A well-made horror movie can leave a viewer disturbed for days, curious and questioning what they just saw. The 1961 film directed by John Huston and written by Arthur Miller, “The Misfits” is not a horror flick, but a profound drama about the personal struggles of four central characters living in a environment that is quickly changing around them. There is no gratuitous violence, serial killings, or murders, though at least one character is maimed and others brutalized. Seen through the eyes of four central characters, the movie is an unsettling lesson in the effects of progress and careless human behavior. On its surface it is a western. But like the darkness and desperation that lurks beneath each characters’ surface, The Misfits is as fortuitous as good science-fiction and far more unsettling than any traditional horror movie.
The history behind The Misfits is a disturbing story on its own. Its stars, Clark Gable in his last film, Marylin Monroe, in her last completed role, and Montgomery Clift all ended up dead within a few years of production; (Gable and Monroe died immediately after and Clift-five years later). Hollywood lore implies that Gable was possibly driven to his fatal heart attack after his impatience with the antics of a less than professional Marilyn Monroe. After too much waiting around, the Hollywood tough guy performed many of his own stunts which may have led to his death. Monroe never finished another film and was infamously found dead from prescription pills in her apartment. Clift, after years of torment over his sexual identity, drug and alcohol abuse and a disfiguring car accident, would be similarly found dead at home after only two more acting roles. Only Ely Wallach would go on to flourish as a memorable character actor, most notably in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and Francis Coppola’s 1991 film, Godfather III.
From the opening credits The Misfits’ musical score creates a grim and menacing mood. Wild crescendos of spiraling strings imply darkness and leave you wondering what tragedies lay ahead. Monroe’s Roslyn Taber is the first character introduced in depth. She is recently divorcing and being coached on her new-found freedom by a cynical, but friendly landlord, Isabelle, played by Thelma Ritter. As with many of Monroe’s film roles, Roselyn seems distracted, delicate and very lost. She immediately encounters Guido, (played by Eli Wallach) a mechanic who disposes of Ros’s relationship-battered car, which she clearly wants no part of. Guido is immediately captivated by the divorcee’s beauty and childlike innocence.
Guido and Isabelle escort Monroe to a train station while still encouraging her to stay in town. There they encounter a freelance cowboy, Gay (Gable) who is also swept up in Monroe’s awe and potential. Gay uses his immediate charm to join the conversation, promising to nurture this obviously troubled woman. Gay’s carefree spirit and talks of the open land encourages Monroe to stay putt in the country; and when she asks for what purpose he says to “just live.” Something compels Guido and the others to look after Monroe, and soon Guido offers Monroe to visit his deserted house in the country, a shell of the home he once shared with his late wife. All four “misfits” head for the country and celebrate their meeting with some booze and dancing in the still dust-covered bungalow. Guido tries to seduce Roselyn with some fancy dancing, but after a tour of the empty home it’s clear he struggles with demons of his own. His heart is as vacant as the deserted cottage, as the couple’s framed wedding photo still hangs above their empty bed. A symbolic surrogate family is formed around Roselyn, with Gay as the father, Guido-the husband or crazed brother, and the elder divorcee Isabelle as the mother. But as the movie goes on, its clear that you are witnessing, not only the struggles of human beings dealing with human problems but with a changing way of life.
As progress grows and the cowboy way of life fades, animals are used up as commodities or domesticated for human amusement and companionship. The natural landscape is battered by rodeos and carnivals full of rowdy tourists, fuel-powered biplanes and automobiles. On the landscape a battle is occurring between humankind and its role in nature. Beneath the surface individuals also struggle with their own primeval instincts and need for identity, love and companionship. Human nature is becoming more about the human and less about the natural world.
After becoming more familiar with these four characters, their true nature is revealed. To the seemingly settled animal herder and drifter Gay, things appear quite different beneath his rugged and smiling exterior. You begin to question if Gay is taking his own advice; is he himself living? At first Gay seems strong, independent and content with his freedom and career. His leisure time is filled with boozing, boasting and infidelity. The one thing he strives to avoid is “wages,” a term heard repeatedly that represents the role of complacency in choosing a career. But the cowboy who boasts about his independence from wage-work is actually living in his own captivity. He speaks of a wife who left him for his cousin and daughters, he sees once or twice a year. After a long night of drinking, Gay is disappointed by the disappearance of his daughters, though it is never clear if they had visited or were just trespassing on his imagination. Calling for his daughters in a drunken public tirade, Gay displays a huge transformation from wise old man to a lost and lonely child who falls in tears from the hood of a parked car.
