Sagebrush Noir: The Western as 'Social Problem' Film


11-24-08, 9:59 am

Thirty-five miles east of the dusty town of Socorro in Southeast New Mexico, the first atomic weapon was tested on July 16, 1945, 35. The weapon would, within the month, be credited with ending the Second World War. It would also, as it was in Robert Aldrich's 'Kiss Me Deadly,' be likened to a Pandora's Box which had the capability to destroy humanity.

The historical moment as well as the locale was highly prescient, helping to usher in the decade of Classic Noir and giving birth to it's mutant offspring which I've chosen to call 'Sagebrush Noir.'

The roots of film noir, as we know, sprang out of an earlier time, just following the horrific destruction wrought by World War I. That War ended an era of relative stability in Europe and the world, albeit a period, plagued by the ceaseless machinations of international capitalism and its military tool, fueled by nationalist aspirations and the quest for new markets.

The great disillusionment following this classic imperialist war, led, particularly in Germany, to a rise of rebellious films, the first of which, Robert Weine's 'Cabinet of Caligari,' portrayed, at least before it's subversion by the censors, the murderous authoritarianism which had led to the war. Produced in 1919, written and directed by men who had first hand knowledge of trench warfare and it's cost in lives and sanity, it also came on the heels of the wave of revolution which briefly swept across Europe and Russia.

In Europe such movements were quickly defeated.

Reaction and inflation followed. This would lead to even darker films such as 'The Blue Angel' and 'M.' With the rise of Fascism, many of these film-makers fled Germany, ultimately ending up working in the Hollywood dream factory... The most noted: Fritz Lang, Robert Siodmak and Billy Wilder, would create the first and best of what would, after the Second World War, be labelled Film Noir.

There were some pioneer American noirs such as Rowland Brown's 'Beast of the City' and Mamoulian's 'City Streets' and even a few embryonic westerns such as Wyler's exceedingly grim version of the much filmed 'Three Godfathers' story, 'Hell's Heroes,' shot in 1930, But it wasn't until films like 'Stranger on the Third Floor' and 'Maltese Falcon' (both 1941) and more iconically noir works such as Wilder's masterpiece, 'Double Indemnity' in 1944, that the genre truly came into its own.

Other classics soon followed: Edward Dmytryk's 'Murder My Sweet' (1944), Lewis Milestone's 'Strange Love of Martha Ivers,' 'The Lady From Shanghai' by Orson Welles, and the first Anthony Mann noirs such as 'T-Men' (1947) and Raw Deal (1948). Some studios took to Noir more readily than others. Warners, Universal, and, in particular, RKO adapted early to the new genre, one possible reason being the relatively inexpensive, fast shooting involved in what they considered gangster programmers which relied heavily on cheap sets and single source lighting ('Our films were lit with cigarette butts' – Robert Mitchum).

Since the studios considered themselves factories engaged in supplying a constant demand to the theater chains, which, up until the monopoly was broken up in the late 1940s, were owned by the individual studios, and since each studio employed a company of stars, character actors, directors, writers, composers and cinematographers, it shouldn't be surprising to see certain genres blending with one another. With Western and Gangster genres this trend began to appear around 1943 with William Wellman's 'OxBow Incident' and, three years later, with John Ford's 'My Darling Clementine' (a film as much about Post-War readjustment and a search for roots as Wyler's 'Best Years of Our Lives' or Dmytryk's 'Til the End of Time').

For purposes of brevity, I plan to touch on four early Sagebrush Noirs which seemed to contain an abundance of elements from both the Gangster and Western genres: Raoul Walsh's 'Pursued' (1947), Robert Wise's 'Blood on the Moon', and two early westerns by Anthony Mann: 'The Furies' (1950) and 'Devil's Doorway' (1950).


PURSUED: (1947, Warner Brothers. Director: Raoul Walsh)

This film advanced the career of Robert Mitchum, a new star, and one who had already had a background in noir with the classic 'Out of the Past' as well as in other noir-tinged works as 'Undercurrent', 'Crossfire' and 'When Strangers Marry.' Along with 'The Furies,' 'Pursued' qualifies as one of the few Freudian Westerns in that the protagonist, Jeff Callam, has been adapted and raised by the Callams following the unsolved mass murder of his family. He is plagued by nightmares involving gunfire and flashing spurs but he can never clearly see the faces of his parent's killers. In the course of the film he loses a coin toss with his step-brother and goes off to fight in the Spanish American War.

