In a Western state of mind II


In a Western state of mind II

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

As a cinephile, I consider myself a connoisseur of certain genres, especially the Western. Like a lot of film buffs I sometimes make the mistake of thinking I’ve seen all the good films there are to see in a particular genre, in this case the Western, when I really ought to know better. I mean, in my lifetime I have seen my share of films of all types, including a good many Westerns, but my conceit can easily make me forget what I know to be the truth – that a whole lot of Westerns have come down the trail from the advent of motion pictures through today. Many hundreds of them. And while I have seen a couple hundred, that leaves a big number I still need to discover. This reality was impressed upon me the last few days when I viewed for the first time three fine Westerns. The first of these, “The Furies,” is one I have long been aware of and even seen bits and pieces of over the years. But Saturday was the first time I sat down to watch the film from beginning to end and I must say it more than lived up to its reputation. The 1950 black and white classic directed by Anthony Mann stars Barbara Stanwyck, Walter Huston, Wendell Corey, Gilbert Roland, Judith Anderson and Thomas Gomez. In this Shakespearean-inspired drama, Huston plays a feudal land baron whose only daughter has an unhealthy love turned hate for her father after she does something terribly wrong to his caddish new wife and he takes out his blood lust revenge against his daughter’s lifelong friend. The story is replete with patricide, corruption, racism, misogyny and betrayal.

 

 

 

 

Mann brought complex psychological themes to his Westerns and while his films don’t always hold up to the deep currents they tread, they do work on many levels. His films also anticipate the work of later Western directors such as Sam Peckinpah in their anti-heroic protagonists, ambivalent morality and uncompromising violence. As usual, Mann displays his gift for juxtaposing characters with exterior landscapes through stark visuals that poetically, dramatically frame men and women against their physical environment to emphasize humans at war with their own natures and with their surroundings.

 

The Furies (1950 film) movie scenes

“The Furies”

 

I had never even heard of, much less seen, the next two Westerns in my private cinema epiphany. “Man from Del Rio” (1956) stars Anthony Quinn and Katy Jurado in a gem of a story directed by Harry Horner, an Oscar-winning production designer who also directed for television and helmed a few features as well. The movie continually sets us up for seeming cliched story-lines and plot twists but nearly always surprises with unconventional choices. Quinn plays a lonely, roaming Mexican gunman out to avenge an old wound. When he rids a town of three bad men he takes the job of sheriff thinking its residents will embrace him, only to learn his trade and his ethnicity make him persona non grata. He is an outcast who cannot find inner peace because he’s invested his entire self-worth on his fast draw and steely resolve. The film’s showdown at the end is reminiscent of many others but only up to a point because, as before, it overturns our expectations. Quinn’s character has suffered an injury rendering his shooting hand useless and yet he still faces off with his nemesis on main street and manages to prevail without a shot being fired because he’s
learned to love himself and to trust his strength of character. His walk in that climactic duel is a piece of pure cinema in the determined way he moves and in the confident way he removes bandages from his injured wrist. It is a walk of sinister grace and quiet bravado.

Quinn gives one of his more subdued, nuanced performances. Horner makes great use of the backlot sets and lets the story build gradually. The black and white photography is suitably austere for this simple story of deep stirrings.

 

“Man from Del Rio”

 

