Monday, February 14, 2011

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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 André 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. 

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?

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.


Tinky said...

Fascinating discussion of this cross-fertilization, with GORGEOUS illustrations.

Anonymous said...

Great post. That shot of Mitchum and his horse from Blood On The Moon is terrific.

Looking forward to part two.

Trish said...

Great work, Vanwall. And the artwork is wonderful -- I've never seen that Stagecoach poster before. Beautiful!!! I'm definitely going to look some of these up, specifically Ramrod and Stations West. Would you consider Yellow Sky noir?

Operator_99 said...

Wonderful post on several of my favorite obsessions, pulps and pulp art, westerns, Veronica Lake and noir. Thanks for all the work on this piece.

Vanwall said...

Thanks, all!

Tinky, I love that Italian poster for "Colorado Territory", it's so alive.

Toby, thanks! And you oughta know from Westerns! I hope you enjoy my second installment.

Trish, "Yellow Sky" is up on part two, and it's as noir as hell!

Bob, thanks for the kudos, coming from one of my favorite bloggers! I like how well Lake fit into the millieu, she was really great in "Ramrod"

Arnie Widdowson said...


You had a Firesign Theatre comment on a blog....

"I mentioned their interview with Susskind earlier, it was a surreal and marvelous moment of improv."

I was wondering do you have a copy of that show from 1974?

I had recorded the Susskind show but have lost both the 7 1/2 reel-to-reel and the cassette copies.

Some of the treasured quotes:
"cab driver had this big bag of white powder - said it was for his hair"
"Try to get some sleep as best as you can with this band music playing"
"I needed that airplane; I gotta fly to the bathroom - LadyBird get it ready for me"
(off camera) "Do something David!! "
"Post?! What do you mean Post?! Bunch of Hipsters"

Arnie Widdowson