Misfits, The (1961): Huston’s Version of Arthur Miller’s Drama, Starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in their Last Screen Performances

John Huston’s emotionally disturbing, thematically riveting “The Misfits,” is based on an original screenplay by the famed playwright Arthur Miller.

The feature marks the very last screen performances of Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe (who was then divorced from Miller).  Gable died before the film’s release, and Monroe attempted one more project, “Something’s Gotta Give,” which was begun by director George Cukor but was never completed.

When “The Misfits” was initially released, it divided critics and failed to find large audiences. However, over the years, the film has grown in stature and in both cinematic and emotional baggage, not least because of the caliber of the cast members and their troubled lives; Montgomery Clift also co-starred.

Set in the Reno rooming house run by Isabelle Steers (Thelma Ritter), “The Misfits” is a modern Western about a triangle of individuals whose paths fatefully crisscross. Roslyn Tabor (Marilyn Monroe), who stays at Steers, meets Gay Langland (Clark Gable), an aging cowboy known for his rugged independence.

Despite difference in age and personality, the two are attracted to each other and soon fall in love, sharing together residence in the partially completed ranch house of Gay’s friend, Guido (Eli Wallach), a mechanic who has turned into an aimless wanderer (and lost soul) ever since his wife had died in childbirth.

The movie deconstructs the myth of the cowboys, who now drive a pick up and ride horses without saddles, and the myth of the Western, both real and reel. Even so, it still presents a romantically nostalgic view of the old American mores, which is in tune with one of the most recurrent themes in Miller’s stage plays “”Death of a Salesman,” “All My Sons”), which could be described as the degradation or dissolution of the American Dream.

The text is replete of ironies and mysteries. The ruthless and aimless cowboys live around Reno, Nevada, which is after all, the divorce capital of American, and this a symbol of graveyard of romance.

The film makes allusions to the public screen images and lives off screen of the three central stars. Take Gable anti-hero, who’s ironically named Gay. Or the punch-drunk, mother-fixated rodeo rider played by Clift, a star whose handsome looks had been tarnished after a bad accident in 1957 during the production of “Raintree County.”

“The Misfits” reflects how modern technology has caught up with the work and lifestyles of the characters involved. The guys hunt wild stallions not with ropes and horses, but with a truck and airplane. Moreover, their ”work” involves horses whose meat is then processed into tinned cat food.

The film ends on an ambiguous note, with Gable and Monroe discovering some peace and heading together “home.”  Consider the last exchange between the couple.  When Monroe asks, “How do you find your way back in the dark?” Gable says: “Just head for that big star straight on. The highway’s under it, and it will take us right home.”

But after all we have seen there’s no avoiding the feeling that the bond is still fragile and they both live in a void, searching for co-existence in a more meaninful world.  Most of the drama is about characters who have no “home” and never have had one.

In 1961, some critics found the picture to be too solemn, pretentious, and wallowing in self-pity. But over the years, “The Misfits” has changed meanings from a drama about ill-fated lives into one about its personas’ real lives, including Gable’s fading charisma as an aging star, Monroe’s evolution as a dramatic actress and her desire to be recognized as such, and Clift’s alcoholic, wasted, self-destructive life.

The movie walks a fine, tenuous line between being theatrical and cinematic, and between using Monroe’s sex appeal as integral to the character she plays and exploiting it for commercial reasons.

It’s worth noting that Monroe’s career as a “serious” dramatic actress is bookended by two John Huston pictures: “The Asphalt Jungle,” in 1950, in which Monroe made a strong impression in a secondary part, and exactly a decade later with “The Misfits.”

The film is evocatively shot in black and white by Russell Metty and beautifully scored by composer Alex North, a frequent collaborator of Huston.


Released: February 4, 1961

Running time: 124 Minutes

A Seven Arts-John Huston production.

Produced by Frank Taylor

Screenplay: Arthur Miller

Directed by John Huston

Cinematography: Russell Metty

Editor: George Tomasini

Music: Alex North

Art Directors: Stephan Grimes and William Newberry