FILM FEBRUARY 20, 1961
Arthur Miller, in his plays, has done some representative worrying for all of us about certain defects and defeats in contemporary life. Now he has broken a five-year silence with a screenplay called The Misfits in which he expresses further concern.
The premise is promising: a Chicago girl goes to Reno for a divorce, and there meets three Western men. She is desperate for reliable human relationships, they are in a last-ditch fight against the diminution of large-scale life. She lives with one of them, then the other two pursue her; after a mustang-hunting expedition which acts as a touchstone, she elects to remain with the first man.
It is pointless, if not offensive, to underscore that this screenplay is, in idea and much of its execution, several universes above most American films. But The Misfits is finally unsuccessful both in its treatment of its subject and as a use of the film form; and it is a cheerless task, because of respect for Miller and agreement with his concerns, to examine the reasons.
The film moves with Roslyn, the girl: she is one of the two chief searchers for truth and she is the cause of the revelation of truth to Gay, Her lover. But what does her search consist of? In the beginning we are shown a highly insecure, neurotic girl. ("The trouble is I'm always back where I started". . . . "Maybe you're not supposed to believe anything people say. Maybe it's not even fair to them," etc.) Then, although she has just told Gay she doesn't feel "that way" about him, she moves in with him; and the first time they are visited by their friends, one of them tells her "You found yourself, haven't you?", and the other says, "You have the gift of life." Where did she get it? From then on this girl, but lately nervous and restless, is treated as the Eternal Feminine, in tune with the universe ("hooked in" with the stars). What produced this fantastic change? A few weeks of bliss with Gay? Can Miller seriously believe that?
And how does she effect a resolution in Gay? Through her extreme revulsion against pain--specifically against hunting. She won't let him kill a rabbit (although she never bats an eye when he tells her that their friend Guido goes eagle-killing in his plane); and on the horse-hunting trip, when she learns that the mustangs are to be killed for dog-food, she becomes so frenzied that Gay gives up the hunt and hunting and decides to change his mode of living. But how has this made him realize that the straitening of contemporary life is inevitable? He has known for some time that mustang-hunting is less than it was when he first did it to get stock for breeding and riding. Her hysteria is not persuasive as a reason for his seeing these facts more clearly. She would presumably have been equally hysterical in 1850 if he had been killing deer to feed himself and her. Her outburst is unrelated to the modern debasement of his mustanging, as such.
The author seems bemused by Roslyn, rather than perceptive about her. She is a night-club performer, who had an unsettled childhood and now makes her living by scantily clad "interpretive" dancing. We have no reason to believe her more than a good-hearted, highly sentimental showgirl, like hundreds of others, but the longer Miller looks at her, the more rich and mysterious qualities he sees in her. It is something like a man becoming infatuated with an attractive but undistinguished girl and, out of a sense of guilt, investing her with qualities which the world simply doesn't see.
This infatuation leads to some embarrassingly bathetic instances in her dialogue. "Birds must be brave to live out here. Especially at night. . .." Or when the drunken Guido starts working on his unfinished house in the middle of the night: "He's just trying to say hello. . . . " Or, after an emotional scene, looking at the sky, "Help."
Miller has often had surprising lumps in his generally true dialogue. (In Death of a Salesman the vernacular Biff apologizes to his mother: "I've been remiss.") Here the mixture is as before. There is much acute and vivid writing; a phone-call to his mother by Perce, the third man, is a brilliant character sketch. Then we get literary utterances like Guido's "We're all blind bombardiers . . . Droppin' a bomb is like tellin' a lie - makes everything so quiet afterwards."
In form this screenplay is basically uncomfortable because Miller is a theater-writer who has a generally orthodox and socially utilitarian view of theatrical art. Dialectical dialogue is its bloodstream. It is an honorable tradition, and The Crucible ornaments it; but it is not film-writing. Miller knows this and has tried to compensate for the verbal quality of this film by including some graphic visual elements, like the rodeo and the hunt. But essentially the story is "talked out." Indeed, these uncommonly loquacious Westerners almost seem to be competing for the girl by offering her their troubled souls. And when Gay and Roslyn go off together at the end, we get a fast, almost synoptic talking-into-final-shape of the theme. And this ending, after all the candid confrontation of harsh facts in our world, is as suddenly and incredibly "up-beat" as anything by the late Oscar Hammerstein.
John Huston's direction is his best in years, well-knit and hard, at times even recalling The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Too bad that his camera occasionally peers lubriciously down the girl's bodice or elsewhere to remind us that Roslyn is really Marilyn Monroe.
Miss Monroe, complete with hushed, monotonous voice and with eye makeup even after a night in the mountains, copes more successfully with the neurotic than with the "elemental" qualities in her part. But at her best we sense that she has been coached and primed in thirty-second segments, which wouldn't matter if we weren't aware of it. Her hysterical scene near the end will seem virtuoso acting to those who are overwhelmed by the fact that she has been induced to shout.
In his last film Clark Gable has his best part since Rhett Butler and demonstrates why, although he was a transparently mechanical actor, he was a world-bestriding star. He radiates likeable, decent-roguish masculinity.
Eli 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 was last seen as a Westerner (unconvincingly) in Red River, here brings moving life to Perce, the battered young exile, who has nothing to live on but his willingness to get thrown off bucking horses.
Stanley Kauffmann is a film critic for The New Republic.
By Stanley Kauffmann