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 André 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.


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.


Marilyn Ferdinand said...

Van - This was really interesting! Many's the straight-up noir that uses the desert as an ironic trap, most notably in my mind The Prowler. The cruelty of these films, some of which I've seen, certainly offers a bleak outlook on par with any classic noir. The last film you mention is so interesting - Fred MacMurray able to tap into his Double Indemnity roots. Great stuff! Thanks.

Vanwall said...

Thanks, Marilyn! Noir Westerns are my faves. "Face of a Fugitive" really is a wonderful film, altho it languished for along time in obscurity; well worth seeing - Coburn is fun in it. Another good noir Western is "Hell to Texas", with Don Murray, well photographed and taught.

Peter Nellhaus said...

I caught part of Yellow Sky on TV many years ago, and finally saw it complete on DVD. This was the film that made me decide that William Wellman had some good films, and I just had to find them for myself. I wrote about that film along with Track of the Cat, which might not be noir, but is worth watching for the experiment in color, or lack of it, that Wellman knew he could pull off once.

Vanwall said...

I'm glad Yellow Sky caught your eye, Wellman seemed quite assured and clever in his direction on it, Peter, and Track of the Cat has a similar feel. It has its noirish elements, too. Wellman had a great eye for visuals, that's for sure.

Who Is Afraid of Alfred Hitchcock? said...

Hello! Vanwall...
This is my first-time leaving a comment on your blog...and I think all your Western reviews are very well written and very interesting reading too!

My mother...introduced me to classic Westerns...Others that deserve credit TCM and most definitely, (The Western Channel)...
Unfortunately, of all the films that you reviewed I have not watched Yellow Sky and Face Of A Fugitive yet...with "yet" being the operative word.

However, I have watched the other Westerns. I have to admit that "Winchester 73" is my favorite and "The Tall T" I consider the most violent Of Western noir.

In the end, the "faces" Of Film noir abound...Duryea, Widmark, Stewart, Winters, and McNally.
Thanks, for sharing!
DeeDee ;-D

By the way,
Thank-you, for stopping by Wonders in the Dark and leaving a comment too!

Anonymous said...

Great series of posts on a subject close to my heart! And the images you've picked are gorgeous, making me want to return to some old favourites and discover some new ones...

Thanks for putting me onto Ramrod and Stations West: they both look and sound great. I'm very interested to see how Powell and Greer strike sparks! And I heartily approve of that smouldering photo of Mayo in Colorado Territory!

Pleased to see you claim Winchester '73 and the Boettichers as noir Westerns. The latter especially bring your discussion full circle, seeming to evoke the pulp feel (their short runtime might contribute to my sense of this). I learnt a lot from these posts and really enjoyed your enthusiasm and sense of humour. Great stuff!

Mercutia said...

It seems as though one of Wild Bill's signatures (auteur imprints, if you will) was visual and narrative economy. The silent scene from Yellow Sky that you discuss illustrates that well, and, of course, only serves to underscore that he learned and mastered his trade in silents. Track of the Cat, which Peter mentioned, is another example of Wellman's visual economy. In some ways, Wellman is a bit like Hitchcock in how he set up these circumscribed parameters for himself (also had them foisted upon him, I'd expect, particularly at WB) and created fascinating exercises in pure cinema. I am reminded of the simple, masterful two-shot from The Ox-Bow Incident in which Henry Fonda's character reads the letter belonging to Dana Andrews' character. Stark, beautiful, understated, moving. Those adjectives could be applied to nearly any Wellman film.

I remember watching Battleground (1949) in my undergraduate WWII in Film course and being astonished by his use of double-exposure in an expository scene. At that point in cinema it was a common means of compressing the action, but it hearkened back so clearly to the early double-exposed scene in Beggars of Life that I was taken aback. More than twenty years after Beggars of Life, Wellman was still economizing on sound and action to distill a scene's basic, brutal essence.

Vanwall said...

DeeDee - thanks for reading, I do agree about The Tall T, it's ruthless in its violence, but Henry Silva is amazing in it as a psycho. Thanks for commenting!

Vanwall said...

Nicolas - Thanks for reading! It was very cool to write about some of my favorite Western noirs, and then fipping over to The Spirit!

Vanwall said...

Mercutia -
Wonderfully cogent thought, and yes, I would've put The Ox-Bow Incident, one of my all-time faves, as a noir-ish Western, too. Beggars of Life and Yellow Sky, a nice way to bookend this post and its comments! Thanks!

Bucko said...

Because of your great post I found Yellow Sky and it's all true: squint a little and westerns and noirs aren't too far apart, especially the ones you mention. I was taken by the awesome setting of Yellow Sky and it's arid, soul-sucking brightness. Having traveled in that area, I can attest it brings out the worst of human nature and the nest, just like the urban grunge of the classic noirs.

Vanwall said...

Thanks, Bucko! That is a weird and desolate place, and Yellow Sky pinned it down well. Your website is fun as well, and thanks for the shout-out!