A resident of the "Far Side of Paradise" in critic Andrew Sarris' groundbreaking 1968 study of Hollywood film, Anthony Mann forged a successful career helming genre pictures whose artistry often put Hollywood's avowed "prestige" films to shame. Though his crime movies and Westerns never won Mann prizes in his lifetime, he earned the adulation of the 1950s French critics and ensuing generations of cinéastes for his integration of character insight and settings, as well as his skill with action.
Born in Southern California, Mann relocated to New York City with his family when he was ten. An aspiring actor from childhood, Mann quit high school in 1923 after his father died. Soon after his Broadway debut as a walk-on, Mann moved to larger roles on and off-Broadway. Along with acting, Mann also worked as a production manager, stage manager, and set designer, but he realized by the 1930s that directing was his preferred vocation. Mann's relative success as a Broadway director attracted Hollywood's attention by the late '30s. Producer David O. Selznick hired Mann in 1938 to be a talent scout and casting director, giving Mann his first taste of film directing as the supervisor on screen tests for Gone With the Wind (1939), Rebecca (1940), and Intermezzo (1939).
Moving to Paramount in 1939 (and changing his name), Mann served as an assistant director for several years, working on such films as Preston Sturges' Sullivan's Travels (1941). Mann finally got his chance to direct with the low-budget Dr. Broadway (1942). Cutting his teeth on a series of B-thrillers and musicals for Paramount, Universal, RKO, and Republic Pictures, Mann learned to make the most of the thin scripts he was assigned by using lighting, camera angles, and camera movement to enhance what little story there was. Mann's style increasingly matured in a series of sharp black-and-white, film noir-thrillers from 1947 to 1950. T-Men (1947), his first real success, featured an ominous, location-shot urban atmosphere that gelled with a story of government agents' infiltration of a crime ring, while Desperate (1947) contained the archetypal noir image of a violent beating lit by a sole swinging light. Raw Deal (1948) highlighted Mann's tough, economical, yet expressive narrative talent in a harsh revenge story featuring a memorably psychotic Raymond Burr. Though his name was not on it, He Walked by Night (1948) bore Mann's touch in its semi-documentary, expressively lit examination of a master criminal and the cops on his trail.
After Border Incident (1949), a gritty story pitting G-men against Southwest immigration smugglers, Mann shifted to the Western. Though they were flops, Devil's Doorway (1950) and The Furies (1950) were notable as early revisions of the genre, with Devil's Doorway exploring a Native American war vet's struggles against white settlers and The Furies centering on Barbara Stanwyck's troubled relationship with her rancher father. Mann hit his Western stride, though, when he returned to the noir concerns with manhood, ethics, and violence in Winchester '73 (1950). Mann's first in an eight-film collaboration with star James Stewart, Winchester '73 set the parameters of Mann's Western "hero," "a man who could kill his own brother," and his re-interpretation of the Western landscape. Shot on-location in ultra-noir black-and-white, Winchester '73's increasingly jagged terrain matched the psychological disintegration of Stewart's Lin McAdam as he seeks revenge for his father's death, ending with a cliff-bound shoot-out. An enormous hit, Winchester '73 not only launched Mann's exceptional series of 1950s Westerns, but also helped establish Stewart's complex postwar star image.
Though Mann also dabbled in other genres, including the Stewart war movie Strategic Air Command (1955), biopic The Glenn Miller Story (1954) -- with Stewart in the eponymous role -- and literary adaptation God's Little Acre (1958), Mann's Westerns elevated him to A-list status in the '50s. Graduating to Technicolor with Bend of the River (1952) and to CinemaScope with The Man from Laramie (1955), Mann's next quartet of Westerns with Stewart were equally forceful (and popular) journeys into troubled Westerner psyches. Veering away from pastoral landscapes, Mann set his films in mountains, forests, and desert salt flats that were a spectacularly photographed index of Stewart's heroes' neuroses. Doing the right thing for the sake of the community exacts a considerable, violent cost on Stewart's ex-con in Bend of the River and his loner in The Far Country (1955) (both scripted by Winchester '73's Borden Chase). As in Winchester '73, the affable "Jimmy Stewart" reveals a disturbing ability to match the villain's cruelty amid harsh Oregon and Alaska settings. Stumbling on a dysfunctional family worthy of Greek drama in The Man from Laramie, Stewart's vengeful interloper gets dragged through a fire and shot through the hand on the way to unearthing the rot bred by the expansive Waggoman ranch. With its handful of characters and all-outdoor action, The Naked Spur (1953) evoked a chamber drama intimacy as Stewart's bounty hunter tracks Robert Ryan's criminal, reaching the edge of hysteria (and a turbulent river) in the process. After Mann and Stewart parted ways, Man of the West (1958) was the only subsequent Mann Western on a par with his Stewart quintet. Though Gary Cooper rarely matched Stewart's raw tension, his ex-con encounters familial violence akin to Winchester '73, with an added element of sexual kink, sealing Mann's vision of the brutality needed to become a "Man of the West."
Finished with the epic West, Mann turned to the epic in the early '60s. Though his majestic rendering of the exploits of 11th century Spanish hero El Cid (1961) was a highly popular kinetic spectacle, his subsequent The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) failed to reach a large audience, despite its pictorial beauty and engrossing action, and bankrupted its producer. Mann died of a heart attack during production of the spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic (1968) in 1967, preventing him from experiencing the adoration enjoyed by such other late '60s critical rediscoveries as Douglas Sirk and Nicholas Ray.