Sight and Sound ran an article on psychological Westerns, with a smaller side piece darker Westerns starring Robert Mitchum. I’ve been keeping a look out for these film, so far this year I’ve seen two – Track of the Cat (1954) and today Pursued (1947). I can’t begin the review without a brief look at Track of the Cat which just on a visual level is fascinating. The colour pallet restricted to black and white, with splashes of red, every other colour was muted down – unless you were Mitchum. He wasn’t even the overall focus of the film that saw a family restricted by the biting cold of the mountain snow. Even more so with the threat of a black cat that had been spotted. With a terrifying performance from Beulah Bondi as the matriarch who used the bible to keep her family in line. Not thinking about how the scriptures were doing more damage than good. Driving the husband and father Philip Tonge to drink, hiding a bottle of whiskey in every thinkable place, yes a serious look at alcoholism in the genre.
Coming back to the earlier film directed by a Western director Raoul Walsh in this black and white noiresque Western set again the barren landscape of Gallup, New Mexico, which mentions the Mexico Border war 1910-19, however the costume is very confusing as to the era it depicts until we return from the front lines. I’m reminded tonally of Ramrod (1947) which is more overt in it’s visual connection to noir, with Veronica Lake paired opposite Joel McCrea. I still find that film confusing even after a second watch a few years ago. Unlike the majority of of Pursued which as with most noirs that are told in flashback. With the arrival of Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) who rides into join a man in hiding with a burnt out wreck of a homestead. We find Jeb Rand (Mitchum) wounded, tired and scared.
Beginning the film where he began his short life as we fade into flashback. A young boy hiding in a basement is rescued by a woman Mrs Callum (Judith Anderson) who welcomes him to live with her two young children. Life is not safe for them as they are soon on the run themselves. It’s a film of great upheaval and change for everyone in the Callum family. It’s not just a time of change politically but also on a domestic level. With such a focus on the family the film leans more towards drama than action which the Western generally fits into. We meet the children who are able to hold more screen time, danger is slowly creeping into their lives when Jeb’s horse is shot dead from under him. My first reaction was that it’s pretty dark in any film to kill a child. Thankfully he lives to be filled with fear that he takes home to the family. A child who we know has been plagued with bad dreams which we see flash upon the screen throughout the film.
We also meet an embittered Grant Callum (Dean Jagger) who soon loses an arm, which doesn’t stop him trying to muddy Jeb’s family name. But why is he out to get Jeb, how can an innocent boy have incurred the anger of this man. The ex husband of Mrs Callum who is more than happy and capable to raise three children alone, shows little fear, aware of the reasons but these are not revealed to us. The audience is left in suspense for the films duration. Tensions introduced between brothers Jeb and Adam Callum (John Rodney) after Jeb returns home early from the border war. The vendetta against Jeb is about to enter a new adult phase of fateful violence that follows him like a curse. Pushing him away from his adoptive family and love Thor who for a long time shuns him for the hurt he causes.
The question of why looms heavy over the this film. Why is Grant Callum so determined to see Jeb outcast from those he loves, to get him alone and kill him. All whilst Jeb is tortured by his recurring dream that he struggles to understand he returns to to brotherly rivalry that ends in death. Leading to the a court case being heard with the dead body in the room. The pressure to do right by the deceased and the accused has never been so acute. Whatever the result Jeb is cast out by his family, trying to find a way back into their favor. Something made harder with the a new man in Thor’s life, which is manipulated by Grant who tries to further push Jeb into the line of fire.
