The shift in sensibility that darkened and reoriented the Hollywood western when, tentatively at first, it entered its ‘psychological’ phase in the 1940s can be illustrated by contrasting two images of John Wayne – from Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) – which are separated by 17 years and a cataclysmic era in American life.
The films below are screening at BFI Southbank, London, in May as part of the Sight & Sound Deep Focus programme Ride Lonesome: The Psychological Western.
In Stagecoach, John Ford introduced Wayne’s Ringo Kid spinning his Winchester in his right hand to flag down the Lordsburg-bound stage, with a dolly shot that loses focus as it becomes a close-up. It shows the worried, sweat-streaked face of a prairie Adonis who has had to shoot his lame horse and been stranded on foot in hostile Apache country; the ominousness in his voice indicates he’s not as naive as he looks, but his greeting to the driver is genuinely friendly.
Knowing Ringo is travelling to New Mexico Territory to kill three brothers, the marshal riding shotgun arrests him (partly to protect him), but lets him board the coach un-handcuffed. He agrees with the driver that Ringo is a fine boy, which Ringo proves with his chivalrous treatment of the prostitute Dallas (Claire Trevor), who has been ostracised by some of their uppity fellow passengers. When, after much danger, Ringo and Dallas are sent on their way to keep “safe from the blessings of civilisation”, he is the same untainted primitive he was at the start.
A dolly shot of Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers tells a different story. Seeking his adolescent niece Debbie, who had been abducted by Comanche seven years previously, Ethan arrives at a fort following the 7th Cavalry’s destruction of a Comanche camp. After he has asked to see the rescued female settlers, he and his part-Indian ‘nephew’ Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) are taken to the chapel where they see a deranged middle-aged woman (Ruth Clifford), clearly grieving for her long-dead baby, and two girls Debbie’s age who are clinging to each other – one scared, the other grinning and chuckling inanely.
Implicitly, the insanity of these three blonde – thus emphatically white – women owes to them having been raped repeatedly in captivity. After Ethan dismisses the recovered captives as no longer white but “Comanch”, he turns away, then looks back sharply at Clifford mewling over the doll, the camera closing in quickly on his face, which, half-shaded by the brim of his hat, burns with hatred.
What sets this shot and the one of Ringo hailing the stagecoach apart is not simply the difference between a tormented 50-something nomad’s calcified rage and a young outlaw’s apprehension, but the psychological context. Beyond giving Ringo the need to avenge his father and brother’s murders, there’s no evidence that Ford or Stagecoach’s writer Dudley Nichols gave a jot about his inner life.
In contrast, Ethan’s fury at the sight of white women he considers defiled can be attributed to old grievances, such as the Comanche chief Scar’s killing of Martin’s mother, and his more recent traumatisation by the rape and murder of his sister-in-law Martha, with whom he was mutually in love, and his older niece Lucy. Though Ethan is a racist bigot, he is troubled by more than Martha’s violation by Indians in the moments before her death. To protect himself from the guilt he feels over his sexual passion for her and his absence from his brother Aaron’s ranch when he and Martha were slain, he directs his rage at another taboo – miscegenation. He pledges to kill Debbie who, as one of Scar’s wives, is as polluted in Ethan’s eyes as the women at the fort (and as was the dying Martha).
He doesn’t kill Debbie, of course, but takes her home. He leaves her with Martin and the Jorgensen family, not to be “safe from the blessings of civilisation”, but because civilisation – particularly in the form of a home in which Debbie provides a constant reminder of her mother – has no place for him.
Like Howard Hawks’s Oedipally themed Red River (1947), The Searchers – which has also been interpreted as a Cold War allegory – is a hybrid of traditionalist western and psychological western that shows how anxieties about America’s post-war realities had seeped into a genre that had hitherto celebrated nation-building. Two of Hawks and Ford’s old-school contemporaries had been instrumental earlier in expanding the western’s remit to incorporate social and adult themes. William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) had indicted mob rule. Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947; read more below), which reflected the popularisation of Freudian theory in post-war American culture, depicted the unburying of its war veteran’s repressed childhood trauma. Both films showed the stylistic, thematic and iconographic influence of film noir, as did King Vidor’s Duel in the Sun (1946), André de Toth’s Ramrod (1947), Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon (1948) and Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (1950), the least sentimental of the period’s pro-Native American films.
