“Those Who Wait”: The Misfits and Late Style

“Those Who Wait” is the title of an essay, first published in 1922, by Siegfried Kracauer.[1] In this essay, Kracauer employs the image of waiting to describe a mass of people whose connection to one another is based on a sense of “metaphysical suffering from the lack of a higher meaning in the world.”[2] According to Kracauer, these people have lost their faith in religious truth. Worse still, they have cut themselves off from the restorative capacities of community: “From the outset, for them community is not a reality but merely a concept; they stand outside form and law, somehow holding their ground as tiny splintered-off particles in a temporal stream that is trickling away.”[3] The admirable thing about these lonely souls is the way they respond to the crisis of meaning that characterises modernity not with scepticism or what Kracauer calls “short-circuit” belief in religious absolutes but by waiting: ‘By committing oneself to waiting, one neither blocks one’s path toward faith (like those who defiantly affirm the void) nor besieges this faith… . One waits, and one’s waiting is a hesitant openness, albeit of a sort that is difficult to explain.’[4]

Written long before the production of The Misfits and embedded in a cultural context different from that which inspired Arthur Miller’s original short story, Kracauer’s essay provides a useful way to frame the film’s sense of disenchantment and malaise. In Miller’s script, the spiritual crisis described by Kracauer is filtered through a set of distinctly American archetypes and aspirations to do with the West, the idea of home and the possibility of personal renewal. In its treatment of these archetypes and aspirations, The Misfits is a companion piece to Nick Ray’s The Lusty Men (USA 1952). Near the beginning of this film, a lone figure (Robert Mitchum) hobbles away from an empty rodeo arena. He arrives at a dilapidated ranch house. Finding the front door locked, he walks around to the back. Crawling underneath the house, he retrieves an old rodeo program, a six-shooter pistol without handle grips and a small tobacco tin. These objects are all that remain of the romance that once inspired his rodeo days.

The poignancy of this low-key homecoming anticipates the pathos that became a familiar part of the way later Hollywood films dealt with their central characters. In his account of the competing tendencies that mark the New Hollywood cinema, Thomas Elsaesser describes how films like Bonnie and Clyde (USA 1967), Easy Rider(USA 1969) and Thieves Like Us (USA 1974) displace the moral purpose that underpins the journey in American film and literature:

[J]ourneys are no longer the same drive- and goal-oriented moral trajectories they once were … [T]hey now foreground themselves and assume the blander status of a narrative device, sometimes a picaresque support for individual scenes, situations and set-pieces, at other times the ironically admitted pretext to keep the film moving.[5]

A defining aspect of this period of American filmmaking, Elsaesser goes on to claim, is the way the undermining of traditional goal-oriented trajectories co-exists with a penchant for pathos that belongs to “the epoch of the classical mise-en-scène.” (285) The violent endings of these films trigger dislocating shifts of tone from “cool mockery” to “the particular pathos reserved for ‘beautiful losers’.” (286) This penchant for pathos provides a convenient solution to the dilemma of how to conclude “an indeterminate narrative.” (287)

Positioning The Misfits and The Lusty Men as precursors to this later era of Hollywood filmmaking requires that we also acknowledge a number of key differences, the most important of which is their adherence to traditional dramatic values of interpersonal conflict, alienation and self-discovery – values absent from a number of the films discussed by Elsaesser. And rather than resorting to the strategies of pastiche or parody found in a range of the landmark films of the ’70s, the distinctive emotional registers of The Misfits and The Lusty Men stem from their insistence on bringing the tropes and iconography of classical genres into engagement with the material realities of post-War life – a process exemplified by Nick Ray’s famous observation that The Lusty Men is not really a Western:
“It’s really a film about people who want nothing more than their own home.”[6] The same could be said of the The Misfits. But what is different in The Misfits – what makes it at first glance a much harsher film – is that this dream of home has all but fizzled out. Like the battered car originally received as a “divorce present” from Roslyn’s husband (Kevin McCarthy) and which she refuses to drive because of the unwanted attention of male drivers, home and family life are the wreckage out of which the characters seek to lift themselves.

Having survived the destruction, Miller’s characters are not sure which way to head. But this uncertainty does not block the hope of something better. In this paper, I want to use this mixture of uncertainty and hope as a way of reassessing The Misfits’ place within the history of Hollywood production. Part of the difficulty of this film is the way it both anticipates and resists the cinematic strategies that became familiar aspects of Hollywood production in later decades. Like Kracauer’s characterisation of those who wait, The Misfits is about finding one’s self stranded between positions – not just past and present or tradition and modernity but also scepticism and belief. Rather than seeking to reconcile these competing positions, I want to understand how their uneasy co-existence is central to the affective force of an under-researched era of American cinema.

A World-Up-Side-Down

Miller wrote the original short story whilst in Nevada waiting for his divorce to be finalised so he could marry Marilyn Monroe. In an interview, he describes his inspiration as Nevada’s population of divorcées and outcasts: “The whole state was full of misfits, people who did not fit anywhere.”[7] In the story, the misfits are three cowboys desperately trying to convince themselves that their round-up of a small family of wild horses, to be sold for pet food, provides a livelihood that is “better than wages.” For the men, working for wages signals an abdication of independence; viewed more broadly, the opprobrium attached to wages was part of a general concern about the impact of technology on traditional roles and lifestyles and the capacity of these roles and lifestyles to serve as a source of self-fulfilment.

In both the short story and the film this anxiety is central to the motivations driving the actions of the three men. But Miller’s script differs from the original story in that the focus is no longer simply on the men but also their relationship to Roslyn, the character specifically written for Monroe. In the opening scene, Guido (Eli Wallach) encounters Roslyn when he arrives to tow away the battered car parked in front of the boarding house. The film’s first words are spoken, not by Roslyn, but by her landlady, Isabelle (Thelma Ritter), who asks Guido if he knows the time. There are six clocks in the boarding house, yet none actually works. Isabelle’s words signal a world cut adrift from its usual determinants and logic. The sense of a world-upside-down is a common feature of screwball comedy. The wise-cracking character of Isabelle, proudly preparing to act as witness for the 77th time in a divorce, would not be out of place in any number of films from the ’30s and ’40s. But in The Misfits the comic associations and inferences never develop in the way we might expect. In place of the hilarity that Hollywood often draws from the crisis of marriage, The Misfits offers an anxious sense of failure and loss of belief. Hence, the world-upside-down that is Nevada clearly stands in for – rather than apart from – the United States.

