Arthur Miller’s movie, The Misfits, is a curious article. It continues several of Miller’s favorite preoccupations and, in some respects, it is a sequel to Death of a Salesman (“The Further Adventures of Biff Loman,” it might be called); but it is, in the main, a violently forced dramatization of a theme that Miller has hitherto expressed only in passing and almost inadvertently. The theme is communication, and Miller now attacks it with a tireless, but also tiresome, patience.
The issue of communication has generally been built into Miller’s plays because his characters tend to be inarticulate, and their inability to communicate has invariably contributed to the major crises of their lives. In his first two successful plays, father and son are basically separated by different views of life, but they are kept even further apart by their inability to find common terms of discourse. In the last full-length play (A View from the Bridge), Eddie Carbone is ruined by incestuous love which so bewilders him that he will not acknowledge it and refuses to understand when the lawyer-interpreter of the play breaks it down into little words for him. But the failure to communicate and to listen has remained secondary; primary attention has always gone to that meaning, that significance which is so unfortunately being overlooked.
But now, in The Misfits, the problem of communication has moved to center stage. Instead of being subsidiary, communication is the issue, and soon there is nothing to communicate but communication itself. Nothing hard remains here, no crisis except a purely personal one. A character complains of her husband that he was never there, that he never communicated. What kind of person was he? What might he have communicated? That is not the point, and we need not be told. The question about these people is whether, not what, they communicate, and who they are is rather secondary. At the end we learn rather abruptly that one of the four main characters is a scoundrel. The disclosure seems arbitrary, for all the clues Miller industriously sows in the published script. The original charge against this man is that he failed to communicate with his wife, but, in this failure, he has done no more than share in the general contagion; no one has been communicating with anybody his whole life long. Controlled by this theme, the personalities are left as whatever we want them to be, whatever Miller decrees from this moment to that, or whatever actors care to make of them.
This emphasis on communicating while remaining inarticulate, on being there but not necessarily possessing any qualities of mind or character, is all highly appropriate to the participation of two of the great presences of all time—Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe. No presence, just in itself, has ever been so reassuring as Gable’s. And no one has ever been here, without any need for a word or a thought, quite so emphatically as Miss Monroe. We know they are present, and so, in the two main roles, we do not miss characters. Gable and Miss Monroe communicate themselves, and that is plenty. (How on earth the wife of the one character and the former husband of the other failed to get the message is more than most of us can imagine.) In the absence of written parts that would establish some individuality for them, these two great identities are indispensable to the film, and, in fact, the film is unthinkable without Miss Monroe, without this effulgent “golden girl” (to use Miller’s phrase) shedding her light on the rest of the cast. She is Miss Communication herself, the great communicator of our time, and every male past puberty is tuned to her wave length.
Miller’s plays, in spite of his preference for general issues and symbolic occupations, are full of substance. In the past, he wrote solid parts for his characters, instead of depending upon actors to give them life. Granted, the medium is different. Films necessarily reflect more of the actors’ reality than of the author’s intention, but other substantial elements are missing from The Misfits. Each full-length play is tightened by family issues, by a nexus of family and community from which no one can escape. Hard, inevitable facts dog the characters—the sale of deficient equipment to the air force, a salesman’s failure to sell, witch hunts, and incestuous desires that motivate an informer. They have past lives, usually colored by guilt. But what has happened to the people of The Misfits, in past or present? Gay has failed to communicate with his wife, his children, or his girl friends; Roslyn has failed to communicate with her parents or her husband; Guido has failed to communicate with his wife; and Perce has been unable to get through to his mother or his stepfather. In present time, they strive desperately at mutual contact, and, aided by the golden presence of the girl to whom one of them attributes “that big connection,” three out of four succeed. But no family life has ever taken hold of these people; no past event has ever been anything to them but an emblem of communication or, to be exact, of its absence.
One common element remains. Miller still likes to play with symbolic vocations. In a play about the war, the central character makes munitions. In a play about capitalism, the central character sells—the verb is intransitive. A later stage hero works on the docks of New York and thus raises the question of an unwritten code that must not be betrayed. And now, in The Misfits, the three men embody the favorite symbolism of our popular culture, our most indigenous symbolism. Two are cowboys, and the third tries to be, and as such they are the last of the free men, pursuing the vocation of freedom itself, the vocation that Biff Loman undertakes in Death of a Salesman when he goes out West to escape the narrow confines of Brooklyn and the salesman’s prosaic calling. “Cowboys are the last real men in the world,” we are told in the film.
