"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Beautiful Blonde from Bashful Bend (Fox, 1949)


Western farce





 
After Tombstone,The Town Too Tough To Die, another consonant-rich alliterative title, The Beautiful Blonde of Bashful Bend. Writer Earl Felton's original screen story was titled The Lady from Laredo, so that was along the same euphonic lines.

Writer/director/producer Preston Sturges’s last Hollywood film was his only Western, a farce (farce defined by Webster’s as “a light dramatic composition marked by broadly satirical comedy and improbable plot”) which has you chuckling here and there, though is unlikely to be included in anyone’s list of culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films. The humor is, er, broad, and there’s a good deal of slapstick, but all in all it’s quite amusing.

In a way it’s a parody of the Western conventions. It’s the gal who has the gun skills, not the man, and when she is taken for the schoolteacher, instead of the demure bringer of civilization we are used to, she is the cause of anarchic mayhem in the community. Even in the climactic gunfight (also a parody) it’s the townswomen who win the day against the bad guys, by pelting them with pots and pans.


The movie’s production values were high: it was shot in Technicolor with a substantial cast on a $2.25m budget. Actually, it was scheduled to go into production in 1947 but Zanuck postponed it because of the high cost. It reminds me in some ways of the same studio’s A Ticket to Tomahawk (yet more alliteration) of 1950, a picture which was to have been helmed by John Ford (though he was persona non grata at the time and the execs yanked it).

The gal with the guns

Bashful Bend starred Betty Grable – it was her only Western too. Grable figured high in the Quigley Poll's Top 10 box office stars throughout the 1940s, and between 1946 and 1947 was listed as the highest-salaried woman in America. She was about as big a star as you could get. She plays Winifred ‘Freddie’ Jones, whom we meet in the opening moments as a small child (Mary MacDonald) receiving a shooting lesson from her grandpa, good old Russell Simpson. We are so used to this scene in Westerns (though rarely is it a little girl being taught). Usually the only advice imparted is to squeeze the trigger and not pull it. It’s all the tutors can think of to say. Here, however, Grandpa’s recommendation is, Never wait too long between shots or your finger may change its mind.
 
The shootin' lesson

Well, Freddie grows up to be mighty handy with a shootin’ iron, though not entirely unerring in her aim. Now a saloon entertainer in the great metropolis of Bashful Bend, while singing her first song, Every Time I Meet You, she becomes jealous when her man, slick gambler Blackie (Cesar Romero, having fun) slinks off with a glam Parisian called La Belle Bergère (our old pal Marie Windsor) and so Freddie decides to shoot him, missing, however, and instead hitting Judge Alfalfa O’Toole (Sturges regular Porter Hall) in a tender spot. She explains all this to the helpful sheriff (Al Bridge) while sitting in one of his cells.

Freddie and her gambler amour

The judicial bullet is extracted by a myopic doc (Hugh Herbert), excuse for more broad comedy. The hatchet-faced Mrs. O’Toole (Margaret Hamilton) now comes into play, wanting to know what her husband was doing in a saloon gal’s bedroom in the first place, and we also meet Conchita (Olga San Juan), Freddie’s feisty sidekick. Freddie soft-soaps the judge who, despite the presence of his lady wife, begins to come round, but unfortunately Freddie loses her temper again and manages to shoot the judge once more in a similar area, though he has, er, turned the other cheek. Freddie and Conchita wisely decide to beat it, taking the train for the next town, Snake City.

Porter is the judge

There, a reception committee awaits Hilda Swandumper, the new schoolma’am, and they naturally (in a farce) take Freddie, and her Indian maid, for such. The surly Gus Basserman (Richard Hale) and his two village idiot sons (Sterling Holloway and Danny Jackson) do not join in the welcome but Freddie manages to use her shootin’ skills surreptitiously to thwart them.

Rudy courts the schoolma'am

Freddie is wooed by the School Board president’s son Charlie (Rudy Vallee), church organist in pince-nez who, however, owns a gold mine. She cannot show her prowess with a revolver because she will be recognized as the saloon singer from Bashful, and there is now a reward out on her, but she still manages to shoot the living daylights out of two of her pupils, the Basserman brothers. Actually, as Holloway was 42, he seems a little geriatric to be in grade school with the other kids, but I think he was a late developer.