On returning, he is forced to kill his step-brother in a gunfight and finds himself tormented by what he sees as an unnatural love for his step-sister. Combined with his recurring nightmares, Jeff proves a very modern figure, very like a shell-shocked G.I. returning from World War II. James Wong Howe, who had the same year, shot the classic noir boxing film, 'Body and Soul,' with John Garfield, brought a dark brooding look to the film, with the night scenes providing a visual portrait of the protagonist's inner torment.


BLOOD ON THE MOON : (1948) RKO. Director: Robert Wise

A year later, Mitchum appeared in another Sagebrush Noir for his home studio. RKO programmers lacked many of the production values of films coming from Warners and while 'Moon' contained nowhere near the psychological angst that freighted 'Pursued' it was, quite literally, a much darker film.

The opening scene, where the protagonist, Jim Garry (Mitchum) is awakened and nearly killed by a cattle stampede, is shot in near total darkness by chiarascuro genius and RKO house cinematographer Nicholas Musaraca, who was responsible for many of the studios most striking film noirs and also worked with the Val Lewton horror unit.

Many scenes are shot in saloons, cabins, and other cramped spaces utilizing the single source lighting which, initially adopted to disguise cheap or sketchy sets, quickly became the signature lighting for film noir, instantly evoking menace, uncertainty, and the world of the nightmare. A viewer presented with the chiariascuro shock of Charles McGraw's brutal, chiseled features in 'Moon,' instantly evokes the actor's introductory scenes in Siodmak's 'The Killers,' producing in the audience a wave of anxiety comparable to a combat vet's attack of post-traumatic stress.

The film also benefited by a supporting class of RKO contract players who'd cut their teeth on a number of early film noirs. Actor such as McGraw, Frank Faylen, who had recently portrayed the sneering male nurse/tormentor of Ray Milland in Billy Wilder's 'Lost Weekend' and Steve Brodie, fresh from Anthony Mann's 'Desperate,' a film which, like Ray's 'They Live By Night,' and Joseph H. Lewis' 'Gun Crazy,' borrowed heavily from the lives and bloody careers of Bonnie and Clyde. The faces of these actors present a veritible Mount Rushmore of menace.

Treachery plays a heavy part in all Sagebrush Noirs and Mitchum's Jim Garry soon discovers that his 'friend' and partner Tate intent on swindling landowners in a scheme to deny grazing land to rancher Lufton and his family. Garry switches his loyalty to Lufton and his daughters and the audience is treated to one of the most vicious fight scenes on screen, a fight staged so realistically by director Wise and actors, Mitchum and Robert Preston, that the two stars came away battered and bruised.


THE FURIES (1950: Paramount: Director: Anthony Mann)

Vance Jeffords (Barbara Stanwyck) is her father's daughter. And what a father! T.C. Jeffords is a cross between King Lear and Captain Bligh. Walter Huston, in his last role, manages to make this egomaniacal tyrant both frightening and likeable. He handily blows nominal leading man and Noir veteran Wendell Corey off this screen, but Stanwyck, in one of her last great performances, matches him in flamboyance and audacity.

When he remarries (jilting daughter for Easterner Judith Anderson's fortune) Stanwyck disfigures his new bride with a well thrown scissors! When he hangs her Mexican lover (Gilbert Roland) she embarks on a relentless campaign to ruin him. The film seems to revel in the mutual ruthlessness of father and daughter. It also boasts a vicious turn by Thomas Gomez as 'El Tigre, T.C... Jeffords' chief pistolero who is eager to throw the rope over Gilbert Roland's neck. Gomez was fresh from his greatest role in Abraham Polonsky's 'Force of Evil.'

So in love are father and daughter, that although Stanwyck ultimately gains the upper hand and the ability to crush her father, she can't bring herself to do it. That job is outsourced to Gilbert Roland's vengeful, seemingly insane mother who guns the robber baron down in the street.


DEVIL'S DOORWAY (1950: MGM: Director: Anthony Mann)

What does it take to earn your neighbor's trust? Lance Poole, Native American, Property-Owner and War Hero (winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor for service on the Union side in the Civil War) is presented with this riddle from the moment he rides back into the valley he left four years earlier.

Poole, unlike most Indians, has managed to prosper and live in peace prior to the war. He has a fine ranch and can, he believes, continue to exist harmoniously with his white neighbors without betraying his culture or his people.

Yet he isn't prepared for rabble-rousing, Indian hating Carpetbagger Louis Calhern, who spreads his poison like ground fog across the valley--denigrating the Indians and appealing to the valley's citizen's baser nature with talk of gold strikes. With frighteningly little efford he suceeds in polarizing the community, adding the plight of sheep herders in search of grazing lands into the mix.

