Director: John Huston
Starring: Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift
“You’re the saddest girl I’ve ever met.” In this line you can hear the echo of writer Arthur Miller speaking to then-wife Marilyn Monroe, just one of many elements of the film which imitate real-life. The Misfits stars Monroe as an emotionally fragile divorcee who finds love with a cowboy past his glory played by Clark Gable. This isn’t the best movie that either star ever made, but it is significant in that it’s the last film either ever completed (Gable would die ten days after filming wrapped; Monroe a year after the film’s release) and there’s something very appropriate about that, given the melancholy nature of the story and these two characters.
The story takes place in Nevada, where Roslyn (Monroe) has come to live for the requisite period to obtain her divorce. During her stay she meets Guido (Eli Wallach) and his friend Gay (Gable) and sets off with them and her landlady Isabel (Thelma Ritter) to Guido’s house outside the city. Guido hasn’t lived in the house since the death of his wife and offers to let Rosalyn rent it. This is a new beginning for Rosalyn, who also starts a relationship with Gay, finding with him what each has failed to find in relationships with others. Both are fundamentally lonely people, disconnected from the people around them, and they’re happily surprised at the life they’re able to build together, though it’s destined to be short-lived. It isn’t long before Gay starts to feel restless and decides to go off “mustanging” with Guido. Roslyn comes along for the ride and on the way they pick up Perce (Montgomery Clift), a rodeo rider who might be even more emotionally wounded than Rosalyn. They go into the mountains where Rosalyn breaks down upon learning that the purpose of this expedition is to round up the wild horses so that they can be made into dog food.
All three men are, to greater and lesser degrees, in love with Rosalyn. Rosalyn loves Gay, but is drawn to both Perce and Guido, who seem so sensitive and in need of affection. There’s a sense that she wants to save these three men, just as she wants to save the horses they capture. The wild horses – which once numbered in the thousands but have been reduced to a handful – are representative of the men, who are in their own way the last of a dying breed. Gay and Perce both defiantly refuse “wages,” preferring instead to earn their livings the way they always have and without having to answer to any boss. Of course the truth of the matter is that they’re broken down and of little practical use to any employer, just as the horses are of little practical use for anything other than dog food. They are all creatures considered past their sell by dates.
The actors are great across the board, especially Gable, who brings a weary charm to his role, but it’s Monroe who captures your attention and holds it in the palm of her hand from beginning to end. Because of her status as a sex symbol (the sex symbol) Monroe isn’t always given the credit she deserves as an actress but here she renders a great and nuanced performance. She can say volumes with just a look – her breathy voice is a large part of her persona but I think she would still have been a star had she come along during the silent era because she has such an expressive face. I honestly can’t say enough good things about her work here, though you could of course argue that she’s only playing herself, the role tailor-made for her by Arthur Miller. I would argue that playing “yourself” would be the most difficult task for an actor since it would require you to expose your foibles to the world’s scrutiny and I would argue that it would be more difficult still to play the version of yourself created by your husband, forced to confront his criticisms of you in such an intense and public way.
The Misfits can be a difficult film to watch, not only because of the personal circumstances of the actors involved, but also because of the subject matter. The scenes of the group out capturing the mustangs would never make it into a film made today because they’re so unblinkingly cruel to the animals. Watching the horses as they struggle to evade capture is profoundly disturbing, more so than scenes of cruelty towards people because no matter how absorbed you are in a film you know on some level that it’s a scene being played by actors, whereas this just is. It’s a very unpleasant aspect of the film, though I recommend it nevertheless.