Now gambler Blackie tracks her down and appears in Snake City.

Many complications ensue, with, in the best tradition of farce, people hiding, falling over, opening doors at just the wrong/right moment, and so on. There is much hilarity. It all climaxes in a huge gunfight involving, on one side, the Bassermans and Blackie, and on the other Freddie, backed up by the whole town. In the end Freddie is obliged to bring her markswomanship to bear and saves the day, falling into Blackie’s arms (as we knew she would) but because of her pinpoint accuracy with a .45 Swedish US Marshal Jorgensen (El Brendel, about as Swedish as I am but never mind) recognizes her and sends her back to Bashful Bend to stand trial for JBH (judicial bodily harm). There is a chaotic trial in the course of which, you’ve guessed it, Freddie manages to shoot the judge for the third time, in the same region. Fin.

Marie is 'the other woman'

The Wikipedia page on the movie says “Whether Sturges or another director worked on the January [1949] shoot, which was to change the ending of the film at the insistence of Zanuck, is unclear.”

Well, if you like fast-moving comic chaos you’ll enjoy this picture. The Hays Office warned Fox sternly that it "contains entirely too much dialogue and action which concerns itself – in a quite blunt and pointed way – with sex." The picture was marketed with the saucy tagline "She had the biggest Six-Shooters in the West!"

At the time reviews were very dismissive, unfortunately, and the movie got nowhere at the box-office, grossing only $1,489,000, 65% of its budget. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said that the picture had “little more comic distinction than a flat-handed whack on the rump.” Variety was no politer, calling it “a rather silly western farce, loosely concocted.”

More recent appreciations have included Dennis Schwarz, who said, “The film lacks any subtleties, moves too much into silliness and shoots itself in the [posterior] once too many times for its prolonged spoof to work smoothly”, though he also opined that it “is not as bad as most critics thought at the time. It seems to get better with age.” Brian Garfield said, “Mostly, it’s foolish slapstick; a fizzle.”

To me, the critics have been a bit harsh. I think it’s quite a fun way to spend 77 minutes of your lockdown.

 
 

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die (Paramount, 1942)


Another chapter in the legend of Wyatt Earp




 
 
I’ve been wanting to watch Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die for some time now. It’s an essential part of the Wyatt Earp canon. I couldn’t find it on DVD. But at last someone has posted it on YouTube, so I got to see it, and on the big widescreen TV I have these days it wasn’t too bad.
 

Wyatt Earp figured first in a movie by name in 1939 when Randolph Scott played him in Fox’s Frontier Marshal  - well, there had been a cameo Earp (Bert Lindley) in the 1923 William S Hart silent Wild Bill Hickok but that was all. The surviving members of the Earp family (Wyatt died in 1929) jealously guarded the name, and when in 1930 William P Burnett published a novel, Saint Johnson, a tale of brothers’ vengeance in Tombstone, it did not mention the Earps by name even if it was clearly an account of their exploits. Hollywood sat up and took notice.  Law and Order, starring Walter Huston as Frame Johnson (Wyatt Earp) and Harry Carey Sr as Ed Brandt (Doc Holliday), went into production at Universal, and was released (curiously, in London before New York) in February 1932. It is still today one of the best examples of the Wyatt Earp myth. Then the first Frontier Marshal, a talkie of 1934,and also these days difficult to find, starred George O'Brien as "Michael Wyatt" and Alan Edwards as "Doc Warren”.

Both Frontier Marshal versions were based on the 1931 biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal by Stuart N Lake, a professional wrestling promoter and a press aide to Theodore Roosevelt (and Teddy himself was an Earp fan). This book claimed authenticity and historical accuracy but was in reality sensational, lurid in tone and contained large tracts of complete fiction. But Lake (along with Earp’s widow Josephine) appeared on the Fox set of the movie version and tried to run things – Mrs. Earp often saying, “Oh, Mr. Earp would never have done anything like that!” It must have been a trial for director Allan Dwan.