The western’s origin in the frontier drama – the conquest of land and the suppression of indigenous tribes in the name of Manifest Destiny, the transformation of the wilderness into a garden – may explain why, as a primarily outdoors genre, it lagged behind in mirroring the social malaise and anti-communist paranoia of the late 1940s. Retrospectively, it could be seen that the era of the psychological western, from The Ox-Bow Incident through Arthur Penn’s The Left Handed Gun (1958), Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (1960), Robert Aldrich’s The Last Sunset (1961) and Ford’s regretful The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), overlapped with and lasted as long as the classic noir period, which ran from Stranger on the Third Floor (1940) and High Sierra (1941) to Touch of Evil (1958). The western only evolved into an established vehicle for contemporary socio-political commentary and psychological characterisation once specific milieus had been identified which could offer a microcosm through which to explore the elements of conflict. In fact, two such milieus and an aesthetic heavily influenced by the Hollywood melodrama eventually facilitated this development.
The success of Henry King’s The Gunfighter (1950) and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952) led to the revitalisation of ‘town tamer’ or ‘law and order’ westerns that probed the meaning of violence, of courage and cowardice, in a community setting. High Noon, famously, was an allegory of the McCarthy communist witch-hunts, as were Allan Dwan’s Silver Lode (1954), Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), Ray Milland’s A Man Alone (1955) and Edward Dmytryk’s Warlock (1959), while Robert D. Webb’s The Proud Ones (1956), Mann’s The Tin Star (1957) and Delmer Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma (1958) followed High Noon in decrying the greed and self-interest that the Red Scare had illuminated.
Though Johnny Guitar, Warlock and 3:10 to Yuma were more psychologically sophisticated than these other westerns in terms of their internal dynamics – The Proud Ones was a conventional precursor to Rio Bravo (1958) – they all probed fissures in the American national psyche. So, too, did George Stevens’s Shane (1952). In self-consciously romanticising Alan Ladd’s professional gunman as the knightly angel of death who serves the democracy of small farmers against the greedy capitalist Ryker, Stevens reconstructed the mythos that the noir-influenced The Gunfighter had bleakly debunked.
In its stylisation, Shane was an Olympian variation on the psychological law-and-order western, yet it wasn’t as radical as Ray’s baroque Johnny Guitar, which reversed traditional gender roles and drew on theatricalism, film noir, the musical, the woman’s picture and the romance movie in its denunciation of McCarthyite paranoia and hysteria and in its complex critiques of capitalism, progressivism, feminism and the inextinguishable and illusory nature of love.
It was preceded by two previous baroque westerns with powerful female protagonists, Mann’s Electra complex melodrama The Furies (1950) – adapted like Duel in the Sun from a Niven Busch novel – and Fritz Lang’s Brechtian Holocaust allegory Rancho Notorious (1952). The Furies and Johnny Guitar also anticipated Samuel Fuller’s gothic Forty Guns (1957), which itself presaged the spaghetti western.
The most consistently successful directors of psychological westerns were Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher. Each made a cycle of harsh morality tales that require middle-aged loners to complete revenge missions or other punishing searches for justice.
Mann’s five westerns with James Stewart – Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1951), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country (1954) and The Man from Laramie (1955) – exhaust their ambiguous, self-doubting and self-scourging heroes. The baleful wilderness of these films, which can include warlike Indians, gives the journeys of Stewart’s obsessives a metaphysical depth. Their ordeals demand that they confront villains who brutalise them – the point-blank shooting of Will Lockhart’s gunhand in The Man from Laramie, for example, surpasses in cruelty Quentin Tarantino’s postmodern atrocities – and who reflect back to them their crippling neuroses. This then elicits their own desire for cathartic violence, even if, in the cases of The Naked Spur and The Man from Laramie, they show a capacity to resist it.
