The Man From Laramie (1955)

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This is the third Great Villains Blogathon in a row where I’ve chosen to write about a bad guy in a western movie. That genre’s open spaces, big ideas and conflicts, lawless or isolated communities make it fertile ground for colourful villains. All kinds of interesting opportunists and outlaws have the room and tools to be bigger than life, limited only by their gun skills, money and charisma, until they’re satisfyingly defeated by a hero who rides into town, or a lawman who finally pushes matters to a showdown. Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie is one of my favourite westerns for many reasons, one of which is its memorable villain Dave Waggoman (Alex Nicol). He’s not very layered or complicated, but thoroughly detestable and just begging for comeuppance. I enjoy watching the slow reveal of the long-simmering Shakespearean mess that created Dave, and the festering resentments he’s symbolic of, that web of family tragedy, premonition, spurned lovers, inheritance denied, and impending massacre, all of which finally sorts itself out when the titular Man, Will Lockhart (James Stewart) comes looking for vengeance.

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Dave Waggoman was, as his own father Alec (Donald Crisp) and others point out, raised by his late mother to rebel against the land and husband she hated. He’s a selfish, spoiled, vain, entitled marshmallow of a man-child, ill-equipped to deal with adult realities. He’s paranoid and touchy, given to throwing tantrums and making faces like he’s about to burst into tears at every perceived slight, but he’s also a sadistic bully who delights in senseless violence, cruelty to animals and any other unfair fight against a helpless, unarmed or outnumbered victim. He preens and admires himself in his fresh new buckskin (it’s not like he actually works at anything that would get it dusty), but outside among the other cowboys he just looks like a silly boy playing dress-up. He’s never been forced to face the consequences of his own actions, so he blames others for “starting trouble” when they respond to his attacks, and hates anyone who “steals” the affection and respect he feels is owed to him. He clearly never understood those are things earned through good acts and character, and we can gather he never had a kind, generous thought for anyone. He’s terrible, but just as bad is the enabling by his indulgent and blind (in every sense) father and the mindless obedience of the Waggoman ranch crew, who are obviously disgusted by Dave’s commands but just “follow orders.”

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Dave’s villainy makes the other “bad guy” look like an angel. Waggoman foreman and adopted son Vic (Arthur Kennedy) was promised a share of the ranch equal to Dave’s, as reward for years of real work and loyalty, not to mention the headache of babysitting the spoiled Prince well into adulthood. However, as the family drama comes to a head, Vic realizes he’ll get shut out, just like his sweetheart Barbara Waggoman (Cathy O’Donnell) always warned he would. In his hurt and anger he goes ahead with his part in Dave’s Apache gun trade, is spared during the showdown with Lockhart but ends up surrounded by furious Apaches. Thanks to a well-developed part, a fine performance by Kennedy, and the Dave-monster providing contrast, it’s hard for me to see or accept Vic as even a secondary villain. He’s too sympathetic and relatable, even similar to Lockhart in having good qualities as well as dark secrets, being motivated to vengeance by painful losses, and acting to protect his own interests against Waggoman betrayal. That’s why I love The Man from Laramie; it’s a rich and rewarding movie that gives us these fascinating ambiguous characters in addition to the one undeniably awful villain in Dave Waggoman.

This is part of The Great Villain Blogathon hosted by Silver Screenings, Shadows and Satin, and me. Click HERE to see more movie baddies.

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17 thoughts on “The Man From Laramie (1955)”

  1. Yeah, Nicol does well and makes his character a villain to hiss at. He’s a psychologically stunted creation, a little boy in the form of a man but still of a mind to pull the wings off flies.
    Kennedy’s part is by far the more interesting one, a genuinely tragic figure and a wonderfully complex villain ( one who has taken on that role almost reluctantly) who fits right into this story.

    1. I remembered commenting on your post for this movie and went looking for it today to see what I said (nothing insightful I’m afraid). Love rewatching this and always find new things, in this case I’d committed to write on Nicol and then found myself analyzing Kennedy to compare them. His performance is the best to me, his Vic is so sympathetic, I feel so bad for him getting sucked into that family’s mess.

      1. Oops, hit send a bit too soon there. Meant to go on to say I feel like revisiting it soonish now you’ve made me think of it again. I really need to get back to writing something again too, but that’s another story.
        Regardless, good choice for the blogathon.