Even in a year (1939) when the ‘big’ adult Western came back into fashion, with United Artists releasing John Ford’s Stagecoach with John Wayne and Claire Trevor, Fox putting its star Tyrone Power in the Technicolor Jesse James, Universal having James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich lead in George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again, Warners’ Dodge City with Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland directed by Michael Curtiz, and Paramount going with Joel McCrea and Barbara Stanwyck in Cecil B DeMille’s Union Pacific – in other words serious A-picture competition – the smaller-budget Frontier Marshal did very well at the box-office and was a considerable hit. Paramount wanted a bit of that action and put together its own Wyatt Earp tale (it was now free-for-all on the name) which it released in the summer of ’42, under the alliterative title Tombstone, The Town Too Tough To Die.

Paramount has a go

Lake being a Fox pet, Paramount went with another book, one by Walter Noble Burns, an attorney from Maine who had migrated to Kentucky, and became a prominent judge - and was now safely deceased and thus unable to be tiresome on the set. Burns had had a hit before with a popular read, The Saga of Billy the Kid (1926), responsible for much of the enduring legend/myth surrounding that character, and in 1929 he applied the same techniques to Tombstone: an Iliad of the Southwest, a tale of the gunfight at the OK Corral and subsequent shenanigans. As with Lake’s book, Burns's portrayal of Earp profoundly influenced subsequent generations of historians, novelists, and screen writers, and is a blatant blend of fact and sensational fiction.

Stirring stuff

Charles and Dean Reisner adapted this Iliad for the story and Albert S Le Vino and Edward E Paramore Jr cooked up the screenplay. So there was a lot of writer input. Director Charles Reisner’s son Dean would go on to write three of the Dirty Harry movies later in life but was involved in ten Westerns, especially those starring Don ‘Red’ Barry. Le Vino (great name) worked on some silent Westerns but also did a good job on the Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Western Westbound in 1959. Paramore was also the writer of the James Cagney oater The Oklahoma Kid - yet another 1939 Western.

The project was put together by Harry Sherman, who had been a distributor in the silent days and graduated to producing. He made 50 of the 66 Hopalong Cassidy pictures, and tended to use a ‘stock company’ of actors which included Victor Jory and Richard Dix, who appeared in Tombstone. When William Boyd took over Hoppy producing duties himself, Sherman moved to other projects, sometimes with rather bigger budgets, such as Paramount’s The Light of Western Stars in 1940, and Tombstone too.

Harry produced...

The director chosen was William C McGann, who had been a cinematographer for Douglas Fairbanks in the silent days and then had a long tenure all through the 1930s directing lower-budget pictures at Warner Bros. The IMDb bio rather writes him off by saying “Well-regarded as a second-unit director, his features as director were mostly routine.” But he didn’t do badly on Tombstone. Not great art, it nevertheless rattles along in a fast-paced way.

...and Bill directed

So Richard Dix, then 49, had the honor of being the second silver-screen lead as Wyatt Earp (33 at the time). Dix had starred in Paramount’s silent Zane Grey story The Vanishing American in 1925, then became RKO’s biggest star in the early talkie era. A tall, broad man (he had been a football and baseball player and started in sporting stories) with a deep, gruff voice, he was well suited to Westerns. He was Oscar-nominated as Best Actor for Cimarron in 1931. He was by 1942 nearing the end of his career and Tombstone, back at Paramount, was his antepenultimate Western.

Quite a big Western star, if of an earlier era

He certainly had ‘presence’, though I think it’s also true that the parts written for his brothers Virgil and Morgan Earp were fairly innocuous and low-key. This sometimes happened: you don’t want your Wyatt to be in any way overshadowed by his brothers, who are usually little more than sidekicks. Virgil (who in historical reality was the marshal) was played by Rex Bell, Mr. Clara Bow and in the 1950s and 60s Lieutenant-Governor of Nevada. Bell had been quite a big Western star, starting in silent movies, but his last lead in an oater had been in 1936. Thereafter he took smaller parts here and there right up until a bit-part in The Misfits in 1961. But big star or no, his part in Tombstone was a supporting role at best. Morgan too is very much in the shade (at least until he gets shot in the billiard parlor, when he gets a brief bit of limelight), played by Harvey Stephens, who started big leading opposite Tallulah Bankhead in The Cheat but who thence went downhill rather. He had small-to-middling parts in a dozen oaters, between 1936 and 1964.

