Friday, February 18, 2011

       





                   Noir madness, with spurs

                                                                     
                                                                            Donate right here, Pilgrim!                                                 

                                                  



                               “Power is a false light in the far desert.”  -  Dan Smith
                                           The Hour of Fury, by Ernest Haycox

Part the second -

Just what kind of Western Stories would Holly Martins have been writing before Harry Lime brought him to be trapped in the noir of post-war Vienna? Pulp ones, no doubt!


Yellow Sky from 1949  is a little-known noir western by Bill Wellman that’s a gem, and based on a story by W.R. Burnett, which in turn is really a version of The Tempest, by some famous dead Englishman.  Lensed by Joseph MacDonald, it has both sharp blacks and grays in the night scenes, and almost blinding brightness in the contrasting daytime desert scenes.

Gregory Peck is bank-robbing gang leader Stretch, a ruthless, amoral anti-hero, and Anne Baxter, in a wonderful portrayal, is the tomboy Mike, (she doesn’t like her given name: Constance Mae) who turns his heart around and almost incidentally her own. 



Among the others in Stretch’s gang, Tommy Udo…er…Richard Widmark, plays Dude, a colder, more calculating version of his signature thug. 



It qualifies as a noir by the plot, violence, details and the photography, as the characters spend much of their time roaming the night or looking in the blackness of their souls. The acting is superb, and a desert scene where the gang has run out of water makes me thirsty thinking about it. Yeah, it has a sorta happy ending, and yeah, it has a very vague Hollywood look, but the characters acted like a gal had sex appeal, and the gal, who was as tough as she needed to be, acted like she could use more than a little physical fulfillment along those lines. 



It has a helluva ghost town setting, 


double- and triple-crosses, gunplay, dirt, dust, and is way ahead of its time in that respect – almost a sixties western feel to it.
Strangely enough, though, my favorite scene is almost like something from the silent era – The gang and Mike’s grandfather are at an arms-length standoff, and Stretch has already staked a claim on her, while Dude has designs on the gold the old man is hiding. It’s night, and Mike wanders into the corral to look out over the far desert in the moonlight, not realizing Stretch is behind in the shadows watching her. The grizzled older member of the gang, played by Charles Kemper, is singing the doleful little ditty “I’m Sad and I’m Lonely” in the background, and Mike is taking in the atmosphere – the shot is face-on to Baxter, and for a few seconds her face relaxes and her eyes soften.


Then Stretch silently comes up behind her without touching Baxter in any way, and her facial expressions as she realizes he’s there run the gamut from reverie, to surprise, to narrow-eyed hatred in just seconds, before she whips around to confront Stretch. It was a minor masterpiece of visual communication without a word spoken and done so subtly, that it becomes better than any speachifyin’ could ever have done. The kicker is when they finish smooching, (yeah, she surrenders her will for then and ever after in a great clinch) go up and into the ranch house – Dude steps out of the shadows, quite unknown to the lovers, and the look of calm avarice on his face is priceless. 


There’s a climactic shootout in the dark, as well, something other westerns wouldn’t have tried for a few more years, if at all. And just take a look at this shot:



Musketeers of Pig Alley, anyone? Just how old is film noir, anyway?


!950 was a good year for Westerns with a noir flavor, Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway, an unusual Western for the time with a Native American protagonist, and John Alton as DP giving it a very noir look while preserving the vastness of the Wyoming setting. Robert Taylor plays the Shoshone Civil War Hero who comes home to find he’s being cheated out of his land, and it’s very easy to view the film as a contemporary critique of African American civil rights. The supporting characters are fairly cardboard, and it has more of a H’wood feel than a pulp one, but the dialog is very much in the Haycox and Short vein, with Louis Calhern as a predatory, bigoted lawyer.

The Gunfighter, also from 1950, directed by Henry King, written by William Bowers and AndrĂ© de Toth, with Gregory Peck as Jimmy Ringo, a doomed fast gun trying to see his wife and son he’d left eight years before, Millard Mitchell as the local sheriff and an old friend of Ringo, (much like Stagecoach’s Ringo!) and Skip Homeier in an early role as a town sociopath, braggart and back-shooter who becomes what he will most fear – the man with a fastest gun reputation. The noir starkness of Arthur C. Miller’s cinematography is matched by the lean script, which is more about people and relationships and how time breaks these down, rather than gratuitous action.


