Noir comes to the Western – along with Freud
The black & white photography, the prevalence of night-time scenes, the sexual undertones, the gritty and tough central character played by Robert Mitchum, all these give noir qualities to the film. In the late 1940s noir was all the rage. Films like The Killers, Black Angel and The Chase in 1946, were followed by Fear in the Night, The Gangster, Kiss of Death and many more in 1947, and it was inevitable that noir would spread to other genres.
The blurb to David Meuel’s The Noir Western says, “Beginning in the mid-1940s, the bleak, brooding mood of film noir began seeping into that most optimistic of film genres, the western. Story lines took on a darker tone and western films adopted classic noir elements of moral ambiguity, complex anti-heroes and explicit violence.”
We think of pictures such as Coroner’s Creek or Blood on the Moon (the latter also with Mitchum). The late 40s were the high-watermark of noir Westerns. I can just imagine Raoul Walsh saying to the Warners execs, “You want noir? I can do noir.” Actually, he woudn’t have said that because the term noir was not used by American filmmakers or critics at the time. It came in later.
Walsh’s pictures had often had a hard edge and earlier films of his such as The Roaring Twenties, They Drive by Night and in particular High Sierra, with Humphrey Bogart, if they weren’t noirs they were pretty close to it. But he hadn’t yet done a noir Western. Republic’s Dark Command (1940) had some noirish touches, but you wouldn’t call it a film noir. Yet he did a fine job on Pursued. Paul Willemen, in The BFI Companion to the Western, goes as far as to call Pursued “Walsh’s exquisitely noir masterpiece.”
His cast helped hugely. Mitchum was really well cut out for such roles. 1947 was also the year he starred in the Jacques Tourneur-directed Out of the Past, and he was the man Roger Ebert called “the soul of film noir”. He was still doing it in the 70s with Farewell My Lovely and The Big Sleep. But he’d actually debuted after the war in small parts in Westerns, Hopalong Cassidy epics, and in 1944 he graduated to leading when RKO’s reliable Tim Holt went to war, appearing in Nevada, and the following year in West of the Pecos.
But Pursued was his first ‘grown up’ Western, and he was superb in it. The studio wanted a new, young, strong actor for the male lead, someone not immediately identified by the audience as a goody. Montgomery Clift and Kirk Douglas were considered (neither had yet done a Western) but Mitch was finally selected. He hit it off really well with Walsh.
I have a lot of time for Dean Jagger as a Western actor, and here he is the sinister one-armed villain, single-minded in his homicidal thirst for vengeance in a long-running family feud. He was memorable as the title character in Brigham Young in 1940, and you’ll recall him (or I do anyway) in Western Union, Sierra, Rawhide, Denver and Rio Grande and Red Sundown, among many others, not forgetting Bad Day at Black Rock if you call that a Western (I do).
Ma Callum, the woman who raises young Jeb Rand (two child actors, then Mitchum) is Judith Anderson, another classy actor in this kind of picture. She was an Australian who moved to New York in 1918 and established herself as one of the leading theatrical actresses and a major star on Broadway. In movies, she was unforgettable as Mrs Danvers in the 1940 version of Rebecca, but she only did three Westerns. She was second-billed after Richard Harris, playing Buffalo Cow Head in A Man Called Horse in 1970 but for me she was outstanding as Flo Burnett in Anthony Mann’s The Furies in 1950. (Actually, Mann would have done a great job helming Pursued, but it went to Walsh and he did too). Anderson is splendid in Pursued as the woman whose maternal love turns into deep hatred. “All the love I had for you is dead,” she snarls at Jeb.
Topping the billing in Pursued was actually neither Mitchum nor Anderson but Teresa Wright, writer Niven Busch’s wife, playing Jeb’s adoptive sister but then lover. Wright had been ‘discovered’ by Samuel Goldwyn and clearly had talent – she was the only performer ever to be nominated for Oscars for her first three films, and won one for her supporting role in Mrs Miniver in 1942. She did three Westerns, or semi-Westerns, this one, John Sturges’s The Capture in 1950 and William Wellman’s Track of the Cat (again with Mitchum) in 1954. Personally, I don’t think she’s all that good in Pursued, being a bit too sweet- for the role, though she does improve when she becomes more like her mother (Anderson) and her love turns to loathing. In his biography of Mitchum Baby, I Don’t Care, Lee Server recounts how Walsh (who, it is said, had once borrowed John Barrymore’s corpse from a funeral parlor to frighten a drunken Errol Flynn) and Mitchum dreamed up a gag and when Mitchum came to the carrying-over-the-threshold scene, he threw her unexpectedly on the bed and made like he was for real. Wright screamed with panic. Cruel maybe but it hinted that she wasn’t really up to the role of raunchy, tough female lead.
