Indeed, just as the initial omens were not promising, so the film’s release – it barely broke even – didn’t suggest that it would in time become regarded as an important movie for all concerned and something we’d still be watching more than half a century later.
Serendipity played its part in The Misfits’ long-term status, and not only because Gable, Monroe and Clift, notwithstanding the problematic shoot, ended up giving memorably fine performances. As it happened, it turned out to be the last completed film for both Gable (who died just 10 days after filming finished) and Monroe (who lived on for another year and a half). For his part, Clift had only two further major roles before his own demise in 1966.
The film’s consequent association with premature death (though Gable, admittedly, was, at 59, no spring chicken) and the kind of celebrity worship which that can provoke hasn’t harmed its reputation one bit. But I’d suggest there’s more to the film’s enduring value than that kind of slightly morbid cult interest.
Alongside the heartfelt performances, The Misfits is memorable for the way Metty’s black-and-white cinematography creates taut, fraught, resonant relationships between the characters (and between humans and horses) in the Nevada desert. But perhaps most rewarding of all is how the almost palpable atmosphere of pain, disappointment and ubiquitous mortality reinforces, complicates and enriches the script’s sometimes trite conception of damaged masculine souls (the ranchers and rodeo-riders played by Gable, Clift and Wallach) redeemed by their encounter with a woman (Monroe’s divorcee Roslyn). Roslyn is essentially presented as a life-force corrective to their apparent indifference regarding the suffering of all the gentle, innocent and beautiful creatures on this earth.
Due to their various personal circumstances, Gable, Clift and Monroe come across as fragile, vulnerable, indecisive and not quite sure where they’re headed or why. That rather muddies Miller’s ‘message’ (which was probably inspired by his own feelings about and experiences with Monroe), which is no bad thing. For all the (strikingly staged and shot) struggles with stallions and so on, the film consequently feels less like some sort of poetic fable about primal forces, and more like something recognisably human in scale and nature.
Misfits? Hardly. Aren’t these folks actually just like the rest of us, trying to get by while turning a blind eye to the inevitable? Huston may have been stewed a lot of the time during shooting, but the film has more in common with his very finest works – The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Fat City (1972) and The Dead (1987) – than might at first be apparent. In his book The American Cinema, critic Andrew Sarris famously included Huston in the ‘Less than Meets the Eye’ category of directors. I’d venture to suggest that with The Misfits, thanks in no small part to serendipity, the contrary might be the case.