The topper for 1950 for me, though, is Winchester '73, Anthony Mann’s psychological noir Western, with William H. Daniels doing the shooting, giving the film a sharp-focused look that brought out all the details that Mann used to give the film authenticity, even if you only see them for a split second. James Stewart is a megawatt star as Lin McAdam, 


a man with hidden streak of madness who’s hunting his father’s killer, played with a sadistic flair by one of the great film specialists in villains, Stephen McNally. 


His pseudonymous Dutch Henry Brown is just as crazy as or worse than Lin. The reason revealed is a family connection between them, which makes their conflict even more twisted. Millard Mitchell is Lin’s saddle pal, High Spade, and it is one of Mitchell’s signature roles. Stuart Lake scripted the adaptation of Borden Chase’s story, and it’s in fine modern Western pulp style. There’s a great little scene where Lin is walking into a saloon in Dodge City with Will Geer’s Wyatt Earp, and Lin and Dutch Henry see each other at the same time, and slap leather simultaneously, both forgetting they had surrendered their guns upon entering Dodge City - the looks on their faces are the first hints of the hatred that both men can barely control.

 The film almost belongs as much to Dan Duryea, playing psychopathic killer Waco Johnnie Dean, (he’s almost always called this in the film, like a presidential assassin’s name!) as it does to Stewart – Duryea’s performance is amazingly vital and alive, he’s smiling madness on a short leash. He likes to kill people, and goads and forces even his own men into deadly gunfire, or kills them himself in an offhand manner. He easily steals every scene he’s in.


The plot device is a valuable, custom Winchester Model 73 rifle that Lin wins in a shooting contest by beating Dutch Henry with a trick shot.


Dutch doesn’t take kindly to this, steals the rifle, and the chase is on. Dutch Henry loses the rifle to a card sharp Indian Trader,


and then it travels in other, avaricious hands for most of the film, for a while in Waco’s possession after he kills cowardly fellow gang member Steve to get it. Shelley Winters plays Lola, Steve’s girl,



and then an accidental companion of the rifle as it wends its way from player to player, until Dutch Henry ruthlessly takes it from Waco, who tells Lola, “I’ll get it back from old Dutch, just like I got it from old Steve.”

Waco’s craziness meets its match, though, towards the end when Lin and High Spade track Dutch Henry to Tascosa, where the gang plans to rob a bank. Waco is tossing back whiskeys in the bar across the street from the bank as Lin sees Lola there, and she points out Waco. Lin grabs Waco’s arm and bends it around backward while grinding Waco’s face into the bar, and this absolutely maniacal look is on Jimmy Stewart’s face like you’ve never seen before! When I saw this as a kid I was shocked, it was and is a defining Western noir moment.





                                             Winchester '73 Trailer                       

The robbery is blown, and Lin chases Dutch into the saguaro cactus-studded canyons and mountains, and here is where Mann’s direction and settings are breathtaking, with not just depth of field, but also literal depth, as many shots are from high above and use the heights to reinforce the vastness of the West. The weakest part of the film involves the run up to and eventual Indian attack, it’s almost ludicrously cardboard. Contrast this set piece with Dutch Henry and his gang members as they visit a lonely tavern, Riker’s, while on the run in the middle of nowhere. Steve Brodie, one of the great supporting players in the movies, is one of the outlaws, and he’s as wholly believable as a saddle tramp gunman here as he is a gangster or thug in any of his number of standard, city noirs. The tavern owner Riker is played in amazingly laconic style by the under-rated John Alexander,


who makes the most of his bit part, and John McIntire is the gunrunning Indian Trader who fleeces Dutch, who doesn’t take kindly to that and tries to pull his gun. Riker was anticipating that. Riker, pointing a shotgun, “Ya should’na done that Dutch. You can have one on the house before ya leave.” Dutch Henry, getting pissed off, “Who said I’m leavin’!?!”  Riker, stolidly, “Yer leavin’.” That dangling cig is just marvelous. This scene is what noir is all about, frankly. 



We’ll jump ahead some to 1954, and another Anthony Mann / James Stewart noir Western collaboration, The Naked Spur.  Stewart’s Howard Kemp throws in with Millard Mitchell’s crusty miner Jesse Tate and Ralph Meeker’s soldier Roy Anderson as bounty hunters after a killer. Janet Leigh is Lina Patch, who thinks she’s in love with the killer they pursue and eventually capture: Robert Ryan’s evil Ben Vandergroat, one of the best psycho villains ever in film, a laughing sociopath who manipulates and kills in ice-cold blood. 