The bigger story beneath the human drama is how humankind has used up much of natures resources, depleting the landscape and its precious creatures to serve its own needs. Animals are fenced in, beaten and tortured as Clift’s Perce character earns some freelance cash and glory at the local rodeo. Animal cruelty is at the center of this amusing spectacle, carnival-like atmosphere of drunks, tourists and locals, who blindly follow the trend of modern entertainment. Even the welfare of the bull rider is secondary, as he is kicked, blooded and beaten only to climb back on his horse to do it all again. The faces and clothing have changed but Perce is eerily similar to a modern-day gladiator; bulls and wild horses are the tigers he is commissioned to slay to avoid his eventual mortality.
Guido makes a final attempt to excite Gay and Perce with one more good roust for freelance money and leads Roselyn and the men to what’s left of the frontier. Here the men are to round up a herd of wild horses and leave them captive for a “boss” who will pay them for their efforts. His enthusiasm is diminished as there aren’t many horses left where there once were thousands. The men agree to hunt the mere six mavericks that Guido has spotted. His rickety propeller plane shoots exhaust fumes and clouds the air as Guido leads the tiny herd to the others. He flies close to their hides, using his fuel-powered machine much like a traditional animal herder would do on horseback. As the animals run toward the waiting cowboys, Gay and Perce point out the insignificance of pursuing such a small amount of prey. It becomes obvious to Gay that the act of rounding up hundreds of animals had previously disassociated these living things as precious and having any right to life. They are in “God’s country” as Gay calls it; but clearly these animals had not been treated kindly. The thrill of conquering a thundering herd of hundreds of wild animals is no longer glorious. In a most revealing monologue, Gay notes how the act seems less admirable and more brutal when you’re dealing with only a few.
Regardless of the size of the herd the task is no less challenging, as the horses give the men a run for their money. The men stand in the back of a pick-up truck and struggle to lasso the passing horses. When Roselyn asks about the purpose of capturing the animals, Gay explains how they will be sold off and used for dog food. Roselyn cries in disapproval. Gay’s embarrassment is clear, as the act of rounding up mavericks for a decent pay day is seen as primitive and miniscule. Ropes are tied to car tires and used as anchors, as the cowboys lasso the horses by their necks. Roselyn winces at the sheer brutality of their act and runs off to the open field, shouting: “Murderers! You’re all dead!” Mother nature is being victimized, and her voice is heard through the violent outbursts of film legend Marilyn Monroe. As the film comes to a close, Monroe’s disturbing cries are as frightening as the victim of a horror movie slaying.
In The Misfits most living things are victims, and neither animals nor their captors are truly free. One by one, all main characters crumble emotionally, and the seemingly lost female, Roselyn, is the character through which all breakdowns are witnessed. You feel the pain, loss and displacement as its filtered through Monroe’s portrayal and her mother nature-like persona. At first weak, impressionable and vulnerable to hurt, Roselyn is the most stable character with conviction toward kindness to all living things, common sense and simplicity; Guido has given in to his role of lonely widower and discouraged war-veteran, looking to earn money at any expense; the veteran divorcee and witness to tons of failed marriages, Isabelle, leaves the group to pursue her ex-husband (now married to her best friend) for a bittersweet reunion of displacement and nostalgia; the rodeo bull rider willingly destroys his body and continues to relish in the empty promise of inheriting his deceased father’s ranch; and relic cowboy Gay fails to wash away his lonely bachelor-blues and the void of his missing family, no matter how much he drinks.
The Misfits is an intense black and white western about four sentimental individuals, whose past dreams and promises never panned out in an ever-changing world. Set in the disappearing landscape of the old west, the imposition of capitalism and a growing industry is shown through the eyes of a fading plainsman, broken down bull rider, disenchanted mechanic and two former housewives. In the new world earning a living is a troubling necessity, though these “misfits” desperately seek an alternative. But The Misfits is more importantly a horrific human drama and as fortuitous as powerful science fiction. Its climactic scene shows human beings’ physical, emotional and societal struggles and a careless means toward survival at the expense of the natural world. The progress of industry, introduction of wages and capitalism in the old west warns society that while we keep chasing the promises of our forefathers, we seem less and less independent. Like the tragic characters of this powerful film, as we become more “civilized,” treading on the earth and its inhabitants, we head only toward a less natural and dismal life on a depleting planet.