Recently and significantly, some other American dramatists have followed Miller’s lead, choosing the cowboy’s life as the ideal of freedom and nonconformism. This season, Arthur Laurents, in Invitation to a March, has created a wretched Texas millionaire who tearfully contemplates the road not taken: he should have been a cowboy. The heroes of Tennessee Williams’ Period of Adjustment plot to escape wage slavery by going West to raise longhorn cattle. The three cowpunchers of The Misfits seem to have gotten wind of all this, for, as they cling proudly to their profession, they keep reminding themselves: “Better’n wages, ain’t it?” “I guess anything’s better’n wages.”
The cowboys are, in the time-honored phrases, in touch with reality and in harmony with nature; with obvious symbolic intent, they are set down in Reno, the gathering place of people who are in harmony with nothing and with no one, not even themselves. Their leading attributes are precisely those that were present in Willy Loman on those rare occasions when he showed the best that was in him. They respond to the scenic wonders around them; Gay’s home is the lone prairie: “Never was a better one, either.” They work with their hands; Guido has been building his own house. Warmed by the love of the golden girl, Gay plants seeds.
Thus, the cowboys go through all the time-honored, symbolically proper motions associated with freedom. They are the last free proletarians, and, if being proletarians could save them, they would be saved. But their work has been corrupted. The same forces that poured cement in Willy Loman’s Brooklyn Garden of Eden have corrupted the honorable vocation of trapping wild horses. Once the mustangs would become saddle horses for children, but now the machine age has ended that; children ride scooters, and so the mustangs are converted into dog food. Miller’s characters faced this fact with equanimity in the short story of the same name on which the film is based. But in the film, Roslyn turns the tide and saves the horses; she converts Perce with ease, Gay with some difficulty, and Guido not at all. And yet, these gestures have no positive content. The machine age has permanently altered the cowboy’s world. Roslyn and her friends cannot hope to repair it; all they can do is to retire from it and conceal themselves in a warm cocoon of communication. Society needs to be changed, but nothing can be done; the only possible course is to find the few private comforts that life can offer.
The particular private comfort to which the film is primarily devoted is the personal illumination which belongs to Roslyn, the character played by Miss Monroe. The story develops in a random, haphazard fashion, and it is given unity only by Roslyn’s inspiring presence. No guiding motivation governs things except the powerful attraction Roslyn exerts. The plot bears witness. Some accidental meetings are followed by a party. Roslyn and Gay become lovers, and good effects are at once seen; Gay plants seeds and is temporarily persuaded not to shoot a rabbit. By way of showing Roslyn their lives and showing us their self-destructiveness, the male characters go off to a rodeo in which Perce is badly battered. The drinking that precedes and follows the rodeo produces two significant incidents, which are casually thrust into the pattern. Roslyn shows her superhuman proficiency with a paddle-ball, thus establishing again that she is a superior being; she might be hitting the ball to this day if a stranger had not tried to grab and kiss her. After the rodeo, Gay meets and then loses his children; calling out for them in vain, he enacts a painful scene of public humiliation and establishes again his problem of isolation, which only Roslyn can solve.
Baffled by their encounter with the populated world of the rodeo, the cowboys offer another side of their lives to Roslyn. They take her with them as they go hunting those other misfits, the mustangs. This is the most extended and the most consecutively motivated incident of the film, and the simplicity of its action is more eloquent than the soggy words that precede it. Nothing else in the film is so effective, dramatically and pictorially, as the trapping of the horses. Without the embarrassment of speech, the camera best displays the art of the director, John Huston. The men vigorously pursue and rope the horses, and Gay painfully retakes a mustang that has been released. But then the soggy, forced motivation takes over, the mustangs are freed, and, without any visible destiny except each other, Gay and Roslyn ride off into the starlight.
