Where to begin with psychological westerns

A beginner’s path through the 1950s westerns with an anxious streak.

18 May 2016

By Christina Newland

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Why this might not seem so easy

During the golden age of the western – from the late 1940s to the mid 50s – the genre provided a quarter of all American film output. The sheer numbers of oaters of the period are overwhelming. Among these, the ‘psychological western’ might be an unwieldy sub-category to define, but in the postwar era – concurrent with the emergence of film noir – the previously sunny western template took an inward turn that reproduced the anxieties of that world: the consequences of violence, battle fatigue, and even red-baiting paranoia.

As vessels for America’s dearest national myths and ideologies – the rugged individualist, the morally righteous vigilante, and the supremacy of the man with a gun – the western will always be a tool for reinvention and exploration. As others have argued, the genre has always proven itself a go-to mirror for the nation’s various moods and trends.

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If this theory holds true, the making of the finest American westerns coincided with the popular explosion of psychoanalysis. Vast numbers of Americans were drawn with increasing curiosity to the works of Sigmund Freud. Maybe, in an indirect way, we owe to him the deep vein of complex, ideology-driven genre films known as ‘psychological westerns’. 

The best place to start – The Searchers

For those looking for something loftier than saloons and six-guns, the most titanically famous films should probably come first. John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) contains all the classical elements, with a gruff John Wayne setting out to rescue his niece from murderous Comanches. But his role as civil war vet Ethan Edwards must make him one of the most bigoted so-called ‘heroes’ of the west – far removed from his star-making role in Ford’s Stagecoach (1939). Edwards insists he would rather kill his niece than see her living and marrying into the natives.

The Searchers (1956)
The Naked Spur (1953) poster

Ford presents Wayne mostly without judgement. But the iconic final shot of The Searchers – Wayne’s outline, framed by the doorway of the family home – suggest that this violent crusader has no real place in the warmth or comfort of civilisation. Society no longer has any room for men of his kind.

James Stewart and Anthony Mann’s numerous collaborations, beginning with Winchester 73 (1950), also showed the western at a late stage of near-decay. The stories were often of men obsessed by violent revenge; revealing the west as a dirty, dangerous land of little residual romance.

Stewart is uncharacteristically vindictive as a bounty hunter in The Naked Spur (1953), the pair’s third film together and among their darkest. The action and cast are pared down in a nearly minimalist fashion, giving focus to the most craven and desperate impulses of the central characters.

Blacklisted left-winger Edward Dmytryk offered another mature exploration of frontier justice and outlaw ethics with Warlock (1959). Coming late in the decade, the film stars Richard Widmark and Henry Fonda in curiously switched personas. Widmark, the shifty noir staple actor, is an outlaw-turned-good-sheriff, with Fonda as an amoral gunslinger – though not of the later villainous proportions he’d reach in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western Once upon a Time in the West (1968).

What to watch next

Seek out anything female-led. Traditional westerns tend to eschew anything too overtly feminine, sometimes veering into outright exclusion. Typically relegated to rote pioneer wives or saloon girls, women grew more significant in postwar westerns. Even the archetypal roles of Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado in High Noon (1952) take on a new slant of self-awareness. The meeting of the dutiful Quaker wife and the hot-blooded temptress is a novelty; they’re wiser together than apart. Crucially, it’s the women who act heroically – while the men of the town vacillate.

The psychological western often spotlights the most formidable of actresses – the likes of Joan Crawford (Johnny Guitar), Barbara Stanwyck (Forty Guns), and Marlene Dietrich (Rancho Notorious). All prove to be a destabilising presence, sharing a force of personality and the mildest hint of androgyny.

Rancho Notorious (1952)

Catch the current restoration of Nicholas Ray’s subversive cult classic Johnny Guitar (1954) – the near-hysterical account of a land dispute between saloon keeper Vienna (Joan Crawford) and an angry rival played by Mercedes McCambridge. The final climactic showdown is there, but it’s between the two women – the macho Sterling Hayden is utterly overruled, and for the most part, a second-fiddle love interest. Unlike most other films of the genre, you might even call Johnny Guitar radical in its gender role reversal.

Rarer and weirder still is Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952), a marriage of director and material not necessarily born for mainstream adoration. Mixing artificiality with suggestions of brutal rape and violence, it’s a confused but lively attempt at America’s quintessential genre – directed by a German. Marlene Dietrich outshines her male co-stars as a saloon entertainer who harbours a gang of robbers at her outpost, coolly indifferent to their appalling crimes. Trouble comes when Arthur Kennedy arrives, seeking to avenge the violent murder of his wife.

Where not to start

It’s only fair to expect some startling hybrids when mixing turn-of-the-century directors (William A. Wellman, King Vidor) with a new, wholly postwar conception of the world. Combine these with the historical baggage of the western, and you get some strange results.

Wellman tried his hand at the mid-century iteration of the western with Track of the Cat (1954), a snowbound drama set during an interminable northern California winter. A pioneer family is trapped indoors, where tensions simmer in the cramped space. Starring Robert Mitchum and written by A.I. Bezzerides (of Kiss Me Deadly fame), this is a western barely hanging onto its generic ten-gallon hat.

Duel in the Sun (1946)

Finally, perhaps Duel in the Sun (1946) is best savoured last. Producer David O. Selznick’s passion project following Gone with the Wind (1939), the film is part western and part frenzied romantic melodrama; all burnished Technicolor, fatalism, and phallic suggestion. The strange tempo is unconventional, right down to the Dimitri Tiomkin score – Selznick was rumoured to have insisted that the music replicate the excitement of orgasm. Repressed sexuality, strained family relationships, and a drive for death? One wonders what Freud might make of it all.

Ride Lonesome: The Psychological Western ran at BFI Southbank throughout May 2016.

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