Fine Western noir
At the end of the 1940s, noir Westerns were all the rage. Raoul Walsh had directed various hard-edged non-Western pictures which might be called early noirs. 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. In 1947 he helmed what many regard as the first out-and-out noir Western, Pursued. That was followed by the likes of Coroner Creek (Ray Enright), Blood on the Moon (Robert Wise), Station West (Sidney Lanfield), and of course The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (John Huston), all in 1948. In 1949 Walsh had another go at one, and it was a remake of High Sierra.
Remaking crime thrillers as Westerns was also a thing. Walsh had helmed High Sierra, with Bogart and a superb Ida Lupino, in 1941. It was written by WR Burnett (the Little Caesar and Scarface guy) and John Huston. Set in a resort in California’s Sierra Nevada, it had extensive location shooting. Later, another Huston heist movie, The Asphalt Jungle, would become the Delmer Daves/Alan Ladd Western The Badlanders. Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death became the luridly-titled but actually very good The Fiend who Walked the West. High Sierra had done well at the box office in ’41 and received critical acclaim. So, why not remake it as a Western? It was Walsh who suggested it; at the time Warners were looking around for scripts. Walsh later said that Jack Warner just thought for a moment and said, All right. Start tomorrow.”
Edmund H North and John Twist were commissioned to write the screenplay. Burnett and Huston were curiously not mentioned. North was a class act who would write Patton; Westernwise he did some good work, such as The Proud Ones, though also the odd plodder like The Far Horizons. Twist worked on quite a lot of oaters, some in fact quite ordinary; he would write Walsh’s last Western, in the 1960s, A Distant Trumpet. That wasn’t very good either. Colorado Territory was certainly his best work.
Curiously, in a way, Joel McCrea took the Bogart role. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a big McCrea fan. In fact I think he was one of the greatest Western stars. I love his work. But he was traditionally the gentle, quietly-spoken type of hero. When nobly establishing Manifest-Destiny transcontinental links (Wells Fargo, Union Pacific) or representing great Western figures (Buffalo Bill, The Virginian, Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Sam Houston) McCrea was always thoughtful, softly-spoken, quiet and, well, decent. So he is surprising (and surprisingly good) as a badman organizing a heist, even the good badman of Western legend. Maybe the picture needed Mitchum menace, a bit more steel. But McCrea was just dandy. In fact Walsh first thought of John Wayne for the part. Not sure how that would have gone. But he did a great job managing McCrea. McCrea admired Walsh. “I’d do stuff for him that I wouldn’t have done for any other director. He was a gutsy little bastard. And funny.” In Colorado Territory Joel was excellent as always and a joy to watch. He plays a crook tired of it all, rather reserved, who wants to get out of the game after “one last job” (which you sense will indeed be his last).
Noir central characters often struggled with the futility of trying to escape one’s past, especially if that past is on the mirky side. Obvious examples are Robert Siodmak’s The Killers and Jaques Tourneur’s Out of the Past. McCrea’s Wes McQueen is definitely in this mold.
And of course Walsh was so good at Western action scenes. He went right back to the silent days and in the 1940s, as well as Pursued, had helmed the big Republic oater Dark Command and the rip-roaring Custer picture They Died With Their Boots On.
The story tells of jail escapee McQueen, tough guy, who, in a ghost town reminsicent of Yellow Sky rejoins a gang of ne’er-do-wells (John Archer, James Mitchell) for a train heist. Archer was to become a TV Western stalwart, appearing especially in Maverick and Bonanza episodes, but also in many other shows. He also had small parts, usually as the heavy, in movies such as High Lonesome, Santa Fe and The Big Trees. He was born Ralph Bowman, so went from being a Bowman to an Archer. Mitchell was an ex-vaudeville performer and ballet dancer and had small parts in nine Westerns, this being his fifth. It must be said, though, that these bad guys did lack charisma a bit. I would have preferred, say, Leo Gordon and Lee Van Cleef, but it was probably a bit early for them.
