Thursday, April 16, 2015

BOOK EXCERPT—THE NOIR WESTERN: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962 by David Meuel

Timing is everything. No less than a week after Joel Shepard gave a heads-up that he had scheduled a series of western noir double-bills during the month of April ("Dark Horse: Film Noir Westerns"), I received word from McFarland & Company, Inc. of the upcoming release of David Meuel's The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962. An email introduction later, and Shepard invited Meuel to introduce two of the programs during the series, which has added considerable value.

As noted by McFarland: "Beginning in the mid–1940s, the bleak, brooding mood of film noir began seeping into that most optimistic of film genres, the western. Story lines took on a darker tone and western films adopted classic noir elements of moral ambiguity, complex anti-heroes and explicit violence.

"The noir western helped set the standard for the darker science fiction, action and superhero films of today, as well as for acclaimed TV series such as HBO's Deadwood and AMC's Breaking Bad. This book covers the stylistic shift in westerns in mid–20th century Hollywood, offering close readings of the first noir westerns, along with revealing portraits of the eccentric and talented directors who brought the films to life."

A lifelong student of films, David Meuel has also published more than 100 poems, numerous short stories, and hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from theater to U.S. national parks, to writing and speaking for business. He lives in Menlo Park, California. He is also the author of Women in the Films of John Ford, likewise published by McFarland.

The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, "The Tyranny of Troubled Pasts: Escape and the Futility of It in Raoul Walsh's Pursued and Colorado Territory" (footnotes omitted) from The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962 © David Meuel by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. Support your local bookstore, or buy the book through Barnes & Noble, or 

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Every life has its defining moments, and for filmmaker Raoul Walsh (1887-1980) one of these was the death of his mother from cancer. It was 1902, she was 42, and he was just 15. "I was quite unprepared for the sudden blow that left me motherless…," he wrote more than seven decades later. "Mother passed away in the big master bedroom into which I used to steal and beg for one of her stories about an earlier America…. Where before I had loved it, the place became unbearable….”

To cope with his grief, Walsh's father encouraged his son to find escape and solace in travel. The teen took the advice and spent the next several years having adventures that ranged from crisscrossing the U.S. to herding cattle from Mexico to Texas, to transporting rum between Cuba and Florida. Soon he had exotic stories of his own to tell, and soon his rapidly developing storytelling skills led him into the newly created medium of the movies.

Despite a long and largely successful directing career, however, this sense of sadness stayed with Walsh. As his biographer Marilyn Ann Moss has put it: "These two—grief and adventure—locked themselves together in his mind. It would be ironic that the grief he felt at the loss of his mother gave his art great range; he escaped repeatedly because he had to." Echoing Moss's sentiments, film scholar Tag Gallagher has noted: "Living is adventure in Walsh's movies, and usually begins as escape—from shame, crime, or life…. Walsh's heroes incarnate the dreams and miseries of first-generation Irish-Americans like himself, parvenus, with something to escape from."

It's also fascinating that one subject we see again and again in Walsh's films is the noir-ish tension between their heroes' burning desire to escape from a harsh reality and the flawed strategies they use in trying to do it—strategies that often doom their efforts and ultimately them. In fact, even before film noir emerged on the Hollywood scene in the early 1940s, this tension plays out in such Walsh efforts as the hard-hitting gangster film, The Roaring Twenties (1939). Here, Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney), is lured from a meager existence working in a car shop to the glamorous, easy-money world of Prohibition-era bootlegging only to be killed in a gangland-style shootout and eulogized with the words, "He used to be a big-shot."

