The Misfits [50 Films Older Than Me #14]

A few months ago, it was my birthday! And to add to all the real life goals and challenges that that brings, I’ve created at least one as it relates to movies and this blog–watch a film I’ve never seen before which came out in each year of the fifty years before I was born, and then write a bit about it.  This is Post #14.

Spoilers ahead.  

The Misfits

Directed by John Houston

Release Year:  1961 (9 years before I was born)

What it is about:  Young divorcee Roslyn Tabor befriends three men who are emotionally damaged in various ways and all show different degrees in romantic interest in her. Gaylord “Gay” Langland, tow-truck driver / small plane pilot Guido, and rodeo rider Perce Howland. She gets into a relationship with Gay, but when she accompanies the men to round up wild mustangs, she is emotionally overwhelmed by the apparent cruelty to the animals. She rejects Guido when he offers to free the animals in exchange for her romantic interest. Out of sympathy Perce does free the animals but Gay is able to single-handedly wrestle a stallion into submission–only to set it free right afterward, saying he didn’t want anyone making up his mind for him. The movie ends with the implication that he and Roslyn may stay together.

Starring Marilyn Monroe as Roslyn Tabor, Clark Gable as Gay Landland, Eli Wallach as Guido and Montgomery Clift as Perce. Thelma Ritter also features as Isabelle Steers, Roslyn’s friend and landlady. Kevin McCarthy has a small part as Roslyn’s ex-husband.

My impressions of this movie before I watched it:  I was aware of this film only as a drama which ended up being the last project done by either Monroe or Gable. Mostly, I know it from an episode of Quantum Leap in which Sam saves Marilyn Monroe’s life long enough or her to make this movie, which the character Al evidently loves.

Reality: It took me a while to get into The Misfits. You are introduced to three of the central characters pretty quickly (Perce comes into it a bit later). They are all troubled or broken in some way or another, so there is potential conflict all along, but it took me a while to get to the sense that there was dramatic rhyme or reason to any of their interactions. Eventually, though, my perspective shifted.

Marilyn Monroe was only 34 when this movie was released (she died less than two years later), and this movie demonstrates that she never got to the point in her acting career where she was no longer playing women in movies who weren’t making every man around her their minds at the sight of her. In this case the presence of Roslyn provokes all three of the male leads to pursue in one fashion or another, opening the doors to a series of fascinating character studies as we see how each one reacts to Roslyn, and through that begin to get ahold of what they are all looking for out of life.

Or perhaps, more accurately, what each one is missing in order to feel alive and fulfilled. Of these, Guido is the darkest, turning out to be someone who thinks he is vulernable and sensitive, but who may in reality just be selfish. Watching both this and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly have convinced me what an effective actor Eli Wallach is–with just a little help from the script, he fills Guido with a sense of unintentional menace. He’s not a villain, but his emotional scars cut so deep that there is never not a moment where he feels deeply unstable and dangerous. The scene towards the end where he begs Roslyn to give him a go romantically in exchange for his help with saving the horses–as well as her reaction to his request–is one of the film’s great moments. There’s a lot of talk here, a lot of hearts being exposed, but a complete lack of melodrama–it’s all completely believable.

And that’s true all along. The Misfits is a movie interested in putting its characters together and seeing how the intensity develops afterwards. There are no forced plot points or contrived conflicts–just a bit of alcohol to loosen people’s lips and weaken their inhibitions, resulting in all the drama we could possibly ask for.

But even when they are talking, there are always other layers to the characters underneath. These are people who don’t just tell each other about their internal conflicts–they truly live them out.

I have to say I’m pretty unfamiliar with Clark Gable. I saw It Happened One Night a long time ago, and that’s it–I’ve never even seen Gone with the Wind, not properly anyway. And for a while I felt like I was just seeing the personality of a Hollywood superstar on the screen, but then certain scenes hit that were utterly compelling. His drunken confusion about his children was amazing, and the way he reacts when Perce lets loose his stallion is just mind-blowing. The scene where he single-handedly fights a grueling battle to tame the horse had me on the edge of my seat (and was perfectly set up by the earlier scene of all three men capturing that same animal) and his actions and words afterwards communicates convincingly about the kind of man he is.

It’s fantastic writing and a strong performance.

Marilyn Monroe is also good as Roslyn, a role which ultimately anchors the film’s whole story. It’s similar in some ways to Gable–you never stop being aware that she is the cultural icon that she is, but her character is nonetheless convincing. Roslyn worries a lot, she cries a lot, but there is nothing hokey in the performance. I could see why she was drawn to Gay, I could she was repulsed by him, and I could see why she was drawn again at the end. In an industry full of badly motivated romances, this was no mean feat. And while I’m a bit more familiar with her work than I am Clark Gable’s, it was still new to me to see her going so deep into such a straightforward dramatic character.

So…when you get down to it, what did I think? In the early parts of the film, I really thought that there wasn’t really going to be anything in The Misfits for me, but I was wrong. There is some fascinating drama–spoken and unspoken–between Gay, Roslyn and Guido, and some nail-biting sequences of tension as well, none of which sabotages the film’s dramatic authenticity in any way. It’s a really strong piece of work.

See here for the Master List.

2 thoughts on “The Misfits [50 Films Older Than Me #14]

  1. It’s always good to learn more about Marilyn Monroe’s signature as an actress. Thank you for this review.

  2. Love this film and it gets better with every viewing. The ending always breaks me down. Partly because of the story itself and probably in part knowing it’s the final film of two absolute film legends. Sadly, the tortured Clift wasn’t far behind them.

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