By mid-film Calhern has resorted to every trick he knows to disenfranchise the peaceful Indians and grab their land, turning the community (with the exception of a lady lawyer engaged in appealing Poole's case) into a lynch mob.

A gun battle between Poole's men and the sheepherders provides the spark precipitating the climatic battle, with white settlers and hired gunmen laying siege to Poole's ranch. Poole and the outnumbered Indians return fire, utilizing military tactics Poole learned in his now seemingly misguided defense of the Union. Despite a valiant struggle, the Indians haven't the numbers and the film is headed for a bloodbath. The belated arrival of the US cavalry provides a temporary truce. The cavalry officers demands Poole's surrender and Poole, to save the lives of the few remaining women and children, complies.

Dressed in his blue uniform and wearing his Congressional Medal of Honor, he marches out to the Union officer and delivers a crisp salute. When the officer asks 'where are all the others?' Poole answers 'We're all gone,' and falls, face forward, into the camera, dead.

Never had a bleaker picture been painted of the 'Winning of the West.' Mann, even hindered by the glamourous star presence of Robert Taylor ( who is surprisingly effective in what was for him a highly unlikely role) managed to create what must be the most uncompromising film in the Post-War 'social problem' sub-genre).*

After 'Doorway' and 'Border Incident' (1950) his ultra-brutal expose of the abuse of Mexican workers, highjacked and exploited in California's 'factories in the fields,' Mann signed a lucrative contract with Universal International, where he proceeded to complete his transition from straight to sagebrush noir, utilizing the darker side of James Stewart's personality with such films as 'Winchester 73,' 'Bend of the River,' 'Naked Spur' (MGM, 1953) and, magisterially, with 'The Man From Laramie (Columbia, 1955).

Mann closed out his expeditions into sagebrush noir with 'Man of the West' (Paramount, 1958) starring the quintessential straight-shooting cowboy, Gary Cooper. In the film, an ill and aging Cooper portrayed reformed badman Link Jones, who is forced to draw again on his terrifying capability for brutality in order to defeat his old 'family,' the Tobin Gang, led by Lee J. Cobb, whose portrayal of patriarch Dock Tobin, a psychotic version of Lear, brings the film within the range of high tragedy.


These films by Mann, Wise and Walsh, would be followed by other noted sagebrush films ('Ramrod,' 'Springfield Rifle,' and 'Day of the Outlaw' by Andre de Toth. 'Jubal', '3:10 to Yuma', 'Cowboy' and 'The Hanging Tree' by Delmer Daves. Budd Boetticher's handful of westerns with Randolph Scott, closing out with 'Comanche Station' in 1960, with 1957's '7 Men From Now' being the best of the lot.

Other works might be mentioned. 'Little Big Horn' (1950) by Charles Marquis Warren. Sam Fuller's 'I Shot Jesse James' and 'Forty Guns.' Two low budget Anthony Quinn films, 'The Man From Del Rio' and 'The Ride Back' (this co-starring William Conrad) which, while not directed by Robert Aldrich, were associated with his brief 'Associates and Aldrich' studio and produced during the same period as his masterly Noir 'Kiss Me Deadly.'


Few westerns are being made these days. For a while, it was felt that Eastwood's 'The Unforgiven' had driven the last nail in the coffin that was the Western genre. Yet new films have begun to appear and unsurprisingly they lean toward the dark side. The 'new' '3:10 to Yuma' stars Russell Crowe (who lacks the charm and ambiguity Glenn Ford brought to the character of Ben Wade) and Christian 'Batman' Bale, whose signature neuroticism dilutes the interest the more normal Van Heflin brought to the role of Wade's nemesis.

In the wake of America's endless, indistinguishable and unwinnable wars, the new western heroes such as Kevin Costner in 'Open Range' have quickly become cliche psycho-vets. My own cowboy heroes remain:

Fonda's Wyatt Earp ('My Darling Clementine'; John Ford, 1946); Glenn Ford's Ben Wade ('3:10 to Yuma'; Delmer Daves, 1956); Gregory Peck's Jimmy Ringo ('The Gunfighter'; Henry King, 1950); Coop's Will Kane ('High Noon'; Fred Zinnemann, 1952); and John Wayne's twilight gem, J.B. Books in Don Siegel's 'The Shootist' (1976)

*Post World War II “social problem” films included “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Pinky,” “The Men” and “Intruder in the Dust” among a few others.

© 2008 by Michael Shepler. Michael Shepler is cultural coordinator for