Less unstable but more frightening than Stewart’s self-hating cynics is the Mann hero who re-embraces violence in Man of the West (1958). Played by Gary Cooper because Mann thought Stewart would be unsuitable, Link Jones cannot bring himself to strangle one of his cousins for humiliating a woman, but he beats him up and then shoots his other cousin and his rapist uncle (Lee J. Cobb), who raised them all and mentored Link as a robber and killer – but who must be eliminated so society can regenerate itself healthily. In his transformation from clumsy retiree to born-again killer and purger of evil, Link foreshadows Clint Eastwood’s William Munny in Unforgiven (1992).
Boetticher’s seven Randolph Scott films – often known as the Ranown Cycle: Seven Men from Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Westbound (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959) and Comanche Station (1959) – vindicate the necessary violence of the star’s iron stoicism and restore its equilibrium, but do not leave the characters spiritually or materially better off, or under any illusion that the world has become a much better place for the eradication of a few bad men.
Stewart’s bounty hunter Howard Kemp in The Naked Spur is humanised by a woman, who becomes his reward for relinquishing the bounty he would have earned for dishonourably turning in a wanted man. However, the woman Scott’s Pat Brennan sexually empowers and puts an arm around at the end of The Tall T will not, in the self-contained world of the Boetticher-Scott westerns, alter his essential aloneness. Scott’s heroes are forced to act because “there are just some things a man can’t ride around”, but it is their inescapable fate – as it is for Shane, Ethan Edwards, Warlock’s Clay Blaisdell, and Johnny Guitar once he has tired of Vienna – to ride lonesome.
King Vidor, 1946
Producer David O. Selznick co-scripted Niven Busch’s story himself in an attempt to replicate the success of Gone with the Wind (1939) and make a star of his mistress Jennifer Jones, while showing her off as the libidinous half Indian Pearl Chavez. One long flashback, the most commercially successful western of all owes a debt to The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) for its nostalgia – not for the post-Civil War omnipotence of the Texas cattle baron Senator McCanless (Lionel Barrymore), who is symbolically emasculated and unable to withstand progress (the railroad), but for a golden age of sexual pleasure. Even more than Welles’s butchered masterpiece, Selznick’s sexual pipedream is abstracted from historical reality by its biblical aura – rendered through its expressionistic Technicolor cinematography – and De Mille-like luridness.
Like Gone with the Wind, Duel centres on its heroine’s rational love for a mild-mannered man, the civic-minded Jesse McCanles (Joseph Cotten), who takes after his genteel mother Laura Belle (Lillian Gish) rather than his father, and her passion for a brute, the prodigal Lewt (Gregory Peck), Jesse’s younger brother. Taking licence from Jane Russell’s carnal display in The Outlaw (1943) and drawing on the miscegenation of Wuthering Heights’ Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff, Pearl and Lewt’s feverish mixed-race lust was presented with cheerful hypocrisy, as a sinfulness to be morally condemned and punished by death in an ostensibly racist and pro-patriarchal western melodrama. Selznick was having his cake and eating it, too: Lewt’s infernal dynamism and Pearl’s wantonness are infinitely more attractive than the neutered social conformism of Jesse and his railroad heiress fiancée (Joan Tetzel). Their amour fou is also more psychologically complex than Scarlett and Rhett’s novelettish romance. Pearl and Lewt are damaged goods: she the daughter of a promiscuous Native American woman murdered by her effete white father; he a psychopath ruined by the senator’s indulgence.
Though ravished into emotional dependency by Lewt (as Scarlett was by Rhett), Pearl proves his equal in insatiability, as indicated by her reckless riding and compulsive stroking of horses’ heads (an extended Freudian metaphor not as visually crass as it sounds). Unlike Scarlett, Pearl is untameable – and Lewt ultimately becomes her prey.