A strong point of Colorado Territory, though, was the female side. McQueen, as is conventional, dallies between two dames, the rather prim and proper one who appears to be the better match and the wild, dangerous one with sex appeal. Beautiful Dorothy Malone (who did two Westerns with McCrea that year, the other being South of St Louis) plays the ‘good’ one – though of course she turns out to be far from good and will betray Joel for reward money. Betrayal is a (noirish) component of the story. Dorothy does the dirty on McCrea, heavies Archer and Archer do too, the train conductor, in on the heist, changes sides, and even the marshal goes back on his word. Treachery is everywhere.
Virginia Mayo is really effective (and she had a hard act to follow) as the half-breed Colorado, despite her fake, heavy make-up. As is also conventional, women with place names are louche. Think of Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine, Claire Trevor’s Dallas in Stagecoach, Joanne Dru’s Denver in Wagonmaster, Joan Crawford’s Vienna in Johnny Guitar and many others. Colorado is passionate and pretty handy with a Colt. Actually, I do wonder if her character Colorado was sort-of modeled on Chihuahua or indeed on Jennifer Jones’s Pearl in Duel in the Sun. As a half-breed, Colorado is even more of an outsider than McQueen.
Frank Miller wrote, “Walsh was one of the few directors in Hollywood who saw Mayo’s potential as a dramatic actress.” Walsh also used her as James Cagney’s murderous wife in White Heat the same year.
There are some quite wonderful Gallup NM and Sedona AZ locations (you can sense the orangeness through the black & white) as well as a good bit on the Durango/Silverton railroad through the gorge (a truly great ride which I recommend to all Western fans). Sid Hickox was behind the lens and a superb job he did. This was his third of five Westerns for Walsh.
True to noir principles, the robbery goes awry. Double-cross rears its ugly head.Colorado is ready with the getaway horses and though McQueen is wounded, they get away. A large posse pursues.
Pursued was equally dark but in the end the hero finds some kind of redemption and hope. No such luck for Joel. In a departure from High Sierra, Mayo’s Colorado (described by Frank Miller “one of the toughest women in fiilm history”), unlike Lupino’s Marie, stands by her man and there’s a sort of Bonnie and Clyde ending, if more 1940s off-camera than actual graphic bullet-ridden bodies.
The film is quite brutal. The implacable marshal who pursues the badmen (Morris Ankrum) hangs the two robbers he captures from a railroad car, even though he has promised to go easy on them if they spill the beans, and then sneers that the corpses are a pretty sight, and he quite frankly murders the fugitive at the end. Ankrum (an ex-attorney and economics professor) played every kind of Western part from Indian chief to crooked banker, from a Hopalong Cassidy epic in 1936 to Guns of Diablo in 1956. He is very good in Colorado Territory.
We also get good old Henry Hull, not overacting for once, as the ‘good’ girl’s father, whom Joel helps out. Hull was the only actor to have been in both High Sierra and the remake. Basil Ruysdael, in his first Western, is the evil criminal Rickard who sets up the heist. I also spotted Monte Blue (uncredited) and Bob Mitchum’s son James plays a child.
The David Buttolph score is disappointingly stodgy, I thought. He had done a great job on the music of The Return of Frank James for Fritz Lang earlier in the decade but didn’t pull it off here.
Colorado Territory is a superior cowboy film, a key part of the Walsh and McCrea oeuvre and a must-see for any serious Westernista.
Bosley Crowther in The New York Times, who had liked High Sierra, wrote, “High Sierra in a Colorado setting and on horseback is pretty darned good. In fact, the romantic assumptions and the sentimental liberties of its plot are more suited to the Western landscape than they were to a modern-day scene. And its obviously fictionized hero looks much nobler robbing a train with his six-shooters cocked than pulling a stick-up at the point of a nasty tommy-gun.”
It did pretty well at the box office, making $2.7m, though earning nowhere near as much as that year’s big Western She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.
It was banned in West Germany, due to being ‘an example of gangster films which glorify anti-social elements’. They could be prudes, those Europeans.
Many Westerns have oddly translated titles in other countries. This one was known as Golpe de Misericordia, La Fille du Désert, Juntos Hasta la Muerte, Norr om Rio Grande, Gli amanti della città sepolta and Vogelfrei.
Walsh was a great director of Westerns and McCrea was a great actor in them. They are both on top form in Colorado Territory, and I recommend it heartily.