Director: John Huston
Stars: Marilyn Monroe (Roslyn Taber), Clark Gable (Gay Langland), Montgomery Clift (Perce Howland), Thelma Ritter (Isabelle Steers), Eli Wallach (Guido)
There is so much lore surrounding this movie that it’s a daunting prospect to sift through. The final silver screen outing for two legends within their own lifetimes, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable, written by Monroe’s then-husband Arthur Miller, there are chapters of books dedicated to it, meters of documentary footage on which talking heads wax lyrical about it. And much of this coverage is dissected through the context of the stars’ situations. The Misfits is always looked at through the prism of its creation, which tends to do the film itself a disservice, suggesting that its merits are secondary to its tabloid baggage.
The truth is nothing of the kind. Strip all of this away and The Misfits is a small miracle, giving its stars some of their finest roles, steeped in a beautiful ennui, and oddly prescient for the turbulent decade ahead, sitting as it does at the foot of the 60s like a harbinger of what was to come.
It tells the loose, free-roaming story of new divorcee Roslyn Taber, fresh out of the courtroom and at a crossroads in her life. Having caught the eye of cowboy Gay Langland and mechanic Guido, she accepts an invitation to break free of Reno’s city lights and head for the plains of Nevada, accompanied by seasoned divorcee Isabelle Steers. Arriving at Guido’s partially completed country home, Roslyn finds herself amid a culture of ‘misfits’, eking out an existence at the end of the Wild West. In truth the halcyon days of the romanticised West are long over, leaving gamblers, drunks, horse-wranglers and rodeo riders burning their lives away in the scorching sun.
Roslyn is drawn to their seemingly carefree culture, and as such The Misfits plays out as an affirming refusal of the ordered, stressful ‘civilised’ world. Monroe puts in one of her finest performances, channelling – from experience no doubt – a longing to disappear from the world. Amid these dusty hills and ranches Roslyn sees an opportunity to unlearn herself, whilst Langland and Guido are hopelessly enamoured with her. Roslyn’s eye however is drawn to rodeo rider Perce Howland. And even when Perce is injured on the job he refuses Roslyn’s offer to take him to a hospital. There’s fun to be had, after all.
With Miller’s fine words at their disposal, and Huston’s confident auteur’s direction, The Misfits is rich with memorable performances across the board. Clift’s Perce speaks wistfully with a romantic’s heart, whilst Gable’s Langland carries charm with a world-weary smile, even as he drinks like a teenager. The sense is given that their lifestyle keeps these characters young, yet there is a price for all this frivolity. Even as Roslyn gasps at the gorgeous view from Guido’s porch, Huston counterpoints the moment with Alex North’s rueful score. Living outside of the rat race, liberating as it may seem, leaves these characters lost and alone on the fringes, searching for understanding, clutching at straws as time runs out.
Their desperation reveals itself slowly, and it is heart-breaking to watch moments like Langland’s breakdown at a bar, babbling like an angry baby, or Guido’s sad determination to keep fixing up his unfinished home, like a man patching holes in his unfinished soul. Both instances fuelled by alcohol. But Huston never forgets the joy. These two scenes appear in short order, but are balanced by the comedic tomfoolery of Perce, dazed, surprised to discover his head bandaged from his earlier fall. Huston allows us access to the quiet tragedies of these people, but knows his first job is to entertain. He succeeds totally at both objectives.
Roslyn becomes horrified when she realises Langland aims to hunt mustangs to sell them for dog food. Her initial disillusionment turns to hysteria at the film’s close as once again the world reveals itself cruel and twisting in her eyes, the hedonistic innocence she had longed for turned to poison before her. Those galloping horses embody freedom and romantic desires. To see them cut down tears at her as though she were brought down herself. It’s a necessary discovery however. Much as Roslyn gorges herself on a simplified existence, she must confront the dark world she’s fled from in order to evolve and transcend.
Massive cultural changes were on America’s horizons, and it’s all here; the rise of counter-culture, the loss of innocence, the yearning to go back and the laments of war. Guido briefly acknowledges the scarring memories of his experiences in WW2, though they almost seem like some strange Vietnam prophecy.
There are movies that capture the joys of celebration and movies that capture the loneliness of the outsider, yet few and far between are the movies that see the two worlds collide. The Misfits is a bittersweet experience and a love letter to both places, and the ways they intersect. Ever had a great night out only to feel a strange, unknown sadness as you stumble home? The Misfits exists in that fleeting place.
As you can tell, I’m not concerned with the behind-the-scenes, the confessionals, the rumours. Sure, they form part of the fascinating, undulating legacy of Hollywood, but to me they’re just the footnotes to a unique piece of film-making, one which, fittingly, feels curiously out of step with the status quo of the time. In many ways The Misfits marks the end of one era of Hollywood and the beginning of another. A requiem for the sweeping grandeur of the 40s and 50s, and an overture for more experimental, provocative times ahead