Throughout the film I noticed that we were missing one key ingredient of the noir genre – the femme fatale which is revealed late on and maintained for a few minutes before we are drawn into the safety of a happy ending. The women save the day after the Callum en-masse close in on Jeb who was destined to meet the fate of the rest of his family. The ending allows the woman rarely to take control on-screen, unlike the man who is generally expected to. Where there is pretty much a happy ending here, I much prefer the bleakness of Track of the Cat that left a family forced to come together under extreme pressure after such heavy losses. The turmoil that the respective families go through can’t fairly be compared. It’s the intensity of the situations and how they are resolved and that makes for more dramatic ending. Maybe it’s due to more confidence in the director, the script or a combination of both and the times that the films are made in. Either way they are both very interesting and obscure Westerns that dare to push the boundaries of the genre as it blurs with another.
Ever since I saw Forty Guns (1957) a few years ago I have not been able to shake that opening sequence of sheer madness and cinematic magic as the Bonnell brothers are stopped in their tracks by a stamped of Jessica Drummond (Barbara Stanwyck) and her men as they ride on by them, inviting you into a world that is anything but normal. Raising the dirt from the ground, leaving these three men in bewilderment at this spectacle that is only to continue as we enter into the cattle barons town.
It’s one of the few westerns that really made for the wide-screen, making full use of the format and pushing the visual boundaries of what you can do. Samuel Fuller is giving us a different brand of film-making, one that is all out there, taking your on a journey from different points of view and throwing in anything that comes into his head. You could say this is a movie that should only be shown on the big screen, no widescreen TV can really do it justice.
Forty Guns has nothing to do with the myth of conquest as such. It’s a myth within the myth where anything can happen. As we saw in the opening titles to the first showdown with cuts back and forth to elder brother Griff Bonnell (Barry Sullivan) who makes his mark after the marshall has been shot dead. You can see strong influences for Sergio Leone with the closeups that fill the screen, looking on at the audience, he’s coming for us, no, he’s coming for Jessica’s brother Brockie Drummond (John Ericson), and without a shot he’s down. There’s a new form of law in town, independent from that imposed by Drummond and her puppet Sheriff Ned Logan (Dean Jagger). These are the Earp’s or the of the town, complete with their own history, bringing law with them. A dying breed of man who everyone knows will be gone soon. Even Griff himself who follows in a long tradition of gunfighters who cannot stand still in a town for long.
Even thought Stanwyck was no stranger to the genre she is particularly strong in this masculine role. The men are referred to as guns not men, tools that she uses at work, those who she gives orders to on her ranch. It takes a really strong man to stand up to her, which we find in Sullivan. Also the rifle-makers daughter (Sandy Wirth) is a match for middle brother (Robert Dix), it’s a masculine position that makes her more attractive, not just at home or in the dancehall, working the gambling tables. Our view of her on the screen is still very masculine even looking down the barrel of a gun, a target that has to be caught and married. When he visits her one time, he is measured for a gun, much like a suit, a gun is still seen as an essential part of being a man. A made to measure tool for the man, by the woman, allowing him to get closer to her, or more the other way around. Acting as the secondary romance to that between Griff and Jessica which does come out of the blue, both strong characters who brought together by chance.
Thats chance encounter being a tornado, a real personal touch by the director, another of those moments of spontaneity which bring these two characters together. Well forced I should say by the elements. You could say nothing make sense in this film, that was my original conclusion as it goes against tradition and the language of the genre to deliver a thrill-ride of a film. Throwing in these motifs in part to engage a declining audience and to make the genre fresh again. Acting as an antidote to the darker Anthony Mann westerns of the decade, with all the hallmarks of New-wave cinema, combining classical imagery with unconventional cinematography.
With the crooked sheriff, with have a cowardly lion who’s roar is soon quietened, living in the pocket of Jessica, before living in fear of her after the arrest of one of her men/guns. We see a loyalty to the landowner destroy him as the film progresses. There’s a lot going on for a film that has only an 80 minute running time, so much happens and you can’t really process it. This was a welcome and much anticipated revisit that has given me so much more. A powerful female figure in the west was factually rare, and on cinema even rarer. Stanwyck’s presence on-screen is softer, able able to retain that far better. She never loses authority of her, it’s just over what she has authority of than changes.
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