While Isabelle deals with Guido, Roslyn is upstairs preparing for her divorce hearing. Rather than being the victim of cruelty or neglect, Roslyn’s reason for seeking the divorce is linked to a failure of personal interaction. “You could touch him”, she explains about her husband, “but he wasn’t there.” An anxiety regarding relationships and personal interaction would gather force through the decade of the ’60s. By the end of the decade it would be as much a part of the language of the counter culture as its critique of political systems and institutions. But it would be a mistake to see the anxiety in The Misfits as a precursor to a more strident form of disenchantment. Despite the finality of her words, Roslyn is unsure how to respond to the end of her marriage: Has something valuable come to an end or is this the start of an important new phase? The thing hardest to describe is the way this anxiety about interpersonal engagement extends beyond story or theme. Looking at the film, the different styles of the actors and the portentousness of the words, one cannot help but read the film as itself a manifestation of the very anxiety it wishes to examine.

Marilyn Monroe and Thelma Ritter, The Misfits 1961

In The Misfits, nearly everyone is trying to leave behind former roles and habits for something more meaningful. Yet, nearly everyone is uncertain about what this more meaningful existence might look like. No wonder the fundamental question – What type of film is this? – remains so difficult to answer. Is it a Western, or a love story, or a contemporary melodrama about men? “The Misfits … is a dozen pictures rolled into one”, wrote one dissatisfied reviewer at the time of its release. “Most of them, unfortunately, are terrible.”[8] Like few films before it, The Misfits is defined by a sense of anachronism, of being uncertain of one’s own place in the present day. This uncertainty is characteristic of a period of American cinema located between the end of the classical period and the emergence of the New Hollywood at the end of the ’60s, a period that I want to refer to as Late Hollywood.

Late Hollywood

For a number of Hollywood historians, the immediate post-War decades were a time of profound change in both industry and audience. “In quick succession”, Robert Ray observes, “the industry found itself victimized by one of the first and most vigorous of the congressional witch hunts (1947), stripped of its guaranteed markets by the Paramount antitrust ruling (1948), and deprived of its overseas markets by European import tariffs and freezes on the removal of revenues (1947-1950).”[9] The other threat to the industry’s dominance came from television. By the start of the ’60s, “five times more movie footage appeared each year on television than was released annually by Hollywood.” (p. 133) Ray paints a picture of an industry torn between its inherent conservatism – reinforced by the witch hunts and antitrust ruling – and a need to innovate and distinguish itself from the rival medium. The drive to change also came from the realization that Hollywood’s audience had fragmented. During the ’50s, foreign films were imported into the US in greater numbers than before. These films often found a home in the small, independently-run movie houses that emerged in the wake of the Paramount decree rulings. Forced to divest themselves of their ownership of cinemas, the studios reduced the number of films produced, and concentrated, instead, on fewer but more expensive films. In order to deal with a lack of regular product, some of the smaller third or fourth run cinemas turned to screening imported foreign films. The art-house market, as it came to be called, was merely one indication of the fragmentation of the audience for motion pictures.

The issue we need to address is how these changes contributed to the uncertainty that characterizes not only The Misfits but also other films from this period. Ray describes the movies of the late ’40s and ’50s as “a series of tentative, awkward compromises between the self-perpetuating nature of the Classic Hollywood movie on the one hand, and the pressures for change caused by a new set of facts on the other.” (p. 131) One manifestation of this awkward compromise was the way the films of this period began to register a “split between intent and effect.” (p. 174) Post-War Westerns such as Red River (USA 1948), The Far Country (USA 1955) and The Searchers (USA 1956) “overtly reaffirmed the need for the outlaw hero”, while also revealing the hero to be “inhumanly selfish, brutal, and indifferent to communal needs.” Even in large-scale commercial successes like Fort Apache (1948), The Caine Mutiny (1954) and Bridge on the River Kwai (1958), the praise directed towards the hero is shadowed by an acknowledgement of his dangerous inflexibility. “Outwardly, the old pattern of reconciliation was being maintained”, Ray concludes. “But in the crevasses of these films, one could sense that some things had changed.” (p. 174) Ray is careful not to overplay this change. Yet it’s clear that he regards the ambivalence dogging the actions of the hero as an indication that the traditional paradigms and formulas did not remain unscathed by changes occurring both in the industry and in society at large.

David Bordwell’s account of changes in post-War Hollywood is more cautious. The problem with previous work in this area, and Hollywood historiography overall, he argues, is the tendency to overstate change. Bordwell makes a strong case for viewing Hollywood production in the wake of the antitrust rulings as part of an on-going process of innovation that also provided the bedrock for classical studio filmmaking. He quotes André Bazin’s famous observation that the strength of Hollywood cinema rests on “the genius of the system, the richness of its ever-vigorous tradition, and its fertility when it comes into contact with new elements.”[10] By carefully comparing films from different eras, Bordwell demonstrates that stylistic features and narrative devices used to distinguish Hollywood films, long after the demise of the studio era, were in operation during the classical period: “The studio tradition has room for citation, reflexivity, pastiche, parody, and all those tactics that have been considered recent inventions.”[11] For Bordwell, the changes in Hollywood storytelling since the ’60s are part of tradition that is both flexible enough to accommodate innovation yet is also firmly wedded to a set of predetermined goals and outcomes. “What has changed”, he explains, “is not the stylistic system of classical filmmaking but rather certain technical devices functioning within that system. The new devices very often serve the traditional purposes.” (p. 119)

