But there's nothing to match the luster of celluloid and so it was especially heartening to learn from Joel Shepard, curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA), his intention to offer a program of double-bill "noir westerns" each Sunday through the month of April, aptly captioned "Dark Horse: Film Noir Westerns." YBCA's program notes follow.
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Prepare to have your horizons expanded as darkness descends upon the plains. We present eight superb "noir westerns"—films which transplant the fatalism and pessimism of the era's crime pictures to this most deeply American of genres. And if you think you don't like westerns, think again buckaroo, because you're dead wrong. This is American cinema of profound depth, multi-layered moral complexity, and exquisite filmmaking craft. In often problematic and disturbing ways, the films embody many issues we continue to struggle with, including race and gender relations, the rights of indigenous peoples, violence, and the individual's responsibility to society. All programs are double features; one ticket includes admission to one or both films. All films are presented on 35mm film, not digitally.
Blood on the Moon (1948); dir. Robert Wise
Bad boy Robert Mitchum—who once said he had two acting styles, "with and without a horse"— stars in one of the finest noir westerns of them all. Riding into town after a plea from an influential friend, he's drawn into a land dispute and forced to choose between the pal he owes and the girl he loves. Against a background of dreary taverns and rain-soaked darkness, Mitchum delivers a terrific laid-back performance as the reluctant hired gun. (1948, 88 min, 35mm)
Sunday, April 5, 3:45PM
The Tall T (1957); dir. Budd Boetticher
Based on an Elmore Leonard story, this is the high intensity tale of innocent travelers on a stagecoach held hostage by three sadistic killers, as they play out an increasingly desperate waiting game. This film has a unique, strange blend of dark humor, darker violence, and an undercurrent of loneliness and despair. The Library of Congress selected The Tall T for permanent preservation in the United States National Film Registry. Starring Randolph Scott and Maureen O'Sullivan. (1957, 78 min, 35mm)
The Ox-Bow Incident (1943); dir. William Wellman
"The Ox-Bow Incident is not a picture which will brighten or cheer your day. But it is one which, for sheer, stark drama, is currently hard to beat."—The New York Times (1943 original review).
Two drifters are passing through a western town when news comes in that a local farmer has been murdered and his cattle stolen. This sets in motion a grim, claustrophobic exploration of the motivations of mob violence. Full of deep, looming shadows and an escalating sense of menace, the film stars Henry Fonda in one of his finest roles. (1943, 75 min, 35mm)
Sunday, April 12, 3:40PM
Pursued (1947); dir. Raoul Walsh
Often considered Hollywood's first noir western, Freudian psychodrama comes to the American frontier in Pursued. Robert Mitchum stars as Jeb, a man emotionally scarred by a tragic past and inner demons. Jeb is convinced that people hate him and want him dead, but he doesn't understand why. He seeks to unravel the dark secrets of the past, and resolve his inner trauma. The film features gorgeous cinematography by James Wong Howe, a sweeping musical score by Max Steiner (Casablanca), and pumping, propulsive direction by Raoul Walsh. (1947, 101 min, 35mm)
Ramrod (1947); dir. Andre de Toth
Dave Kehr at the Chicago Reader described this film better than we can: "Andre de Toth's bizarre Freudian western features Veronica Lake in drag and Joel McCrea as a fading phallic symbol (you thought the title was accidental?), performing a barely sublimated sadomasochistic ritual—she's a lady ranch owner who teams up with her foreman to put her chief competitor, her father, out of business." (1947, 95 min, 35mm)
Sunday, April 19, 4:00PM
The Gunfighter (1950); dir. Henry King
Sporting a thick mustache, Gregory Peck stars as the aging Jimmy Ringo, a notorious killer and the deadliest shot in the old west. Though he now regrets his criminal past, Jimmy is forced to stay on the run by brash young punks determined to shoot him down. Like many of the best noirs, The Gunfighter is a kind of existential nightmare, with an overwhelming sense of inescapable doom hanging over the protagonist. (1950, 85 min, 35mm)
The Searchers (1956); dir. John Ford
"Every time I watch it—and I've seen it many, many times since its first run in 1956—it haunts and troubles me. The character of Ethan Edwards is one of the most unsettling in American cinema."—Martin Scorsese
"One of my American western heroes is not John Ford, obviously. To say the least, I hate him."—Quentin Tarantino
John Wayne and John Ford forged The Searchers into an indelible portrait of the frontier and the men and women who challenged it. Wayne plays ex-Confederate soldier Ethan Edwards, who believes more in bullets than in words. He's seeking his niece, who has been captured by Comanches who massacred his family. He won't surrender to hunger, thirst, the elements, or loneliness. And in his obsessive, five-year quest, Ethan encounters something he didn't expect to find: his own humanity. (1956, 119 min, 35mm)
Sunday, April 26, 4:40PM
Winchester '73 (1950); dir. Anthony Mann A cowboy's obsession with a stolen rifle leads to a bullet-ridden odyssey through the American West. The ingenious premise follows a Winchester rifle being passed between a drifter seeking revenge (Jimmy Stewart), an Indian trader, an Indian chief (Rock Hudson), an outlaw, and a bank robber. Winchester '73 unites the western, film noir, and Greek tragedy. (1950, 92 min, 35mm)
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The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962 (McFarland and Company, Inc., 2015) and will be introducing the programs on Sunday, April 12 and Sunday, April 19. Copies of his volume will be made available.