Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift in The Misfits (1961)


(director: John Huston; screenwriter: Arthur Miller; cinematographer: Russell Metty; editor: George Tomasini; cast: Clark Gable (Gay Langland), Marilyn Monroe (Roslyn Taber), Montgomery Clift (Perce Howland), Thelma Ritter (Isabelle Steers), Eli Wallach (Guido); Runtime: 125; United Artists; 1961)
“The Misfits is about some modern day Reno denizens who have trouble fitting into society…”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Even though Arthur Miller wrote this film for Marilyn and she was most affecting in her role as a vulnerable single lady, this was possibly the best role Gable ever had — excluding GWTW. Nevertheless, he told friends he was working with a bunch of loonies: At the time of shooting Clift was abusing drugs and on the verge of a mental breakdown, and Arthur and Marilyn were experiencing marital woes. Also, it is interesting to note that this was both Clark’s and Marilyn’s last film. He died of a heart attack just 2 days after the film was completed. Friends say that his rapid loss of 40 pounds to be fit for the action and to look good for Marilyn may have precipitated the attack, though this was denied by the surviving Gable family members. Clark insisted on doing all the rigorous stunts without aid. Marilyn’s supposed suicide came in 1962, about a year after the film opened.

The Misfits is about some modern day Reno denizens who have trouble fitting into society, as they question life and their motives for doing what they are doing. Gable is the hard drinking cowboy who is fast with the women, but suffers from an inner melancholy. Monroe is the recent divorcee, coming to Reno to get out of a bad marriage. She is over-sensitive, and is terribly confused about who she is. Eli is the second-banana to Clark who secretly despises him while pretending to be his good friend. He pretends to feel things he doesn’t feel. Clift is the honest cowboy who bemoans the fact that his father died in an accident and left the ranch he loves more than anything else in this world to his remarried mother and her new husband, who has the gall to offer Clift wages to work the ranch he once owned. He is now wandering aimlessly on the rodeo circuit. He is the young heroic version of the older Gable character.

Marilyn acts as the ‘mother superior’ to all these men who are attracted to her both physically and spiritually. The film tries to debunk the Western myth of rugged individualism, by showing how vulnerable they are and how they try to mask their feelings by acting tough. After much verbiage the climactic mustang round-up scene culminates in a heavily laden bout of symbolism referring to the cowboys’ need to be free and independent, which Arthur Miller calls pure poppycock, a myth that was created and maintained by those who really don’t know what a cowboy’s life is really like.

If you are looking for an action Western you will not find it here, even though you have a director and the stars of the film who have been very successful in previous Western action films. There are no heroes, only lonely people trying to live with their illusions. All this melodrama might be confusing for those who never dreamed they would see a Western with its stars having psychological problems, and who are worried about earning a living.

This is a superior Western despite its non-action and debunking of one of cinema’s great myths, mainly because of its incisive characterizations of these misfits and because it was fun watching these big stars work together; especially, when realizing that there was a lot of truth in the script that pertained to their real-life situations.