'One thing about this town, it's always full of interesting strangers.’
The 1961 movie ‘The Misfits’ is a sad tale of lonely hearts, lost souls and the fading West.
Scripted by Arthur Miller and directed by John Huston, it stars Miller’s then wife Marilyn Monroe as a recently divorced woman looking to start a new chapter. In Reno she encounters veteran cowboy Clark Gable and his tow-truck driving sidekick Eli Wallach. For a while they settle in Wallach’s unfinished house on the edge of the Nevada desert.
'That's what I can't get used to. Everything keeps changing.’
Gable has a wistful air. He’s a man out of time. He laments the passing of the old West and struggles to come to terms with modern life. Wallach mourns his wife who died in childbirth a year or so ago. It was for her that he was building the house. Monroe, scarred by previous relationships, seeks emotional truth and independence.
'If I'm going to be alone, I want to be by myself.’
They’re all misfits - trying to deal with the past, to find companionship, to define some relevance and purpose in the midst of progress and change. Having enlisted the help of rodeo rider Montgomery Clift, the men set about rounding up wild horses in the desert - a last taste of freedom and the autonomous life that is fast disappearing.
‘It's better than wages, ain’t it?’
‘Sure, anything's better than wages.’
‘The Misfits’ is a complex movie, a reflection on the rootless and displaced; on people left behind by progress, powerless to control their own lives.
At one stage Gable relates an anecdote which may provide a key to understanding the plot.
'Did you ever hear the story about the city man out in the country? He sees this fella sittin' on his porch. So he says, "Mister, could you tell me how I could get back to town?" The fella says, "No." "Well, could you tell me how to get to the Post Office?" The fella says, "No." "Well, do you know how to get to the Railroad Station?" "No." "Boy," he says, "you sure don't know much, do ya?" The fella says, "No. But I ain't lost.”'
There may be a lesson for us all here.
In times of transformation and upheaval, all around us we see doubts and dilemmas. We chase fads and fashions. We pursue answers - new horizons and fresh certainties. It’s easy to get confused and disorientated. If we can just retain a robust sense of who we are, an adherence to some core principles, then maybe we’ll not get lost. Values can help us navigate change.
'You know, sometimes when a person don't know what to do, the best thing is to just stand still.’
An air of melancholy hangs over ‘The Misfits’. It was a troubled production. Huston drank and gambled his way through the shoot. Miller had written the screenplay for Monroe, but their relationship deteriorated in the course of filming. He was constantly redrafting the script and her addictions led to delays. Clift too was fragile. Gable, who had clearly been unwell, died of a heart attack a few days after filming ended. He was just short of sixty. Monroe passed away a year and a half later. ‘The Misfits’ was her last film.
Writing about Monroe in his memoir many years later, Miller observed the following:
'Whatever Marilyn was, she was not indifferent; her very pain bespoke life and the wrestling with the angel of death. She was a living rebuke to anyone who didn’t care.'
'I watched you suffer a dull aching pain.
Now you've decided to show me the same.
No sweeping exit or offstage lines
Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind.
Wild horses couldn't drag me away.
Wild, wild horses couldn't drag me away.'
‘Wild Horses’, The Rolling Stones (Keith Richards / Mick Jagger)