This film, and Winchester ’73, is more widely seen than a lot of the noir Westerns, and both have been heavily dissected and studied, but I just have to say Ben is an absolutely amazing performance, Ryan morphing into a sadistic murderer like he was born to it, and matching Duryea’s Waco performance as a scene-stealer. This film has all the noir requirements, as far as I’m concerned, and the trees and rocky defiles substitute well for the claustrophobic, cheap rooms and artificial canyons of the cities. The pulp elements are there, too, and Short and Haycox would recognize it as one of their progeny.


The Tall T from 1957 is one of Budd Boetticher’s very adult noir Westerns, starring Randolph Scott as Pat Brennan, a small time rancher who’s down on his luck. Brennan passes through a stagecoach way station on a trip into town and banters with the manager and his young son. This is the set-up for his stopping by there on his way back, and finding the boy and his father have been murdered and thrown down a well by Richard Boone’s Frank Usher and his gang, who plan on robbing a passing gold stage.

Old maid wallflower Maureen O’Sullivan’s Doretta and her cowardly new husband stop there too, and are held for ransom, as her father is rich.


Henry Silva plays Chink, (I know, it grates, but that kind of casual racial degrading wasn’t uncommon back in the day) a killer who really likes killing, more than sex. Pat sets himself up as protector for Doretta, and O’Sullivan plays her as a woman resigned to disappointment, but Pat see something stronger in her that she doesn’t even see herself. 


Skip Homeier plays Billy Jack, who isn’t particular about who he sleeps with, and lusts after Doretta, which leads to his death when Pat sets him up while Frank is out picking up ransom money, and Chink is away from the hide-out. Chink is a troubling character, and not just because of the name, Silva had a knack for playing characters that are just a second or two from mass murder, it seems like. In The Bravados, released the next year, even his Mexican character, while not a saint, still has that edgy explosive ability of Silva’s. As mentioned before, Chink’s real lust is killing, and he’s fooled into a trap and shot down by Pat who’s figured a way to goad him. The adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story is well done, and Leonard’s Western writing was always hard edged and noir itself.


Last noir Western I’ll write about is 1959’s Face of a Fugitive, directed with a nice touch by Paul Wendkos, who had an incredibly long and fruitful career in TV, with a few big-screen credits. Wendkos was talented enough to make this tidy little noir, with Fred MacMurray playing bank robber Jim Larsen, a cool customer who’s on his way to jail, but just as he’s tricked the deputy and can escape from a train, his younger brother Danny appears, unwanted.


In trying to free Jim during the escape, Danny kills the deputy, who in turn fatally wounds Danny. Jim pulls him into a freight car on a passing train where Danny dies as Jim bitterly blames himself. Jim is desperate, and bundles the body into a canvas bag and tosses it off the train into a river. He manages to insinuate himself into a passenger car on the train, which is headed for Tangle Blue, the home of a chatty little girl, Alice Bailey, whom Jim befriends as a way to blend in. He carefully plies the little girl with questions and bluffs his way through hers, establishing an identity right there as Ray Kincaid, one of the “blasted mine inspectors”, and it even fools a deputy when the train is stopped and searched for a murderous bank robber – Jim himself!


With his new identity, he figures on passing through Tangle Blue and getting out fast, but after buying new clothes, a new gun, (he tossed his when the train was searched.), and a new horse, he meets the sheriff, Alice’s uncle Mark Riley, played by Lin McCarthy. Riley is a bookish lawyer turned lawman who has deputies at all the exits from town, keeping everyone there until wanted posters show up the next day on the morning train. Jim had a shave, and bluffed the barber into thinking he knew him as Kincaid, which reinforced his new identity in town, and met Alice’s widowed mother, Ellen. She’s intelligently played by little-known beauty Dorothy Green as a woman who isn’t afraid of coming on to man, a very noir kinda woman.


Ray is attracted to her as well, starting to feel safe in his new identity, and when a local big-time cattleman, Reed Williams, comes into the store where she works, Jim is concerned that he subtly threatens her brother Mark. He’s hoping to scare her into stopping the sheriff from cutting Williams’ illegal fencing, and says it’ll lead to shooting, regardless of who’s the law. Then he sees Williams’ men push the sheriff around, and starts to see Mark as somewhat like Danny, Jim’s dead little brother. One of the Williams cowhands, Purdy, is played with a kind of joyful menace by James Coburn in an early role.


