Seein’ Me

You’ll be seein’ me. You’ll be seein’ me. Every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back into the darkness and wonder if I’m there, and some night I will be. You’ll be seein’ me.

This is terrifying. This is a man embittered by betrayal who’s turning himself into a weapon of vengeance. This is Jimmy Stewart in Anthony Mann’s Bend of the River (1952) with a bloody lip and hellfire blazing in his eyes. He’s spent the whole film thus far repressing his killer instincts, defending a wagon train of ranchers and farmers in order to refashion himself as a good man. But to paraphrase Robin Wood, the repressed will always return. The second he’s double-crossed by a former ally—played with a demonic grin by Arthur Kennedy—his old, violent self rises up like a werewolf against the full moon.

Certainly the film provides warning signs. Stewart and Kennedy first meet up just before a Shoshone attack, where (as usual) the Native Americans are manifested through bird calls and arrows. The new friends quickly slay the attackers, strengthening their white solidarity but tantalizing the audience with a glint of danger: both men are still handy with weapons, too handy. Afterward, Kennedy decides to pan for gold in California, and Stewart gives him a farewell that doubles as foreshadowing: “I’ll be seein’ ya!”

They do see each other again, teaming up later to shepherd supplies from Portland back to the near-starving settlers. But a recent gold rush tightens around their necks like a noose: greedy prospectors are everywhere, alternately bribing and threatening to get their hands on some food. Stewart and Kennedy enlist a few ruffians, then refuse to pay them until they reach the settlement. One protests: “The law won’t let you get away with this!” Stewart’s face curls into a wry half-smile as he retorts, “What law?” So when a Kennedy-led mutiny abandons him on the mountainside, it’s no surprise that he stands there, framed starkly against the Technicolor sky, and transforms into an avatar of revenge.

And after that blood-curdling “You’ll be seein’ me” monologue, he disappears. For nine whole minutes out of Bend of the River’s last twenty, its star and hero is nowhere to be seen. Instead he lurks off-screen, occasionally dispatching stray members of Kennedy’s posse or firing into their camp, rapidly becoming an invisible agent of fear. A guerrilla, a ghost, a myth. He returns for the climax, yeah, and he gets the girl, even convincing her father that bad men can fundamentally change. But we know better. He might settle down with a home and family, but that same old bloodlust will always be lurking just beneath the surface.

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