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)
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.
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.
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)
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?
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!
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.
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)
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.
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?!)
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)
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.
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.
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.