Although Wyatt Earp was allowed his name, his counterpart was still ‘Doc Halliday’, I’m not quite sure why. A weakness of this version of the myth is that Doc was played by Kent Taylor, whom Brian Garfield described as “inadequate” for the role. Once again, though, if I may mangle Julius Caesar, the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our movie stars, but in our screenplay. Doc is just given an insignificant part.

A key role in the script went to the Johnny Ringo figure, here called Johnny Duane, played by Don Castle, not a Western specialist. This Johnny is really a good fellow deep down who because of lost love has erred and strayed, consorting with lowlifes such as Curly Bill and Ike Clanton, and Wyatt will redeem him and lead him back to the straight ‘n’ narrow. Perhaps in a nod to Dix's age, it is Johnny, not Wyatt, who is given the love interest (though this is pretty perfunctory), wooing and winning the fair Ruth (fourth-billed Frances Gifford, who had starred as Jungle Girl in 1941 and would graduate to Tarzan’s amour in Tarzan Triumphs in ’43, the Johnny Weismuller epic. She only did three Westerns, this one, a Hoppy picture in ’41 and another Sherman/McGann/Dix movie the same year as Tombstone, namely American Empire. Once again, though, her role in Tombstone is a very minor one. Castle would actually come back to Tombstone in the following decade when he took a bit-part as ‘drunken cowboy’ in Gunfight at the OK Corral, his part as Johnny being usurped by John Ireland.

Don (trying out his Clark Gable look) is Johnny

The good news is that the chief villain is third-billed Edgar Buchanan as Curly Bill Brocious (sic). Like most people I love Edgar in Westerns and he was always supremely good as the roguish, amusing bad guy with a twinkle in his eye. He had debuted (Westernwise) as the rascally judge in Arizona (1940), a highly entertaining performance, and was still quite new to the genre by the time of Tombstone but he would go on to great things, such as his part in Abilene Town (1946) as Bravo Trimble, the cowardly county sheriff who contrives always to miss the action and any arrestin’ that needs to be done, leaving it to brave town marshal Randolph Scott, or as the rascally mayor in Destry (1954), or as the crooked judge in Rage at Dawn (1955), and that year too on TV as the scoundrel Judge Roy Bean. In Tombstone Curly Bill, not Ike Clanton, is the chief antagonist of Wyatt and his law ‘n’ order agenda, but in the last reel his famous border roll will not succeed this time.

Edgar at his best

As for Ike Clanton, he was played by Sherman regular Victor Jory as a craven white-trash rustler who runs away at every opportunity (this part was quite accurate, actually; Clanton fled the field at the OK Corral fight and it wasn’t the only time). I like Jory. Though he was usually dressed in a suit as crooked saloon owner, perhaps with a derringer up his sleeve, here he is just an unshaven hick outclassed by the wily Curly Bill.

The Ike portrayal is, however, one of the few approximations to the real story. Most of it is pure legend. Wyatt and his brothers come in from Dodge, see Curly Bill and his yahoos hurrahing the town and ask why nothing is done about it. In response Mayor Crane (Charles Halton) pins a star on Wyatt, making him “sheriff” and he duly stands down Curly and his henchmen through sheer grit, disarming and arresting Mr. Brocius. He then gives the star back to the mayor, saying he has hung up his guns now. A crooked judge in a saloon (Spencer Charters) immediately frees Curly with a $30 fine and the shootin’ restarts without delay. This time a small boy catches a stray bullet from Ike Clanton and so Wyatt changes his mind (this fable was repeated by Joel McCrea as Wyatt in Wichita in 1955). The townsfolk gasp when they hear who the new lawman is. They are told that Wyatt Earp “cleaned up Wichita” (he didn’t), was “town marshal of Abilene” (he wasn’t) and “saved Dodge City from lawlessness single-handed” (nonsense). And of course he was never either county sheriff or town marshal in Tombstone - not that you'd ever convince any readers of the sensational novels of that, or the viewers of the movies.

