Some of my favourite westerns come from director Anthony Mann especially those he made with James Stewart and the simple reason is that Mann managed to craft westerns which were entertaining as a piece of genre but also had depth for those who needed more than just cowboys and action. Whilst Mann's "Man of the West" features Gary Cooper rather than James Stewart it is no different as it works brilliantly as a western but also a movie which has depth. And that depth comes partly from Cooper's characterisation of a former outlaw turned good guy who finds himself dealing with outlaws again but also from Lee J. Cobb as his bitter uncle, living on past glories.
Having turned his back on the life of an outlaw Link Jones (Gary Cooper - Vera Cruz) has cleaned up his act and has become a regular guy, guarded about his past when he meets strangers. But whilst travelling on a train to find a school teacher for his town back home he along with fast talking conman Sam Beasley (Arthur O'Connell) and saloon singer Billie Ellis (Julie London - Saddle the Wind) get stranded in the middle of nowhere when the train is attacked by a band of outlaws. As the trio start walking they come across a house which Link knows and on entering comes face to face with the band of robbers which to his shock is run by his Uncle Dock Tobin (Lee J. Cobb - 12 Angry Men) who he once rode with. Tobin is still angry that Link abandoned him many years earlier and unsure of whether he can trust him plans to make him help them pull of a robbery.
In some ways "Man of the West" was a trend setter, a western which paved the way for the genre in the 60s where the focus was less on action and even story but more on the characters. As such whilst we have a seemingly familiar storyline of a former outlaw having to deal with his old outlaw gang the focus is on how the character of Link deals with the situation having turned his back on his violent past. We see how there is an element of being nervous being around old company, well aware of how dangerous they are which we are made aware of when we hear Dock Tobin describing their blood thirsty past in uncomfortable detail. But we also see how the situation brings the badness to the surface as he can't just sit by and do nothing.
But this characterisation by Cooper really only works because Lee J. Cobb is just effective in playing Dock Tobin. You get a real sense that Dock is a bitter old man who not only despises the young gang who ride with him but still lives for the glories of the past when he and Link worked together. The level of evil and twisted which Cobb brings to the role is perfect as it is just the right side of being larger than life. And Cobb and Cooper are not the only good performances as Julie London and Jack Lord whilst in lesser roles are handed well written characters which they bring to life.
Because the emphasis of "Man of the West" is on the characters it still is entertaining despite being over 50 years old. But that is also because Mann balances the character focus with just the right amount of action so that those just looking for an entertaining western will not be disappointed. And for a 50s western "Man of the West" is surprisingly violent both visually when we get served the action but in the descriptive dialogue which fuels your imagination.
What this all boils down to is that "Man of the West" is up there with the best of Anthony Mann's westerns as it manages to entertaining those looking for simple western entertainment but also those who relish movies which focus on characters rather than purely action.