Maybe it’s the remote, inhospitable look of its desert landscapes, the tangerine light that blooms across its open skies, or its sheer isolation, but there’s something that keeps bringing filmmakers back to New Mexico. The state became an especially popular film setting during the 1940s and 50s, no doubt owing something to the role it played as the site of the Manhattan Project. Alamogordo played host to the 1945 Trinity bomb test, revealing to the world the obliterating power of nuclear warfare. Capturing the mid-century imagination like nothing else, the scarred land had to attract the movie colony. Two years later, a mysterious crash in Roswell only further fuelled fascination with the secrets that the barren, sun-drenched landscape might hold.
Maybe that’s why – in spite of all that blazing south-western sun – depictions of New Mexico reveal plenty of darkness and mystery. On film, it’s been home to irradiated monsters, serial killers, outlaws and aliens, festering out in the open sunshine like yesterday’s trash. The vastness of the state’s terrain lends itself to fresh starts, but also to hiding in plain sight.
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In AMC’s hit series Breaking Bad, Walter White does precisely that – he’s a monster disguised as an ordinary middle-class chemistry teacher. Riffing on the idea, John Michael McDonagh’s new film War on Everyone features two policeman whose surface appeal belies their reckless corruption. With the black comedy chops of its Irish director (The Guard, 2011; Calvary 2014), it promises to be an acerbic outsider’s take on the state and its goings-on – all set to the country music of Glen Campbell.
With War on Everyone in cinemas nationwide, here’s New Mexico on film – a land of corrupt cops, desert flowers, alien crash landings, and heaven knows what else.
The Leopard Man (1943)
Director: Jacques Tourneur
Spoiler warning: This section gives away the plot
Director Jacques Tourneur was a French transplant who became a master of horror and film noir in the 1940s. He offered an outsider’s view of American crime in this sensationally named thriller. The bait-and-switch promotional campaign hinted at a cheap monster movie, but in reality The Leopard Man offers an early cinematic look into the behaviour of a deranged serial killer. His maulings are so vicious that he’s mistaken for an escaped big cat on a rampage.
Tourneur brings the B-movie premise to surprising effectiveness, with shapes shifting and lurking in the menacing darkness. The idea that the culprit is no predatory animal or monster but an ordinary man is well in keeping with the times. While Europe was tearing itself apart, no one would deny that ordinary men could be the scariest monsters of all.
The Outlaw (1943)
Director: Howard Hughes
Billy the Kid’s old stomping ground proves the perfect backdrop for Hughes’ lavish, steamy western. The old tale of Billy the Kid, Doc Holliday and lawman Pat Garrett is retold with inconsequential, lighthearted spirit here – mostly because all three are upstaged by Jane Russell and her remarkable bra.
The famous story goes that Howard Hughes invented an aerodynamic underwire bra to accentuate Russell, and as such, the Production Code Administration threw a fit. The censors demanded that several shots of the star’s cleavage be removed from the final cut of The Outlaw, and when Hughes failed to comply, the movie went unreleased for several years. Nonetheless, when Russell and her two most famous assets did make it to the screen, she became a star.
Director: Raoul Walsh
Robert Mitchum is right at home as a tormented cowboy, particularly with those ambiguous, slanted features and laconic drawl. In this vengeful desert western, he stars as Jeb, a cattle rancher struggling with a traumatic childhood memory. Ghosts of the past are an obsession for film noir, and though it’s set in the dusty farmland of New Mexico in the 1900s, Pursued contains much in the way of noir.
As Jeb suffers nightly with the terrors of his past, he steadily grows to realise that there are people in the here-and-now who may want him dead. This strangely paced hybrid film is a psychological thriller dressed in western clothing.
Ride the Pink Horse (1947)
Director: Robert Montgomery
A crooked, carnival-esque noir with a sharp sense of the absurd, Ride the Pink Horse was actor Robert Montgomery’s second outing as a director. Director of photography Russell Metty would later shoot Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil (1958) – another Mexican border noir – with the same blend of sleaze and haunting elegance. The action takes place in San Pablo, a one-horse town in the middle of nowhere. You can practically smell the sheen of sweat and cheap tequila.
Montgomery’s terse Gagin travels there with the intention to avenge an old war-time buddy – but with little hope of surviving the journey. Pitting American arrogance against traditional Mexican values, Ride the Pink Horse is an under-seen gem that’s ripe for rediscovery.
High Noon (1952)
Director: Fred Zinnemann
If the mid-century perception of the American south-west was pessimistic, it’s well-reflected in High Noon – where the pioneering old west community is torn asunder by cowardice and self-interest. In this quintessential western-as-leftist-parable, good sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper) must defend himself against black-hearted villains who are coming to kill him. His Quaker wife (played by Grace Kelly) does not believe in violence; most of the townspeople turn their backs on him. Left alone, Kane has little to do but wait and watch the hands of the clock advancing.