The language in which these events are embodied is incredible. The dialogue of the film is wooden, hollow, reeking of portent. I fear the trouble here is that Miller is trying to describe the indescribable effect of Miss Monroe upon the world around her, and he is, in his own phrase, “ropin’ a dream.” The dialogue is surely at its most unnatural when it reflects Roslyn’s magical effect. The characters often exchange diagnoses by speculating about her and the state she has induced in them. She is “brand new,” we are told, an innocent who makes impossibly high demands of others’ conduct. “You got respect for a man,” she is told. The catalogue of her virtues is, in cold print, even more tiresome, since we are in danger of forgetting that she is Miss Monroe, and that any of her actions must have a certain interest. She cannot even attack her breakfast eggs without winning admiration and “enjoyment”: “You really go all out, don’t you? Even the way you eat. I like that.” All the others try vainly to put her ineffable effect into words. An older woman tells Gay: “I just hope you know that you have finally come in contact with a real woman.” Even Guido must acknowledge her peculiar quality: “You just walk in, a stranger out of nowhere, and for the first time it all lights up.” Roslyn modestly asks “Why?” and is told: “Because you have the gift of life, Roslyn. You really want to live, don’t you?” (Roslyn responds with a common sense that does her credit, especially since it is so unusual in this film: “Doesn’t everybody?”)
Characterization by compliment rises to an even more exalted and unnatural level as the film ends. Once the mustangs are freed, Roslyn says solemnly to Gay: “I honor you. You’re a brave man.” Gay tops that a minute later: “I know you now, Roslyn, I do know you. Maybe that’s all the peace there is or can be. . . . I touched the whole world. I bless you, girl.” Given the logic of the context, we can boggle only at the “maybe.” There is no “maybe” about it. The main action of the film is, in fact, plucking verbal bouquets and handing them to Roslyn.
The absence of effective language results directly from the peculiar attention given to communicating, to making contact and no more. It takes a good deal of effort for these empty characters to acknowledge each other’s existence. With a last, mighty bound, they burst loose to say “Hello,” and then they subside, exhausted. To communicate anything further is impossible and superfluous. One character in particular specializes in saying “Hello” in various ways; he conceals from us and the others the wicked personal qualities that lurk behind his simple greeting. This is Guido, who zooms around in a plane and is, as Gay guesses, “just sayin’ hello.” Later, he drives a car recklessly and will not slow down till he gets a greeting from Roslyn: “At least say, hello Guido.” She complies, and she gets his message sufficiently to interpret his intention when, a little later, he undertakes some carpentry in the dark and in a drunken state: “He . . . he’s just trying to say hello. It’s no crime to say hello.” Still, anyone whose greetings are so troubled and so violent is in trouble. Far better is the casual, conversational “Hello” of the other characters. And yet, after saying “Hello,” all of them hang up on us.
Miller has called his short play, A Memory of Two Mondays, “a kind of letter to that sub-culture where the sinews of the economy are rooted,” and most of his other plays fit that description. The characters of The Misfits can barely use language. Guido reads comic books, and that fact helps to set him off as the sinister intellectual of the group. When Roslyn reveals that she never finished high school, Gay is relieved: “Well, that’s real good news.” Curiously, the unseen Roslyn of the short story is educated; Gay makes it clear, however, that any virtues she possesses have barely survived the soul-destroying influence of education: “Some of them Eastern women fool you sometimes. They got education, but they’re good sports.” In other words, if there is too much to communicate, the lines get clogged.
In The Misfits, Miller reverses one of his old patterns and thereby gives us another lead to the play’s lack of direction. Miller formerly specialized in presenting commanding father figures of dubious authority. The father-son conflicts of All My Sons and Death of a Salesman have been much commented upon. The Salem elders of The Crucible darken the atmosphere of that play. The head of the house in A View from the Bridge is confused but firm in acting in his folly. In The Misfits, the old man of the cast is Gay, a father separated from his children and possessing no power. He is as lacking in direction as any of the others. At the end, he is trying vainly to assert a meaningless authority, but he achieves only an empty gesture. He recaptures a horse that Roslyn has freed, and, having proved his point, having shown that he can do it, he lets the horse go. He is boxed in; he can not do a thing. This fate is hard on him, but it is equally hard on the story line.