Link Jones (Gary Cooper) rides into town carrying a large sum of money in his bag and encounters a man coming out of the saloon with a ladder who is about to replace the sign outside his establishment to show that their singer has been changed. Their previous employee, Billie Ellis (Julie London) walks out at that second and bids the place a farewell, then goes over to the railway station to catch her train. Link is going for that train as well, and is nervous about it as it will be the first time he has ever travelled that way, but as he stands on the platform waiting for it to draw up, the local sheriff accosts him - doesn't he know him from somewhere...?
For some Man of the West was the great James Stewart/Anthony Mann Western that never was, as Stewart had dearly wanted the lead role but due to a falling out it was given to the older Cooper instead, giving rise to complaints that Coop was inapproriate for it due to his advancing years. It's true he is unconvincing as far as his weathered features went in a part obviously designed for a younger man, but actually this was more effective than was often given credit for, as Link is meant to be a man with a dark and long ago past which he has so far successfully escaped from, or has until that fateful journey is interrupted by bandits.
Not only that, but they are outlaws who Link knows, having grown up with them and run with their gang, committing any number of atrocities against a society doing its best to outgrow such evildoers. Once he has been thrown off the carriage he was on along with Billie and a gambler she knows, Beasley (Arthur O'Connell), they strike out for the nearest town, but happen across the isolated home of the gang, led by Link's elderly but powerful uncle, Dock Tobin (a savage Lee J. Cobb giving it his all). Dock is delighted to see him, believing at first that his nephew has returned to the fold, but his men are less convinced, and Link's despicable cousin Coaley (future Hawaii Five-0 star Jack Lord) does his worst to rile the newcomer.
The question here is whether Link really has moved on, or if proximity to these lowlifes will have him headed back to his old ways no matter how much he tries to resist. Of all the Hollywood Westerns of this decade, this is one with a strong atmosphere of barely suppressed violence, and you find yourself sitting out the tense dialogue exchanges to see when they will erupt into brutality. Any one of Dock's gang could kill Link and his companions at any time, and they have a mind to rape Billie as well, leaving an uncomfortable tone to what was far from welcomed by the public in its day. The poor opinion of this was down to the aforementioned suitability of Cooper, but seeing it now it could have been that Man of the West sets out to disturb.
Quite unlike most of its peers, and there are scenes in this which stick in the mind and not because of any benevolent air. It may end on a note of hope, but only one which indicates that you should count the blessings of civilisation and not take too much for granted. The part where Billie is forced to strip while Link is held at knifepoint by is infamous in its ability to make the audience squirm, but there is more than that, and the film is cruel enough to allow her to be raped after we think the danger has passed. Link may get his revenge on Coaley by subjecting him to an extended beating and humiliation, yet we get no satisfaction from it as we see the character has begun to regress to his previous lifestyle, and it disgusts him. Then there's the gunfight that the story ends on, containing some of the loneliest and bleakest deaths of the genre; this was powerful and provocative, and can be regarded now as the cult classic it is. Music by Leigh Harline.