1961's The Misfits is an awfully good movie with some very particular flaws, whose qualities as a work of cinema have been totally overshadowed by two facts concerning its production; or one fact with two branches, depending on how you want to look at it. Namely, it was the last completed feature for two titanic movie stars: 34-year-old Marilyn Monroe, deep in the throws of substance addiction, who would be fired from Something's Got to Give the next year before dying of an overdose; and 59-year-old Clark Gable, who was in the hospital days after the shoot wrapped, and wouldn't survive for a full two weeks - in the petty mind of pop culture history, the heart attack that killed him was the result of his endless frustration with Monroe's intransigence on set, though it certainly has more to do with the intense stunts he insisted on performing himself during the shoot. His insistence, admittedly, having coming about because he was so constantly angry during the shoot, because of Monroe.

That is, of course, the other thing The Misfits is famous for: having one of the most legendarily unhappy sets ever. Director John Huston was, at the best of times, not prone to remaining sober when he didn't have to, and it is the constant story of Monroe's later career that working with her was not "the best of times" for anybody; Monroe and third-billed Montgomery Clift - who was also not terribly inclined toward happy feelings on movie sets - were both fucked-up on pills and booze almost constantly; Monroe's marriage to the film's writer, Arthur Miller, was in its final stages; Gable, the only representative of Old Hollywood in the cast, was unable to deal with the Method antics of Monroe, Clift, and Eli Wallach; history is silent on whether character actor par excellence Thelma Ritter was having an agonising time of it too, though I wouldn't doubt that she was, because how could you avoid it?

It's sort of fitting that The Misfits should be produced in that kind of nightmare of drugged agony and mutual acrimony, for the film's explicit theme - over-explicit, one might say, depending on one's tolerance for heavy-handed wild horse symbolism - is the universality of suffering and death, and how terribly things can go for those who insist on clinging to optimism and vitality and innocence in the face of such a universe. It is not a happy film; and the waves of barely-contained misery radiating off the actors at such a frequency that it's just about intruding into the visible spectrum make it that much unhappier. I do not like to be a complete dick, but I have to say: the suffering of the cast and crew, up to and including Gable's death, it was sort of worth it. There is a thickness to the anti-Romanticism in The Misfits that goes above and beyond Miller's harrowing but sometimes overstated script (Arthur Miller? Pushing his metaphors too hard? Pshaw!), and Huston's spare, harsh direction: it the film manages to capture the rhythms of four people mostly without hope, that's because it was doing exactly that.

The film is never happier than when it's about divorce: Roslyn Taber (Monroe) is in Reno, Nevada, staying at the boarding house owned by chipper pragmatist Isabelle Steers (Ritter), who enthusiastically helps her lodger rehearse her divorce proceedings testimony, and romantically reminisces about her own divorce, and excitedly notes that Roslyn is the 77th divorce-seeking woman she's hosted, and two 7s is about as lucky as it gets. All of this is lost on Roslyn, who shuffles through the process like a particularly confused zombie; it so happens that she catches the eye of mechanic Guido (Wallach) while doing so, and Guido, seeing a potential easy lay, suggests that she and he and his buddy Gay Langland (Gable) and Isabelle all go to his house in the desert.

This springs into an unexpected love affair between Roslyn and Gay, and for a good quarter of the movie, we get to see the two of them - the disaffected young divorcΓ©e and the old-school cowboy who hasn't quite adjusted to the fact that it's 1960 and there aren't cowboys any more - playing house in the home Guido happily leaves to them, preferring to avoid it and the memories of his dead wife. One day, Guido and Gay decide to rope a small herd of mustangs they've recently spotted in the hills, which means taking on a hand; the hand they find is Perce Howland (Clift), a local kid of little means who agrees to join them if they'll stake his entry in the local rodeo. The rodeo leaves Perce much the worse for the wear, and a night of drinking leaves Gay and Guido almost as poorly; it is thus a much less jovial gang of four that heads into mustang territory than made plans to go, and when Roslyn finds out that the horses are going to be turned into dog food, she suffers a near-breakdown that just makes things that much more unpleasant for everybody.