Jim manages to get a job as a deputy, planning on running as soon as he can, but while he’s in town, he beats up Williams, get beaten himself by the cowhands, talks Mark into marrying his sweetheart and is his best man, and falls hard for Ellen. And then the morning comes.


Jim must decide if leaving Mark to be surely killed is right, and finds his humanity in the process. There’s a great chase over rooftops and realistic shootout in a room of shadows in a nearby ghost town. Jim kills Williams and his men one by one. Even though Jim is badly wounded in the end, and the wanted posters arrive with his face on them, Ellen loves him and Mark vows to go to bat for him in court. This all sounds simplistic, but the adaptation of Peter Dawson’s story, (he was Luke Short’s brother, no less) is very convoluted, and full of nighttime imagery. While Jim is taking Ellen and Alice home in the evening, he passes by some men who’ve discovered a body floating in a bag –Danny!


Jim has to deny knowing the mystery corpse, and all through the rest of the movie, subtle little scenes involving Danny’s body pop up as reminders of the fatalism that permeates the film. Ellen practically invites Jim in for the night, but he’s trying not to become entangled in Tangle Blue – a useless endeavor, as he’s already in love with her. MacMurray is great as a cool-headed criminal, often quietly rolling a cigarette when danger is near, and he coldly analyzes everything before he makes a move. The film is set mostly at night, with shadows and danger, and it’s an interesting comparison to the godawful Oregon Trail, released later the same year, and also starring Mac Murray, which has all the classic bad things H’wood could bring to Westerns- it’s the anti-Haycox western.

The noir tradition, pulps - both hard-boiled and Western, and their influence on Western films is only natural; Race Williams, Carroll John Daly's prototypical hard-boiled pulp detective that liked shooting as a solution, was only carrying on the literary traditions of the Old West legends, just morphed into a modern, realistic way of writing that lead to Hammett, Chandler, Woolrich...oh, yeah and film noir.

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Vanwall's Western Noir musings are in support of For the Love of Film (Noir), the Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by the lovely and talented movie mavens, Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren herself, and Marilyn Ferdinand, the schoolmarm of Ferdy on Films - she'll learn ya, blogs that are both excellent reasons for a good read for all seasons. The Facebook page for the blogathon is raht cheer: For the Love of Film (noir)


Also a shout out again to my film pal and proofreader, Amanda Howard - again, thankee kindly, for the suggestions and commentary, you improved things immeasurably.

Monday, February 14, 2011


Donate right here, pilgrim!

Personal meditations on the influence of pulp stories on noir Western films     




                    “Power is a false light in the far desert.”  -  Dan Smith
                                The Hour of Fury, by Ernest Haycox

Part the first -

  Growing up in a place that labeled itself ”The West’s Most Western Town” meant a certain amount of fake cowtown was always right around the corner just when you thought you’d ditched it like a bad tail job. The aspect of most Hollywood Western films seemed to echo that kind of pseudo-verisimilitude, and Westerns in general became things to avoid when the TV was on, especially singing ones – never did like them. 
Being bombarded by that Hollywood view of the Wild West was an everyday occurrence, what with half the TV shows being an oater of one kind or another, and the legion of ‘B’, ‘C’, and down to ‘Z’ Western films were the staple fare for the movie times on every channel, it seemed. I won’t go into the amazingly long list of these, just keep in mind that they helped the better films stand out tall and lean, looking narrow-eyed out over the vast wasteland. 
As I grew up my resistance to Westerns grew as well, until I had cut out the worst of the herd, which was admittedly most of it, and was left with the experience of having seen so many but valued so few. At the same time, I was watching a lot of noir films and reading a lot of old detective and mystery stories, and in following the lines of influence from the pulp days, I found many of my favorite Westerns, like many of the best private eye stories, were actually very noir influenced themselves. 

I've written up my impressions of a few of the best, and some of the most overlooked, Noir Westerns, so sit back, I'll let you borry my rockin' chair as Ol' Mose would say, and I'll try and run some clips or two, but If'n I can't find any of one or t'other, why, light out and go find the movie and watch it! Meanwhile, I'll give ya my two bits about noir and The Wild West.
   
