The Movie Waffler Blu-Ray Review - MAN WITHOUT A STAR | The Movie Waffler


man without a star review
A cowboy's morals are tested when takes a job with an unscrupulous rancher.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: King Vidor

Starring: Kirk Douglas, Jeanne Crain, Claire Trevor, William Campbell, Richard Boone, Jay C. Flippen

man without a star bluray

The title of King Vidor's 1955 western, Man Without a Star, might fool you into expecting a story of a vigilante taking the law into his own hands. In the context of westerns we usually associate stars with the badges worn by sheriffs and their deputies. Here it's in reference to celestial bodies. Kirk Douglas's cowboy Dempsey Rae has a literal star to follow and always knows where True North is by looking to the heavens. But he lacks a metaphorical star to follow. He's an aimless drifter, finding his way from one town to the next, one piece of trouble to another.

Dempsey finds himself in a small Wyoming town when a murder is committed on the train on which he and teenage wannabe cowboy Jeff (William Campbell) were bumming a ride to Kansas City. The local sheriff suspects Jeff of the killing, but Dempsey exposes the real murderer, played by western character actor Jack Elam in one of his creepier roles. With $50 in reward money in their pockets, Dempsey and Jeff head into town. There they meet ranch foreman Strap Davis (Jay C. Flippen), who hires the pair to work on the sprawling ranch owned by Reed Bowman (Jeanne Crain), an ostentatious Easterner whose indoor bathroom holds a fascination for Dempsey.

man without a star review

When Dempsey sets his eyes on Reed, it's more than her plumbing he's interested in, as it were. Reed uses her seductive charms to convince Dempsey to become her hired gunman, as she plans to encroach on the small grazings occupied by local farmers. Dempsey finds himself conflicted. On the one hand he doesn't like the idea of Reed bullying the other farmers. On the other, said farmers have begun to use barbed wire, which Dempsey is vehemently opposed to. The cowboy's chest bears physical scars from some previous incident involving barbed wire, but it also represents a threat to the sort of freedom he enjoys, new borders drawn on a previously open land.

Had Man Without a Star been made a decade later it would likely have taken a more cynical approach, with Dempsey playing the opposing ranchers off against one another for his own gain, ala Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars. But while Douglas's Dempsey is an anti-hero of sorts, he still knows right from wrong, even if the film's dynamic makes it difficult to decide who falls into which category. The darker side of Dempsey is further lightened by the arrival of a genuinely unambiguous villain in the form of Richard Boone's Steve Miles, a Texan gunman hired by Reed to do the dirty work Dempsey refuses to carry out. Dempsey and Miles have history that's never elaborated upon, but we know these two had a standoff at some point in the past, and that a rematch is inevitable.

man without a star review

It all climaxes in a spectacular set-piece involving a gunfight that takes place amid a stampeding herd of cattle. Today the livestock would be computer generated, but watching actual cattle run amok makes you doff your hat to the good old days of practical filmmaking, and the logistics of the scene are mind-boggling.

By the mid 1950s a grittiness was beginning to creep into Hollywood westerns, and this can be seen in some of the film's darker moments. The character of Jeff might be seen as representing the shift westerns were undergoing in this period. He begins the film as a naive goofball dressed up in a flashy Roy Rogers outfit he purchases with his reward money. By the end he's become a cold-blooded killer, taking the wrong lessons from his idol Jeff, who implores the kid to "do as I say, not as I do." Despite Campbell's limited acting range, Vidor and screenwriters Borden Chase and D.D. Beauchamp make the transition believable. There's a real sadness to the scene in which Jeff pulls a gun on a drunken tormentor in a bar; it's the sort of throwaway moment seen in hundreds of westerns but Vidor lingers on its moral implications, the loss of Jeff's innocence and Dempsey's disappointment in seeing another young man follow him down the wrong path.

man without a star review

Man Without a Star is notable also for its rather frank sexuality. Once Dempsey and Reed set eyes on one another it's clear they share an immediate lust. Reed even invites the cowboy into her much talked about indoor bathroom, which results in a not so subtly alluded to coupling in the adjoining bedroom. While it's clear that Reed is genuinely attracted to the rugged Dempsey, we suspect it's not the first time she's used her charms to get what she wants.

Douglas reportedly made over a million dollars from the film, which proved a major box office hit. It's easy to see why it was popular as it offers something for everyone: sex, violence, psychologically and physically tortured characters, some light comedy and even a musical number or two. That it all flows so smoothly is testament to an era of Hollywood filmmaking when such disparate elements could combine so easily for an evening's entertainment.

New audio commentary with writers Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman; new interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard; a trailer; and a collector's booklet featuring a new essay on the film by film writer Rich Johnson, and a new piece by critic Richard Combs about the Western films of King Vidor.

Man Without a Star is on UK blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment from August 15th.