When the noir sensibility and filmmaking style became more pervasive, Walsh—whose style always tended to be stark and hard-edged—became a leading pioneer and practitioner of noir films. His efforts They Drive by Night (1940) and High Sierra (1941) are often cited as two of the earliest full-blooded noir crime dramas, and his film Pursued (1947) is widely considered to be the first honest-to-goodness, no-doubt-about-it noir western. In addition, Walsh directed several other fine examples in each genre from the noir crime drama White Heat (1949) to the noir westerns Colorado Territory (also 1949)—a remake of High Sierra that in some ways surpasses the original—and The Lawless Breed (1953). As well as being instrumental in creating and defining both the noir crime drama and noir western, Walsh also enriched both genres with films that combine a keen understanding of psychology; an empathy for human aspirations (and sometimes delusions) in a harsh, sad, and often hostile world; and an excellent sense of the noir filmmaking style. A film veteran who had been directing features for 25 years by the time noir hit Hollywood with full force, Walsh proved to be a noir natural.

Between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, Walsh also directed about a dozen westerns ranging from traditional adventure dramas to the decidedly dark and downbeat. Among these dark efforts, two standouts are Pursued and Colorado Territory. Like some of Walsh's crime noirs, both focus on heroes with a great deal of personal baggage, two outsiders determined to free themselves from troubled pasts. But, in each film, we have very different heroes and situations. In Pursued, the psychologically wounded young rancher Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) struggles desperately with both repressed childhood trauma and hostility from others he can't understand. Yet, while he and others carry deep emotional scars with them at the end of the story, the resolution is somewhat hopeful. By finally coming to terms with his past, Jeb has managed to break free from the hold that terrible past events have had over him—to escape it. Like the main character in Hitchcock's noir psychodrama, Spellbound (1945), the truth enables him to begin the healing process. In Colorado Territory, however, Wes McQueen (Joel McCrea) is a criminal on the run who naively longs for a good, proper woman and dreams about a second chance at life without fully seeing (or wanting to see) that his end is only a matter of time. The hard truths of his life and current situation are simply beyond his grasp. He can never escape on his terms, except by dying. In this film, noir fatalism oozes out of every frame.

One of Classic Hollywood’s Best-Kept Secrets

"People should know Raoul Walsh," film historian and writer Courtney Joyner has said, "because he is a significant American filmmaker who, quite honestly, has not gotten his due."

Documentary filmmaker and film historian Michael Henry Wilson has taken the issue a step farther, calling Walsh "probably the most underrated" major American filmmaker.

Both points are worth noting.

At a time when we've come to lionize such Walsh contemporaries as Charlie Chaplin, John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Howard Hawks, many people—including some who pride themselves on their knowledge of Hollywood's Golden Age—know little or nothing about a director, who, in many ways, rivaled them all. Walsh's output was Herculean. During more than a half-century, from the 1910s to the 1960s, he directed more than 140 films. His versatility was equally impressive. Like many of his contemporaries, he was adept at moving from genre to genre. While he was most in demand for crime dramas, westerns, and other adventure stories, he also directed fine adaptations of a Maxwell Anderson / Laurence Stallings stage play (1926's What Price Glory) and a Somerset Maugham short story (1928's Sadie Thompson) along with a Mae West comedy (1936's Klondike Annie). He was known mainly as an "action director," which to some suggests that his films lacked psychological and emotional depth. But his heroes are often deceptively complex and shaded, and his stories can be filled with tragic irony and intense feeling. Most important, his work has proven durable. Many of his films—especially the ones he made during his tenure at Warner Brothers from 1939 to 1953—continue to find enthusiastic audiences. In addition to The Roaring Twenties, They Drive by Night, High Sierra, Pursued, Colorado Territory, and White Heat, these include, among others, The Strawberry Blonde (1941), They Died with Their Boots On (1941), Gentleman Jim (1942), and Operation, Burma! (1945).

Throughout his career, Walsh worked with some of the most powerful and influential people in Hollywood, quite simply because they wanted to work with him. His mentor was the "Father of Film," D. W. Griffith, who used Walsh as an assistant director, editor, and actor in his epic The Birth of a Nation (1915) and paved the way for Walsh to direct that same year. During his career, Walsh also returned the favor to others, mentoring people who went on to become major stars. He gave John Wayne his first leading role in the epic western The Big Trail (1930), for example. A decade later, he helped Humphrey Bogart finally break through to stardom in High Sierra. At various times, Walsh also had very productive ongoing collaborations with such major Hollywood players as James Cagney, Errol Flynn, and Clark Gable.