There’s a curious voiceover intro narrative intoned (unknown speaker) by Tombstone. This has to be the first time a town has introduced itself. We then meet town founder Ed Schieffelin (Wallis Clark) discovering silver and being told by his (fictional) pard the old-timer Tadpole (good old Clem Bevan) that because of the Indians he won't be rich - the place will be his tombstone. Then we see the thriving town, proving Tadpole wrong. We meet John Clum (Emmett Vogan), editor of The Epitaph, who says “every Tombstone needs its Epitaph”, and who is all for law ‘n’ order. Chris-Pin Martin is (inevitably) the barman. Then we are introduced to Johnny, a cheery type, who is hired by Curly Bill as henchman, and Doc Halliday, a frock-coated gambler with a sawn-off shotgun.

There are three song & dance routines, performed in the Bird Cage Theater, including Tarara Boom-de-ay (actually written 1891 but never mind) and I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen (1875, so that could have been sung).

The DP was Russell Harlan, so that’s good.

Wyatt is given the task of riding round the local ranches collecting taxes, and somehow Johnny has got appointed tax assessor, so goes with him. Curly begrudgingly stumps up $840, and the McLowery ruffians are equally reluctant to part with their due of $360. When Wyatt and Johnny gets to Ike’s place, some ropin’ is necessary to get anything. There’s a stage robbery carried out by Curly, with the Clanton and the McLowery clans. One of the Clantons, the (fictional) Phineas (Donald Curtis) tries to backshoot Wyatt but Virgil stops him. Ike snarls that “We’re lookin’ for a showdown” and the OK Corral will be the place. The three Earps and Doc duly do their walk-down, and the gunfight occurs.

But this is three-quarters of the way through the 79-minute runtime so there’s time for post-OK happenings. Morgan is shot in the back playing billiards – it’s Indian Charlie (Charles Stevens) who does it. Virgil isn’t shot, though. Wyatt is appointed a US marshal and it all leads up to a big final shoot-out in the rocks (Lone Pine) in which the villains are all killed. Wyatt, his work done, departs by stage, leaving Johnny, newly wed to Ruth, as the new sheriff. The End.

Blam! Blam!

On balance, the picture didn’t match the ‘39 Frontier Marshal for quality. Still, it’s brisk, quite fun in a rather dated 1940s way, and Earpistas certainly need to see it at least once.

“TS” in The New York Times called it “another lickety-split yarn of frontier laws vs. the bad hombres, [in which] the bad hombres die like dogs in the last reel. Mr. Sherman hasn't varied the usual formula a bit; anything else would be artistic treason.” Variety called it “a compact package of adventurous entertainment” and “a top-notch entry of its type.” It added that the “finale is one of the most rousing gunfights that has come to the screen.”

So there you go. Don’t expect Fordian artistry or anything but if you like an old-school oater that moves at a gallop you could certainly give this one a go.

 

 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Pursued (Warner Bros, 1947)

All livelinks in this post are internal, i.e. they will take you to other reviews on this blog.


Noir comes to the Western - along with Freud

 


 

 
What is a noir, and can a Western be one? Webster’s describes noir as “crime fiction featuring hard-boiled cynical characters and bleak sleazy settings”. By this definition a picture like Pursued is not one. It is hardly crime fiction (though crimes do figure) and the settings are not sleazy – in fact they are rather fine - splendid outdoor New Mexico scenery shot around Gallup and the Red Rock State Park, and a rather flashy saloon owned by Alan Hale. But once you have watched it, you could be forgiven for thinking Pursued a Western noir.
 
Classic noir

The black & white photography, the prevalence of nighttime scenes, the sexual undertones, the gritty and tough central character played by Robert Mitchum, all these give noir qualities to the film. In the late 1940s noir was all the rage. Films like The Killers, Black Angel and The Chase in 1946, were followed by Fear in the Night, The Gangster, Kiss of Death and many more in 1947, and it was inevitable that noir would spread to other genres.

