At a certain point in John Huston’s film of Arthur Miller’s original screenplay, “The Misfits,” Marilyn Monroe’s breasts are poised to tumble out of her blouse and into Clark Gable’s hungering mouth. She seems born to the task of suckling this aging cowboy, as well as his two friends, played by Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift. Without the nourishment bursting from her blouse, these three losers are unlikely to survive for long. They are predators whose prey is becoming extinct because of their greed, and without prey, the predators themselves shall surely die. And in these final days in the Nevadan desert, each in turn makes his case for salvation via the milky world of Monroe’s nurturing breasts, now freshly available in the wake of a Reno divorce.
On the surface, “The Misfits” plays as Miller’s screed against masculinity, written in the desperate haze of the disintegration of his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. He is wild with fear of his marriage being eclipsed by the powerful allure of the men will fill Monroe’s life in his absence. It is the paranoia of competition, which sets man against man in the sexual arena where the best man often loses. This story of a divorcee who rides into the desert with three crusty suitors is the nightmare of all men who have lost the woman they love. Beneath the competing passions lie the roots of murder, and since these men are still too civilized to murder each other, they band together to round up a dozen misfit mustangs, and then to murder these equine doppelgangers, and sell them for dogfood.
But the film goes deeper than that. Miller realizes that he is the fourth member of this gang, and no better than the other three. In fact, these three men are not simply an invasion of masculine force that will determine the future of his dissolving wife, but a harbinger of his own lonely fate. And she will reject them just as she has rejected him. When men depend on the favors of a woman to perpetuate their own childlike alienation from the rest of the world, they give her the power of the ultimate predator. And in they end, as each continues his solitary journey, they will perish, and like figments of a Bunuellian dream, they will grasp for their mother’s breast in their final vertiginous moments.
I have never been a fan of Marilyn Monroe, but her performance in “The Misfits” has stayed with me through the years. Watching it again today, I see that her acting is really no better here than elsewhere, but Huston captures something in her expressions that I have never seen in her cardboard airhead roles. Except in the earlier scenes with Thelma Ritter, who carries the scenes she shares with Monroe, she is terrible when she has to act. Her close-up reaction shots, however, are often remarkable. I don’t know if this is the magic of Huston’s direction, or some combustive intuition that manifests itself in the muscles of her face, but it strikes me as real as the projections from Marlon Brando’s id that illuminated the mystery of Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.”
John Huston is possibly the least brilliant of Hollywood’s pantheon directors. He batting average is 250, with one out of every four movies being a treasure and the other three ranging from indigestible swill to passable junk food. “The Misfits” is more Arthur Miller’s movie than his. But Huston does full justice to it. Even Gable’s ridiculous over-acting in key scenes is believable in the hyperbolized emotionalism of Miller’s erotic nightmare. Eli Wallach and Montgomery Clift are excellent throughout, Clift being especially good. I kept wondering if he were playing out his relationship with Elizabeth Taylor here, as so many of the scenes echoes things Taylor has said about her intimate relationship with Clift.
“The Misfits” benefits from its not being a film adaption of a pre-existing Arthur Miller play, but a living entity created for the screen, for these particular actors, with much of it being revised and rewritten in the artistic fury of production. Had it been simply the transfer to the screen of a work that had a pre-existing life on the stage, it would not be nearly so complexly alive.