In her final film, Marilyn Monroe plays a divorcee in Arthur Miller’s existential Western that culminated in their real-life divorce.
Like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, The Misfits starts as a comedy about a jaded older woman (Thelma Ritter) and her eligible companion (Monroe) then morphs into something darker when the younger woman moves in with her new man (Clark Gable). As an animal lover she proves oddly naive about what shacking up with a cowboy would entail, but this too is a misdirect; she joins the men to learn a life of freedom but ends up showing them that their freedom is an illusion, like a prettier Morpheus.
Monroe was reportedly unhappy with the character of Roslyn, which is awkward as her husband wrote it for her. While her empathy is exaggerated, it imbues Roslyn with the strength to confront and guide the people around her; broken men who expect her to fill the woman-shaped holes in their lives. To Gay (Gable) she is a daughter figure, to Perce (Montgomery Clift) a surrogate mother and to Guido (Eli Wallach) a wife. Ultimately Roslyn acts on her own terms, a misfit among misfits.
John Huston directs with the same Western revisionism that marked his previous picture The Unforgiven, subverting the genre at every turn. The Misfits‘ old world has been destroyed by economic depression and the bomb, leaving an inhuman wilderness where a cowboy is only good for the rodeo and a horse for dog food (or human food depending on the supermarket). Huston and Miller shed no tears for the end of an era of violence and machismo, only for the start of a new one.
60 years on these ideas are intensified by explosions in automation and animal agriculture; a sequence in which Gay is pulled along the ground by a horse without letting go of the tether is a striking metaphor for people killing themselves to preserve a way of life. The movie is also made more haunting for modern viewers in the knowledge that Gable died before its release and Monroe shortly after, her depression and drinking seeping into the sadness of the character.
With its jagged edges, rugged climax and dogged score by Alex North, The Misfits is an aptly named statement that stays with you long after the horses have bolted.