work on the screenplay.
"Monroe and Huston would receive the same fee for The Misfits
- $300,000. Huston also got a $50,000 gambling allowance for the location shoot
"Miller enlisted his friend Frank Taylor, editorial director
of Dell Books, to produce the film.
"Taylor and Miller first offered The Misfits to 20th
Century-Fox, where Monroe
was still under contract. Studio president Spyros Skouras considered it too
highbrow but got his cousin, Max Youngstein, to bankroll it through his Seven
Arts Productions, then distribute it through United Artists.
"Huston's first choice to play aging cowboy Gay Langland was
Robert Mitchum, whom he had directed in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957). When
he read the script, however, Mitchum didn't understand it at all. Having endured
Huston's lack of concern for his actors' comfort or safety on the earlier film,
he feared the horse-roping scenes would be more than he wanted to go through....
"Against the advice of his friends, who thought the role too
physically demanding and a bad fit for the actor, Gable agreed to do the film.
One of his friends suggested the reason he did the movie was the paycheck. At
$750,000 and ten percent of the gross, it was more than he had ever been
offered for a film. In addition, Gable was planning to make only two more films
before retiring, and he wanted one of them to be a great film. He sincerely
hoped that The Misfits would be that film.
"Gable insisted on some strict provisions in his contract.
Not one line of the script could be changed without his approval. He worked a
nine-to-five day and if the film went over schedule, he would be paid an
additional $48,000 a week....
"Many who knew of Miller's friendship with Montgomery Clift
thought the playwright had written the role of broken-down rodeo rider Perce
Howland with the actor in mind. In particular, the character's phone call to
his mother, in which he warns her that she won't recognize him after an
accident in the rodeo, bore an eerie similarity to the change in the actor's
life after a near-fatal auto accident during the shooting of Raintree County
(1957) destroyed his famously handsome face.
"Clift had some doubts about the script and sent it to his
friend, comic actress Nancy Walker, who told him he had to do it....
"Gable was leery of the film's New York actors -- Clift, Eli Wallach and
Kevin McCarthy -- who were known for their 'Method acting.' They, in
turn, weren't sure what to expect from a legendary movie star like Gable. Taylor's wife, Nan, broke
the ice for them by throwing a dinner party for the cast shortly before
location shooting started. The New
York actors arrived first and made some disparaging
comments about their leading man. Then Gable and his wife arrived, deliberately
late (the actor was noted for his punctuality). After making a grand entrance,
he held court, but also impressed the rest of the cast with his appreciation of
the script. He also expressed interest in Clift's working methods. When Clift
asked him how he approached a role, Gable replied, 'I bring to it
everything I have been, everything I am, and everything I hope to be.'
That won the Method actors over.
"As Miller developed his script, he added details from Monroe's past and their
lives together. When her character prepares for her divorce hearing, the lines
are lifted from the divorce plea she had filed against second husband Joe
DiMaggio. To make matters worse, however, the script began to reflect Miller's
growing disenchantment with his wife, with scenes and lines that depicted the
character's neediness and insecurity....
was terrified at the thought of working with Clark Gable. As a child growing up
in foster homes and with her single mother, she had slept with Gable's picture
under her pillow and fantasized that he was her father. The night before their
first scene together, she couldn't sleep without a large dose of Nembutal. As a
result, she was two hours late getting to the set. When she apologized to
Gable, he simply said, 'You're not late, honey,' and led her aside to
talk. Throughout the filming, he treated her with the same courtesy.
"Gable was equally solicitous of Montgomery Clift and so
impressed with his talents that he showed up to watch him work even when he
himself wasn't called for the day.
"The one cast member Gable never warmed to was Eli Wallach.
They were so uncomfortable with each other that at first they had trouble
remembering lines in their scenes together. Eventually, they developed a grudging
sole romantic comfort during the first weeks of filming was her affair with
Yves Montand, her co-star in Let's Make Love.
Clift had a problem with medication as well, having become dependent upon
painkillers and other pills after his automobile accident. Many on the film
were concerned about his ability to perform the role, particularly since the
first scene he was scheduled to shoot was a long telephone scene in which he
calls his mother on a pay phone as the other characters --played by Monroe,
Gable, Wallach and Thelma Ritter -- watch in the background. Clift described
the shot as an 'audition in front of the gods and goddesses of the
performing arts,' but he pulled it off in one take.
"Gable could have refused to do any of the stunts for The
Misfits, but insisted on doing all but the most dangerous shots. He even
allowed himself to be dragged behind a truck for 400 feet over the desert floor
and chased the truck for repeated takes....