Unconvinced by arguments that claim contemporary cinema evidences a demise of narrative, Bordwell offers a more modest explanation of what has taken place – belatedness. Belatedness is about the recognition of the powerful legacy of studio-era cinema. “Aware of the tradition”, Bordwell proposes, “filmmakers could extend it, refine its premises, explore its underutilized resources, apply it to new subjects and themes, even pay homage to its outstanding achievements – all without abandoning its fundamental commitments.” (16) This legacy inspired younger generations of Hollywood filmmakers, but, interestingly, it also produced an element of anxiety. What is there left to do? What else can one do to the Western, the melodrama and the thriller that hasn’t already been done? Adding to this anxiousness was the impact of foreign cinema after the war. The aspiring Hollywood filmmaker had to deal not only with John Ford, Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges, but also Jean Renoir, Jean-Luc Godard and Akira Kurosawa. Bordwell sums up the problem: “The more you know, the more you understand the gap that separates you from the great tradition, and the more you fret about what you can contribute.” (23)

Bordwell is not the first to use the notion of belatedness. Indeed, much of his account of how belatedness left its mark on the work of directors associated with the emergence of the New Hollywood cinema is drawn from an article by Noël Carroll published in 1982.[12]  Carroll explains the strategy of allusionism evident in the work of film-school-trained directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg as recognition of the powerful artistic legacy of previous generations of auteurs. In a slightly different context, belatedness has also been shown to account for a type of melancholic recognition in genres such as the Western that something vital has been played out. This notion of belatedness is worth pursuing. If it is to be taken seriously as a force in post-War Hollywood, then belatedness must be shown to leave its mark, not just on camera strategies and editing techniques, but other aspects such as tone, emotional impact and performance. Raising these issues provides a way to consider how the films Bordwell cites might talk back to the historical codifications at the centre of not only his own writings but those of other Hollywood historians. It also illustrates another face of the classical tradition, one in which its flexibility and richness in dealing with new elements does not simply reaffirm traditional paradigms and formulas, but also makes possible quite different registers of experience and affect.

To begin this process, I want to consider The Misfits’ place within the cycle of films termed “end-of-the-west Westerns.” These are films acutely aware of their place at the end of a cycle of films that have used the mythical resonances of the West to present narratives of identity, freedom and individual destiny. These films both embrace the romantic potential for renewal associated with the Western landscape and turn their back on its promise. This is done not out of spite or hostility but out of a sense that the idea of the West has lost its purchase in the modern world. The choice faced by the protagonists in these films is to remain part of this redundant system or set of values – to remain misfits – or to look for ways to fit into an environment seen as senseless and humiliating, a choice that is no choice at all. In these films, the productive tension between continuity and change identified by Bordwell has been supplanted by a type of mourning in which the central issue is how to acknowledge that something has ended.

Picking up on these associations, J. M. Coetzee positions The Misfits at the end of a long literary tradition concerned with the closing of America’s western frontier, and the impact of this closing on the national psyche. Having already made their compromises, the male characters in Miller’s script do not hope for a decisive break or chance to start again: “One of them, Gaye [sic] (Clark Gable), has become a gigolo preying on divorcées. Another, Perce (Montgomery Clift) scrapes together a living as a rodeo performer. The third, Guido (Eli Wallach), exhibits the dark side of the male homosociality of the frontier, namely a vicious misogyny.”[13] Coetzee describes these characters as “men who have either failed to make the transition to the modern world or are making that transition in an ignominious way.”[14] Both director John Huston and Miller also frame the dilemmas faced by the men as representative of a broader cultural malaise. “This movie is about a world in change”, Huston told James Goode, a Newsweek journalist covering the shoot. “Now the cowboys ride pickup trucks and a rodeo rider is an actor of sorts. Once they sold the wild horses for children’s ponies. And now for dog food. This is a dog-eat-horse society.”[15] For Miller, the absurdity of the men’s activities represents both a corruption of traditional values and an encroaching sense of powerlessness. “We were being stunned by our own powerlessness to control our lives”, Miller writes in Time Bends, “and Nevada was simply the perfection of our common loss.”[16]

Transition, corruption, moral crisis – in fact, these themes have been central to the history of the Western. Barry Langford notes that one of the Western’s archetypal narratives, the “iron horse” or railroad story, literally dramatizes the way that progress and history leave their mark on the West.[17]  “At the very least”, he points out, “the railway is a textual signifier of the final subjection of the pre-modern and literally timeless world of the West to the grand linear narrative of Progress.” (28) Langford argues that the historical circumstances of the Western’s development is such that its view of the coming of progress has always been undertaken in a belated mode. “[A]s far as most Westerns are concerned”, Langford observes, “a time ‘before’ the railroad and all it brings with it, never existed.” (28) This is to say that, in the Western, the transitional moment has always already occurred – it “is always already only a memory written by the future, the moment of whose inception it purports to enact.” (29) Hence, the Western is always about the turning of history into myth. “Put simply”, Langford concludes, “the modern Western genre is functionally … predicated on the extinction of its literal historical referent and its distillation into myth.” (28-29)

The distinctive feature of the revisionist Western, then, is not the presence of the archetypal Western theme of transition. Rather, it is the attempt to interrupt or displace the manner in which this story is told. As Langford notes, this has sometimes involved highlighting the perspective of minority groups, for example, Soldier Blue(USA 1970) and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (USA 1969). At other times it has involved an emphasis on the material squalor of Western life, for example, Wild Rovers (USA 1973) and The Culpepper Cattle Company(USA 1972). Yet, this attempt to counter the Western’s traditional rendering of history with a more factual approach runs the risk of ignoring the genre’s most salient lesson regarding history, the inevitable failure of any attempt to grasp history outside of its re-telling. Referring to the famous lines uttered near the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (USA 1962) – “This is the West, Sir. When the legend becomes fact – print the legend” – Langford argues that in the Western “not only must the legend … be printed, but the possibility of printing (or filming) anything else – anything more ‘truthful’ – never really existed.” (31)