Writer Busch, famous for the likes of In Old Chicago and The Postman Always Rings Twice, actually loved Westerns. Among the ten feature oaters he worked on were The Westerner for Wyler, Duel in the Sun for David O Selznick, The Furies for Anthony Mann, The Man from the Alamo for Budd Boetticher and Distant Drums, also for Walsh. It was an impressive CV. He was in fact fascinated with the West and had found in some El Paso archives a story of a vicious feud in which a young boy had been brought up by the family responsible for wiping out his own. Busch was attracted by the Greek tragedy of it, the inescapable destiny, and it was he who persuaded Warners producer Milton Sperling to create a filmed version, and he also had a big hand in the casting. He added modern Freudian tinges of childhood trauma and repressed memory as well as the obligatory love interest, this time with a daring hint of incest. All very modern (or ancient Greece). But it’s a Western alright. There’s even the line by Mitchum to his foster-brother, “This ranch isn’t big enough to hold the two of us.” Mitchum gets away with it, though.
Visually, the picture is absolutely superb. Though much was shot on sound-stages as interiors, there was also a fine amount of location work, photographed by one of the great masters of monochrome, James Wong Howe. There are sharp camera angles and silhouettes against the moonlight. Even in the outdoor scenes, there’s a claustrophobic feel of characters in deep-shadow canyons or in front of mountains. Paul Simpson, in The Rough Guide to Westerns, talked of Howe’s “shadow-haunted images, stark desert locations, noirish underlighting and low-angled interiors”, which were “innovative and experimental for a Western”.
And not just for a Western – this marked the first use of infra-red film on a Hollywood movie. Archie Stout would use it to great effect the following year on John Ford’s Fort Apache. Some of the New Mexico landscapes in black & white remind me of Russell Harlan’s work on Four Faces West the year before Pursued. In the first reel we look Fordishly out through the framework of a door, and without wishing to be pretentious, when you note the camera angles and the intense close-ups you definitely think of Orson Welles. I’m quite sure Walsh and Howe had studied the likes of Citizen Kane and The Stranger. I believe Howe’s cinematography ideally suited the themes of moral darkness and the light of the love that redeems it (if you’ll forgive such language for describing a cowboy film).
The modern print is splendid. Martin Scorsese, who contributed handsomely to its restoration, called the picture “the first noir Western … resembling a Shakespearean drama with Freudian overtones.”
It is the story of a small boy, Jeb Rand, who witnesses the murder of his whole family and who is hastily gathered up by Mrs Callum (Anderson), a member of the family responsible for the massacre, taken home and brought up with her own two children, the curiously-named Thor (child actors then Teresa Wright) and Adam (child actors, then John Rodney). From the outset the two boys are rivals, and fight, while Thor tries to keep the peace.
As they become adults the edgy rivalry continues, a Cain-and-Abel undercurrent beneath the calm of apparently cordial relations, and there’s even a hint of jealously caused by the incestuous desire of Adam for his sister. The rivalry will burst out again into violence. One member of the household must go off to the Spanish-American War (it’s set at the turn of the twentieth century) and the toss of a coin will decide it. Much of the movie concerns what happens on Jeb’s return from the war (for he loses the toss) and this must have resonated with the 1947 audiences.
Throughout the film and throughout his life Jeb is tormented by nightmares, traumatized by the vague memory of the slaughter, and constantly pursued and victimized as he grows and Callums try to murder him. He feels always hunted. At one point he talks to Thor of the “black dog riding my back and yours.” Winston Churchill used to use this image of a black dog to describe the depressions that he was subject to but here it seems to mean more a sense of foreboding.
Chief among Jeb’s persecutors is Grant Callum (Jagger), a lawyer who lost an arm in the original attack and became Prosecutor in Santa Fe. He is smooth, clever, cunning, sly, ready to kill a child and also ready, when he fails, to commit incitement to murder.
There is hardly a character without severe neuroses.
