Paint it black
What is noir?
What noir really is can be difficult to pin down. You kind of know a noir when you see one but actually defining it is harder. During what most people describe as the high point of noir, the late 1940s and early 50s, when all those famous noir Hollywood movies were coming out, the word was simply not used by American critics and filmmakers. It came in much later.
Is noir a genre – you know, like sci-fi, horror, rom-com, or indeed Western?
IMDB defines it as such. For example, you can sort John Huston’s films – ones he appeared in, wrote and/or directed – by genre, and if you choose ‘film-noir’ you get nine titles. If you’re interested, they are The Maltese Falcon and High Sierra (1941), Dark Waters (1944), The Stranger, Three Strangers and The Killers (1946), Key Largo (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950) and The Prowler (1951). You might think that list incomplete. Huston wrote and directed The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948 and that has many hallmarks of noir – Bogart as morally dubious (eventually morally bankrupt) central character, crime theme, black & white, tough-guy violence, and so on. Is Sierra Madre a noir?
Maybe noir isn’t a genre. Perhaps it’s more of a style, a style that can be applied to any genre. You might argue that there are private-eye crime noirs, like The Maltese Falcon, spy noirs (The Mask of Dimitrios), social satire noirs (Sweet Smell of Success), love story noirs (Gilda) and others, including, yes, Western noirs (Pursued).
Godard famously said that all you need for a noir is a girl, a car and a gun. Actually, for a noir Western you don’t even need the car.
When did noirs start?
Of course the noir predated those 40s Hollywood flicks. I’ve read somewhere that DW Griffith’s 1912 Pig Alley, one of the first ever gangster films, was a noir. Anthony Asquith’s silent British film A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) is said by James Naremore, author of the important More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts, to be “as good as anything Hitchcock did” and that was pretty noir. The French used the term for the likes of Quai des Brumes in 1938.
But certainly it was after World War II in France that the idea of noir really blossomed. In 1946 the prestigious publisher Gallimard launched its Série noire of yellow-and-black paperbacks, often referred to as littérature de la gare (train-station literature), many of which were translations of the works of hard-boiled American crime writers.
That year too some of the movies which had been held back from European release during the war were shown for the first time, pictures like The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Murder, My Sweet and more, and they had a major impact. The Existentialists loved them. Film noir was now definitely a thing. As Naremore says, “France invented the concept of American film noir.”
What goes around comes around
The French intellectuals adored the likes of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, and even more the movies that were made of their works. Take Hammett’s Red Harvest, for example, though curiously perhaps, Hollywood never did make a film of it. André Gide described the book as “the last word in atrocity, cynicism and horror.” It wasn’t anything like the last word, of course, but it must have seemed so then. Red Harvest was adopted by Kurosawa in Japan and became Yojimbo. In Italy, Sergio Leone arguably plagiarized Yojimbo (though he denied it) for his spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, and countless other – even worse – spaghettis plagiarized Leone for their own versions; it became a standard spaghetti plot. Then, in the USA in the 1990s it came full circle when Walter Hill made it a noir gangster story (though he once said that all his films were Westerns in a way) all over again as Last Man Standing.
There were noir elements to many European Expressionist motion pictures and when filmmakers such as Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Robert Siodmak, André De Toth and others came to the US, they brought many of these ideas with them. It is no coincidence that Lang directed both M (1931) and The Big Heat (1953). And many of these exiles were especially fond of the American hard-boiled.
Of course there were many American-born directors, writers, cinematographers and actors more than ready to make Westerns darker and harder. Some were already experienced at the crime-noir picture. Think about Anthony Mann and his preferred cinematographer John Alton. Or Nicholas Ray doing great noirs like They Live by Night and In a Lonely Place as well as Westerns such as The Lusty Men, Run for Cover and Johnny Guitar.
Surely Westerns aren’t suited to noir?
Many will think of the Western as the least susceptible type of film to become noir. Surely, Westerns were about wide open spaces, bright colors, bold settlers who believed in their manifest destiny to populate virgin lands and prosper thereby, men of women of pioneer spirit who overcame all obstacles to make a better future. Naremore describes the genre as “relentlessly optimistic.” Not much noir about that. Noirs were pessimistic, even nihilistic.
But we know there was another kind of Western. For every oater with a wagon train of hopeful pioneers out on the wide open plains there was another set in a small town, with a crooked town boss and his thuggish henchmen and maybe a corrupt sheriff, or a ruthless rancher seeking to wipe out the sturdy homesteaders who were fencing in ‘his’ open graze, or gangs of outlaws ready to rob and kill. That was more fertile terrain for the noir to put down roots in.
