Man Without a Star

Posted on November 11th, 2011 in 1950s, Westerns, Kirk Douglas by Colin


When you think of films about the passing of the old west and the shrinking of the frontier it’s examples from the late 1960s and 1970s that tend to spring to mind. As the western entered its own autumnal phase, the movies, perhaps quite naturally, turned their focus onto the gradual decline of the period they depicted. However, the sense of a way of life passing wasn’t confined to films of this time alone. Man Without a Star (1955) was made during the genre’s heyday, yet it tells the tale of a man driven ever further by the inexorable closing of the open range to seek out a place that offered the kind of freedom he once took for granted. This is a fascinating and emotive theme, and it runs throughout the film, but it’s diluted somewhat by a script that has the hero behaving in a way that, while entirely appropriate within the framework of the classic western, sees him contradicting his own personal philosophy.

Dempsey Rae (Kirk Douglas) is a drifter, as the title suggests, a man who’s lost or perhaps never had a point of reference to guide him through life. His wanderings have taken him ever further from his roots in search of an elusive idyll. He waxes lyrical about the open range that used to allow men to go wherever their fancy took them, and thinks he may have stumbled upon his goal when he finds himself hired on as a hand on an expanding ranch. But that’s not to be; the barbed wire that signals the end of the vast expanses of untamed country are never far behind. No sooner has Rae settled into this comfortable position than the neighbouring ranchers start to string wire and close off the land to protect their grazing from the encroachment of his employer. That employer is Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain), a hard headed woman from the east who intends to make her fortune no matter what obstacles are thrown in her path. After some initial hostility, she sees Rae as the man on whom she can depend on both a professional and personal level. And so Rae becomes Reed’s top hand, her lover, and her enforcer. That ought to be more than enough to occupy any man, but Rae has also taken on a kind of paternal role for a young man, Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), who has drifted north with him. It’s the arrival, with more cattle to swell Reed’s already substantial herd, of an old acquaintance of Rae’s that tips the balance though. Steve Miles (Richard Boone) is a mean and dangerous figure who’s prepared to take the ruthless steps that Rae baulked at, and will force his rival onto the sidelines. Miles’ actions force Rae’s hand and he has no option but to reconsider his previous prejudices. This, naturally, is par for the course in a western but it does have the effect of making Rae’s character less focused - he smoothly crosses the line to defend those whose methods he once railed against. Here we see a man who has suffered personal loss, whose body is crossed by the scars left behind by the hated wire, yet one who is prepared to forget all that and side with his former enemies as a result of his dislike of Miles and his methods. It builds Rae up into a hero of course, but it also cops out to a degree. I can’t help feeling that the story might have panned out into something more interesting and subversive had the character of Rae been allowed to stick to his guns and go down fighting rather than yield to the advance of progress.

Kirk Douglas displaying his mean streak in Man Without a Star.

I haven’t seen a huge number of King Vidor’s films, especially not his early output. However, of those I have seen (six or seven pictures I guess), I must admit they all look great. Man Without a Star is no exception in that regard, there’s a richness to the images on show that’s extremely attractive. Clearly, having a top class cameraman like Russell Metty on hand didn’t hurt, and the result is some very well staged sequences. The climactic stampede, leading to the fight between Douglas and Boone, is a good example of this. Kirk Douglas’ performance in the movie is what I’d term a patchy one and not really up there with the best he was capable of. At times, he produces the kind of intensity that marked his more memorable roles, while at other moments he resorts to something akin to a parody of himself. In the same way that his character arc, which I mentioned before, doesn’t entirely satisfy, the jump from brooding, hair trigger moodiness to comedic mugging fails to flow naturally. In fact, the comic interludes are perhaps the least successful aspects of the film. At one appalling point, William Campbell strolls into the saloon done up in the kind of outfit that might have given Bob Hope pause for reflection in The Paleface, leading to some merciless ribbing from Douglas. The thing is though that it doesn’t actually work as it just feels forced and it jars. Scenes such as this don’t blend in with the rest of the movie and seem like they’ve been ported over from an entirely different production. What does succeed is the needling relationship between Douglas and Richard Boone, whose work generated some discussion on this site a few weeks back. Personally, I found myself yearning for more screen time for Boone and considerably less for Mr Campbell. Another positive aspect is the role played by Jeanne Crain. The traditional western template equates the feminine with domesticity, pacifism and a civilising influence. Man Without a Star, on the other hand, sees this truism overturned. Ms Crain exudes a sassy antagonism, sat on her buckboard, skirts hitched high and hat at a provocatively rakish angle. It is she, rather than the meek, male neighbouring ranchers, who takes on the role of aggressor and advocate of the open range that characterised the real wildness of the old west.

As far as I’m aware, Man Without a Star is currently available on DVD from three sources, and all of them bear some imperfections. There’s a French release that presents the movie, I believe, in a 4:3 aspect ratio and forces subtitles on the English track. There are also versions out in Germany and Australia, both of which have the movie in the correct 2:1 ratio. I’ve only seen some screencaps of the German disc but it appears that the colours have been drained and the overall result is a drab and flat looking image. I have the Australian DVD, which offers far richer colours yet looks like it may be interlaced. Despite that, the R4 version is a generally pleasing effort and I can’t say I was aware of any print damage or other distractions. The disc is completely barebones - no extras, no subtitles, not even a menu that I can locate. All in all, Man Without a Star is an imperfect film; it looks good and explores some interesting themes, but there’s an uneven quality to both the writing and lead performance that weaken it slightly. Even so, it’s an above average production that deserves to be seen by anyone with an interest in westerns of the period. 

