The Misfits tells the story of the newly divorced Roslyn (Marilyn Monroe) who meets and immediately moves in with a much older man, ageing cowboy, Gay (Clark Gable). Matters are complicated by the presence of Gay’s friend Guido (Eli Wallach) who also has his eye on Roslyn, and rodeo rider Perce Howland (Montgomery Clift) who definitely wouldn’t say no if Roslyn were to ask “how about it, stud?”.
There isn’t all that much to it, plot-wise. This is a character driven piece about four damaged people all looking for something, all looking for a way to make a connection with another person, to reconcile their own unique emotional traumas, and find a way of making their way in a world that doesn’t seem to have an obvious place for them.
In my opinion, the performances here are universally good, although it’s Gable who really shines. His portrayal of the cowboy desperate to maintain his independence (“You don’t want to work for wages, do you?”), in an ever-changing world, one that doesn’t really seem to need or want cowboys any more, is really something. He literally twinkles in his one-on-one scenes with Monroe, with warmth and charm in abundance. This must have been no mean feat for the 59 year-old veteran actor who would regularly have to wait in the searing desert heat, with other cast and crew, for Monroe who was routinely late to set, if she showed at all (so the story goes). Gable suffered a heart attack two days after filming wrapped, and died 10 days later.
Monroe herself really wasn’t well either, and was known to be battling with prescription drug addiction and depression. There are a number of scenes shot in soft focus to counter the effect Monroe’s troubles had on her appearance, although when you see the shots where the lens wasn’t all greased up, you can see that she was as beautiful as ever.
It’s Roslyn’s beauty and compassion that draws the men to her, like moths to the proverbial flame, and her beauty that makes her the subject of many other men’s stares. There are times during the film when this made me really uncomfortable – that sense that she’s just there for the taking – particularly because she’s so damned nice to everyone, it sort of makes it hard for her to say no, or when she doesn’t even seem to realise.
The vulnerability and sadness she exhibits as Roslyn is really rings true, as does the sense that this character is a lost soul. Perhaps that’s because the screenplay was written by her then husband, Arthur Miller. A man we would expect to have an insight into the enigmatic Marilyn. How much of Marilyn was in Roslyn? We’ll never know, but the mythos surrounding her – her image as an iconic pin-up, the marriages, the depression, the drug problem, JFK, the myriad conspiracy theories – can make it easy to forget quite how talented she really was. That’s why The Misfits, is such a fitting film for her career to end on. It was the last one she finished before her death in 1962.
The climax of the film is a seemingly endless sequence where Gay, Guido and Perce are rounding up wild horses with a view to selling them for dog food, something that the deeply sensitive Roslyn finds utterly abhorrent and unbearable. I have to admit, I found this last 20-30 minutes quite hard to watch: the tension grows and grows to the point of being excruciating. It’s pretty uncomfortable simply because the actions being depicted are so violent, and all the characters are basically unravelling, to a lesser or greater extent.
The Misfits is a moving character study performed by some of Hollywood’s best known actors towards the end of their careers (Clift died aged 45 in 1966, only Wallach reached a grand old age), written by a renowned play-write (Miller) and directed by Hollywood legend John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, Key Largo, The African Queen). Perhaps there’s an element nostalgia on my part, if you can have nostalgia for a time you didn’t experience, but there’s just something about this film.