The Misfits (1961)

Director:

John Huston

Cinematographer Russell Metty

Waves of sadness, symbolism and disappointment with life pulse from this 1961 movie,  It’s written by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston – melancholy swansongs for its stars, Monroe (who died of an overdose a year after its release) and Clark Gable (who died of a coronary just after filming). Monroe is Roslyn, who has arrived in Reno to finalise a painful divorce. She fetches up with ageing cowboy Gay Langland, played by a grizzled but sympathetic and charismatic Clark Gable – perhaps an older version of the cowboy Kirk Douglas played in Lonely Are the Brave. Rosalyn decides to stick around in Reno for a while, and meets rodeo rider Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) and beta-male car mechanic Guido (Eli Wallach). It culminates in the scene where they rope some misfit mustangs: wild horses roaming the Nevada desert, heading for metaphorical sacrifice. For me, the film is itself a bit of misfit, full of big stagey speeches, contrived moments and some overemphatic performances, but opened out with muscular style by Huston. The faces of Gable, Clift and Monroe together in closeup have a Mount Rushmore look to them.

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This swansong for Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Clark Gable is as emotionally potent as ever

What a multiple swansong and beautiful accident The Misfits is. Two days after shooting finished on this wayward production in the Nevada desert, Clark Gable suffered a severe heart attack, and died 10 days later, in November 1960. It’s always been rumoured that the tough shoot contributed to his collapse: he insisted on doing many of his own stunts, including being dragged 400ft across a dry lake bed for the extraordinary climax. But it was also Marilyn Monroe’s last completed film, before a near-two-year decline of her own took hold, and it was one of the last handful Montgomery Clift would make, too.

The occasion for this restored re-issue is the BFI’s full Monroe retrospective: this is the pained capstone to her mere ten years of stardom, and surely her deepest, most torn-from-the-soul performance. All three stars slipped beautifully inside the damaged skins of their parts – characters Arthur Miller, who stayed on set throughout, tailored to their personae as shooting went along.

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Monroe, whose own relationship with Miller was seriously on the rocks and worsened irreparably on set, plays Roslyn, a gorgeous but jittery divorcée looking for something or someone to grab hold of. At first, we think it might be Guido (Eli Wallach), a widower and ex-bombardier in Reno who puts on the dance moves. But he’s a mite too desperate, and his friend Gay Langland (Gable), a weathered cowboy – yes, a cowboy called Gay – gains the upper hand with Roslyn instead. They’re joined by Thelma Ritter’s Isabelle, another self-destructive divorcée, and eventually Perce (Clift), an old associate of Gay’s, who has a masochistic yen to get tanked up and break himself apart at the rodeo.

Clift’s first scene is a classic example of Miller’s writing and John Huston’s beady, compassionate direction: Perce takes a phone call the others can overhear, and is soon pleading with his mother to forgive him for a long absence, disparaging his stepfather, and playing out a snivelly but touching prodigal-son routine which defines him instantly as a broken soul. They all are. The film’s an essay on abandonment and failed promises, with this makeshift family continually forming and reforming, like sibling foetuses clinging to each other helplessly in the womb.

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Huston and his great cinematographer Russell Metty (Touch of Evil, Spartacus) underline the dependency of these lost children with reliably telling compositions, like the snoozing Monroe and Clift draped across each other in the back seat of their truck. And there are moments of bizarre, unnerving comedy, such as when Clift, strung out from a bronco-inflicted head injury, staggers around with his bandages unravelling, like a cut-price Frankenstein’s monster.

Of all the actors, his role feels most precisely like a commentary on a career: in the mustang-wrangling sequence at the end, we practically get flashbacks to his Red River cowboy days, but Miller also folds in the facial paralysis caused by his near-fatal car crash and subsequent addictions.

Monroe and Clift are both truly remarkable, especially together. When Gay calls Roslyn “the saddest girl I ever met”, the line springs out as the most direct and insightful ever spoken to Monroe on screen, and she reacts to it as if the truth had been grasped at last. The film gets her totally, and despite all the delays and the hospitalisations and the marital spats which made production such a nightmare, she gets it back. After one lengthy hiatus in rehab, Metty had to use soft focus to disguise her poor health, which makes her face swim fuzzily in the centre of the screen at times, and this is somehow perfect for a character so unsure of herself.

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“Maybe all there is, is just the next thing”, she says to Perce behind a saloon – a line Joyce Carol Oates quotes pointedly in her 2000 Monroe novel, Blonde. If ever a film clinched the case for saving the best thing till last, it’s the final act of this one – a cash-grabbing mission to corral wild horses for so-called “chicken feed”, in which the horses barely wind up outnumbering their would-be captors. “The fewer you kill, the worse it looks,” Gable muses with a dawning sadness, quite correctly.

The stunt-work in this finale, the rapturous quality of the desert light, the logistics of the chase, the overt parable of lost certainties Miller is pushing, and the peak pitch of every performance qualify this as one of the most emotionally potent action scenes ever assembled. All the misfits in this legendary cast may have spent vast chunks of their remaining stamina getting it in the can, but boy, were their efforts worth it.