   
                                          Western pulp art by Sam Cherry

  The pulp magazine has an almost legendary reputation among the various early influences on film noir. The noir staple hardboiled dick began life there, written by guys who worked for maybe a penny or two a word, tossing off stories that should’ve been slapdash and formulaic, ephemeral works that were meant to be as temporary as the pulp-wood paper they were printed on. In spite of this, some managed to be influential and long lasting, with a new style of writing the English language; a shiny, dark, slangy way, with a clipped cadence and hard-bitten use. This was a laconic idiom that was practically dragged out of the men of few words who were the stories’ main players, stories that were the products of hundreds of rejection letters before they finally landed on the pages of dime magazines. The great stylists that wrote novels of angsty post-war Americana in the Twenties and Thirties had nothing on these so-called hack writers who were shaping the way people thought and acted from the ground level, even while aspiring to work in the “slicks” – the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and such that paid enough to give up the day job and be a full-time writer.  

                    
   Many of these same writers of Detective and Action tales also wrote Western stories, which along with Romance stories, were the real driving engines for the publishers of pulp magazines. The style of these same writers is evident in the many of Western pulps, with a huge change in a short period of time away from the florid and stodgy way of writing about cowpokes and critters from before the Great War, to the more natural and approachable-sounding pulp Westerns. Curiously, much of the direction the editors and publishers wished – fewer words, which meant a smaller payroll, but plenty of action and output - shaped the way the Western, along with the rest of the pulps, changed. New writers who had a more realistic take on the Old West also had new ideas on how to portray the heroes and heroines of the wide outdoors: cowboys that weren’t two-gun supermen, heroines that weren’t just sexless chattels waiting for a man. 
  When the movie industry began looking for new ways to market the tired ‘B’ oaters that they’d flogged since the silent days, they landed upon some of the Western pulp writers who’d graduated to the slicks, and even written a novelette or two, or maybe a novel—all new fodder ready to be adapted into a product for the masses. Two of the early efforts at adapting one the best of the new style Western writers, Ernest Haycox, provide interesting comparisons to map the various directions the Studios had in mind. 

Haycox wrote his stories based on his early life working in the final days of the Old West, with the U.S. Army on the border with Mexico, and also on his careful research and travels in the American West after the Great War. His stories were filled with the requisite action and horses, six-guns and Indians, but to a great degree, contained less stereotypical portrayals than most Westerns of the time. Here's as noir a piece of writing from Haycox's Trouble Shooter as you'd find anywhere, and it is cinematic in it's dark simplicity:
"Silence flowed around him....Somewhere along the hall a board squeaked and small as that sound was, it was like a dynamite explosion to Frank Peace. he wheeled in his tracks, ramming his fist into his coat pocket to grip the revolver he carried there. A doorway across the hall swung quietly back on its hinges. He saw somebody moving in the depths of that room's blackness and immediately he swayed aside. At the same moment a round bloom of ragged light burst through the doorway. The breath of the bullet licked across his face and the whole building swelled and shook with the detonation. The slug struck into the wall behind Peace with a small, snoring report.
Peace dropped to the floor, his long, loose body flattening against the boards; the marksman across the way let out a windy sigh and began to rake the room with rapid, plunging fire."

                       
       
  Trouble Shooter was one of his serialized novels from Collier’s, and was adapted into the Cecil B. DeMille blockbuster-style film, Union Pacific, released in 1939, and is considered by many to be the most influential Western of its time, leading the Western film to the ‘A’ level. I’ve always had trouble with this film, even though it’s great in reputation and has Barbara Stanwyck, Joel McCrea and Robert Preston in it, because it could’ve been so much more. I’ve seen it all the way through a couple of times over the years, which may be one too many. I know there are clips out there to view, I just don't care to have any on my blog.

                     
                                       Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Preston
 Haycox wrote it with a dark, yes, noir edge to it, full of the evils and ambivalent behavior that was ever-present as the railroads marched to bring the East to the West, with whores and whiskey, back-shooting and quiet heroics, making the hero in the book, Frank Peace, a flawed and human protagonist. The Production Code, of course, eviscerated it, taking out the natural human emotions and motivations, and Paramount reduced the complex plot into a simple all-for-one, jingoistic, anti-Native American film, with lots of train wrecks that wasn’t much different than the ‘B’ Westerns of the time; so what if it had a bigger budget?

