Man Without a Star is a mid-‘50s western directed by King Vidor, who was a notable director, especially in the western genre. Vidor started his career in the 1910s, and this was one of his last movies. He went on to do War and Peace with Audrey Hepburn and Solomon and Sheba, but after that he did only a few documentary shorts.
It’s an interesting film, because Vidor was fairly right-wing, but this film is definitely not. Instead, it’s anti-big business. Kirk Douglas produced as well as starring, which might be an explanation. Douglas plays a travelling cowboy who ends up back in the small town in Wyoming where he grew up. It’s the era of ranches being fenced off, instead of cows roaming free and being brought back for sale by cowboys.
There’s a love interest played by Jeanne Crain, Reed Bowman. Bowman is a female rancher who has a plan to fence the range, and Douglas ends up working for her. Douglas also takes a young cowboy, Jeff Jimson (William Campbell), under his wing when they meet hopping trains, so there’s a buddy film angle as well. Of course there’s some gunfighting, but it leans more into the comedy and romance side than towards action. It’s populated by a lot of classic character actors like Richard Boone and Jay C. Flippen.
Man Without a Star is very much of its time. It clearly wants to be a serious movie, but there’s a lot of humour in it. That sometimes dilutes the grit. Douglas sings some songs as well, and I don’t think the tonal changes really work the way they wanted them to.
It’s an interesting movie nonetheless, with a good plot and one of the great all-time movie stars in the lead, despite the fact that Douglas is mugging for the camera. It’s also very well photographed—that’s one of the things Vidor was really known for—and here he has cinematographer Russell Metty in charge, who also shot Touch of Evil, Spartacus, The Misfits and most of the classic Douglas Sirk films, as well as working on Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons and doing a couple of films with John Huston. Unsurprisingly, it looks pretty good, with very nice use of Technicolor.
I wish it was a bit leaner and less goofy, because there are definitely the trappings of a real classic in there. If a John Ford, Budd Boetticher or even John Sturges had come in instead of Vidor, it would have been quite a different film, I think.
Masters of Cinema has put together a package that includes a commentary from Barry Forshaw and Kim Newman, an interview with film scholar Neil Sinyard, and the film’s trailer. The accompanying booklet has a new essay on the film by Rich Johnson, and a piece on the western films of King Vidor by Richard Coombs.