Raoul Walsh, 1947
Though The Ox-Bow Incident is considered the first psychological western – involving as it does a son relieving his castration anxiety by exposing the inherent weakness of his pathologically cruel father – Pursued is the genre’s first psychoanalytic entry.
As a boy, Jeb Rand is rescued from the home of his massacred family by Mrs Callum (Judith Anderson), a woman with a shameful secret who brings him up with her son Adam and daughter Thor. As adults, Jeb (Robert Mitchum) and Thor (Teresa Wright) are in love, which incites incestuous sexual jealousy in Adam (John Rodney). Tormented by nightmares in which he is menaced by his murdered father’s potentially emasculating spurs, Jeb tells Mrs Callum that he’ll find someone to answer the questions that “keep coming back” to him if she won’t; a visit to a decayed dwelling – his old home – in the New Mexico hills has prompted his need to un-repress his childhood memories.
In making Jeb a wounded hero of the 1898 Spanish-American War, Niven Busch (who wrote Pursued as a vehicle for Wright, his wife) implicitly addressed the rehabilitation problems faced by traumatised World War II vets, as he did directly in his 1944 novel They Dream of Home; irrespective of the source of Jeb’s PTSD, Busch’s prescription of some kind of Freudian talking cure is sincere, notwithstanding its unavailability in the rural southwest of the 1900s.
Anticipating the ordeals of the neurotic heroes in the hostile terrains of Anthony Mann’s James Stewart westerns, Walsh gave visual expression to Jeb’s paranoia in his rides past the cliff-face of a towering butte, emblematic of the psychic wall he must break through. Since Pursued was designed like a film noir, however, its mise-en-scène is predominantly claustrophobic. Walsh fretted that the cinematographer James Wong Howe’s elaborate camera set-ups would delay the film’s completion, but integrating shadowy interiors and daunting rock edifices in the same fatalistic drama came naturally to the veteran director of gangster drama High Sierra (1941), a film he would remake as a western, Colorado Territory (1949). Such extreme environments reflect the existential entrapment of each film’s troubled hero.
3. I Shot Jesse James
Samuel Fuller, 1949
Fuller’s noirish directorial debut is both a piercing study of the emotional disarray of Jesse James’s killer Robert Ford (John Ireland) and an ambiguous gay text, one more playful than Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Fuller approved of Ford, who shot his gang leader James in 1882, because, the filmmaker said, “Jesse James was a half-assed homo who impersonated a girl for Quantrill’s Raiders when he was 15. Acting as a hooker, he enticed soldiers into a little shack called The House of Love, where these bastard raiders would kill and rob them.”
Fuller covertly indicates at the start that James (Reed Hadley) and his houseguest Ford are having an affair that has incensed James’s careworn wife. He comforts Ford physically after he’s wounded during a bank raid and asks him to rub his back when he’s bathing. In a nocturnal scene, James moves into a penetrative position directly behind Ford – divided though they are by a window – when he’s skulking outdoors. Ford shoots James in the back shortly afterward to get a $10,000 reward and an amnesty so he can marry his actress girlfriend, Cynthy (Barbara Britton), but Fuller implies Ford was acting on the sexual confusion James had provoked in him.
Regarded as a pariah, Ford ratchets up his self-loathing and Cynthy’s disgust by re-enacting the murder on stage; the juvenile theatregoer who subsequently tries to shoot him “to become the biggest gunman in the country” foreshadows the glory-seeking punks pulling guns on quick-draw Jimmy Ringo in The Gunfighter (below). Consumed with guilt and troubled by Cynthy’s equivocations, Ford heads from Missouri to Colorado to make his fortune prospecting so they can marry, and shares a hotel room with John Kelley (Preston Foster), his rival for her; they clean their guns together in a homoerotic scene that parodies Ireland and Montgomery Clift’s cowboys handling each other’s revolvers in Red River. A shot of Ford waking and looking with distaste at the unseen far side of his bed prefigures the admission by the effeminate hotel clerk that he, not Kelley, stole Cynthy’s wedding ring from him “after you went to sleep that night”. Ford’s fate is inevitable.
