USA / 1961
Director: John Huston
Writer: Arthur Miller
Cast: Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, Thelma Ritter, James Barton, Estelle Winwood
The lyrical beauty of this Western has always tended to be overshadowed by the many stories attached to it. Indeed, the script was written by playwright Arthur Miller, at the time undergoing a messy divorce from the movie’s female star Marilyn Monroe, who played, yes, a showgirl heading for Reno to obtain a divorce. Monroe’s mental status during filming was said to be dangerously unstable – a doctor was on call 24 hours a day for both Monroe and co-star Montgomery Clift – and she was booked into a psychiatric hospital the day after shooting finished.
The fact that The Misfits was also Monroe and Clark Gable’s final screen appearances also adds greatly to the film’s mystique. Gable was quoted as saying “Christ, I’m glad the picture’s finished. She [Monroe] damned near gave me a heart attack!” – just days before he did suffer a fatal heart attack. And then there’s his character’s famous speech, telling Monroe, “Honey, we all gotta go sometime, reason or no reason. Dying’s as natural as living. A man who’s afraid to die is afraid to live.” It’s not hard to see why people say the movie was cursed.
The film’s actual story is a moving portrait of three cowboys who have seen life pass them by. These misfits – Gay (Gable), Guido (Eli Wallach) and Perce (Clift) – have all suffered unhappy relationships, an experience they share with Roslyn (Monroe), a showgirl they meet in Reno. The cowboys finally find a purpose when they set out on an expedition to round up some ‘misfit’ wild horses, whose only value is as dog food. The men are prepared to do battle with the mustangs; what they’re not expecting is an even fiercer battle with Roslyn.
Despite almost unbearable heat while on location in Nevada and the much-discussed ‘disagreements’ between the cast (and also between Miller and Monroe), The Misfits is notable for some career-best performances. Clark Gable was never better (he also performed all of his own stunts), while Montgomery Clift delivers a mature performance in a role that disturbingly mirrors his own experiences. Writing in the Sunday Times , Dilys Powell summed up the film’s appeal when she noted, “The movie’s theme, with its implications of an essentially male savagery, suits Mr Huston, and he has drawn extraordinary qualities from all his chief players.”