In light of this predicament, how should we read the sense of disillusionment and belatedness in The Misfits? One way to sum up the film’s approach is to note that the difficulties faced by the characters stem not from the disappearance of the West but rather its troubling after-life as myth. In the film, an idea of the West circulates in both degraded and idealized ways. When the film begins, the degradation, at least, is plain to see. Battered Cadillacs and casino slot machines have replaced old signifiers of progress such as railroad lines and “iron horses.” A state once associated with freedom and unchartered territory is, in Isabelle’s words, “The leave-it state. You got money you want to gamble, leave it here. You got a wife you want to get rid of? Get rid of her here. Extra atom bomb you don’t need? Blow it up here. Nobody’s gonna mind in the slightest. The slogan of Nevada is, ‘Anything goes, but don’t complain if it went.’”

The first attempt to counter this degradation occurs when Guido and Gay convince Roslyn and Isabelle to travel with them to Guido’s half-completed ranch house outside the city. When they arrive at the house, Guido takes his guests on a guided tour. With obvious immigrant pride, he points out the ceramic tile bathroom, the picture windows and the gas refrigerator. When Roslyn asks about the wedding photograph above the bed in the master bedroom, he describes his marriage and the circumstances surrounding the death of his wife. “She was due to have a baby. I was up setting the capstone on the chimney … And she screamed … and that was that.” This is the best Guido can do to describe his wife’s death. It is not that he is unaffected by the tragedy. Rather, it is that he is unable to put its affect into words. Here, as elsewhere in the film, we get a sense of events happening to people who lack the language to describe what these events and experiences might mean. In the film, language constantly fails because it is either too portentous or too slight; or, as in the case of Guido and Gay, it seems to belong to another era. This effect can be read as a failure of the film to do justice to the experiences and tragedies of its characters. But it can also be understood as an outcome of a pervasive anxiety from which the film is unable to free itself.

Rather than serving as a counterpoint to the degradation associated with the casino slot machines and divorce courts of Reno, Guido’s half-completed house is a powerful reminder of the destruction that haunts every relationship in the film. On an individual level, this manifests itself not only in Guido’s comments on his wife’s death but also Roslyn’s reflections on her abandonment by her mother, Gay’s lost connection to his children and the plaintive account of familial dispossession provided by Perce Howland, the itinerant rodeo rider recruited to help in the mustanging. At times, the film’s disillusionment about home and family life recalls Theodor Adorno’s harder-edged lamentations in Minima Moralia. Under the title “Refuge for the homeless”, Adorno writes: “The traditional residences we grew up in have grown intolerable: each trait of comfort in them is paid for with a betrayal of knowledge, each vestige of shelter with the musty pact of family interests.”[18] Turning his back on the false sureties associated with home-life, Adorno proposes a mode of conduct whose relationship to notions of dwelling is uncommitted: “[I]t is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.”[19]

Adorno’s comments were written during a period of personal exile in the United States, a period when he sought to recast some of his central ideas from the standpoint of individual experience. The Misfits suggests that Adorno was not alone in this expression of post-War disillusionment. Like a number of other films, such as Martin Ritt’s Hud (USA 1963) and David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave (USA 1962), The Misfits closely aligns its crisis of belief in the West with the incapacity to sustain an image of home. The canonical example of this is, of course, John Ford’s The Searchers. At the end of this film, Ford’s hero, Ethan Edwards, finally succeeds in returning his niece to the family from which she was taken. But rather than signaling the end of his long years of wandering, the final shot is of Ethan walking away from the homestead. Instead of the security and comforts of home life, Ford’s hero chooses to remain bound to no person or place.

“[A] way to live”

If the image of home offers no comfort for Miller’s characters, where else can we find a counterpoint to the sense of powerlessness expressed in Guido’s account of his wife’s death? The answer to this lies in the film’s formal centre-piece: the round-up of a family of wild mustangs that occupies the final third of the film’s running time. By this stage, the possibility of a relationship between Roslyn and Guido has been replaced by a tentative union between Roslyn and the much older Gay. Underpinned by the logic of Hollywood star casting that demands a relationship between the film’s two main draw cards, the stark differences in age and attitude between Gay and Roslyn evidence the uncertain and tentative nature of the film’s resolution. The night before the round-up Roslyn discovers, almost in passing, that the fate of the captured horses is to be sold for pet food. Gay attempts to justify the round up by referring to the past: “There was mustang blood pullin’ all the ploughs in the West; they couldn’t have settled here unless somebody caught mustangs for them … I’m doin’ the same thing I always did. It’s just that they changed it around.” A little later, Gay defends his continuation with the hunt by resorting to what has been the film’s bedrock principle: “All I know is – everything else is wages.”

These explanations provide a sense of Gay’s motivations for going through with the round-up; on another level, they also constitute the film’s point of engagement with one of the Western’s moral touchstones, its capacity to present killing as either justified or necessary. According to the critic, John Cawelti, the hope of good men in the West is that their use of violence will clear the path for a regeneration of social order. “Because the world is violent, treacherous and corrupt”, Cawelti argues, “the moral man is the one who can use violence, treachery and corruption most effectively.”[20]  Echoes of this logic can be heard in Gay’s justification of the round-up: “Honey, a kind man can kill.” When Roslyn refuses to believe this, Gay tries again: “Well, if it’s bad, maybe you have to take a little of the bad with the good, else you’ll be runnin’ the rest of your life.” For Gay, killing is a way of holding one’s ground or not being chased away by the forces of change. The fact that the killing being discussed is not of other men but of horses does not negate the significance of the act; but it does strip the proposed killing of its redemptive potential.

Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift, The Misfits 1961

The implications associated with the round-up are rendered acute when, instead of the 15 horses that Guido originally promised, only 6 appear on the lake-bed: a stallion, four mares and a colt. The round-up is not morally ambiguous; to use a more appropriate term, it is dishonorable. Bearing down on the horses, first from Guido’s plane and then from the back of an old truck, the men are no longer misfits but scavengers serving the needs of a dog-eat-horse society.

