THE NOIR WESTERN

© 2019, by M. Keith Booker

If film noir and horror film seem to be a natural match, then the opposite is true of film noir and the Western, which, at first glance, would seem to be about as far removed from film noir as it is possible to be. The intersection between the two genres was actually quite rich, however, partly because several of the leading noir directors also made Westerns. It is also the case that Hollywood has always had a tendency to try to replicate its successes, so it was almost inevitable that, when film noir was at its peak in the 1940s, it was almost inevitable that noir techniques and motifs would make their way into other popular genres, including the Western. When several of these new Westerns were also successful, then they inspired still more films, and the noir Western was born.

This new genre is often considered to have been born with Pursued (1947), directed by veteran director Raoul Walsh, who had been working in Hollywood since before World War I and who directed such classic noir films as They Drive by Night (1940), High Sierra (1941), and White Heat (1949). Significantly, Pursued also stars Robert Mitchum, perhaps the most iconic film noir actor. Here, Mitchum plays Jeb Rand, the adopted son of widowed New Mexico ranch owner Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), who has raised him as her own after his own family was murdered in his early childhood. Rand is haunted by the trauma of that experience, and the whole film is haunted by the truth that Rand’s family had been murdered as part of a bloody feud between the Rands and the Callums. Though the film has a sort of patched-up happy ending (in which Rand and Mrs. Callum are reconciled and she even gives her blessing to his love for her daughter), it is dominated by images of secrets, lies, darkness, and betrayal throughout its runtime.

1947 also saw the appearance of Ramrod, which was directed by Andre DeToth, who had directed the noir horror film Dark Waters in 1944 and who would go on to direct the highly interesting noir film Pitfall (1948) and the somewhat less interesting noir film Crime Wave (1953). Ramrod features DeToth’s then-wife Veronica Lake as an open-range femme fatale, adding to its noir credentials, given that Lake had also been featured in the noir films This Gun for Hire (1942), The Glass Key (1942), and The Blue Dahlia (1946). The ambitions of Lake’s Connie Dickason to gain control of the local range put her in opposition to her own father and lead to a string of deaths, driving her would-be beau, Dave Nash (Joel McCrea) into the arms of good girl Rose Leland (Arleen Whelan). This film also includes a very noirish soundtrack and some of the best noir visuals of any Western film.

A classic Western noir visual in “Ramrod” (1947).

Mitchum also stars in Blood on the Moon (1948), directed by Robert Wise and shot by Nicholas Musuraca, who are themselves important figures in the history of film noir. This time Mitchum plays drifter Jim Garry, who gets caught up in an elaborate scheme on the part of his old friend, Tate Riling (Robert Preston) to cheat a cattleman out of his herd. Garry defeats the scam, guns down Riling, and gets the girl (the daughter of the cattleman). This seemingly happy ending, though, seems a bit contrived after the air of corruption that has hung over the entire film—which can, in fact, be said of the endings of most noir Westerns, which tend to end on a seemingly happier note than the typical film noir, but in which that “seemingly” is an important qualifier.

Perhaps the most important example of a noir director who successfully transitioned into the Western is Anthony Mann, whose distinctive late-1940s noir films had a major impact on the entire phenomenon of film noir with their gritty air of documentary-style realism. Films such as T-Men (1947), He Walked by Night (1948), and Raw Deal (1948)—made on a shoestring for British-owned Poverty Row studio Eagle-Lion—were crucial in shaping film noir of their period. A number of scenes of Mann’s last noir film, Border Incident (1949), meanwhile, are actually more reminiscent of Westerns, though John Alton’s camera work gives even outdoor scenes a claustrophobic feel. Finally, Mann’s other 1949 noir film, The Black Book is something of an offbeat historical epic. In retrospect, then, these last two noir films might be seen as transitional ones, because, in 1950, Mann was hired by Paramount to move beyond film noir and to make a much more upscale Western with A-list stars. The result was The Furies (1950), a Western film that intersects with film noir in all sorts of ways, including its lighting and camerawork, which transfers the noir play with darkness and light from its typical urban setting to the great outdoors of the American Southwest. Meanwhile, at the center of the film is noir superstar Barbara Stanwyck as Vance Jeffords, a strong-willed femme fatale who disfigures her stepmother-to-be with a pair of scissors, then intentionally drives her own father, T.C. Jeffords (played by Walter Huston), to financial ruin through the execution of an elaborate plot that she conducts as revenge for his hanging of her lifelong friend, Juan Herrera (Gilbert Roland). This handing, meanwhile, is an act of frontier justice that is itself partly an act of revenge on the part of Jeffords for the disfigurement of his fiancée. The Furies, in fact, includes lots of betrayal and revenge, as well as several strong, unconventional female characters. Meanwhile, the whole film has a very noirish, offbeat texture in which the words and deeds of the characters often seem strangely arbitrary and unpredictable.