Like the colorful characters in some of his films, there was also a lot of flash and dash about Walsh. Born Albert Edward Walsh to Irish born immigrants in New York, he changed his name to Raoul about the time he entered show business as a stage actor in 1907. There are different versions of the story, but the most plausible is that he wanted to have a more exotic, romantic-sounding name. He was an actor now, after all. He was a roustabout, too, his numerous infidelities effectively ending his first two marriages. And, he reveled in male bravado, loving to tell exciting, larger-than-life stories about himself—stories that kept listeners guessing which details were fact and which were made up.

There are many theories about why Walsh isn't better known today. One is that, during his time, he didn't receive the Academy Award notoriety that many of his contemporaries did. While Ford received a record four directing Oscars and Frank Capra and William Wyler received three each, Walsh was never even nominated. This was at least partly due to a longstanding prejudice the Academy has had against crime, western, and other "action" genre films, and this certainly kept him in the shadows compared to many of his contemporaries. Another theory is that during one of filmmaking's greatest decades, the 1930s, Walsh was—instead of moving his career forward—reeling from the huge financial and critical setback he had experienced with The Big Trail. (It literally took him the entire decade to recover his reputation as a reliable, bankable director.) Still another theory is that he was a casualty of the "auteur" school of film criticism, which insists that—for directors to be considered true artists—they have to be the primary authors of their films, leaving, say, a distinctive "Capra-esque" or "Hitchcockian" stamp on them. When we look at the great variety of Walsh's films, that uniquely personal stamp is difficult to find. Walsh isn't the only fine director to suffer at the hands of the auteur school. As noted in the last chapter, the reputations of other major classic-era talents have met similar fates. It's a shame, though, that the auteurists have treated so much of the work of these and other directors so dismissively.

Whatever the reason (or reasons), it's also a shame that Walsh remains one of classic Hollywood's best-kept secrets. Yet, despite his low profile today, the growing interest both in noir crime dramas and the darker post-war westerns is leading more people to learn about the "under-rated" master who excelled in these genres, particularly during the 1940s. With their stark, gritty takes on the world, these films are a far cry from the genteel Victorian sensibility of Walsh's mentor, D. W. Griffith, and many of Walsh's contemporaries. But, this often searing, unsparing honesty also helps contemporary audiences connect with many of his 1940s films far more easily than they connect with most other films from that decade. They were vital then, and they remain vital today.

Purging the Past: Pursued

When Pursued premiered in March 1947, many people didn't know what to make of it. While some critics cautiously praised the film's suspense and effective use of outdoor locales, others were far sterner. Writing in the New York Times, for example, Bosley Crowther took Pursued to task in a big way. Some of his criticism was aimed at the film's star Robert Mitchum, who was, in Crowther's mind "a very rigid gent" who "gives off no more animation than a Frigidaire turned to 'Defrost.' " (Apparently, Crowther hadn't yet learned to appreciate the now-legendary "Mitchum cool.") But his harshest words were reserved for the story and its writer, Niven Busch, who, according to Crowther, "tried to write a psychological mystery in a western setting and bungled the job."

What Crowther and many of his fellow critics didn’t get was that Pursued was (perhaps along with The Ox-Bow Incident) on the leading edge of something new. It wasn't just a psychological mystery but rather a dark, deterministic, and consciously stylized film noir in a western setting. Jeb Rand's struggle to learn about his past is certainly central to the action, but this is also a story about a human landscape as harsh and forbidding as some of the film's wild New Mexico locales. Not only for Jeb but also for every other major character in the story, it's hard to be good. And, even though the story is set in the sunny Southwest, it also strongly suggests that human communities can be very dark, neurotic places.

Pursued begins with a Walsh signature shot: a lone rider on a galloping horse crossing a grand landscape with great urgency. We see that the rider is a woman (Teresa Wright), and soon she arrives at a ramshackle ranch house where she finds Jeb and we learn her name, Thorley. They are in love and apparently in danger. Then, in true noir fashion, Jeb starts bringing us all up to speed through a series of flashbacks accompanied by Mitchum's voice-over narration.