                           
  Compare this with another Western from the same year, Stagecoach, the excellent John Ford-directed adaptation of Haycox’s short story “Stage to Lordsburg,” a film which has left intact the edge that Haycox wrote, and more, with John Wayne’s Ringo Kid an escaped convict as the hero, and his eventual love interest, Claire Trevor’s heroine Dallas, (Was there ever a better dance-hall-girl’s name in a Western film? I don’t think so!) is a whore being run out of town by the “better class” of citizens.

                
                                         Ford's favorite, Monument Valley

                               One of the greatest, star-making entrances ever. 





                         George Bancroft, John Wayne, Claire Trevor 

                                  
                                         Dallas and The Ringo Kid

This is the proto-Western Noir film, and a sense of fatality and doom pervades the film, with the substantial nighttime camerawork of Bert Glennon adding to the feeling of menace, and Ford’s remarkable eye for interiors is almost claustrophobic. 

  
                  Ringo will follow Dallas out, in one of Ford’s wonderful doorway scenes. 


                    
                                          Ringo and Dallas share a moonlight moment.

        
   What a great cast, all in one shot. In addition to Wayne, Trevor and Bancroft, the supporting players here are Donald Meek, Andy Devine, Louise Platt, John Carradine, Berton Churchill, and Thomas Mitchell in an Oscar-winning role. (In back there in the Cavalry outfit is Tim Holt, whose father was a Silent era film cowboy, and Tim himself went on to a slew of 'B' Westerns himself - but every so often, as in Stagecoach, and later in The Magnificent Ambersons, My Darling Clementine, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he would get a nice role in an 'A' film, and never disappointed.)
The sheriff in the film is a pal of Ringo and the general feeling is of a fluid, amorphous ‘civilized’ law that changes with the situation from minute to minute. Yeah, it has the Hollywood-mandated Indian attack, and cavalry connection Ford so loved, but it’s almost clinical in its view of the climactic chase and running fight, which is a marvel of influential action and stunt work.

      
        Ford was pulling out all the right stops for this chase. Done at speed, too! 





In addition, it’s filled with little details of life in the desert, the costuming is before the stylized Hollywood Western look became prevalent, and it's wonderfully true, looking like the players just stepped out of contemporary photographs of the time, and the crowded barroom shots with plenty of Bull Durham smoke and lots of liquor flowing help define the edge of civilization mood.

     As noir a series of shots as you'll ever see, and Tom Tyler as Luke Plummer is amazing.

                                              Red Light Lordsburg
 The final scenes, at night in good noir fashion, are at Dallas’ new neighborhood in the red-light district of Lordsburg, and then an influential gunfight at night tidies up the ending - almost; the last is the sheriff and Doc, the alcoholic supporting character brilliantly played by Thomas Mitchell, letting Ringo and Dallas escape to Ringo’s ranch while whooping and hollering. It’s positively subversive at its core, and one of the few John Wayne films I watch.
                                      Veronica Lake as Connie Dickason
  Next up for Noir Westerns is a personal favorite, the dark, dark Ramrod from 1947, directed in fine noir style by AndrĂ© de Toth, and starring Veronica Lake as Connie Dickason, the movie’s femme fatale who exudes sexual power and lust; Joel McCrea as Dave Nash, the conflicted hero; Don DeFore in a bravura performance as Bill Schell, who helps or hinders as he sees fit; Preston Foster as Frank Ivey, as cold a calculating villain as ever was in film; and Arleen Whelan as Rose Leland, in a thankless role as the curiously non-sexual heroine. 

One of the players in our film noir restoration project film, Lloyd Bridges, can be spotted as a supporting bad guy, along with a small role with a bit of a spark for long-time character actor Ray Teal, and you can spot craggy old Houseley Stevenson, a noir film staple, in a bit part. This adaptation of a story by the almost forgotten Luke Short keeps much of the subtlety and sexual conflict intact, and as you’ll see, started a run of interestingly noir Short works made into films. 

 Luke Short, the pen name of Frederick Glidden, had done his time in the Canadian wilderness and the American West, although well after it had lost its wildness. Short jumped first from the pulps to the slicks, and then to novels because of his talented evocation of the West with a modern and realistic understanding of its settings and people. His stories had the same gritty feel as Haycox’s best work, and other than a Western setting, many could’ve been written as crime or detective stories – in the noir West nights, all cats were gray.
 