The fact that the men realize the senselessness of their actions only adds to the contradictions that underpin their commitment to what they are doing. After roping the stallion, Gay suggests that it might be better if they gave Roslyn the horses: “I never thought of it, but I … I guess the fewer you kill the worse it looks.” These words have barely left Gay’s mouth when Roslyn’s offer to buy the horses forces Gay to abandon the suggestion. Without realizing, Roslyn has offered to pay Gay wages. Gay’s angry response to Roslyn’s offer affirms that, despite having been diminished, Gay remains the film’s hero, and, as such, any resolution of the contradictions at the heart of the film will have to occur on his terms and not those imposed by someone else. When Roslyn turns away from the men and screams from a point in the distance, “Killers! Murders! … Why don’t you kill yourselves and be happy … You and your God’s country. Freedom. I pity you. You’re three dear, sweet dead men”, she both provides a judgment on their activities and abdicates any ability to call a halt to the looming slaughter.

Marilyn Monroe, The Misfits 1961

Gay’s determination to go through with the plan of selling the horses to the dealers affirms the extent to which the film’s primary dilemma is not how to mourn a lost wilderness. It is, rather, the challenge of letting something go.[21]  The fact that this process is made harder not easier by the recognition that what one is holding onto no longer means the same thing says something about the way myths gain strength as myths. In The Misfits, this is as true of the myth of marriage and family life as it is of the myth of the West. What distinguishes The Misfits from the wave of revisionist Westerns that followed is that it both acknowledges the terrible cost of holding on to ideals that no longer mean what they once did and refuses to discount the possibility that these degraded ideals might form the basis of a way to live. In its relationship to the myths and archetypes of the West, The Misfits remains undecided.
Late style

In The Misfits, the sense of disillusionment that forms a central part of the narrative of the end of the West is shadowed by a larger crisis affecting each of the relationships. Not surprisingly, a similar sense of crisis hangs over Miller’s reflections on the filming. Returning to his hotel room one evening after another day on the set waiting for his wife to appear, Miller switches on the TV to discover the presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy about to commence: “There they stood, two more actors, but looking as uncomfortable as high school argufiers … How patently ambition-driven they were, these performers, each putting on a self-assured authority that he could not possibly have.” (p. 478) Miller’s response to the fakery of the presidential debate is indicative of a larger theme running through his autobiography: the degradation of public life in the post-War period. Clearly, the growing power of the media played a part in this process, but going beyond this was a more general loss of direction and dissolution of key values. The experience of watching the presidential debate was so discomforting for Miller because it brought home the undeniable fact that he had become part of the cultural machinery that he found so abhorrent. “I could not get myself out of the movies”, he recalls, “out of the theatre, out of the fake of this unbelievably important TV casting session by which the American people were to pick the star of their unending feature movie.” (p. 478) In Miller’s comments, the line separating the events taking place around the camera and his sense of a broader cultural malaise has become blurred. Each action, each line articulated by the actors seems to respond to or produce a disquieting echo in the world at large.

Miller’s sense of being both witness to and implicated in a crisis of cultural expression explains why he found it so difficult to write an ending to the film. Coming at a time when the subsuming of the political process by the media had made the idea of the public actor deeply suspect, Miller’s script acknowledges that the old models of identity have ended yet also retains a belief in the possibility of individual authenticity. In Miller’s discussions with Goode, he spoke of his desire to escape the negative sentiment that had taken hold in American drama – even in his own work: “The Misfits … is the first work of mine in which the hero doesn’t die. I am just feeling my way toward a way to live, to find the balance between the pressure toward anonymity and response to it, the resistance.”[22]  The numerous drafts of the script written between October 1957 and the start of filming in 1960 exemplify just how difficult it was to find this balance. Dated October 28 1957, the first version of the script gives much more prominence to the relationship between Roslyn and Perce. The final conversation is not between Roslyn and Gay but Roslyn and Perce. The script ends with Roslyn reflecting on both the horses and her own situation: “They’re free! Isn’t it funny – now I almost feel they belong to us! And I never had anything belong to me in my life. This place, too – the whole … world.”[23] Even after filming began, Miller kept returning to the final scene in order to rewrite the dialogue and achieve the balance he desperately sought. In the finished film, the hero doesn’t die but it is unclear if he has found a way to live.

The film’s denouement is triggered by Perce’s sudden decision to cut loose each of the horses. Rather than admit defeat, Gay grabs onto the rope draped around the neck of the stallion and is dragged along the lake-bed. While our sympathies are with the horse desperately trying to escape, there is something undeniably heroic in Gay’s struggle to subdue the stallion. It’s as if, finally, the film’s rendition of the West starts to look right or look like how we imagine the West should look: the close-up shots of the rearing stallion highlight the physical danger of Gay’s endeavor just as the long shots of horse and man on the lake-bed lend the scene a timeless quality. It is clear that parts of the struggle between Gay and the stallion were filmed in a studio using back projection. But these moments of trickery do not override the force of those shots in which man and horse share the same frame. It is the careful insertion of these shots that enables the film to give us an image of the West as something more than myth. This is not a matter of the film abandoning performance, but rather its ability to affirm that within its elaborate fictional machinery there resides an intractable reality.

