‘The Misfits’ in the New Yorker

First published on February 4, 1961 – and headlined ‘Misfire’ – Roger Angell’s review for The New Yorker captures the critical ambivalence that greeted The Misfits on its initial release. (Mr. Angell died in May 2022, aged 101.)

“It will require a filmgoer of immensely sterner aesthetic discipline than I possess to consider The Misfits on its artistic merits alone, for its double identity—as a major new film and as an honest-to-goodness news story—is complex and nearly indivisible. It is, of course, the last movie made by Clark Gable … It is Arthur Miller’s first screenplay, written as a serious vehicle for his wife, Marilyn Monroe, who divorced him as soon as it was completed. Its director, John Huston, and its other principals—Montgomery Clift, Eli Wallach, and Thelma Ritter—have all attained a level of accomplishment that inspires hopeful curiosity about any film in which they have a part. All these circumstances make it easy for me to report that The Misfits is almost continuously absorbing, and all the more painful for me to have to add that it strikes me as a dramatic failure of considerable dimensions.

The Misfits was filmed in Nevada, mostly outdoors, and concerns itself with a young, hopeless, and frightened divorcée who contracts a tentative alliance with a middle-aged vagabond cowboy. All is felicity until she accompanies her paramour and two footloose cronies on a business expedition to capture wild mustangs, which are to be turned over to a dog-meat factory. The cruelty of this seedy operation reawakens all her terrors of a world that has treated her most shabbily … This inadequate summary will at least indicate that Mr. Miller has been entirely earnest in his intentions, and that The Misfits contains plenty of good, chewy dramatic opportunities for its fortunate players.

The casting of the film is almost impeccable. In a part literally made for her, Miss Monroe displays a gentleness and a tired, childlike grace that are appropriate and moving and, very evidently, a reflection of herself. If she is not consistently an actress here, she is an actress at moments, notably in one scene of sad, sensual alcoholic collapse. Mr. Gable underplays his aging frontiersman with a professional awareness of his own attractiveness and of his own limitations; my only reservation is that he is almost too visibly at peace with himself as a person to be always convincing in the part of a sentimental failure. Montgomery Clift, as a young bronc rider, and Eli Wallach, as a confused, threadbare ex-bomber pilot, are admirable, particularly in several passages of comedy, and Thelma Ritter does fine as a cheerful middle-aged bat. Mr. Huston’s direction is at least deft, and his scenes of the mustang roundup, which is accomplished by airplane and flat-bed truck, are stirring and even horrifying.

It must be clear by now that all my severe doubts about The Misfits center on Arthur Miller’s screenplay, which seems to me obtrusively symbolic … I wish he had not attempted to pose his valid dramatic questions about the survival of personal goodness in an increasingly cynical and unlovely society in the person of a fallen child and three true-blue buckaroos under a big desert sky … When, at the end of the picture, Mr. Gable’s rueful cowboy, the last of the Western giants, ropes and wrestles down the last free stallion and then cuts it loose, we realise with disappointment that we have been on the Plains of Allegory all along and that the drumming of hooves does not obscure the clack of the author’s typewriter.”