After The Furies, Mann jumped to another major studio, Universal, to direct Winchester ’73 (1950), originally slated to be directed by the key noir director Fritz Lang. This film was the first of five Westerns on which Mann collaborated with megastar James Stewart, who was seeking to move into darker, more psychologically complex roles than the ones he had beome accustomed to playing. Here, Stewart plays Lin McAdam, sharp shooter who wins a prized Winchester ’73 model rifle in a shooting contest, only to have it stolen from him by the dastardly Dutch Henry Brown (Steven McNally). The rest of the film then involves a series of (usually violent) incidents in which the rifle repeatedly changes hands before it finally ends up back with McAdam at the end. This brief summary, though, does little to capture the darkness of this film, which not only involves a series of murders and betrayals, but also turns out to revolve around the fact that Brown is actually Matthew McAdam, Lin’s brother, who murdered their father in cold blood and is now being tracked down by Lin to seek the ultimate revenge. At times, the film’s black-and-white photography makes it look more like a film noir than a conventional Western, and the subject matter would be very much at home in the world of noir.

Lang did direct a noir Western in 1952, with the highly eccentric Rancho Notorious (1952), a film that includes a number of classic Western motifs, but also clearly reflects Lang’s background in film noir. The film begins by establishing that ranch hand Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) and storekeeper Beth Forbes (Gloria Henry) are deeply in love and about to be wed. Immediately afterward, a ruthless thug named Kinch (Lloyd Gough) comes into the store where Beth is working in order to rob it. In the process he also rapes and murders Beth, and most of the plot of the film then involves Haskell’s quest to track down Kinch and bring him to justice. In the process, he trails Kinch to the Chuck-a-Luck ranch, which is run by the mysterious Altar Keane—played by Marlene Dietrich, who is terrific in the role and the key to the success of the film, despite seeming so out of place in South Texas. In this, she directly anticipates her role in the crucial late noir film Touch of Evil (1958). The unfortunately named ranch (luckily studio mogul Howard Hughes vetoed a plan to call the film itself The Legend of Chuck-a-Luck) is operated by Keane—a strong, independent female character who might have been very much at home in a noir film—as a haven for outlaws, who are welcome to take sanctuary there, no questions asked, as long as they pay the requisite fees. The ranch thus directly anticipates the Mexican criminal sanctuary run by the mysterious El Rey in Jim Thompson’s novel The Getaway (1958), and much of the texture of this unusual Western resembles a Thompson novel (or a Lang film noir). The virtuous Haskell attempts to bring Kinch to justice by nonviolent means, but ends up killing him anyway, as he and gunfighter Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer) team up to win a shootout against Kinch and his new gang, despite the fact that Fairmont and Haskell have become rivals for Keane’s hand. Alas, poor Keane is killed in the battle, as she steps in front of a bullet meant for Fairmont. Haskell rides away in the end, headed back for Wyoming, his work in Texas done, but he hardly leaves in a mood of triumph.

Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954) is something of a companion film to Rancho Notorious, both in its focus on strong female characters and in its noirish texture.Ray, the director of such classic noir films as They Live by Night (1949), Knock on Any Door (1949), In a Lonely Place (1950), The Racket (1951), and On Dangerous Ground (1952), brings much of that experience to this film, while also incorporating many classic elements of the Western—especially of the waning of the West version of the Western, in which incipient modernization (this time, as is so often in the case in Westerns, embodied in the coming of the railroad) threatens to bring the older, wilder, supposedly more romantic days of the West to an end. It has a much zanier plot than does the typical Western, however, and much of it doesn’t really make sense, which is often the case with noir films as well. Johnny Guitar is basically a stream of individual scenes, each of which is terrific, even if they don’t meld together into a seamless plot. And it works, demonstrating the extent to which the Western is about specific sorts of images and characters and ideas, rendering plot secondary. The biggest distinction, of course, is that—despite the fact that the title character, aka Johnny Logan, is a man, played by Sterling Hayden—the two real protagonists are female. Hollywood legend Joan Crawford plays Vienna, the strong, independent businesswoman whose saloon on the outskirts of the existing town threatens to become the center of a new town that will spring up when the railroad comes through. This, of course, draws the ire of the existing powers-that-be, including one Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge, who would later provide the voice of the demon in The Exorcist), the chief villain, who charges her way through the film like the Wicked Witch of the Wild West, before coming to a similarly ignominious end. Both Johnny and Vienna get out alive, though just barely.

Finally, Budd Boetticher is better known as a director of low-budget Westerns than of noir films, though he did make some minor noir films, such as Behind Locked Doors (1948) and The Killer Is Loose (1956). In addition, he brought a noir sensibility to many of his Westerns, which are known for the unusual psychological complexity of their characters. This is especially the case with the series of Westerns he made with actor Randolph Scott in the 1950s, with Scott typically playing laconic characters whose stoic outer appearances masked inner turmoil and psychic damage. Boetticher’s villains were often unusually complex as well, adding a note of noir-like moral ambiguity. Perhaps the best example of noir characteristics in a Boetticher Western is The Tall T (1957), in which Scott plays Pat Brennan, a tight-lipped ranch-hand struggling to make it on his own after acquiring his own modest ranch. Based on a story by Elmore Leonard, The Tall T features a plot in which Brennan and heiress Doretta Mims (Maureen O’Sullivan) are kidnapped by a gang of psychotic thugs who might have been very much at home in a noir film. However, the leader of the gang, Frank Usher (Richard Boone), is a more complex character who strikes up an uneasy friendship with Brennan, whom he obviously admires. The gang, waiting to collect a ransom from Mims’ father, is wiped out by Brennan, who walks away arm-in-arm with Mims in the end (her feckless fiancé having been conveniently killed off in the course of the film), but again there is little sense that this is really a happy ending.