Mitchum did noir

The blurb to David Meuel’s The Noir Western says, “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.”


We think of pictures such as Coroner’s Creek or Blood on the Moon (the latter also with Mitchum). The late 40s were the high-watermark of noir Westerns. I can just imagine Raoul Walsh saying to the Warners execs, “You want noir? I can do noir.”

Raoul at the helm

He hadn’t really done so, hitherto, not in Westerns, anyway - but then no one had. He had been working with Errol Flynn in the more rambunctious and swashbuckling kind of oater. I guess Dark Command (1940) had some noirish touches, but you wouldn’t call it a film noir. But he did a fine job on Pursued. Paul Willemen, in The BFI Companion to the Western, goes as far as to call Pursued “Walsh’s exquisitely noir masterpiece.”

His cast helped hugely. Mitchum was really well cut out for such roles. 1947 was also the year he starred in the Jacques Tourneur-directed Out of the Past, and he was the man Roger Ebert called “the soul of film noir”. He was still doing it in the 70s with Farewell My Lovely and The Big Sleep. But he’d actually debuted after the war in small parts in Westerns, Hopalong Cassidy epics, and in 1944 he graduated to leading, when RKO’s reliable Tim Holt was drafted, appearing in Nevada, and the following year in West of the Pecos. But Pursued was his first ‘grown up’ Western, and he was superb in it. The studio wanted a new, young, strong actor for the male lead, someone not immediately identified by the audience as a goody. Montgomery Clift and Kirk Douglas were considered (neither had yet done a Western) but Mitch was finally selected. He hit it off really well with Walsh.

Mitchum superb

I have a lot of time for Dean Jagger as a Western actor, and here he is the sinister one-armed villain, single-minded in his homicidal thirst for vengeance in a long-running family feud. He was memorable as the title character in Brigham Young in 1940, and you’ll recall him (or I do anyway) in Western Union, Sierra, Rawhide, Denver and Rio Grande and Red Sundown, among many others, not forgetting Bad Day at Black Rock if you call that a Western (I do).

Jagger drips with sly malice

Ma Callum, the woman who raises young Jeb Rand (two child actors, then Mitchum) is Judith Anderson, another classy actor in this kind of picture. She was an Australian who moved to New York in 1918 and established herself as one of the leading theatrical actresses and a major star on Broadway. In movies, she was unforgettable as Mrs. Danvers in the 1940 version of Rebecca, but she only did three Westerns. She was second-billed after Richard Harris, playing Buffalo Cow Head in A Man Called Horse in 1970 but for me she was outstanding as Flo Burnett in Anthony Mann’s The Furies in 1950. (Actually, Mann would have done a great job helming Pursued, but it went to Walsh and he did too). Anderson is splendid in Pursued as the woman whose maternal love turns into deep hatred. "All the love I had for you is dead," she snarls at Jeb.

Anderson seriously good

Topping the billing in Pursued was actually neither Mitchum nor Anderson but Teresa Wright, writer Niven Busch’s wife, playing the curiously-named Thor, Jeb’s adoptive sister but then lover. Wright had been ‘discovered’ by Samuel Goldwyn and clearly had talent – she was the only performer ever to be nominated for Oscars for her first three films, and won one for her supporting role in Mrs. Miniver in 1942. She did three Westerns, or semi-Westerns, this one, John Sturges’s The Capture in 1950 and William Wellman’s Track of the Cat (again with Mitchum) in 1954. Personally, I don’t think she’s all that good in Pursued, being a bit too sweet-little-girlish for the role, though she does improve when she becomes more like her mother (Anderson) and her love turns to loathing. In his biography of Mitchum Baby, I Don't Care, Lee Server recounts how Walsh (who, it is said, had once borrowed John Barrymore’s corpse from a funeral parlor to frighten a drunken Errol Flynn) and Mitchum dreamed up a gag and when Mitchum came to the carrying-over-the-threshold scene, he threw her unexpectedly on the bed and made like he was for real. Wright screamed with panic. Cruel maybe but it hinted that she wasn’t really up to the role of raunchy, tough female lead.

