Waves of cultural outrage have been stirred up by Arthur Miller's film. Anyone who knows a cynical cliche or two, knows what happens when an artist goes to Hollywood. Everyone accepts the fact, with an almost masochistic satisfaction, that Success in American culture really means intellectual disaster.
The Misfits is agonizing because one senses the greatness that wasn't achieved at all. Miller screams out his own grief just as Marilyn Monroe shricks her accusation of murder at the climax of the film, incoherent with emotion, inarticulate with powerful words. He is too close to his own theme and characters, and can't compress his drama; emotion isn't concentrated, but extenuated. The playwright, not in control of the cinematic form, succumbs to diffuse writing, long transitions, and a weak, drawn-out plot.
The picture deals with five people who sense but don't actually know where they are. Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Thelma Ritter, Eli Wallach, and Montgomery Clift make the characters vital not only as individuals but for what they represent: dreams that went sour, the lies, the payoff, the human self-destruction, and all that Miller sees in his own country and his own life.
The three constricted, confused men are engaged in rounding up mustangs to be chopped into dogfood. Miss Monroe confronts each with his own conscience and his own sense of sympathy. When they are speaking to her, they speak to themselves; finally, they realize just who is being ground into horsemeat.
Unfortunately, Miller tends to abuse his symbolism, and almost always clogs fine scenes with impassioned hyperbole or artless redundacy. Only one short episode escapes exaggeration: Montgomery Clift, a battered rodeo rider, telephoning his mother to say that he is alive and well. In contrast to this, there is the climactic scene, where Gable wrestles a stallion to the ground, proves his human strength, then cuts the animal loose. Here, Miss Monroe murmurs stupidly to the horse, "Go home," thus burlesquing the very impact that Miller had achieved.
The playwright's skill is relentlessly dogged by his own heavy-handedness, and by John Huston's dull direction. Miss Monroe's final question, for instance, asks, "How do you find your way back in the dark?" Now this question is subtle; it is the very one that Miller is posing for an America which he considers adrift; and he has already shown that he wants this country to follow the star of self-respect. But then, right at the conclusion, he flashes the stars right onto the screen, tucks Marilyn's head onto Gable's shoulder, and closes with a picture of Love in the Planetarium. The point is lost in overstatement and sentimental slosh, and the fault is not in his stars, but in himself.
Yet there is still a strength to Miller's writing, and a grief that grows especially painful when it it an autobiographical expression of guilt, such as that expressed over divorce or the desertion of children. The script is both a pathetic apology to the author's first wife, and a statement of admiration for his second.
Miller's treatment of Marilyn Monroe again raises the subject of critical indignation. For some reason, we can respect beauty in a foreign film, but not in an American one. We can regard the simple beauty and fine body of Simone Signoret, for example, with a clean admiration. But that's not what America looks for in Marilyn Monroe. We want something dirty and cheap, something that can be admired in an ugly way. We don't want to see fine breasts but tremendous tits. A national joke has been made of Miss Monroe's aspirations as a serious actress, paralleling the ridicule Miller received for his very conception of The Misfits.
What is in fact disturbing is the focus which the criticism of this film has taken. Miller has been taken to task for trying to write a Western about good guys who are killed. For trying to respect Marilyn's simplicity rather than her freakishness. For writing about social incongruity and denying all the cheap patterns in which we believe. For admitting he's lost instead of finding himself a place in the jigsaw puzzle of cultural sterility.