                          
            Yes, this was a publicity shot for Ramrod. The general thrust of the film is right here.

                                  Joel McCrea's Dave Nash calmly going about his business.


Connie wants to rule her own place in the sun that she can take from Ivey, and Dave, a recent widower fresh off a guilt-trip bender accompanied by Schell, is hired to ramrod her land grab. The film includes double-crosses, dark deeds by the light of the moon, and the loss or conflicted use of one’s honor in the Old West, as its major themes. In fact, the malleable application of it leads to the two best roles in this film: Lake’s Connie is almost feral in her manipulation and lust for power, a lust disguised as sexual power used for gain, rather than satisfaction, and it’s matched by DeFore’s amazing Bill Schell, a back-shooting, lusty cowhand who has his own agenda and morals.

                      
                                           Bill Schell, played by Don DeFore

His motivations actually mesh well with those of Connie, whom he loves enough to do terrible things for, and terrible things for her lust for Dave Nash – he knows she has the hots for Dave, yet he sacrifices himself to please Connie. DeFore is amazing in this role, his usually sunny, dim-bulb character nowhere in sight as he ruthlessly strides through the movie.  I wish he’d had more roles like this one—it’s revelatory. It has the usual H’wood ending – guy gets “right” gal – but no other Western comes close to this one for sheer sexual power, as even McCrea has a solid, attractive sexual appeal, to say nothing of DeFore and his Bill Schell’s animal magnetism. And, yeah…I did just say that about Don DeFore, amazing but true. Russell Harlan’s cinematography can be as dark as Hades in the stifling sunlight, and the use of the expanses is intercut with wonderful canyon settings, where it feels like a dry-gulching is right around the corner – this was a defining Western, noir or not. 
                          
                                      
 Pursued, also from 1947, is directed by Raoul Walsh, with cinematography by
the great James Wong Howe, and is a brightly, sunny looking film in a lot of 
ways, about a dark, disturbing theme from a tense script by Niven Busch.
 
                                  
                                                            Italian Poster for Pursued


                                   Robert Mitchum is Jeb Rand -

Brought up by the Callum family’s strong Ma, played by Judith Anderson, after a long-running feud has left him an orphan. 
                              Judith Anderson’s Ma was the toughest character in the film.
He remembers only glimpses of the terrifying massacre as he was hidden behind a trap door, (a Walsh signature gimmick) not knowing who wiped out his family. Even though he thinks he’s safe as he grows older, it turns out the Callum’s in-law Grant, played in remorseless fashion by Dean Jagger, is the leader of the killers, and has a long memory. Teresa Wright plays Thorley Callum, with whom Jeb was raised and is in love with, but who thinks Jeb murdered her brother. By the end of the film she’s planning on marrying Jeb to kill him on their wedding night! 
                                      
                                      Damn, those Italians get right to the point in this Pursued poster.
                  
                              Teresa Wright’s Thor is thinking real hard about using that Colt.

             Wright and Mitchum had a spark in this film – you believed their motivations and actions.    
           
Needless to say, Thor and Jeb find their moral compass, and the true, manipulative villains get their just desserts, but only after a convoluted plot that is worthy of Raymond Chandler. The look is full of interesting angles and lighting, and the performances are all strong, but Mitchum’s especially is full of the character’s insecurity, and the mental images thrown up to show his confusion mirror those in Murder, My Sweet. Unlike many noir Westerns, Pursued has an interesting soundtrack, and the haunting and fatalistic ballad, The Streets of Laredo, is a motif all through the film.

                  

   1948’s Blood on the Moon, another adaptation of a Luke Short work, is directed in a moody, fatalistic manner by Robert Wise and ably filmed by noir stalwart Nicholas Musuraca who helped define the look of noir, and again stars Robert Mitchum, as down-on-his-luck cowhand Jim Garry, who takes a job for old saddle pal Tate Riling, played with wicked zest by Robert Preston. Garry has unwittingly stepped into a range war, with a crooked Indian Bureau man and a gang of Riling’s thieves planning a complicated paper rustling of the Lufton herd by a ruse. 

                                                     Jim Garry, the hungry cowpoke.
                                                          Amy Lufton and Jim Garry
Barbara Bel Geddes is Amy Lufton, Walter Brennan is a tough old coot – his specialty – who aids the Luftons in foiling the theft, and in one of the best Western night scenes, they have Garry’s help in fighting off an ambush by Riling’s men. Mitchum is a classic noir protagonist, conflicted and ethically malleable, until he finds his moral center with Amy’s help. Then he beats the living hell out of Tate Riling.

