Western RoundUp: Noir-Tinged Westerns

Noir-Tinged Westerns

Around this time last year, in a column titled Christmas in the West, I took a look at a pair of Christmas-themed films starring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.

Alas, there are very few Westerns with a Christmas theme, so this year I’m going to swing in a totally opposite direction, into the bleakness of winter, with a look at “Noir-Tinged Westerns.”

These are darker Westerns than the norm, with a style strongly influenced by the postwar film noir movement. They often have a crime or mystery theme and a hero who is psychologically conflicted or morally ambiguous. Here are a few of my favorite “noir Westerns” of 1947-48, presented in alphabetical order:

…..

Blood on the Moon (Robert Wise, 1948)

Blood on the Moon starring Robert Mitchum

This is one of my top favorites in this Western subgenre, and it’s sadly underseen as it’s not yet available on DVD in the United States. Fortunately it does turn up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies.

The noir credentials behind Blood on the Moon are strong: It comes from the “House of Noir,” RKO, and was directed by Robert Wise, who the previous year directed Lawrence Tierney and Claire Trevor in one of my very favorite film noir titles, Born to Kill (1947)Blood on the Moon was filmed by Nicholas Musuraca, who did superb work on many film noir titles, including the all-time noir classic Out of the Past (1947). What’s more, Blood on the Moon stars Out of the Past star Robert Mitchum.

Barbara Bel Geddes and Robert Mitchum

Mitchum plays Jim Garry, a “loose rider” (love that term) who finds himself in the middle of a range war. Barbara Bel Geddes is on one side of the battle, with Robert Preston on the other; Bel Geddes plays a spunky gal who’s a good shot, who just might reform the gun-slinging Garry.

As shot by Musuraca, the movie has terrific atmosphere, from the rainstorm which opens the film to a shadowy barroom brawl and moody, cloud-filled skies.

Blood on the Moon Publicity Still

The script by Lillie Hayward was based on a story by Luke Short, whose work inspired other “noirish Westerns,” including Ramrod and Station West, both discussed below. The script puts forth a tough story which veers from heartbreak to humor. One of the best moments has Walter Brennan, who has previously endured an enormous loss, kill a man and then laconically say to a surviving character, “I always wanted to shoot one of you, and he was the handiest.”

The deep supporting cast includes noir legend Charles McGraw, along with Tom Tully and Phyllis Thaxter. ’30s cowboy star Tom Keene also appears in a supporting role; in this later phase of his career, playing small supporting roles, Keene changed his billing name to Richard Powers.

A highly recommended film worth seeking out.

…..

Pursued (Raoul Walsh, 1948)

Pursued

Robert Mitchum stars again, this time as the psychologically tormented Jeb Rand, who’s troubled by a childhood nightmare he doesn’t really remember; he simply knows something in his earliest years went very wrong.

Jeb was adopted at a young age by Ma Callum (Dame Judith Anderson), and things get a little odd when Jeb falls in love with his adoptive “sister,” Thorley (Teresa Wright). They’re not actually related, of course, and that’s actually the least strange aspect of Jeb’s family life; at one point he must shoot his adoptive brother (John Rodney), and then there’s Ma Callum’s brother-in-law (Dean Jagger) who wants to kill him. But why?

Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright

The interesting script was written by Wright’s husband, Niven Busch. Mitchum tended to be a deceptively low-key performer, but here his Jeb is positively stoic as he deals with everything thrown his way, including his own wife threatening to shoot him on their wedding night!

Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright

There’s much to absorb watching this film, from the well-acted, very troubled characters to the mystery to the film’s visual style. Famed cinematographer James Wong Howe does a marvelous job creating the film’s memorable, literally dark look, with many scenes shot at night.

The excellent supporting cast includes Alan Hale Sr. and Harry Carey Jr.

I’ve seen this Warner Bros. film several times and always notice new things, which I feel is one of the marks of a really good movie.

…..

Ramrod (Andre de Toth, 1947)

Ramrod

Western favorite Joel McCrea stars in Ramrod, which was directed by Andre de Toth. McCrea plays a recovering alcoholic who had fallen into drinking after the deaths of his wife and child. Dave accepts as job as “ramrod” for rancher Connie Dickason (Veronica Lake, who was married to de Toth). Connie is at odds with her father (Charlie Ruggles), who had driven her fiancee out of town, and unknown to Dave she arranges a stampede that kills multiple people.

While McCrea’s Dave has a troubled past, he’s still the straight arrow viewers expect from the actor. Lake’s Connie, on the other hand, is a coldhearted femme fatale who’s only looking out for No. 1 — and thankfully she has a nice comeuppance at movie’s end.