The Misfits

It is crucial that this point is not misunderstood. I am not suggesting that we view the round-up of the mustangs as we might a documentary. Rather, I want to affirm the way that the scenes involving the horses draw their strength from the undeniable reality of the process itself: the horses, the actors, the stuntmen and the cameramen, all of whom have come together for an event that has become The Misfits. Regardless of whatever trickery has gone into the filming, the spectator’s response to the fiction feeds off this conjunction of men and animals. André Bazin describes a similar conjunction of elements in his discussion of Albert Lamorisse’s Crin blanc (1953). Lamorisse’s use of real horses occupies “that fringe of trick work, that margin of subterfuge demanded by the logic of the story that allows what is imaginary to include what is real and at the same time to substitute for it.” [24] The spectator is able to simultaneously affirm “that the basic material of the film is authentic while the film is also truly cinema. So the screen reflects the ebb and flow of our imagination which feeds on a reality for which it plans to substitute.”[25]

In a similar vein, James Agee was the first to pinpoint John Huston’s ability to interlace fictional stories with a strong sense of “the immediate present.” He quotes the director: “On paper, all you can do is say something happened, and if you say it well enough the reader believes you. In pictures, if you do it right, the thing happens, right there on the screen.”[26] Agee refers to the director’s tendency to shoot scenes from the middle distance, thus ensuring that the mechanics of filming do not swamp the event being filmed. This approach also ensures that the actors have the space necessary to generate the impression of a performance that seems “to happen for the first and last time at the moment of recording.” (p. 375) Richard Combs puts this impression down to the director’s sure eye for casting, but he also acknowledges that Huston consistently articulated an approach in which the task of acting was driven not by “an interpretative or expressive function”, but rather “a kind of concretising one, finding the closest objective co-relative for what is on the printed page.”[27] This concretizing function also manifests itself in Huston’s use of actual locations. In a longshot at the start of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (USA 1948) we watch a down-at-heel Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart) scrounging for hand-outs in the Mexican town of Tampico. Richard T. Jameson describes the impact of the location shooting very well: “Humphrey Bogart is unmistakably walking through not a studio reconstruction but a scuffed corner of external reality otherwise inhabited by the people who’d have been inhabiting it anyway if Ted McCord’s camera weren’t there, and probably inhabiting it in about this way.”[28]

Clark Gable, The Misfits 1961

Gay’s struggle with the stallion exemplifies these enduring directorial characteristics. On a more general level, the scenes on the lake-bed alert us to the important role of style in reconciling the contradictions that drive the film’s script. In the Western, style serves a crucial moral as well as dramatic purpose. “Really, it is not violence at all which is the ‘point’ of the Western movie”, writes Robert Warshow, “but a certain image of man, a style, which expresses itself most clearly in violence.”[29]  He sees evidence for this in the game playing of boys with toy guns. It is not the fantasy of hurting others that drives these games, but the desire “to work out how a man might look when he shoots or is shot. A hero is one who looks like a hero.”[30] For Warshow, this mastery of appearance is the source of our attachment to the figure of the Westerner. By remaining conventionalized and just out of reach, the Western hero acquires an elevated relevance:

He is there to remind us of the possibility of style in an age which has put on itself the burden of pretending that style has no meaning, and, in the midst of our anxieties over the problem of violence, to suggest that even in killing or being killed we are not freed from the necessity of establishing satisfactory modes of behavior.[31]

Gay’s struggle with the stallion provides us with an inkling of what such a satisfactory mode of behavior might look like. The fact that it takes the film so long to arrive at this point underscores the ambivalent nature of its generic affiliations.

After subduing the stallion, Gay acknowledges the pointlessness of his attempt to hold his ground: “Damn them all! They changed it. Changed it all around. They smeared it all over with blood. I’m finished with it. It’s like … like ropin’ a dream now. I just got to find another way to be alive, that’s all.” Knowing something yet also managing to keep the implications of this knowledge at a distance: rather than signaling an end to this process, Gay’s words set the scene for the film’s final act of disavowal. When Gay cuts the rope attaching the stallion to the truck, his action is, at once, a reassertion of control, a final break with the past and a signal for a possible reconciliation with Roslyn. During the journey back across the lake-bed, Roslyn and Gay talk about the possibility of children. But there is something abstract about the discussion: it’s as if they are talking about some other couple or relationship. When Roslyn asks him how he is going to find their way home, his response gives the film its troubling closing line: “Just head for that big star straight on. The highway’s under it; it’ll take us right home.”

Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, The Misfits 1961

In a film in which home is little more than a half-finished shell, these last words can’t help but suggest a capitulation to a sentimental vision that the film has elsewhere sought to debunk. The ending outraged critics. Miller himself recalls Monroe’s wounding declaration during the filming that the way to end the story is for Gay and Roslyn to separate. “I instantly disagreed”, he recalls, “so quickly, in fact, that I knew I was afraid she was right.” (p. 474) For more than one biographer, Miller’s insistence on keeping the couple together speaks of his own unresolved attachment to a doomed marriage. This may be so; but I want to also argue that the film’s unsatisfactory ending is the clearest sign of a larger tension between credulity and disbelief that serves as the film’s distinguishing feature. In this sense, the film is not simply belated. It is also, to use a term proposed by Edward W. Said, late. In a series of posthumously published lectures, Said develops the idea of “late style” to define a range of different artistic endeavors produced late in a career that are characterized, not by serenity or harmony, but by intransigence and contradiction. At the heart of late style, he claims, is “an insistence … not on mere ageing, but on an increasing sense of apartness and exile and anachronism.”[3]

Lateness is part of the way individuals occupy a position in history, but it is also a modulation of style or tone whose implications extend beyond an individual work or career. Late style is, thus, a way of considering how forms change, or, as in the case of The Misfits, reach a point of crisis by refusing the implications of change. As we have seen, this refusal is not straightforward. It involves both acceptance and denial, both recognition and disavowal. Notably absent from the works discussed by Said are the qualities of parody and pastiche that are associated with a range of late twentieth-century artistic practices, including cinema. In place of the critical distance that underpins such approaches, late style is characterized by an unresolved tension between competing responses. This ambivalence makes The Misfits difficult to position – formally, thematically or critically. But it also gives voice to an experience of history as a set of unresolved impulses, allegiances and beliefs.