As a boy, Jeb had hidden in a cellar as his family was slaughtered. Jeb doesn't know who the perpetrators were; he only knows that Thorley's mother, Medora Callum (Judith Anderson) brought him to live with her, Thorley, and Thorley's brother, Adam (John Rodney). From the beginning, Jeb felt both a special connection with Thorley and had the sense that he was—and would always be—an outsider in this family. As he grows up with the Callums, Jeb also contends with recurring nightmares of the night his family was killed—nightmares he can't figure out and Medora can't bring herself to explain. Her only advice to him is to leave the past behind and look forward. But Jeb is adamant about learning what happened. Unknown to Jeb, too, another Callum, a one-armed man named Grant (Dean Jagger), wants him dead for reasons we aren't quite sure of, either.

When Jeb grows up, the Spanish-American War breaks out, and he goes to fight, leaving Adam to run the ranch. When he returns, Adam—who's always been uneasy with Jeb's close connection with Thorley—becomes increasingly hostile. Eventually, he tries to gun Jeb down from a distance but Jeb—not knowing it's him—kills him instead. Thorley can't bear this and turns against Jeb.

Eventually, however, she coldly allows Jeb to court her. Her plan, we soon learn, is to get close to him and kill him. But together the two confront her rage, and she realizes that she can't kill him because she's always loved him.

More is brewing as well. After several attempts to kill Jeb, Grant Callum has assembled a group of relatives all intent on doing the young man in. This leads everyone back to the ramshackle ranch where the story began and where we now hear why there's so much festering hatred. Jeb's father and Medora had once been illicit lovers, and, after avenging the wrong by slaughtering Jeb's family, Grant had made it his life's mission to get the last of the Rands, Jeb. Now, at the ranch where we now know that this slaughter took place, Grant and his men take Jeb and prepare him to be hanged. Then, to Grant's utter surprise, Medora, who's arrived on her buckboard, shoots him with her Winchester.

Now, the story is out, the villain has been dispatched, Jeb can begin to heal psychologically, and he and Thorley can start leading a more normal life together.

As this summary suggests, Pursued is about much more than one person's experience with a childhood trauma. Busch saw the story as similar to a Greek tragedy. Others have cited Biblical parallels such as Jeb and Adam's Cain-and-Abel rivalry. Still others have called it a "gothic" western and noted its "psychological fatalism."

Whatever the case, there is a lot to digest here. To begin with, all the main characters have neuroses of some kind. Grant Callum avenges forbidden sex by orchestrating a mass killing and then making it his life's work to kill an innocent boy. Medora goes to great lengths to conceal her past shame. Adam's incestuous love for his sister and jealousy toward Jeb drives him to attempt murder. Thorley transforms (for a time) into a noir-ish femme fatale who uses love as a tool to wreak vengeance. Finally, an unhappy, disconnected Jeb spends years desperately trying to piece together scraps of memory—scraps he hopes will give him a clearer picture of why he feels so unhappy and disconnected. "There's something that keeps us apart," he tells Thorley. "[But] there's an answer—something about me that explains everything."

Clearly, this is a very troubled group of people, a group we're much more likely to see in a noir crime drama than in a typical western of the time. In fact, many of the archetypal noir figures—the traumatized hero, the femme fatale, the person hiding a terrible secret, and the crazed avenger—are all here.