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea

The great cast also includes Preston Foster as a villainous rancher allied with Connie’s father; Arleen Whelan as the woman who quietly loves Dave; Donald Crisp as the upright sheriff; and best of all, Don DeFore in a scene-stealing role as McCrea’s charming, sexy sidekick. (Yes, Don DeFore! Who knew?!)

Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea

A dozen years later de Toth directed another dark Western, Day of the Outlaw (1959), which I wrote about here last year.

McCrea would likewise go on to star in another noirish Western, Colorado Territory (1949).

Ramrod was distributed by United Artists. It’s another terrific movie whose reputation has grown over the years.

…..

Station West (Sidney Lanfield, 1948)

Station West

I briefly wrote about Station West here close to a year ago in a column on “Unexpected Western Leads,” but it’s worth looking at this title a little more in this different context.

Station West is another movie from the “house of noir,” RKO. It teams a pair of stars from film noir classics, with Dick Powell (Murder, My Sweet) as an undercover detective and Jane Greer (Out of the Past) as the saloon gal who also proves to be something of a femme fatale. Film noir regular Raymond Burr is also on hand playing a nervous lawyer.

Dick Powell and Jane Greer

Powell’s detective, Lt. John Haven, is on a mission to solve the murders of two soldiers in a frontier town where he’s not entirely sure who he can trust.

In some ways this is the most “noir” of the quartet of films discussed here, having the feel of transporting Powell, Greer, and Burr’s typical film noir characters straight into the Western milieu.

Thanks to Frank Fenton and Winston Miller’s great screenplay, Powell offers up sardonic quips and wisecracks on a par with his earlier role as Philip Marlowe. There’s also a fistfight between Powell and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams which is quite memorable for its realism and brutality; like Marlowe, Powell’s Lt. Haven is smart but also finds himself “worked over” pretty well.

Jane Greer and Dick Powell

Greer gets a chance to sing as the mysterious saloon owner, and there’s also some wonderful singing by Burl Ives which offers commentary on the action. I enjoy noting that while Greer and Ives sang in this film, former musical star Dick Powell did not!

The superb photography was by Harry J. Wild, who had shot Powell’s Murder, My Sweet a few years previously, as well as Powell and Burr’s Pitfall, released the very same year. The scenes with beautiful cloud and rock background formations were filmed by Wild in Sedona, Arizona.

There are a few other titles of this era which could also be described as “noir-tinged.” If anyone would like to recommend a favorite not mentioned above, please feel free to make suggestions in the comments!

…..

— Laura Grieve for Classic Movie Hub

Laura can be found at her blog, Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings, where she’s been writing about movies since 2005, and on Twitter at @LaurasMiscMovie. A lifelong film fan, Laura loves the classics including Disney, Film Noir, Musicals, and Westerns.  She regularly covers Southern California classic film festivals.  Laura will scribe on all things western at the ‘Western RoundUp’ for CMH.

This entry was posted in Posts by Laura Grieve, Western RoundUp and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Western RoundUp: Noir-Tinged Westerns

  1. david weinstock says:

    don’t forget ‘lust for gold’. glenn ford, ida lupino, and gig young do a bang up job. it is one of the best westerns of any type at all.

  2. mackjay says:

    The Walking Hills (1949) has strong Noir overtones: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QaB84a1vZSI&t=8s

    • Charles Lore says:

      I’ll second that recommendation. Early John Sturges film, taut the way that a Scott/Brown tended to be and all the better for it.

  3. Charles Lore says:

    Have you seen Mark Robson’s ROUGHSHOD? Robert Sterling headlines and he’s OK but if this one had RKO providing Mitchum or Dick Powell, it would be much better known. It does have Gloria Grahame playing a euphemistic saloon hostess and John Ireland as the villain and it well worth checking out.

  4. Rick says:

    My top noir Western is Fritz Lang’s RANCHO NOTORIOUS.

  5. Alyson Faye says:

    One I watched a lot on BBC TV in UK – James Stewart and the brilliant Robert Ryan (who terrified me as a kid) in the (colour) but noir tinged western The Naked Spur 1953

  6. Jerry Entract says:

    You have come up with another really fine idea for a piece on the western genre, Laura! I really like all four of those films (and of course I love film noir anyway) and the two I especially like are “BLOOD ON THE MOON” & “RAMROD”, probably because they are range war westerns and I do have a particular fondness for those.

    I have just finished (re)watching “THE WALKING HILLS” and endorse the recommendations of it above. John Sturges showed what a fine filmmaker he already was, this early in his career (1949) and the cinematography of Death Valley was stunning. It fits the bill nicely here.

  7. Walter says:

    Laura, You picked some really fine examples of “Noir-Tinged Westerns.” I remember first viewing these movies as a youngster, before I had any inkling about “Film Noir” much less ever hearing, or reading anything about the broadly themed genre. I was a fan of these movies and still am.

