Seemingly misunderstood by contemporary critics, The Misfits is an adequate swan song. What seems to have floored viewers of the time is the lack of a clear-cut hero, the absence of a solid central figure. In what is nominally a cowboy flick it must have felt as if John Huston betrayed the genre. Yet the point is that for writer Arthur Miller, cowboys are mere metaphors. In belonging to a vanished age, they are symbolic of the many folk left behind by progress. Their absurd fear of earning "wages", of being trapped, is an illusion; no one is free to roam as they wish. Most of Miller's intellect is spent rooting through the personal misfortune of his characters, disturbing the instability of their lives. What emerges is that their past histories are quicksand, dogging any attempt at progress. Thus the audience has nothing concrete to hold onto, to identify with in a halfway pleasurable manner; no wonder The Misfits won a troubled reception.
On paper this is a project with one of the best possible starts in life; a feted director, a wonderful (if unstable) cast, an insightful scriptwriter and excellent technical backup. So, why isn't the screen scorched by an emotional inferno? Basically because the script doesn't put its characters into direct conflict and the cast don't moderate their acting to make this happen. In most instances the battles are with themselves, never quite as involving for the audience. Within this constraint, however, the principal cast is excellent. Each of the five central characters has suffered through, or because of, love and carries the psychic scars to prove it. Thus the cast members must draw out this torment and uncertainty without drowning The Misfits in tragedy, which they do with aplomb.
The heart of the film is Monroe, placed in a role rich in harmony with her public image of vulnerability. Her Roslyn has wound up in Nevada because that's a good place to get divorced, without once considering where she's actually going. Thus Monroe's habitual air of confusion, misplaced affection and naivete is perfect; despite her personal troubles and wasteful drug habit this is one of Monroe's most affecting performances. Beauty and charisma strike every man that crosses her path. Gable is no exception, despite being old enough to be her father. Gay's pain comes from having lost everything that was once precious, his family and his country. Gay doesn't really fit into the present and Gable forces us to recognise this, while still keeping alive the potential for change. Superficially Guido is similar to Gay, an eternal wanderer who lives the present in the shadow of the past. Monroe sees through Wallach's facade, however, and leads us to her conclusion; that he is the cause rather than the victim. To his lasting credit Wallach pitches his masked envy at just the right level.
As good, but in lesser roles, Clift and Ritter provide an essential counterbalance to the seeming middle age of the three central stars. Clift, the young and reckless rodeo rider Perce, is almost the image of Gable in his prime; already he has suffered too much yet there is still time to turn his life around. Ritter, older, wizened and resigned to a litany of whisky and cowboy flings, shows that survival is possible. Though her portrayal of Isabelle is full of compromise it never feels as though she has sold herself out.
Enhancing this clutch of performances, the black & white photography of Russell Metty is simply glorious. Appropriately enough for a story focused upon personal demons, the camera spends much of its time filling the screen with faces. Lit to bring out skin texture, Monroe looks luminous and untainted, especially in contrast to the rough, creased visage of Gable. The characters have whole lives written across their features and Metty highlights this splendidly. Unfortunately there is a weakness to such professionalism, the jarring and wholly unnecessary soft-focus applied to Monroe. A technique common at the time, now such blurry trickery makes you wonder if the projector is playing up!
Beyond his fine direction of The Misfits, Huston's talent for casting is clear. For once the background that each star brings to the film works in its favour, adding a further dimension to their work. In addition, our knowledge of what came later adds a wistful tone to the proceedings. This doesn't make The Misfits any less of a difficult film to like though, it just ensures that it's impossible to ignore. This is two hours of viewing uncomfortable and disturbing enough to catch in your mind like a fishbone. For once a movie's fundamental problems were soluble, yet everyone here appears too caught up in their real-life troubles to care. It's a shame that The Misfits didn't become the film that its potential suggested, yet even flawed this is a gem.