Fine portrait by anonymous photographer

Writer Busch, famous for the likes of In Old Chicago and The Postman Always Rings Twice, actually loved Westerns. Among the ten feature oaters he worked on were The Westerner for Wyler, Duel in the Sun for David O Selznick, The Furies for Anthony Mann, The Man from the Alamo for Budd Boetticher and Distant Drums, also for Walsh. It was an impressive CV. He was in fact fascinated with the West and had found in some El Paso archives a story of a vicious feud in which a young boy had been brought up by the family responsible for wiping out his own. Busch was attracted by the Greek tragedy of it, the inescapable destiny, and it was he who persuaded Warners producer Milton Sperling to create a filmed version, and he also had a big hand in the casting. He added modern Freudian tinges of childhood trauma and repressed memory as well as the obligatory love interest, this time with a daring hint of incest. All very modern (or ancient Greece). But it’s a Western alright. There’s even the line by Mitchum to his foster-brother, “This ranch isn’t big enough to hold the two of us.” Mitchum gets away with it, though.

Niven put it together

Visually, the picture is absolutely superb. Though much was shot on sound-stages as interiors, there was also a fine amount of location work, photographed by one of the great masters of monochrome, James Wong Howe. Paul Simpson, in The Rough Guide to Westerns, talked of Howe’s “shadow-haunted images, stark desert locations, noirish underlighting and low-angled interiors”, which were “innovative and experimental for a Western". And not just for a Western – this marked the first use of infra-red film on a Hollywood movie. Archie Stout would use it to great effect the following year on John Ford's Fort Apache. Some of the New Mexico landscapes in black & white remind me of Russell Harlan’s work on Four Faces West, released the year after Pursued (I'm sure Harlan was influenced by Howe). Characters in the first reel look Fordishly out through the framework of a door, and without wishing to be pretentious, when you note the camera angles and the intense close-ups you definitely think of Orson Welles. I'm quite sure Walsh and Howe had studied the likes of Citizen Kane and The Stranger. I believe Howe’s cinematography ideally suited the themes of moral darkness and the light of the love that redeems it (if you’ll forgive such language for describing a cowboy film).

Jimmy Wong Howe, one of the greats

The modern print is splendid. Martin Scorsese, who contributed handsomely to its restoration, called the picture “the first noir Western … resembling a Shakespearean drama with Freudian overtones.”

Scorsese is a fan

It is the story of a small boy, Jeb Rand, who witnesses the murder of his whole family and who is hastily gathered up by Mrs. Callum (Anderson), a member of the family responsible for the massacre, taken home and brought up with her own two children, Adam (child actors, then John Rodney, not a Western regular) and Thor (child actors, then Wright). From the outset the two boys are rivals, and fight, while Thor tries to keep the peace.

As they become adults the edgy rivalry continues, an undercurrent beneath the calm of apparently cordial relations, and it will burst out again into violence. One member of the household must go off to the Spanish-American War (it's set at the turn of the twentieth century) and the toss of a coin will decide it. Much of the movie concerns what happens on Jeb's return from the war (for he loses the toss) and this must have resonated with the 1947 audiences.

Throughout the film and throughout his life Jeb is traumatized by the vague memory of the slaughter, and constantly pursued and victimized as he grows and Callums try to murder him. He feels always hunted. At one point he talks to Thor of the "black dog riding my back and yours." Winston Churchill used to use this image of a black dog to describe the depressions that he was subject to but here it seems to mean more a sense of foreboding.

Chief among Jeb's persecutors is Grant Callum (Jagger), a lawyer who lost an arm in the original attack and became Prosecutor in Santa Fe. He is smooth, clever, cunning, sly, ready to kill a child and also ready, when he fails, to commit incitement to murder.

His dreams are haunted by the spurs of his father's killer

It’s a story of New Mexico Montagues and Capulets and forbidden love, treated like a Wuthering Prairies, a relentless tragedy. Patrick Brion, in his Encyclopédie du Western, says “It’s almost a ghost story.”