    I’ll pass this tidbit about director Andre de Toth and RAMROD(1947) on. During the 1990’s I viewed RAMROD on the GOOD TIMES PICTURE SHOW hosted by Ray Nielson on the local PBS station AETN, Conway, Arkansas. After the showing of the movie, Ray would conduct a telephone interview(which was actually done before the airing). That night the interview was with Andre de Toth. Ray asked how someone like de Toth came to make so many Western movies, being a European. de Toth replied that the first job he had after arriving in the USA was working on a ranch, “I’m a Hungarian born one-eyed cowboy from Texas!”

    Laura, I know that you are a fan of actor James Millican, so here is a “Noir-Tinged” no-budget oater from Robert L. Lippert Pictures, RIMFIRE(1949). James Millican actually starred in this 63 minute Western directed by B. Reeves Eason with an original story and screenplay by Ron Ormond, Arthur St. Claire, and Frank Wisbar. Also, with Ernest Miller and crew behind the cameras. The supporting cast is an ensemble of top-notch character actors. RIMFIRE is better than it has a right be on a no-budget. Worth watching.

    I look forward to your next article.

  8. Gene Blottner says:

    Add William Elliott’s “Showdown” to the list of Noir Westerns

    • Jerry Entract says:

      Would I be correct in assuming that you are the same Gene Blottner that gave us the very fine analysis of Universal-International westerns but also the lovely book on a special favourite of mine, Bill Elliott??

      And, yes – Elliott’s “THE SHOWDOWN” is another great example of a noir-tinged western.

  9. Laura Grieve says:

    Hi everyone,

    I am so appreciative of the great and informative responses, thank you all!

    David, thank you for the tip on LUST FOR GOLD. I have a VHS (!) recording off TV I’ve not yet seen. Definitely need to watch it, especially for Lupino.

    Mackjay, Charles, and Jerry, thanks for the suggestion of THE WALKING HILLS. It’s been nearly a decade since I’ve seen it — at the time I wasn’t taken with it but so many people have recommended it to me, now and in the past, that I feel I need to give it a second look and see if it hits me differently on a fresh viewing. I find that sometimes watching in a fresh context or simply a different mood can change my impressions of a film.

    Charles, ROUGHSHOD is a great favorite of mine, I’m so glad you mentioned it! I actually contemplated whether that title was “noirish” enough or not when I was making my selections. Perhaps I will discuss it in a Part 2 at some point! It’s a film I’d love more people to know.

    Rick, RANCHO NOTORIOUS is another one I need to see for the first time. I have a recording in my “watch” stack, just need to make time for it! Thanks much.

    Alyson, I agree, THE NAKED SPUR is a terrific movie. Despite being in color, it’s definitely “dark”! (I’ve heard it said that Ryan even scared his fellow actors when he was in character! LOL)

    Jerry, I’m very glad to know (and not surprised!) that you have seen all four films, and I hope your added endorsement will help encourage others to check them out. (And thank you for also recommending THE WALKING HILLS!)

    Thank you, Walter! What a great de Toth quote. (And I had no idea of that background!) Thank you so much for the recommendation of RIMFIRE! The VCI DVD is sitting next to my TV. I need to put that on my short-short viewing list due to Millican starring. I have a feeling I will really enjoy it, especially since you recommend it. And thank you so much for your kind words!

    Gene, I really appreciate you recommending THE SHOWDOWN, happily I have a copy of that as well. You all are going to keep me very busy catching up on these great recommendations in 2020! As Jerry mentions, Gene has written a terrific book on Universal Westerns which I included in my first “Western Film Book Library” post. Thanks to your mention, Jerry, I have now bookmarked Gene’s Bill Elliott book. I have a book on Elliott by Bobby Copeland but I don’t have Gene’s Elliott filmography. The more I see of Bill Elliott, the more I appreciate him.

    Thanks again to you one and all!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  10. Brad Harju says:

    This list of film noir westerns is great. I’m going to write these all down so I don’t forget them.

  11. Laura Grieve says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, Brad, and hope you will find it useful. Enjoy the movies!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

  12. Scott Bullitt says:

    BLOOD ON THE MOON is available in a very good print from a bootleg merchant in the US. You probably don’t want me to mention the name of the bootlegger, but I’ve found a lot of good to excellent westerns at the website.

  13. Laura says:

    Glad you’ve been able to see BLOOD ON THE MOON, Scott! I keep hoping that the Warner Archive will release it. I’m guessing there must be source material issues as otherwise a Robert Mitchum Western would seem to be a priority to release.

    Speaking of the Warner Archive, I appreciate that they shared this column on their Facebook page on January 7th!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.