But the best discovery of all in my Western marathon has to be “Day of the Outlaw.” It is another black and white film, this time from the late 1950s (1959 to be precise), but it is far from being just another film. From the enigmatic opening title sequence to the ambivalent ending, it is a work of high aesthetics that compares favorably with much better known and more heralded Westerns. Director Andre de Toth made a lot of Westerns but this is the only one of his I have seen and after viewing it I will eagerly seek out more of his work. Several elements distinguish “Day of the Outlaw” from routine Western programmers: first, the story unfolds in the winter and de Toth and his cast and crew traveled to the American northwest to make the film on location in the wilds of Oregon; the film opens with two men on horseback in high country snow approaching a wagon on a spread filled with barbed wire; the taller man in the saddle, Robert Ryan, expresses to his riding companion, Nehemiah Persoff, a powerful disdain for wire fences and for the men who put them up. Persoff openly questions if it’s one man in particular he hates and if he’s riding into town to kill that man or to steal his wife. That opening couple minutes establishes much of what follows: a bleak, harsh wintertime landscape in the middle of nowhere; and Ryan’s principled but corrupt free range character holding a grudge against farmers who erect fences and harboring a particular hate for one man whose wife, played by Tina Louise, he also lusts after. Once Ryan and Persoff arrive in the isolated town of Bitters the story goes along in somewhat predictable fashion for a time as Ryan and Louise’s husband appear fated to confront one another in a deadly conflict that Ryan will surely win. Louise will do anything to spare her husband but Ryan will not be denied the satisfaction of killing the man who stands in the way of his freedom and of the woman he wants. But then the story takes a completely different turn when, out of nowhere, a band of evil men led by a disgraced former cavalry officer played by Burl Ives, who has the stain of a massacre he ordered on his black heart, seek refuge in town. They are thieves, rapists and murderers on the run from an Army detachment in hot pursuit. The outlaws proceed to terrorize the inhabitants and this changes the balance of everything, as Ryan becomes the hero who tries to keep harm from coming to the residents. He bargains with Ives, whom he recognizes himself in, for their lives and eventually leads the outlaws out of town on the ruse that he knows a way through the mountains to escape their Army pursuers. What Ives’ men don’t know is that he is dying and Ryan is taking him and the others on a trek from which he expects no one will survive. He is sacrificing everything so that the town may be rid of this plague. It is a redemption story without a hint of sentimentality, too. As Ryan explains to Louise before he leaves, he’s doing it for himself and for his own immortal soul and to lead bad people away from good people. He also convinces Ives that it’s better to die with some dignity and on his own terms rather than be responsible for another massacre and be captured or killed in a shootout with the Army.

 

horses 1

“Day of the Outlaw”

 

The ending sequences are a great combination of location shooting in harsh conditions and realistic soundstage atmospherics. In this fatalistic story, Ryan doesn’t expect to come of the journey alive and in fact he tells Ives mid-journey that he doesn’t expect any of them will make it. On the other hand, Ryan’s character has the advantage of knowing the territory and surviving its weather, and even though outnumbered seven to one at the start, one by one the outlaws begin falling victim to the elements or to their own avarice.

Director de Toth, whether because of budget constraints or aesthetic reasons, frames much of the action at a distance, in medium or long shot, and makes great use of negative space, all of which enhances the sense of dread, loneliness, isolation and suspense that this movie elicits. Because of the set up involving a small group of people trapped in a frozen environment and preyed on by violent invader, the film, though a Western, plays very much like “The Thing” or “30 Days of Night” in terms of tone, just as it’s also reminiscent of similarly themed Westerns such as “Rio Bravo” and “Firecreek.”

The Ryan character has the moral ambiguity of so many Western anti-heroes of that era and of subsequent eras, thus reflecting the harsh attitudes of post-World War II America that also informed film noir.

Yes, I love Westerns. The geography, history and mythology bound up in them allow film artists to apply all manner of meanings and issues to these vast archetypal landscapes. The more I explore the genre, the more richness I find. Silent features with Harry Carey. Serials. B-oaters. Western comedies. The long reign of TV Westerns as the dominant category of episodic dramatic series. Singing cowboys. John Ford and Howard Hawks classics spanning the Golden Age of the old studio system through the dawn of the New Hollywood. John Wayne and Gary Cooper becoming the faces of the American Western. The two great Western franchises of the 1950s – Anthony Mann’s collaboration with James Stewart and Budd Boetticher’s collaboration with Randolph Scott. The idiosyncratic Westerns of Sam Peckinpah. Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns and the emergence of Clint Eastwood as the new face of the Old West. Monte Hellman’s mid-1960s revisionist Westerns with Jack Nicholson. Robert Altman re-imagining the Western in “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.” The rise of Clint Eastwood as the new face of the Western anti-hero. A Western, “Unforgiven,” finally winning the Best Picture Oscar. The great TV Western mini-series “Lonesome Dove” and “Broken Trail.” The new realism of HBO’s “Deadwood.” The faithful adaptation of Omaha native Ron Hansen’s novel “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.’ The remakes of “True Grit,” “3:10 to Yuma” and, now, “The Magnificent Seven.”

There was a time when the Western was considered dead, but it’s never gone away and it’s pretty clear by now that it never will. Filmmakers will continue finding ways to reinvent and reinvigorate this time honored genre whose interpretations and variations are as wide open as the Great Plains and the American West. Look for more dispatches from my Western cinema adventures and discoveries.

NOTE: The three Westerns that motivated this post were all viewed for free and in their entirety on YouTube. There are short ads built in with some but not all. I am finding an amazingly rich pool of not only Westerns but films of all genres and types available for free on the Web. Last night I thoroughly enjoyed “A Thousand Clowns,” a mid 1960s film that was part of the American New Wave that proceeded the New Hollywood. Watch for my post about, too.

 
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