It is certainly possibly to accuse The Misfits of a certain adolescent meanness: certainly, the manner in which Monroe's Roslyn is made to be The Ideal Woman who threatens to save Gay from a meaningless life, but is instead crushed to learn that her romantic sensibilities of the American West and the cowboy life are nothing compared to the casual savagery of the actual west as it is actually lived, speaks to a hugely masculine point of view in which femininity is either a balm or a weakness, but not, in and of itself, an actual identity that actual people hold. And this is not something that comes as, necessarily, a huge surprise, this being a John Huston film and all. Besides that, the all-encompassing nihilism of the thematic development, a certain "everything is shit, so screw everything" feeling that there's just no point to romance or Romanticism or having nice things at all, is probably not the most mature or constructed or well-considered message ever presented by a movie, and while there is an attempt to round things off with a final scene that points to something more positive and healing, the sense of profound hopelessness that starts around the time that Roslyn is almost bit by a friendly dog an hour earlier is too strong, and the forced camaraderie between the two actors involved in that scene to damned unconvincing, for the final bid at optimism to take hold.

Still, the mere fact that The Misfits is not necessarily "mature" doesn't mean that it can't be a terrifically strong version of the thing that it is; and barring the aforementioned "let's verbally describe the theme", moments, the overbaked symbolism, and the unpersuasive ending, there's much about the film that is nothing shy of brilliant, most obviously in the cast: Ritter is, honestly, not giving a performance she hadn't already given several times, but she's so monstrously appealing in just about everything that mere overfamiliarity is no vice. Leaving the four co-leads, and the very worst I can say about any of them is that Clift's laconic, mumbling sorrow doesn't seem entirely the result of a character choice - though it wouldn't be a bad one if it were - so much as the limitations of a very good actor in a very dark place that made it hard for him to devote too much of his energy to anything other than speaking dialogue and hitting his mark (he only had three more features in him before dying at 46 - the night of a TV screening of The Misfits! - released over the next five years, and fatigue had already been setting in a couple of years before this). Gable and Monroe both turn in strong candidates for their career-best performance, though I'd be likelier to say that Gable actually reaches that accolade: his tattered voice and weathered skin contrasting with his desperately upbeat Gable-esque charm, and the obvious discomfort the classical Hollywood star felt at being out-acted by these Method brats injected a pronounced sense of disquiet into his typically broad charismatic turn that makes him a frankly unbeatable embodiment of the dead West, trying its damnedest to pretend like there's still an open range and wide frontier. Monroe's whispery, unfocused character, like Clift's was probably at least partially the reflection of her actual mental state at the time, but it's so far from anything else she ever did - flinty and determined and womanly without being even slightly a sexpot - that there has to be at least some conscious acting in it. The best-in-show, for me, is easily Wallach, playing the character who has to shoulder the least thematic weight, and coming off the most natural for it: a simple man with simple, even petty urges, but the anxiety with which he pursues them is touching, and his arc is the most distressing and tragic.

The film is such a fantastic acting showcase that it's easy to lose sight of the fact that a top-shelf talent like John Huston directed; and this is not helped by the degree to which The Misfits is something of an aesthetic outlier in his career. I've not seen all of his movies, not even half of them, but I can't personally think of another one that's so low-key and realist, if realist is the word. "Naturalism" doesn't cover it; there's a very grounded, life-as-it-is-lived feeling to nearly all of the movie, with the only outbursts of the gnarled grandness of the best-loved Huston movies only really coming to the fore in the film's two great moments of ugly masculine violence, the mid-film rodeo and the film-ending mustang hunt. Not that it's a bad fit for him for in fact the tight, disinflected treatment of the bulk of the movie makes it both unsentimental and immediate, leaving us nowhere to go, but that it is somewhat smaller in emphasis than he usually worked, and while I think it is one of his better films, I can certainly not call it one of his more characteristic.

There are enough problems with the film's structure (it really doesn't need to be over two hours long, and the first hour, though arguably important to establishing a "happy" state to contrast with the second hour's "angry", has its share of padding), and little other things that I won't quite go far enough to call The Misfits a lost masterpiece; anyway, it's not exactly the most lost movie ever made. But it certainly doesn't get talked about except in a sort of dismissive way by Monroe or Clift completists (there are not, to my immense sorrow, any Gable completists to my knowledge), and it's a hell of a lot better than that. As a star vehicle and as a venomous swipe at the romance of the Western, the film is a terrifying and compelling experience, and anyway, who needs perfection? The grubbiness of a movie that seems to be held together by spite and the mutual loathing of the people who made it is infinitely more captivating, and if The Misfits is certainly not a terribly fun movie to watch, it sure as hell is an intense ride.