Furthermore, as we have already discussed (click here for that), the notion of the solitary hero, the lone cowboy, was intrinsic to the Western and this suited noir, whose central characters were often dislocated loners. Westerns with titles such as Ride Lonesome, Lonely Are the Brave and A Man Alone are all pretty noir.
The essentially pessimistic ‘end of the West’ theme, which we also talked about (here) and which distinguished the Western throughout its history, also fitted in with this. Returning war vets understood this very well.
The Western grows up
All through the 1930s the genre had been, with rare exceptions, relegated to the second-feature and juvenile markets, but from 1939 it underwent a kind of renaissance and major studios started making expensive A-picture Westerns with big stars for the adult market, and they were hits. All through the 1940s the genre was taken much more seriously.
Some of these Westerns were even dark, somber works with a social message. Consider William A Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), for example, a kind of ‘proto-noir’, if you like. Gloomily shot with a hanging theme and a tragic ending, it was pretty dark.
Naturally, the less than thoughtful shoot-‘em-up kind of oater continued but there were enough of these ‘serious’ Westerns to make critics and theater-goers take notice. After World War II, with worldly-wise service personnel returning home, there was an appetite for ‘deeper’ pictures, in all genres, including Westerns. Moviegoers had seen violence, death and trauma, and they weren’t going to be satisfied any more with glib fare and those silly theatrical ‘deaths’ that screen cowboys staged before. Without using the term, noir came to the Western.
Noir creeps in
There was suddenly more moral ambiguity, there was psychological complexity, and noir elements such as a lack of sentimentalism, hard-boiled heroes and femmes fatales were introduced. The happy-ever-after ending became rarer. Noir filming techniques crept into the Western, such as voiceovers and flashbacks, and the visual style too imitated that of noir crime films, with lighting to enhance a somber mood, deep shadow, night-time scenes in the rain, sharp camera angles which pushed viewers out of their comfort zone, and so on. Now the West was a more complicated and a bleaker place.
Which Westerns were noir?
Because different people have different ideas of what constitutes a noir film, lists of noir Westerns vary greatly. One list, by Arch Stanton, puts at the top A Holy Terror, an Irving Cummings-directed film of 1931 starring George O’Brien, and it includes such pictures as Stagecoach, The Return of Frank James, Western Union and even California. Martin Wilson on tasteofcinema.com includes High Noon and Johnny Guitar. Myself, while I accept that all these had something noir about them, I would not include them at the top of my list.
If we concentrate for a moment on the classic 1940s period, notable examples (but only illustrative examples, certainly not a complete list) of noir Westerns might be Pursued (Raoul Walsh) and Ramrod (André De Toth), released in March and May 1947, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston), Coroner Creek (Ray Enright) and Yellow Sky (Wellman) in January, July and December 1948, and Colorado Territory (Walsh) in June 1949.
You can find full reviews of all the Westerns mentioned here in the index and I won’t go into detail here (the post is already too long) but just to say now that:
Pursued had Robert Mitchum trying to find the secrets of a traumatized youth and facing violence, jealousy and two women whose love turns to loathing. Its voiceover and flashbacks heighten the noirishness. Paul Simpson, in The Rough Guide to Westerns, talked of cinematographer James Wong Howe’s “shadow-haunted images, stark desert locations, noirish underlighting and low-angled interiors”, which were “innovative and experimental for a Western”. Paul Willemen, in The BFI Companion to the Western, goes as far as to call Pursued “Walsh’s exquisitely noir masterpiece.”
Ramrod also had a traumatized hero (Joel McCrea) and a dark tone which contrasted with the ice-lady female lead, Veronica Lake. There were markedly high and low camera angles used by Russell Harlan, another of the masters of black & white – Red River itself had noirish touches ante diem. Ramrod is violent, pessimistic and dark. Martin Scorsese considers it a master work.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was the first great Western in a stunningly good year that also produced Fort Apache and Red River. Bogart was magnificent as the prospector descending into the madness of gold-lust. Jack Warner said it was “definitely the greatest motion picture we have ever made.” Variety thought that “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is not only radically different, but it’s a distinguished work that will take its place in the repertory of Hollywood’s great and enduring achievements.”
Coroner Creek was fairly workaday director Ray Enright’s very best Western. Randolph Scott plays a man with a mission, a classic loner. He is a single-minded, almost deranged avenger. George Macready is the chief villain, as he had been in the 1946 Glenn Ford/Rita Hayworth noir Gilda. Forrest Tucker is the heavy and probably the most famous scene in Coroner Creek is the one of his fight with Scott in which he deliberately crushes the unconscious Scott’s gunhand by stomping on it. Coroner Creek is violent, somber and dark.