In addition to its undeniable noir sensibility, Pursued makes great use of stylistic trappings that are hallmarks of noir—a characteristic that may bring it closer to "pure noir" than The Ox-Bow Incident. Perhaps the most obvious noir convention is its flashback structure complete with a character's voice-over narration. Not only is this an excellent device to tell a great deal of backstory very quickly, but it also underscores the story's noir-ish determinism. Just a few minutes into the film, for example, we know that Jeb and Thorley are about to face a very unpleasant, and potentially tragic, reckoning. Another distinctly noir convention is the use (when Jeb and Thorley "court") of the femme fatale: a smart, manipulative woman who uses her sex appeal to try to achieve an evil end. Still another is the magnificent visual design from the legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe. In Pursued, Walsh and Howe worked closely to create the eerie, expressionistic, very noir-ish compositions that give the film an anxious, dreamlike quality and reflect the haunted state of Jeb's mind. The results are often stunning. Characters are occasionally shot in silhouette with their bodies outlined by moonlight, an effect that is both beautiful and chilling. Repeatedly, too, we go inside Jeb's mind to see the scraps of memory he has of the night his parents were killed, especially the memories of mysterious flashing spurs—another beautiful but chilling image. While gunfights in most westerns occur during the day and in open spaces, Jeb's second gunfight occurs at night, largely in darkness, and has the look and the feel of an urban back alley gunfight in a noir thriller where characters stalk each other in black, cramped spaces. Walsh and Howe also reinforce the confined nature of Jeb's life in the ways they photographed him riding into rocky canyons or in front of mountains. Shadows are often reaching out, grabbing hold of him like tentacles.

To further enhance aspects of the story, Walsh also employs some intriguing strategies with actors. Although Bosley Crowther was unimpressed by Robert Mitchum's performance, for example, biographer Marilyn Ann Moss sees Walsh's handling of Mitchum—and the result—quite differently. As she notes: Walsh "opened up Jeb's character by getting Mitchum's facial expressions to mirror a perpetual, natural innocence—thereby making him vulnerable to anything good or evil coming his way." As well as aligning Jeb more closely with well-meaning but often gullible noir leads than with self-assured, highly perceptive western heroes, this approach also helped to make the character more nuanced and interesting.

Pursued is not without its shortcomings. At times, for example, the behavior of the main characters seems forced and contrived. Is Adam's jealousy toward Jeb, for example, so all-consuming that it compels Adam to try to kill Jeb? Or would Thorley really vent her rage at Jeb by playing a femme fatale as part of a plan to kill him? In both cases, it seems like a big stretch.

Yet, despite its imperfections, the film remains quite powerful today. Much of this power comes, of course, from Walsh and Howe's visual design and cinematography, which seem to deepen and broaden every emotion being played out in the film. In addition, several of the actors convey their characters' complex and conflicted states of mind with great skill. Mitchum—an actor who could do just about anything extremely well—is quite effective as the sad, lost, and disconnected Jeb. Another standout is the wonderful Judith Anderson, who ably portrays the complicated Medora, a woman who carries terrible secrets and enormous guilt with her but who also grows to love young Jeb as much as her own children.

Still another—and perhaps the foremost—source of Pursued's power is Walsh himself or, more precisely, his ongoing processing of his own traumatic childhood experience. As Moss has perceptively put it: "Walsh's connection to the material … goes even deeper. The film's overriding concern is loss and grief, natural territory for Walsh, who in one way or another was drawn to these subjects and found his way back to them time and again. That Jeb loses his home is not lost on Walsh, who in the deepest sense lost his home when he was young." Jeb's search, then, reflects Walsh's own, and, we might assume, Jeb's story resonated with the director in a primal, profound way. In turn, we might also assume, Walsh turned that intense feeling into intensely felt art.


Unknown said...

PURSUED... A major insight into one of my favorite western films remembered from my youth. As an adolescent I thought it was far removed from the standard A and B level movies I was used to viewing in the theaters. It stayed with me whereas many faded with time. As the years advanced I fell head over heels for the onslaught of nourish cinema treats sent out to my small midwestern town cinema, but the western connection was not unveiled until many years later. This excerpt from David Meuel's book - THE NOIR WESTERN pretty much signs, seals and delivers a copy to my library. If the examination of other titles in Meuel's writing is similar in quality then I am about to own a treasure. I just hope my aspirations for similar classic movie dissections are done with COLORADO TERRITORY, BLOOD ON THE MOON, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALENCE, etc.
Raoul Walsh earned it.

Michael Guillen said...

Max, thanks for stopping by to comment. Wishing you your own enjoyment of David's volume on noir westerns.