        1. Yes, no pressure, but yes you do! 🙂 I love reading your posts. Reminded me to go back through Mann/Stewart westerns again, it’s been way too long. I love doing westerns for this blogathon, they seem to be under-represented for some reason, despite having awesome villains!

  2. I’ve got to see this! Alex Nicol’s character sounds like a villain you absolutely love to hate. I like how you describe him as a marshmallow of a man child.

    Yes, I agree that Westerns do lend themselves to colourful villains, because people (good and bad) are limited only by themselves. This makes The Man from Laramie a perfect choice for the blogathon.

    1. Marshmallow: my image of this coddled, overprotected, spoiled rotten squish who would melt if he had to face real challenges. I love to look at the westerns, and this one always stuck in my head as having a mean hateful guy you just never forget. You have to see it for that and all the other reasons it’s great!!

  3. One of THE great westerns IMHO. I re-watched it only recently with my wife (her first viewing) and was gratified by how much she enjoyed it (mind you, Stewart is her favourite movie actor).

    I really felt for Arthur Kennedy’s Vic by the end. His hard work , fierce loyalty to Alex Waggoman and getting the nasty Dave out of scrapes turned out to be all for nought after all. Blood thicker than water, and all that….
    Arthur Kennedy could always be relied upon to give a nuanced, layered performance. I also thought Donald Crisp gave one of his best portrayals as Alex.

    Good choice, Kristina!

    1. It really is, always been one of my alltime faves and I love any excuse to rewatch. Same here re Vic, he was justified to me, not in all his actions but certainly the way he felt after seeing all that work go unappreciated. Agree about Crisp, he was so good and that part where he tells Stewart about his dream always sticks in my mind. He knows where it’ll all lead. Thanks!

  4. Incidentally, that gunhand sitting astride his horse looking over Dave’s shoulder in your still is Gregg Barton. He usually played tough, mean hombres. I had the pleasure of meeting him almost 40 years after he made this film. As so often with film baddies, Gregg was a charming and delightful man.
    Just thought I’d throw that piece of trivia in…….

    1. Always welcome, thanks for sharing that. Letting out the bad side on screen must be therapeutic, so many nice actors were so good at it!

  5. Another fine entry in the Stewart – Mann duets. Nice to shine the light on this one and an actor not as prevalent as many of the others that get talked about though Kennedy sneaks in here and for us buffs, he’s always a welcome sight.

    1. Yes I love the Mann Stewart movies and this one always made such an impression on me as being deeper, with the classical story. Kennedy is so good in this he earns our sympathy and can’t be all bad, vs Nicol who you just love to hate!

  6. More Baddie Trivia…..
    In the Sixties I worked with a guy who had
    recently returned from Europe,traveling around
    with his wife,doing the typical Hippie thing,trying to
    get by selling their art and craftworks.
    They wound up in Spain,broke,more or less,
    and encountered Alex Nicol,there filming one of his
    Spaghetti Westerns RIDE AND KILL.
    Any way Alex took to this couple,stood them several meals
    and got them some work as extras on RIDE AND KILL.
    When my pal told me this tale I said oddly enough that I
    had just seen RIDE AND KILL which was showing at the
    Essoldo Hackney in London’s East End. (Spaghetti Western
    Junkie that I was at the time I might add.)
    The following night my pal and his wife padded over to
    Hackney and were dismayed to find all their scenes had failed
    to make the final cut.
    They both,understandably had nothing but good to say
    about Mr Nicol.
    Great review of this Greek Tragedy Western Kristina.
    The Blu Ray of THE MAN FROM LARAMIE is awesome,this
    film was made for High Def.
    Hard to believe the Blu Ray of COMANCHE STATION is
    even better!
    Widescreen Westerns in High Definition are spellbinding
    to say the least!

    1. I just watched Nicol in a certain McCrea movie that you might be familiar with 🙂 it was part of a 4-Joel fest I just did and will write up soon. Anyway, Nicol was so different there (and in other things I’ve seen) so he really did a good job creating the easy to hate brat in Laramie. Not surprised he was nice, the worst bads in the movies usually are. I ran through the Mann-Stewart westerns so long ago now that rewatching Laramie has me wanting to go through the others again.

  7. Great post! I liked how you referred to Dave as a man-child: that’s exactly what he is!
    Thanks for co-hosting this wonderful event!
    Kisses!
    Le

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