Yellow Sky was another black & white Western, this time shot in pitiless Death Valley locations to underline the harshness of the terrain and the plot. Gregory Peck plays the tough and cynical leader of an outlaw gang who in a (specially constructed) ghost town has to deal with mutiny led by the sinister tubercular gambler Richard Widmark. The picture was directed by the great William A Wellman, who had helmed The Ox-Bow Incident, and Lamar Trotti wrote both. Much of the film is done without background music, only the wind blowing through the ruined town breaking the ghostly silence and heightening the bleakness.
Colorado Territory, a remake of Walsh’s own crime picture High Sierra with Humphrey Bogart, stars Joel McCrea in the Bogart part as a crook tired of it all who wants to get out of the game after “one last job” (which you sense will indeed be his last). Dorothy Malone is a very fatale femme. 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.
Black and white
Of these, Coroner Creek was in fact in Cinecolor, with dominant brown and sepia, but the others were all black & white, and there is definitely something about that which suits noir. Those urban night-time settings of classic noir were just better in black & white, somehow, and furthermore, low-budget crime thrillers couldn’t afford color. The French took to their hearts such pictures as T-Men, made in 1947 by Anthony Mann for unglamorous Eagle-Lion for $450,000, or even Detour (1945), made by Edgar G Ulmer (another exile) for PRC in one week on a budget of $117,000. Movies’ ‘B-ness’ was almost a plus point.
T-Men was shot by John Alton. There were many supremely good cameramen filming noirs at this time. James Wong Howe was a master of monochrome and shot such noirs as Out of the Fog, Body and Soul and Sweet Smell of Success. He was behind the lens on Westerns like Pursued in 1947 and The Baron of Arizona in 1950. Edward Cronjager, another black & white maestro, was at the camera for I Wake Up Screaming in 1941 and shot noir or noirish Westerns like Canyon Passage in 1946 and The Capture in 1950. There were other skilled photographers like that. But John Alton is worthy of special mention. He shot noirs for the likes of Joseph Lewis (The Big Combo), Roy Rowland (Witness to Murder) and Allan Dwan (Slightly Scarlet) but especially for Anthony Mann. We think of T-Men but also of Raw Deal and He Walked by Night in 1948. Mann chose Alton when he decided to switch from contemporary crime to Western, and the director’s first picture in that genre, Devil’s Doorway in 1950, was as superb visually as it was in its gritty Western style and its anti-racism social-message.
Of the other late-40s noir Westerns I cited above, the great Russell Harlan, of Red River fame but who photographed Gun Crazy for Joseph Lewis, was at the camera on Ramrod; Fred Jackman Jr (noirs like Dangerous Passage and They Made Me a Killer) shot Coroner Creek; Joe MacDonald (who filmed many noirs, such as The Dark Corner for Henry Hathaway) did Yellow Sky; Ted McCord (Flamingo Road, The Breaking Point, I Died a Thousand Times) was at the camera on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; while Sidney Hickox (The Big Sleep, Dark Passage) was the DP on Colorado Territory.
There is no doubt that the visual is half the battle with making a noir and this was no less true of the Western.
Remakes of crime noirs
There is also no doubt that contemporary crime/gangster thrillers on the one hand and Westerns on the other had much in common. I discussed this before (click here for that little essay). Perhaps nowhere was the crossover more evident than on Colorado Territory. Warners’ 1941 picture High Sierra had Humphrey Bogart organizing a heist in a California resort. The leading lady was a magnificent Ida Lupino. Superbly directed by Raoul Walsh, and shot in black & white by Hickox, it was written by John Huston from a story by WR Burnett, the Little Caesar and Scarface guy. It was a noir if ever there was one.
In the fall of 1948 Walsh started work on a remake, Colorado Territory. He commissioned a new screenplay, from John Twist and Edmund H North, and cast Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo in the leads. This time there were Gallup, NM and Sedona, AZ locations, and the whole thing was very ‘Western’. 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 [sic] 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.”
A later Huston heist movie, The Asphalt Jungle (1950) would also be remade as a Western, this time by Delmer Daves, as The Badlanders in 1958, with Alan Ladd and Ernest Borgnine. Actually, The Badlanders wasn’t very good (Daves said he only made it as a favor to Ladd and didn’t care for the result) but still, it illustrates how a noir or noirish crime picture can be transposed to the West with success.