The tale is told in flashback by Jeb to Thor, and so we get the occasional voiceover narrative by Mitchum to link the scenes. He is low-key, fatalist and brooding. It is really fine acting. Simpson again: “Mitchum gives a performance of such world-weary reserve and sad-eyed nonchalance that he suggests, as Scorsese says, that ‘for him, hope was not even a possibility’.”

Resigned to his fate and loss

The action hovers at times between noir and gothic horror. The wedding night, especially, when Thor desires to accelerate the “till death us do part” bit of the vows (with a .38) is worthy of Du Maurier/Hitchcock/Olivier/Fontaine.

The music is by Max Steiner and very well done. Dramatic and stirring in the action scenes, somber and slow in the quieter moments, tense and sinister when the story requires, it is always dark, dark, dark. I love the melancholy variations on Mendelssohn’s wedding march when the dysfunctional newly-weds arrive at their new home – in fact rather creepily their old home that the now-rich and dandified Jeb has bought and done up. A music box that plays the Londonderry Air figures, and Mitchum sings along to it, with Rodney harmonizing in the second verse. The family dog reacts by howling. Steiner orchestrally reworked the air in the minor key here and there, with great effect. Sergio Leone was perhaps referencing this moment when he had a character sing Danny Boy in Once Upon a Time in the West. Mitchum also gets to sing Streets of Laredo, which had been playing on the saloon piano, as he rides along (just before yet another attempt is made on his life). Mitchum often sang in Westerns, and there was quite a pleasant timbre to his voice but he didn’t find it easy to hold a note in tune and probably would have benefited from some tuition or training. He actually released a LP in 1967, That Man Robert Mitchum … Sings. I don’t know if it was any good.

Max scribbled down the crotchets

There are two very good smaller role performances to note also, by storekeeper Harry Carey Jr. as Jeb’s rival for Thor’s affections (though sadly Dobe hardly even mentions it in his memoir) and Alan Hale as the friendly if roguish saloon keeper Jake Dingle.

Mitch wears a nice New Mexico jacket, a bit like the one he will wear in Track of the Cat

There’s a great cigar clipper in the store, and Ma Callum has a state-of-the-art sewing machine. I do like Victorian gadgets in Westerns.

Walsh himself in an interview said, “I love that movie”, and you can see why. Some people may think that all the Freudian malarkey is a bit overdone, being rather à la mode at the time (Spellbound had come out in 1945 and Secret Beyond the Door in ’47) and Brian Garfield talked of the “disturbing phoniness of this school of film-making filled with Freudian symbolism and portentous compositions” but Walsh was enough of a feet-on-the-ground old hand not to let that side of it overwhelm the picture. At its heart it’s just the good old find-your-daddy’s-killer Western plot, with plenty of rootin’ and shootin’. It’s just that this time the hero knew who the killers were all along but just didn’t remember because it was hidden in his psyche.

The movie was not universally well received. The influential Bosley Crowther in The New York Times was not impressed, writing that “the picture drones along” and that it was “hard to work up any sympathy for the hero, who seems bored by all his woes. That may be because Robert Mitchum, who plays the latter, is a very rigid gent and gives off no more animation than a Frigidaire turned to ‘Defrost’.” He added, “Niven Busch, who wrote the original script, tried to write a psychological mystery in a western setting and bungled the job.” Ouch. Myself, I couldn’t disagree more with that.

It kinda sank without trace. Pity.

Variety was politer. Of Mitchum it wrote “His role fits him naturally and he makes it entirely believable” and it said, “Standout in [the] picture is [the] suspense generated by the original script and Raoul Walsh’s direction. Strong casting also is a decided factor in selling the action wares. Production makes use of natural outdoor backgrounds supplied by New Mexico scenery, lending [an] air of authenticity that is fully captured by the camera.”

A classic Western lynching

It didn’t do well at the box-office. There were no Westerns in the top ten for ticket sales that year. The picture almost slipped from memory until a much more recent revival of interest, largely pioneered by Scorsese, restored it to an important position in Hollywood filmography – rightly so, in my view.

Pursued was the film Jim Morrison was watching the night he died. But you’ll probably survive a viewing.