Considering The Misfits in terms of the idea of late style also affirms that, while Said uses Adorno’s writings on Beethoven’s difficult final works as the starting point for his definition of artistic lateness, he does not see this quality as the prerogative of works that are difficult for their audience. The unreconciled qualities that define lateness can also be found in works whose style might, in other ways, be entirely accessible or bound to distinctly non-progressive positions. The classic example of this is the work of Italian writer, Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Lampedusa’s sole published novel, The Leopard (1958), is about a generation in eclipse, a generation embodied in the stately figure of Don Fabrizio, the Prince of Salina, his immediate family and beloved nephew, Tancredi. The thing that defines The Leopard’s lateness is its untimely quality, which is manifested in the book’s stubborn insistence on individualism and its deep-seated pessimism about the unchangeability of Italian history. “The lateness of Lampedusa’s novel”, writes Said, “consists precisely in its taking place as the transformation of the personal into the collective is about to occur: a moment that its structure and plot evoke superbly yet resolutely refuse to go along with.”[33]

At the end of The Leopard, nothing remains of the Prince’s aristocratic world except the dust and ruins of a once proud estate – at times, the novel’s tone is unbearably bleak. Yet for all its gloom and constant evocation of death, The Leopard is a stubbornly defiant celebration of individualism whose principal embodiment is the figure of the Prince, and what Said calls his “extraordinary self-sufficiency, his reserve, his fastidiousness and lack of greed, and above all his undiminished, if ultimately defeated, energy.” (p. 109) These qualities do not redeem the sense of decline and emptiness that serve as the novel’s final notes, but they do elicit a combination of emotions that define late style: its capacity “to render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them.” (p. 148) The Misfits is also bound to these two unresolved emotions. In the film, the old pattern of reconciliation is not abandoned or embraced. Instead, it has entered its own strange after-life. To borrow Roslyn’s description of the male characters, it has become one more dear, sweet dead man that the film, despite the efforts of the screenwriter, is unsure how to bring back to life. But, whereas The Leopard is a remarkably assured testament to anachronism and lateness, The Misfits remains hobbled by its own uncertainty. The frustrating – but also fascinating – thing about the film is the way it enacts the thing it describes.


The refusal to resolve conflicting emotions can give a powerful edge to a piece of writing. In a medium as bound to external gestures and appearances as film, the refusal to resolve is harder to master and far less likely to be tolerated by audiences and critics. No doubt, both director and writer must take responsibility for the wholly unsatisfactory way in which The Misfits ends. But, as I have proposed, these limitations do not represent a straightforward caving-in to an old order or to cheap sentimentality. Their effect is more ambivalent generating a sense of anachronism or “untimeliness.” Perhaps this is also why, so many years after its production, The Misfits continues to fascinate critics and writers. This fascination is driven by the recognition that this deeply flawed film mirrors our own unreconciled engagement with the myths and beliefs that populate the present.

Increasingly, the final image of Gay and Roslyn in the cab of the truck conjures not a sentimental belief in the restorative capacities of home but a sense of deep uncertainty. This implication becomes more evident if we compare the reconciliation between Roslyn and Gay to another difficult ending, the equally controversial moment of reconciliation at the end of Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (Italy 1954) In the closing moments of this film, the fractious couple, Katherine (Ingrid Bergman) and Alex (George Sanders), declare their love for each other. This declaration comes at the end of a week spent in Naples – ostensibly to arrange the sale of a villa formerly owned by Katherine’s recently deceased uncle. Rossellini uses the trip to pick away at the marriage, uncover old wounds and draw attention to fundamental differences in temperament and outlook. Finally, after an impromptu trip to Pompeii to watch the excavation of a plaster cast created from a cavity left by the bodies of two lovers, Katherine and Alex agree that their best chance for happiness is to separate. The reconciliation occurs on the way back to the villa. Forced to stop for a religious procession, the estranged couple step out of the car to get a better view of the event. A few moments later, a surge in the crowd sweeps Katherine ahead. When Alex catches up to Katherine, these two diametrically opposed personalities confound our assumptions about everything that has come before. Rossellini does not explain or dwell on the sudden mutual declarations of love. He simply brings the film to an end by craning the camera away from the two central characters. The final shot is of members of the crowd walking past the camera.

George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman, Voyage to Italy 1954

Voyage to Italy

For Rossellini’s supporters, the final shot is the forerunner of “another kind of cinema” – a cinema in which the centrality of character, star and story is displaced by an emphasis on the material world and its capacity to confound our assumptions.[34]  This claim is backed-up by the director’s insistence that the change in the relationship is due to the impact of the environment. “[Voyage to Italy] was a film that rested on something very subtle”, Rossellini observes, “the variations in a couple’s relationship under the influence of a third person: the exterior world surrounding them.”[35] This is why Rossellini’s camera constantly documents the physical world of Naples and the surrounding countryside over and above the needs of the story. The vitality of this world disturbs the reserved English tourists, drawing attention to their confusion and lack of understanding. It also shifts their story to a background role. Viewed accordingly, the final reconciliation serves a dual purpose. It is both another example of the capacity of external reality to impose itself on the couple and a powerful confirmation of the cinema’s ability to realign its traditional priorities to accommodate such dislocating encounters.

The ending of The Misfits is incapable of forging such a break with the past. The tentativeness that characterizes the final dialogue between Gay and Roslyn is underscored by a change in mise-en-scène that shifts the drama away from the vast expanses of the lake-bed to the cramped confines of the truck’s cabin. In spatial terms, the final moments in The Misfits replay the end of Voyage to Italy, but in the opposite direction. Out on the lake-bed, Gay and Roslyn stood no chance. The unforgiving environment made a mockery of Roslyn’s objections to the hunt and emotional outbursts, just as it painfully exposed Gay’s age and physical decline. The talk of children and starting afresh can only happen once they climb into the cabin of the truck. Whereas Rossellini’s film reaffirms the capacity of the material world to surprise us and forge a new type of narrative cinema, The Misfits treats the harsh beauty of the lake-bed as both the stage on which to eulogise a certain type of Western spectacle and something that must be shunned.