It’s a story of New Mexico Montagues and Capulets and forbidden love, treated like a Wuthering Prairies, a relentless tragedy. Patrick Brion, in his Encyclopédie du Western, says “It’s almost a ghost story.”
To strengthen the noirishness, the tale is told in flashback by Jeb to Thor, and we get the occasional voiceover narrative by Mitchum to link the scenes. He is low-key, fatalist and brooding. It is really fine acting. Simpson again: “Mitchum gives a performance of such world-weary reserve and sad-eyed nonchalance that he suggests, as Scorsese says, that ‘for him, hope was not even a possibility’.”
The action hovers at times between noir and gothic horror. The wedding night, especially, when Thor desires to accelerate the “till death us do part” bit of the vows (with a .38) is worthy of Du Maurier/Hitchcock/Olivier/Fontaine.
The music is by Max Steiner and very well done. Dramatic and stirring in the action scenes, somber and slow in the quieter moments, tense and sinister when the story requires, it is always dark, dark, dark. I love the melancholy variations on Mendelssohn’s wedding march when the dysfunctional newly-weds arrive at their new home – in fact rather creepily their old home that the now-rich and dandified Jeb has bought and done up. A music box that plays the Londonderry Air figures, and Mitchum sings along to it, with Rodney harmonizing in the second verse. The family dog reacts by howling. Steiner orchestrally reworked the air in the minor key here and there, with great effect. Sergio Leone was perhaps referencing this moment when he had a character sing Danny Boy in One Upon a Time in the West. Mitchum also gets to sing Streets of Laredo, which had been playing on the saloon piano, as he rides along (just before yet another attempt is made on his life). Mitchum often sang in Westerns, and there was quite a pleasant timbre to his voice but he didn’t find it easy to hold a note in tune and probably would have benefited from some tuition or training. He actually released a LP in 1967, That Man Robert Mitchum … Sings. I don’t know if it was any good.
There are two very good smaller role performances to note also, by storekeeper Harry Carey Jr. as Jeb’s rival for Thor’s affections (though sadly Dobe hardly even mentions it in his memoir) and Alan Hale as the friendly if roguish saloon keeper Jake Dingle.
There’s a great cigar clipper in the store, and Ma Callum has a state-of-the-art sewing machine. I do like Victorian gadgets in Westerns.
Walsh himself in an interview said, “I love that movie”, and you can see why. Some people may think that all the Freudian malarkey is a bit overdone, being rather à la mode at the time (Spellbound had come out in 1945 and Secret Beyond the Door in ’47) and Brian Garfield talked of the “disturbing phoniness of this school of film-making filled with Freudian symbolism and portentous compositions” but Walsh was enough of a feet-on-the-ground old hand not to let that side of it overwhelm the picture. At its heart it’s just the good old find-your-daddy’s-killer Western plot, with plenty of rootin’ and shootin’. It’s just that this time the hero knew who the killers were all along but just didn’t remember because it was hidden in his psyche.
The movie was not universally well received when it premiered in March 1947. The influential Bosley Crowther in The New York Times was not impressed, writing that “the picture drones along” and that it was “hard to work up any sympathy for the hero, who seems bored by all his woes. That may be because Robert Mitchum, who plays the latter, is a very rigid gent and gives off no more animation than a Frigidaire turned to ‘Defrost’.” Perhaps he was refrerring to the Mitchum cool. Or perhaps not. He added, “Niven Busch, who wrote the original script, tried to write a psychological mystery in a western setting and bungled the job.” Ouch. Myself, I couldn’t disagree more with that.
Variety was politer. Of Mitchum it wrote “His role fits him naturally and he makes it entirely believable” and it said, “Standout in [the] picture is [the] suspense generated by the original script and Raoul Walsh’s direction. Strong casting also is a decided factor in selling the action wares. Production makes use of natural outdoor backgrounds supplied by New Mexico scenery, lending [an] air of authenticity that is fully captured by the camera.”
It didn’t do well at the box-office. There were no Westerns in the top ten for ticket sales that year. The picture almost slipped from memory until a much more recent revival of interest, largely pioneered by Scorsese, restored it to an important position in Hollywood filmography – rightly so, in my view.
Pursued was the film Jim Morrison was watching the night he died. But you’ll probably survive a viewing.
Incidentally, if you are interested, you can find our essay on the noir Western here.