"Arthur Miller couldn't have been further from the truth when
he wrote those words during the early days of bringing The Misfits (1961) to the
screen.The tortured production -- once a classic flop, now considered a
minorclassic -- marked the last completed film for both of its stars,
Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. And the debate continues as to whether the
film led to Gable's death from a heart attack at the still-young age of 59.
"The Misfits began life as a 1957 short story in which Miller combined
his memories of the modern-day cowboys he met while in Reno to divorce his first wife and his
feelings about his second wife, Monroe, who initially struck him as a pure
creature intimately connected to the spirit of life. In search of a project that
would allow the newlyweds to work together, they pitched a film version to
United Artists. They offered the script to director John Huston, who accepted
with a one-word cable, 'Magnificent.' Huston wanted Robert Mitchum to
star as the washed-out cowboy who becomes involved with a sensitive divorcee in Reno and takes her along
on a job to catch wild horses for a dog food company. Unfortunately, Mitchum
considered the script incomprehensible and dodged Huston's phonecalls until
Clark Gable was cast. When he finally spoke to the director, he warned him about
Gable's age and health: 'You get him at the end of arope, fighting those
horses, and that's going to be the end of him.'
"The damage may have been done before the horses even entered
the picture, however. Because of Monroe's commitment to make the musical Let's
Make Love (1960), production couldn't start until July 1960, when the
Nevada locations were baked by temperatures climbing to 120 degrees each
day. Delays caused by Monroe's habitual lateness didn't help either. Because
ofher sleeping problems, Monroe
rarely was called before 11 a.m., and usually showed up later than that. In her
defense, however, she also had to stay up intothe small hours trying to learn
Miller's many script changes while trying to deal with the effects of her
numerous pain and sleeping medications. Though he often resented her lateness,
Gable went out of his way to help her through the shoot, enduring retakes while
she tried to focus on the lines and praising her work at every opportunity.
problems was the fact that the film, conceived while she and Miller were still
in the full flush of first love, was filmed as their marriage was falling apart.
During shooting, she moved out of their shared hotel room to stay with her
acting coach, Paula Strasberg. Moreover, she was heartbroken that a role she had
seen as her chance to prove that she could play something other than
'Marilyn Monroe' was being re-written to include embarrassing elements
from her personal life, including references to her mother's mental problems and
the failure of her marriage to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. Even Gable's
casting contributed to the autobiographical elements of the film. Miller knew
she had idolized 'The King' during her childhood, often fantasizing
that he was her father.
"Huston played his own part in the production problems. He
was already developing emphysema after decades of heavy smoking, and several
days were lost when he was too sick to work. And location shooting in the only
U.S.state with legal gambling was a huge mistake for him; he was usually up
in the casinos until five in the morning and kept falling asleep in
the director's chair during filming. United Artists had given him a
gambling allowance. When his losses exceeded that, he had to shut down production for
a week to find the money. So he convinced Monroe's
psychiatrist and doctor to put her in a Los
Angeles hospital for a week to deal with her drug
dependency, thereby making her bear the blame for the production shutdown he had
"The most grueling scenes in the film were those near the end
in which Gableand two other cowboys (Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach) capture
wild horses in the desert and break their leader. Rumors at the time
suggested that the scenes trying to hold back the lead horse contributed to
Gable'sheart problems, but a close study of the film reveals that most of
these were done through careful cutting. Gable is rarely in the same shot as
the horse. He did, however, have to shoot a scene in which the horse drags
him across the desert floor. He was actually holding a rope attached to a truck,
with the camera in the bed. But even though he was heavily padded, he came home
from the day's shooting a bloody mess. He tried to lie to hiswife that it had
just been an accident, but she knew better, telling him he was out of his mind.
"The film finished shooting with studio work in Hollywood, but Gable was already too sick to attend the wrap party on November 4. He suffered aheart attack on the sixth and died ten days later. In a sorrowful interview, Monroe wondered if she'd contributed to his ill health, while gossip columnist Hedda Hopper blamed it on Huston. Few at the time even considered his three-pack-a-day smoking habit or his grief over the death of good friend Ward Bond just days earlier.
"Since Huston had shot in sequence and cut the film as they went along, Gable had already seen his performance before he took ill and felt it was his best acting ever. With his death, United Artists tried to get the film completed in time for the 1960 Academy Awards®, hoping he would snare a posthumous nomination. But when composer Alex North protested that he couldn't possibly get the picture scored that quickly, Huston had to agree.The release was pushed back to a more reasonable February 1 date, when it fared poorly with critics and audiences. Over time, however, the film has gained a special luster, particularly when Monroe died two years later without having finished another picture. Today, The Misfits is considered a minor classic, with special interest as an example of the loss of traditional values in the modern Western, as one of Huston's trademark celebrations of a team of charismatic losers and as the last film from two of Hollywood's greatest stars."