                               
                                 One the best of the Western punch-outs.

Unusual snow scenes are part of the cold winter setting, and claustrophobic interior shots bring to mind the aforementioned Stagecoach, and Ford’s eye for interiors. 
            
Of note is Phyllis Thaxter as the love-struck, lonely Carol Lufton, Amy’s sister, who is manipulated by Riling into a betrayal for what she believes is love – it’s a complex performance and not the usual role for her, like DeFore’s in Ramrod
                         Barbara Bel Geddes as Amy and Phyllis Thaxter, a needy Carol.
Luke Short’s stories often had loyalties strained and broken by greed and lust, and plenty of gray areas in most everyone’s character, and the movie transferred those aspects well.  
                   

  In an only slightly lesser vein is Station West, also from 1948, also from a Luke Short story, and directed by journeyman Sidney Lanfield who was later an episodic TV specialist, with DP Harry Wild, another noir stalwart. It's a nifty cabinet Western, with Dick Powell as Lt. John Haven of U.S. Army Military Intelligence, investigating murder and gold theft in a town practically owned by Jane Greer’s Charlie, an amoral singer. 

Jane Greer is once again, Jane Greer, which is a pretty good thing, even if they call her Charlie.
She falls for Haven even while trying to stage an elaborate gold robbery with her gang, most everyone is shot or killed, and the plot is as twisted as anything this side of The Big Sleep. Greer is in her usual fine, manipulative form, and Powell is practically his previous iteration of Phillip Marlowe from Murder, My Sweet, on horseback.
 
        Powell and Greer making nice. Powell was actually pretty good as a laconic horseman.
The fatalism is all Greer’s, and the ending is all too familiar for her character, even though I kinda wish it hadn’t been. The photography isn’t quite noir, but isn’t quite standard H’wood Western fare, either.

                 
  Once again, The Italians show their affinity for Western art: Colorado Territory
   I’ll ride into 1949 with a mention of Colorado Territory  – Raoul Walsh’s cowboy remake of his own High Sierra, with Joel McCrea as the somewhat noble outlaw, and Virginia Mayo as the girl who loves him.

                       Mayo is quite the wild thing in this film, and was never lovelier.
The W. R. Burnett story transfers right into a set of spurs and six-guns, with Sidney Hickox, a versatile DP with huge noir and western credits doing the lensing, adding a harsh, stark look to the film, which enhances the performances; look for noir veteran Dorothy Malone as the girl McCrea’s Wes McQueen thinks he’s in love with. 

McCrea was excellent in an atypical bad-guy role, perhaps because of a bit of good in it,  and the supporting cast was perfect. 
                

video

This is actually one of my favorite Walsh films, the trailer only hints at the visuals and the bleak outlook of it, it’s gritty and full of characters with questionable morals and skewed intentions, and it doesn’t take a back seat to High Sierra at all- it’s its own special film, and an excellent one.


        Miss Mayo at the end. Where we are now for this entry, but more to come.
  

It’s easy to see that some of the more interesting Westerns were rapidly evolving along noir lines, and not just because of the interchangeability of the actors, like the ubiquitous and excellent Steve Brodie, between Westerns and the gritty, dark films that flooded out of the studios after WWII. The Western genre was as primed for noir as any of the post-war detective and crime films, because it was being influenced by the pulps that had nurtured Haycox and Short as much as Chandler, Hammett and Woolrich. 

Next entry has lots of cowboys with psychosis of various kinds, good ones and bad ones. And the darkness at high noon continues. Don't let any nightriders past the deadline, kid, ya hear?
 
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Vanwall's Western Noir musings are in support of For the Love of Film (Noir), the Film Preservation Blogathon, hosted by the lovely and talented movie mavens, Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren herself, and Marilyn Ferdinand, the schoolmarm of Ferdy on Films - she'll learn ya, blogs that are both excellent reasons for a good read for all seasons. The Facebook page for the blogathon is raht cheer: For the Love of Film (noir)


Also a shout out to my film pal and proofreader, Amanda Howard - thankee kindly, for the suggestions and commentary, and if anything is wrong, it's because I was too mule-headed to catch it, even if you prolly did tattoo it on my forehead with a blunt instrument.