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Trivia

Director John Huston originally wanted Robert Mitchum to play “Gay Langland” but Mitchum didn’t like the script and turned it down. Huston and writer Arthur Miller rewrote the script, but by the time Mitchum got to see the rewrite he had committed to another film. The role was instead offered to Clark Gable, who took it.

On the last day of filming, Clark Gable said regarding Marilyn Monroe, “Christ, I’m glad this picture’s finished. She damn near gave me a heart attack.” On the next day, Gable suffered a severe coronary thrombosis. He died in hospital from a heart attack just ten days later.

This was the last completed film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. Gable died of a heart attack shortly after filming ended, and Monroe died of an alleged drug overdose a year and a half later.

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This movie was on television on the night that Montgomery Clift died. His live-in personal secretary, Lorenzo James, asked Clift if he wanted to watch it. “Absolutely not” was Clift’s reply, the last words that he spoke to anyone. He was found dead the next morning, having suffered a heart attack during the night.

Clark Gable‘s close friend John Lee Mahin tried to dissuade him from making the film, insisting the part required a better actor like Spencer Tracy. Gable initially felt out of place since Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach all practiced the Method, which was like an alien religion to him.

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Many people were shocked by the change in Clark Gable‘s voice, leading some to question whether he may have had lung cancer at the time of his death.

Marilyn Monroe blamed herself for Clark Gable‘s death. However it should be noted that Gable was already in poor health when filming began. He had been a chain smoker since his mid-teens, and until recently he had been a heavy drinker. Twice over the past decade he had suffered severe chest pains which could have been heart attacks.

During the Los Angeles filming, director Henry Hathaway, who had worked with Marilyn Monroe on Niagara (1953), saw her sobbing outside one of the sound stages. Upset at how the film was turning out, she said, “I just couldn’t face having to do another scene with Marilyn Monroe.”

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[Eli Wallach in 1983] “Thanks to Marilyn, I was one of the first to be cast, and then I watched my name drop lower and lower in the credits as {Clark Gable and {Montgomery Clift and Thelma Ritter one by one came aboard. They’re all gone now, James Barton too. Marilyn Monroe} and I had become very close friends several years before while she was working at the Actor’s Studio. While I was doing “Teahouse,” she’d come backstage to watch me from the wings night after night. When she was preparing “The Misfits,” she told Arthur Miller} she wanted me to be in it. It was sad to watch her marriage breaking up while we were filming this valentine he had written to her. Gable was charming, as always, and Monty – well, he and Marilyn had this same self-destructive temperament. They were at a loss; they couldn’t cope. It’s easy to poke fun at those people – big stars – but it’s very sad.”

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During filming, Marilyn Monroe‘s marriage to Arthur Miller fell apart, partly because of disagreements over the script and her feelings of betrayal over how he had written her character. She also felt he had turned John Huston against her, leading him to treat her like an idiot. Within a few weeks of the production’s start, they were staying in separate suites. They had stopped speaking by August, with Monroe’s acting coach, Paula Strasberg, serving as intercessor. In addition, Miller had begun seeing photographer Inge Morath, who was documenting the production and would become his third wife.

Did Gable really have to die for the making of The Misfits

18 May 2005 | by bkoganbing (Buffalo, New York) – See all my reviews

I still remember when it was reported Clark Gable had had a heart attack shortly after completing The Misfits. It happened just before Election Day because there was a news item and it’s mentioned in at least one Gable biography that he voted by absentee ballot in 1960. Shortly after that he died and the world was waiting the birth of his son and his last posthumous film.

No doubt about it Gable does look all of his 59 years in the Misfits. But he’s still exudes that gruff animal magnetism that leaves you no doubt as to why Marilyn Monroe was finding him so sexy. It’s an interesting and challenging role for Gable, his Gay Langland is a bitter multi-layered character, whose family has deserted him and his way of life is vanishing. All three of the men, Gable, Monty Clift, and Eli Wallach have a deathly fear of working for wages expressed often during The Misfits.

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For Monty Clift it’s more than fear. He’s also bitter about being cheated out of his father’s ranch by a stepfather who offers him wages. So he’s taken to the rodeo circuit, but he’s also past his prime in that dangerous sport.

Eli Wallach starts out as what we think is a deep sensitive portrayal, but as we go along we find there’s less than meets the eye. He wants Marilyn Monroe real bad (who wouldn’t) and it’s clear he’s just using some of his best lines in his quest for her.

Marilyn as eastern divorcée to be serves as the group’s conscience when they start going after mustangs for dog food manufacturers. Quite illegally of course, but that’s part of the challenge for this group. Lots of shots of Marilyn’s bulges both front and rear are another good reason to see this film.

Towards the end the wild mustangs on the Nevada desert take over the film from the human actors. They are a kind of doppleganger for this group, they are also misfits with no place in the modern world for them except as canned dog food.

Those roping stunts and Clark Gable being dragged by a horse probably put a strain on his cardiovascular system. It’s been written that Marilyn was the cause of his demise. Pure and utter nonsense. I can’t believe John Huston the director let him do those scenes. Why wasn’t a stunt double used? Marilyn Monroe was one royal pain to work with, what with all of her issues, but that surely had nothing to do with what happened to Gable.

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