Think too of Henry Hathaway’s 1947 crime drama Kiss of Death, with Widmark’s giggling Tommy Udo pushing the little old lady in a wheelchair down the stairs, which was remade in 1958 by Gordon Douglas as the luridly-titled but actually very good The Fiend Who Walked the West.
Once again referring to the late-40s noir Westerns I chose (out of many), two of them, Ramrod and Coroner Creek, were taken from novels by Luke Short, and Short was very good at merging noir and Western in book form. His Westerns are often dark, intense and violent crime stories with angst-ridden heroes and manipulative women. The presence in Ramrod of director De Toth’s wife Veronica Lake heightens the noirishness. She had of course co-starred with Alan Ladd on The Glass Key and This Gun for Hire in 1942 and The Blue Dahlia in 1946.
Pursued was written by Niven Busch, husband of its leading lady Teresa Wright, and he also was responsible for Anthony Mann’s second Western, The Furies (1950), with Barbara Stanwyck and Huston père – Oscared for Sierra Madre. This too was very noir in style and content. Yellow Sky was again from a WR Burnett story. So we are beginning to see a pattern here.
As for the actors, we have said that the mere presence of Bogart in Sierra Madre and Lake in Ramrod made you think of noir. The same was true of Robert Mitchum in Pursued. Mitchum was a classic noir actor. You could argue that Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) was definitive noir and its leads, Mitchum and Jane Greer, were as noir actors as you could get. Or think of Mitch in Undercurrent, The Locket, Crossfire, The Big Steal, Where Danger Lives, and more. What could be noirer than Night of the Hunter? In 1948 Mitchum starred in a Western I could easily have included in my sample, Blood on the Moon, yet another film made from a Luke Short story. Directed by ultra-talented Robert Wise (what a tragedy he did so few Westerns), it was as noir a Western as you could wish.
Dreams and trances
There is often something oneiric about the noir and we think in particular of Hitchcock’s Salvador Dalì dream sequence in Spellbound. Sam Spade descended into those dark pools when KO’d. Trances, nightmares and flashbacks are commonplace. In Western noir the best example of this is Pursued, with the hero seeing those spurs and having déjà vu flashes of his youthful trauma.
Noir Westerns continued through the 1950s. The two pictures Henry King made with Gregory Peck, The Gunfighter (1950), written by De Toth, and The Bravados (1958) were very noir. You will certainly think of other examples. What about the first 3:10 to Yuma? Or those Budd Boetticher/Randolph Scott Westerns of the mid-to-late 50s. A ‘minor’ Western of 1954, Silver Lode, starring John Payne and directed by Allan Dwan, is especially noir. That was an RKO picture, and it’s noteworthy how many noirs came from that studio.
When did it end?
Screenwriter/director Paul Schrader, in his influential Notes on Film Noir (1972) suggested that classic noir began with Huston’s The Maltese Falcon in 1941, that Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) was its last masterpiece and that Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil in 1958 was its epitaph.
But of course we all know that noir lived on, in Westerns as elsewhere – maybe not so-defined but in its influences on movies, both in visual style and content. It’s not only Scorsese’s taxi-drivers on mean streets, or Dirty Harry’s way with punks or the Coen brothers’ use of Hammett’s words blood simple or those uber-dark superhero movies like the Batman series. It’s post-1958 Westerns too.
In 1959 De Toth’s Western Day of the Outlaw with noir idol Robert Ryan was pretty damn noir. So were Mann’s Man of the West and Daves’s The Hanging Tree. In fact you could argue that all those Mann Westerns with James Stewart were noirs, Bend of the River, The Man from Laramie and so on. I would particularly cite the violent black & white Winchester ’73 (1950), with a driven hero killing his brother to avenge his father (that dark enough for you?) or the even more driven, almost manic hero of The Naked Spur (1953), a color film but shot in oppressive mountain scenery, when Jimmy Stewart had to combat Robert Ryan.
In the 1960s we might think of Huston’s The Unforgiven, David Miller’s Lonely Are the Brave, even John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The Misfits, Hud. And so many more. You might consider that a Western of our own day like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) has a lot noir about it. What about Deadwood? How noir can you get?
Well, apologies if I haven’t mentioned your favorite noir Western. You may have quite different criteria anyway. As I said, it’s a fluid definition and often subjective. But one thing is for certain: noir brought a lot to our noble genre, and it’s still doing it.
If you want to take this a bit further, I recommend Film Noir: A Very Short Introduction by James Naremore, and The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range 1943 – 1962 by David Meuel.