Movie Review: The Misfits (1961)

Marilyn and Clark’s final flick is winner ___ 8/10
Review by Brian Wright

Roslyn: Did you ever think about gettin’ married again?
Gay: Oh, I think about it; never in daylight.

Roslyn: If I’m going to be alone, I want to be by myself.

Guido: You have the gift for life, Roslyn. The rest of us, we’re just looking for a place to hide and watch it all go by.

Directed by John Huston
Screenplay by Arthur Miller

Clark Gable … Gay Langland
Marilyn Monroe … Roslyn Taber
Montgomery Clift … Perce Howland
Thelma Ritter … Isabelle Steers
Eli Wallach … Guido
Kevin McCarthy … Raymond Taber
Estelle Winwood … Church Lady

This 1961 film is unique in several ways: a) it is the final film for Marilyn Monroe (that she completed) and Clark Gable (who died a few weeks after filming of a heart attack some attribute to doing his own stunt work), b) it was not a commercial success at the time of release but gained critical respect for its writing and acting, c) because of lack of control of production costs, the film was the most expensive black and white film to that time at $4 million, and d) adding to the troubles of production were the 108 degree heat of the northern Nevada desert and the imminent end of Monroe’s marriage to writer Arthur Miller.

But the story is unique, too. I had always confused The Misfits with Bus Stop, which also casted Marilyn Monroe, but I’d never seen The Misfits until last week on Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Saturday Night ‘Essentials’ with Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin. After viewing, I totally agreed with Osborne who introduced the movie as almost mystical in the way it melded the the principal actors—especially Monroe and Gable, but also Clift, Wallach, and Ritter—in a strange plot that you’ll never see again. Also the director John Huston, fully aware of the challenges of making such an improbable movie, went for it with gusto.

Not to give too much away, the story almost doesn’t rise to the level of a plot, yet it makes several strong points: Beautiful Roslyn Taber (Monroe), just divorced in Reno, Nevada, after being just married to Raymond Taber (Kevin McCarthy), is at a loss for what she wants to do with her life… or with men. Of course, all the men want her desperately but not too many care that she’s a sensitive, thoughtful, idealistic person with a childlike love for sentient beings and artistic beauty. She’s confused yet, for the most part, lovably appealing; her deep and troubled soul is trapped inside a knockout face and body. Roslyn’s ambition is to do something interesting next:

Perce: So what I want to know… what I want to know is: who do you depend on?
Roslyn: I don’t know. Maybe all there really is is just the next thing. The next thing that happens. Maybe you’re not supposed to remember anybody’s promises.

Sounds like Roslyn, just as Marilyn in real life, has wandered into a field of contemporary existentialist goo and has concluded that living range of the moment—instinctually—may be the best way to reach some kind of grand cosmic answer. Naturally, her attitude is fodder for the loose cannons of both Guido (Eli Wallach) and Gay Langland (Clark Gable), a couple of free spirits who live in the vast country that is the state of Nevada. Gay works odd ranch jobs, rodeos a bit, knows about horses. His friend, Guido, makes a living as a mechanic and pilot; in fact, he’s doing a repair estimate on Isabelle Steers’ (Thelma Ritter’s) car when he runs into Roslyn—Isabelle and Roslyn are friends, too.

Next scene about 5-10 minutes into the movie the four of them are at a table in a Reno saloon tossing down double whiskeys. The chitchat is no doubt typical boy-girl bar talk for the time and place, and everyone is feeling free and easy. Roslyn has just divorced Raymond—Kevin McCarthy has a cameo playing the rich dude in the silk suit pleading with his hottie, on the steps of the courthouse, for one more chance—and Isabelle waxes philosophical about cowboys. For the two men, there’s nothing imminent on the work front. Guido owns a dilapidated ranch house of sorts in the high desert, miles out of Reno, reachable by road… so, almost in unison, they decide, “Hey, whaddya say we live life, take on the next grand adventure, let’s all go up to Guido’s place and get plastered. After that, who knows.”

Cha ching!

This is where the Guido story comes out. Eli Wallach doesn’t receive major billing, but based on the depth of character, his Guido has at least as much relevance to the message(s) of the movie as Gable’s or Monroe’s character. All I’ll say is the reason Guido’s cabin remains unfinished has to do with his former wife and some tragic circumstances. Guido has a reasonable shot at the girl (Roslyn)—he certainly feels he has the edge on the older Gay—but let’s see how it plays out. Gay definitely has some moves: in age and philosophy he’s closer to Isabelle (Gable was born in 1901, Ritter in 1905), but, hey, this is Clark Gable we’re talkin’ about.

[Another wonderful point Robert Osborne makes about the film is how it sits at the boundary between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood.]

Then we get some dancing, yes, mainly between the more alpha male, Gay, and the foxy lady, Roslyn. Chemistry happens, esp. with the Old Grand Dad.

[I have to back up a bit to note some comic elements: even though the four of them head up to the cabin spur of the moment, don’t you think if Isabelle has time to change into her ranch-land outfit that Roslyn does, too? Not. Marilyn, I mean Roslyn, as she climbs up the stepless porch into this shack in the middle of nowhere, looks like a modern Angelina Jolie perfume ad: high heels, jewelry, nylons, makeup, and, like, this black felt evening dress threatening to fall off her shoulders at the slightest provocation. Choose me. Choose me. Also, they arrive with a fifth of whiskey already about a quarter depleted. Someone says, “This should take care of us.” Yeah, right. For five microseconds.]

Marilyn is at her bodacious, Rubenesque finest. The director makes quite a deal out of showcasing her body traipsing hither and yon in loose clothing. In fact there’s a trivia remark on IMDb: “Other disagreements over the final cut resulted in the elimination of a shot of Marilyn Monroe’s naked breast from the bedroom scene.” Damn! But what remains is plenty titillating. If you like that sort of thing. Also from IMDb trivia:

According to writer Arthur Miller, Clark Gable had already seen a rough cut of the movie by the last day of filming, and said, “This is the best picture I have made, and it’s the only time I’ve been able to act.”

I agree that Gable does a fine job in his character, as do all the others. Mainly because, for all its superficial implausibilities, The Misfits moves haltingly but inexorably toward a powerful ending that resolves the characters… and makes stark. even strident, commentary on two major challenges of human consciousness: war and routine commercial cruelty.

At some point, Montgomery Clift enters the stream of action, also in a self-portrait type role; I don’t get the need for his character, but all three of the men factor into another subtext from Arthur Miller: frailty—or hopeless neediness (and/or shallowness)—thy name is man. You can see why it wasn’t much of a hit at the box office: everyone was trying to hold onto the Golden Age of Denial, the 1950s, where John Wayne still knew what to do and America was Puritan and Proud… except for that damned heathen rock ‘n’ roll.

Osborne is right, a mystically fascinating film. Entertaining and thought provoking: Essential.

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