13 Responses to 'Man Without a Star'

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  1. John Hodson said,

    on November 11th, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    No, I’m easy in my mind at holding the opinion that there’s little of merit here; I’m a huge Douglas fan, but his mugging throughout is appalling, and the score is plain antediluvian. On the plus side, I watched a HD broadcast in 2:1 and it looked really very nice. But it wasn’t much comfort, TBH.

  2. Livius said,

    on November 11th, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    As I’m sure you know John, I do try to focus on the positives as far as I can when I look at a movie. The truth is though that Man Without a Star is seriously flawed by Douglas’ erratic performance. I think the writing is part of the problem, but I also wonder if perhaps a stronger director might have managed to rein in some of Douglas’ excesses.

  3. Bruce Lander said,

    on November 14th, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    an uneven film as you state but with some good moments. It was of course derived from a novel by Dee Linford, a rites of passage story which has the William Campbell character as it’s main protaganist while the Kirk Douglas character is secondary.
    The screenplay cobbled together by Borden Chase
    had to rejig it to showcase Douglas - with mixed results. The Gun twirling scene however is classic!
    all in all though when I first saw this aged 15 I loved it.
    A dreadful remake “A Man Called Gannon” should be avoided.

  4. Livius said,

    on November 14th, 2011 at 9:56 pm

    I haven’t read the source material but I can see where the whole rites of passage thing could easily have been played up more. Of course, that would have meant more attention focused on William Campbell, and I don’t think that would have improved the movie any.

    Hearing that the material was overhauled to emphasise Douglas’ role doesn’t actually come as a surprise; the inconsistency in his character’s development does suggest script tinkering of some kind.

    Thanks for stopping by Bruce.

  5. Toby said,

    on November 23rd, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Your point that certain scenes feel like they’re from a different picture pretty much describes my thoughts on this film.

    Douglas’ performance is all over the place, and Campbell is annoying. But Boone and Crain are both terrific.

    I’d recommend looking at Douglas’ book The Ragman’s Son (Chapter 20) where he speaks a bit about making Man Without A Star. It helps explain things a tiny bit. It was an early star-as-producer thing, and I think Douglas had his way with the script — to the picture’s detriment.

    However, now that I’ve said all that, I have to admit that your post has me aching to see it again.

  6. Livius said,

    on November 23rd, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Cheers Toby. I’ve never read Douglas’ bio and, being a fan of his work, I really ought to track down a copy.

    I agree that Boone and Jeanne Crain are the best things in the movie - I haven’t seen that much of Crain before, however, I thought she was fine in the few films that I’m familiar with.

  7. Toby said,

    on November 24th, 2011 at 3:28 am

    Jeanne Crain is wonderful (and beautiful) in The Fastest Gun Alive.

    John Dehner’s great in it, too, but not as pretty as Crain.

  8. Livius said,

    on November 24th, 2011 at 9:33 am

    I’ve just had a look through Jeanne Crain’s filmography, and it turns out I have six of her movies - including The Fastest Gun Alive - but she didn’t make a huge number. One of her films that I haven’t seen but would like to very much is Guns of the Timberland.

  9. Toby said,

    on November 24th, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    That’s one I wanna see, too.

    It has one of the coolest posters ever, with all these guns pointed at Ladd.

  10. Livius said,

    on November 24th, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    I only ever read the source novel by Louis L’Amour, one of his average efforts but enjoyable enough. I’d like to see how it plays out on screen though, especially with Ladd taking the lead.

    And I agree, the poster does look pretty good.

  11. Dafydd Jones said,

    on November 27th, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    Hmm…I seem to be in the minority on this one. Reading the comments above there seems to be a consensus that Douglas’ performance is erratic. Although I’ve seen MWAS many times over the years, I don’t recall ever getting that impression. It’s perfectly true that his mood changes during the film but I always attributed that to plot points that seem to make sense. Doesn’t he change sides to support the barbed-wire as a direct result of being humiliated and dragged by Boone’s men in the street? I do agree about Campbell’s presence being a bit annoying though.
    I’ve always enjoyed “Man Without A Star” and surprised that there’s a perception of so many negatives in it.
    As for John Hodson’s comment about the score being ‘antediluvian’, I’m afraid I have no idea what that means in this context. Old-fashioned by the standards of its time…when film scoring was just a tad over twenty years old? The score is a bit uneven perhaps but I put that down to the use of some stock music and the fact that Salter wasn’t solely responsible for the whole score. I’ve always thought that Frankie Laine’s title song as a perfectly suitable 50s western theme song. A bit short maybe but perfectly sound.
    I too own the Australian disc of this one and it’s a pretty decent effort on the whole.

  12. Livius said,

    on November 28th, 2011 at 8:29 am

    The thing is though that Douglas was capable of so much better. When he then turns in such an inconsistent performance it jars.

    As I tried to point out in the review, there are positive things to take away from the movie, but there are some serious weaknesses there too.

  13. Jeff said,

    on January 11th, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    I’ve been wanting to re-watch this one for years. It’s always been memorable to me for two Douglas lines:

    “Take it out fast, put it away slow.”
    “I hate wire!”

    Wish we could get a DVD release in the US.

    Thanks for the memories!

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