“You’re all good for nothing, as you well know.”
The Misfits developed from a short story that Arthur Miller reportedly wrote while awaiting his Reno divorce prior to marrying Marilyn Monroe. The screenplay that he developed from the story was always intended as a vehicle for Marilyn and its quality appeared to grow in Miller’s mind the more he worked at it. Ultimately, Miller believed that he had created one of the great American scripts and that the film had a chance for similar stature. In reality, the script was rather pretentious and too obvious in its message that modern America no longer had any room for individuals who didn’t conform to the expected norms. The film, released in 1961, proved to be a box-office failure, although it did contain some fine acting work by Clark Gable.
MGM has now released The Misfits on DVD as part of its “Vintage Classics” series.
Roslyn Tabor (Marilyn Monroe), recently divorced and disillusioned with life and men, falls in with a group of misfits that includes aging cowboy Gay Langland (Clark Gable), heartbroken mechanic Guido (Eli Wallach), and worn-out rodeo performer Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift). These misfits exist strictly for the moment and Roslyn is at first exhilarated living amongst them. The misfits soon develop a plan to capture another type of misfit — wild mustangs considered too small for riding. The mustangs would then be sold to a dog-food manufacturer. Roslyn is appalled by this seemingly brutal destruction of life and the resulting clash between her idealism and the men’s practicality may mean that Roslyn will lose their friendship and the only real love she has so far known in life.
There is a sadness that pervades this film. It comes partly from the script, but much of it is a retrospective sadness owing to the fact that it was the last film for both Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, and close to the last for Montgomery Clift — all players who died too soon, Gable at age 59 in late 1960 from a heart attack, Monroe at 36 in 1962 of a drug overdose, and Clift at 45 in 1966 of a coronary occlusion.
The sadness related to the script is twofold. Firstly, it stems from the main characters that are in their own way all misfits partially because time has passed them by and to a greater or lesser degree, they don’t realize it. Secondly, it’s due to the fact that the script is disappointing in itself. It’s very slow to get started and even when it does pick up in the second half, it ends up leaving you feeling unsatisfied. We experience snippets of the various characters’ hopes, fears and disappointments, but we never really learn what makes them tick, nor in most cases develop any great concern for what may happen to them.
Clark Gable had misgivings about the film from the start. Partly it was because he feared his part to be perhaps too deep for him to handle and too much removed from the sort of character his public was used to seeing him play. The rest of his concern arose over his co-stars who were steeped in method acting for which Gable had little time. He need not have been concerned on that score, for Gable is by far the best thing in The Misfits. A couple of his scenes don’t ring true, such as the drunk sequence when he calls out for his children, but for the most part he’s totally believable as an aging cowboy, past his prime but still capable of the extraordinary in a pinch. His determination in the sequence in which he single-handedly subdues one of the wild horses and then allows it to go free is both convincing and moving, despite the obvious use of a stunt double at times. The result is one of a handful of really good screen performances (along with The Hucksters, Command Decision, Gone with the Wind, It Happened One Night, and Strange Interlude) for which Clark Gable can be remembered.
In contrast, neither Monroe nor Clift seems realistic in their roles. It’s as though you can see the wheels turning as they figure out how to handle their characters. Monroe does manage to settle into her part somewhat by the film’s second half, although she still is a presence more than an actress despite contemporary opinions and protestations to the contrary. Clift never gives the impression of other than an easterner in western clothes. He was much more believable as a cowboy thirteen years earlier in Howard Hawks’s Red River. In The Misfits, he just seems spaced out a lot of the time. Sometimes the part calls for that; unfortunately, a lot of the time, it doesn’t.
Director John Huston did not have an easy time with the film. There was a lengthy struggle with Miller before filming began as Huston tried to have the script pared down. Miller saw the film as an American epic with roadshow potential. Huston saw it as a more intimate film and his desire to have the script shortened and tightened only partially prevailed. The resulting compromise was not entirely to anyone’s liking, however, and that dissatisfaction conveys itself to the viewer. The failure is particularly evident in the film’s first half where Huston’s normally sure-handed touch with actors is not apparent and all the characters seem to lack focus. In the second half, the characters are more coherent. Additionally, the struggles to corral the mustangs are well-handled with Huston managing some excellently framed shots and sequences on the salt flats.
MGM has transferred The Misfits to DVD in the original aspect ratio of 1.66:1 utilizing its standard 16 scene selections. The black and white film transfer of this United Artists release is very pleasing. Although it does look a little soft on occasion, for the most part the print is crisp with clean whites and deep blacks. Shadow detail is very good and edge enhancement is minimal. Very few speckles or scratches are evident. Overall, the image is a fine effort by MGM despite the lack of anamorphic enhancement.
The sound is the original mono and does the job quite adequately for this dialogue-driven film. It’s clear and distortion-free throughout. English, French and Spanish sound tracks are present, with French and Spanish sub-titles also available.
In addition to the film’s unevenness as mentioned above, I have to report MGM’s usual niggardly approach to supplements. We get the original theatrical trailer presented full frame and that’s it.
Clark Gable fans and Marilyn Monroe completists will welcome the appearance of this disc. They will be rewarded by a good transfer from MGM. Others should proceed at their own risk. I am well aware that the film received a fairly positive critical response upon its initial release and for that reason some may find the film more to their liking than I did. A rental may therefore be in order for those intrigued by the title although as with most of MGM’s vintage classics series, the disc can be picked up for a reasonable $14.99.