With its sudden close-ups and Soviet-style montages, director Fred Zinnemann’s approach is strikingly artful. The film’s most enduring image – of a sheriff’s star thrown into the New Mexico dust – says everything about its view of small-town America.
Director: Gordon Douglas
As American society’s obsession with the A-bomb propelled between fetishisation and existential dread, the cheap B-movies Hollywood churned out often displayed a combination of the two. Tapping into Cold War fears with amusing acuity, Them! suggests invisible threats that are both physical (radiation) and ideological (communism).
With solid special effects and a script with a genuine grasp on the horror of radiation, this ‘creature feature’ owes directly to the Trinity tests in New Mexico, since it focuses on giant ants who have been caught in nuclear fallout. Maybe the most terrifying aspect of Them! is the ‘what if’ offered at its conclusion; what other unintended consequences might result from the still-new atomic age?
Salt of the Earth (1954)
Director: Herbert J. Biberman
Based on an actual mining strike taking place in New Mexico, Salt of the Earth burst onto the scene with two exceptionally rare traits for an American film of the 50s: independent production and genuinely radical intent. Much of the film’s cast and crew were card-carrying (and blacklisted) members of the CPUSA; the film itself was backed by a mining labour union. The result is convincing and poignant pro-labour propaganda, with a particular focus on Chicano and Mexican-American workers.
Filmed in a fitting realist style, Herbert Biberman’s film has mostly non-actors play loosely fictionalised versions of themselves. A key cog in the wheel of the worker’s strike is Esperanza (Rosaura Revueltas), who fights alongside her husband for worker’s rights. Given Biberman’s special interest in the roles of wives and women within an already-combustible social structure, Salt of the Earth is an exercise in intersectional feminism long before either term was in common usage. In fact, the film was so ahead of its time that it was suppressed, and only shown in a dozen theatres in the US due to its “communist sympathies”.
Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Director: Sam Peckinpah
In both Major Dundee (1965) and this 1973 classic, director Sam Peckinpah evokes New Mexico’s storied and wild history, recalling a time before the territory joined the union. Telling a cyclical story about the battle between lawman Pat Garrett and the notorious outlaw Billy the Kid, the later film pits rich versus poor and old friends against one another – taking a despairing look at the dying west. Peckinpah sees it as a land occupied by cowards, bastards and backstabbers.
He had a remarkable cast at his disposal, intentionally bringing together a series of old western character actors – Slim Pickens, Katy Jurado, et al – alongside stars like Kris Kristofferson and James Coburn. Production on the film was frequently interrupted by a cast (and director) awash in booze and drugs, and some argue that Peckinpah was too out of control on set to execute his vision fully. Imperfect though it may be, the film is a boldly miserable take on old western movie myths.
Charley Varrick (1973)
Director: Don Siegel
Don Siegel’s fast-moving heist movie stars Walter Matthau as a bottom-of-the-ladder crook with the gift of the gab. He targets a New Mexico bank for robbery and then is pursued across the desert by the mafia men who own it – making for a thrilling, grimy genre flick. The counterintuitive casting of hangdog comedian Matthau gives Charley’s ne’er-do-well attitude a charming undercurrent – and underlines the fact that he’s not really the best bank robber in the world.
Charley’s nemesis, played by Joe Don Baker, is a sadistic redneck mob enforcer, hell-bent on hunting him down. He’s the kind of guy who backhands waitresses and cheerfully tortures his victims. Charley Varrick is a Quentin Tarantino favourite; Pulp Fiction (1994) borrows from it word for word. It’s easy to see the movie’s influence on Tarantino’s penchant for droll humour and mean, small-time criminals.
The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Narrowing his mismatched eyes against the harsh sunlight, Thomas Jerome Newton (David Bowie) strides into the small-town south-west looking every bit the alien. With a shock of orange hair, Bowie is as thin and mercurial as ever. He’s been sent to Earth to help save his own dying planet, but instead falls prey to the corruption of humanity. As he works to build wealth and empire, the urgency of his journey home fades, replaced by more venal interests.
Bowie himself admitted he was ‘falling apart’ on set, strung out on cocaine – which made fulfilling the role surprisingly easy for him. Based on Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name, The Man Who Fell to Earth is realised with bursts of surreal imagery but also a series of long, quiet landscape shots. Roeg evokes a sense of dissonance with the rocky, secluded New Mexico terrain around Newton – also using the surreal setting of White Sands as a stand-in for Newton’s home planet. But, even indoors, the air-conditioned, sterile corporate spaces feel lonely and off-kilter. The setting only heightens the staggering effect of this sci-fi tragedy.
War on Everyone was backed by the BFI Film Fund.
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