Intransigence, difficulty and contradiction – “a sort of deliberately unproductive productiveness”: these are the terms used by Said to describe the quality of lateness. (p. 7) In looking for an image that encapsulates these qualities we can turn to the opening credit sequence of The Misfits which shows a series of jigsaw pieces moving in and out of frame, each piece inscribed with an element of the film’s production history. But, better still, we can also turn to the image that takes as its subject the shifting borderline between the film’s textual and biographical life, Eve Arnold’s iconic on-set photograph of Monroe alone on the lunar landscape of the lake-bed.[36] This image encapsulates the sense of isolation and uncertainty at the heart of the film’s sad story. What is the actress doing in this photograph? Neither moving forward nor back, Monroe’s frozen pose evokes that state of suspended, hesitant openness that Kracauer calls waiting. Bringing Kracauer back into the picture suggests that lateness might not just be about loss or disjunction but also about the possibility of holding-out through a form of hesitant openness that he calls waiting. She made them wait – one hour, two hours, sometimes a whole day of shooting had to be cancelled. Arnold’s image suggests that we view this scandal not as an example of Monroe’s helplessness or personal inability but rather as an act of quiet defiance.


[1]  “Die Wartenden”, Frankfurter Zeitung 66 no. 191 (March 12 1922), Feuilleton: 1-3. Translated as “Those Who Wait” in Siegfried Kracauer, The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays. Trans., Edited, and with an Introduction by Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995). Page references refer to this translation.
[2] Kracauer, 129.
[3] Ibid 130-131.
[4] Ibid 138.
[5] Thomas Elsaesser, “The Pathos of Failure: American Films in the 1970s: Notes on the Unmotivated Hero”, in The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s ed. Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Horwath and Noel King (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), 280. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[6] Nick Ray quoted in Wim Wenders, Emotion Pictures: Reflections on the Cinema (London: Faber and Faber, 1989) 112.
[7] Arthur Miller quoted in “Something Burning Up”: An Interview with Arthur Miller by Serge Toubiana in Arthur Miller and Serge Toubiana, The Misfits: Story of a Shoot (London: Phaidon, 2000), 27.
[8] “New Picture”, Time (February 3 1961): 32.
[9] Robert B. Ray, A Certain Tendency of the Hollywood Cinema, 1930-1980 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985), 131. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[10] André Bazin quoted in David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies: (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 13-14. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[11] Bordwell, 10.
[12] Noël Carroll, “The Future of Allusion: Hollywood in the Seventies (and Beyond)” October 20 (Spring 1982): 51-81.
[13]  J. M. Coetzee, “The Misfits”, in Writers at the Movies: Twenty-Six Contemporary Writers Celebrate Twenty-Six Memorable Movies ed. Jim Shepard (New York: Perennial, 2000), 64.
[14] Coetzee, 64.
[15] Huston quoted in James Goode, The Making of The Misfits (New York: Limelight Editions, 1986), 44-45.
[16] Arthur Miller, Time Bends: A Life (London: Methuen, 1987), 439. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[17] Barry Langford, “Revisiting the ‘Revisionist’ Western”, Film and History 33 no. 2 (2003): 28. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[18] Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections On a Damaged Life, Trans. E.F.N. Jephcott (London: Verso, 2005), 38.
[19] Adorno, 39.
[20] John G. Cawelti, “Reflections on the New Western Films”, in Focus on the Western ed. Jack Nachbar (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974), 114.
[21]  Edward Gallafent puts this well: “The appearance of only six horses means the abandonment of the fiction that the business of the roundup is to convert Roslyn to a vision of its essential rightness. It becomes, rather, a question of how you give something up, or what it is exactly that you acknowledge that you are giving up.” Edward Gallafent, “Not With a Bang: The End of the West in Lonely Are the Brave, The Misfits and Hud”, in The Book of Westerns eds. Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye (New York: Continuum, 1996), 248.
[22] Miller quoted in Goode, The Making of The Misfits, 77.
[23] The various drafts of the script are held in the John Huston papers, Margaret Herrick Library, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Los Angeles.
[24] André Bazin, “The Virtues and Limitations of Montage”, in What is Cinema? Essays selected and translated by Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967) 47.
[25] Bazin, 48.
[26] John Huston quoted in James Agee, “Undirectable Director” in James Agee: Film Writing and Selected Journalism (New York: The Library of America, 2005), 374. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[27] Richard Combs, “The Man Who Would Be Ahab: The Myths and Masks of John Huston”, in Perspectives on John Huston ed. Stephen Cooper (New York: GK Hall and Co., 1994), 95.
[28] Richard T. Jameson, “John Huston”, in Perspectives on John Huston, 54.
[29]  Robert Warshow, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner”, in The Immediate Experience: Movies, Comics, Theatre and Other Aspects of Popular Culture. Enlarged Edition. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001), 123.
[30] Warshow, 123.
[31] Warshow, 124.
[32] Edward W. Said, “Thoughts on Late Style”, London Review of Books (5 August 2005): 5.
[33] Edward W. Said, On Late Style: Music and Literature against the Grain (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006) 106. Further references to this text appear as page numbers in brackets.
[34] Laura Mulvey, “Satellites of Love”, Sight and Sound 10 Issue 12 (December 2000): 24.
[35] Roberto Rossellini, “Interview with Jean Duchet”, Arts 739 (September 9, 1959): 6. Quoted in András Bálint Kovács, Screening Modernism: European Art Cinema, 1950-1980 (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 266.
[36]This image is reproduced in Miller and Toubiana, The Misfits: Story of a Shoot, 161 or available for viewing at the Magnum on-line archive: http://www.magnumphotos.com/Archive/

Created on: Wednesday, 22 April 2009

About the Author

George Kouvaros

About the Author

George Kouvaros

George Kouvaros is Professor of Film Studies in the School of the Arts and Media, UNSW. His most recent book is Awakening the Eye: Robert Frank's American Cinema (Minnesota UP, 2015).View all posts by George Kouvaros →