If Fuller’s comment on James’s days as a female impersonator is as homophobic as it sounds, he still demonstrates compassion and tolerance by having Ford finally reveal that he loved James.
4. The Gunfighter
Henry King, 1950
André de Toth devised The Gunfighter story as a self-conscious deconstruction of the mythic archetype of “the fastest gun in the West”, itself a Hollywood construct, but also a correlative of America’s place in the Atomic Age.
The once wild Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck) regrets his violent past and wants to settle down with his wife Peggy (Helen Westcott) and their young son. He seeks them out in Cayenne, Texas, where Peggy has become the schoolmarm under an assumed name and Jimmy’s former fellow robber Mark Strett (Millard Mitchell) has gone straight as the marshal.
Named after Johnny Ringo, a volatile enemy of Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Jimmy was also informed by the experiences of de Toth’s friends Errol Flynn, Humphrey Bogart and the boxer Joe Louis, who were routinely challenged to fights by hotshots saying, “You don’t look so tough.” Jimmy is similarly entrapped by notoriety – recognised in every town he drifts through, he is forced into a duel by a “squirt” who wants his mantle. He must unwillingly demonstrate his prowess, racking up his body count, or die trying to survive.
“The big gunny” who fancies his chances against him in Cayenne is baby-faced Hunt Bromley (Skip Homeier), whose downy upper lip and flashy outfit contrast with Jimmy’s thick moustache and sombre clothes. The opposition between weary veteran and cocky aspirant pits the authentic West against its mythical counterpart and the serious western against the glamorised B western. King’s masterstroke was not to play it out as a fair fight before the audience of schoolboys and adult sensation-seekers gathered in front of the saloon where Jimmy waits. Instead, Bromley ingloriously ambushes him behind the building, the killing destroying Jimmy’s hopes of redemption.
The larger context is the disillusioning reality that America’s military prowess and assumption of moral authority at the start of the Cold War have not ensured national security, but made it the biggest and most susceptible target on the world stage.
5. High Noon
Fred Zinnemann, 1952
The documentary-like picture that launched the 1950s cycle of town-taming westerns was a revision of John Ford’s ultra-conservative My Darling Clementine (1946). It reconfigured Ford’s complacent, racist Wyatt Earp as the egalitarian, conscientious Sheriff Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the romantically morose Doc Holliday as Kane’s thuggish antagonist Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), the passive Boston schoolmarm Clementine Carter as Kane’s brave Quaker bride Amy (Grace Kelly), and the disposable Mexican prostitute Chihuahua as the forceful Mexican businesswoman Helen Ramírez (Katy Jurado). On his and Amy’s wedding day, Kane is abandoned by Hadleyville’s craven menfolk to fight alone against Miller – a released killer seeking revenge on Kane for his incarceration – and his three henchman. Amy, too, deserts Kane; it takes Helen, his one-time lover, to explain to her why he has no choice but to defend the town and himself.
It is no longer fashionable for High Noon to be regarded solely as an allegory of the McCarthy witch-hunts, but the notion that Carl Foreman’s script, which drew on The Virginian (1929) and John W. Cunningham’s story The Tin Star (1947), is ideologically multivalent is suspect; the right-wing theory that Kane symbolised an American Cold Warrior purging totalitarian communist or neo-fascists smacks of an attempt to co-opt a film that has been screened in the White House more than any other. Foreman conceived High Noon around 1948 as a metaphor for the United Nations. A former communist, he was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the film’s production and took the Fifth Amendment. “Frightened but inspired,” facing ostracism and about to be blacklisted, he recast Kane as a man who, like himself, would not yield to the bullying “political gangsters from out of town” who were decimating careers and lives in Hollywood.
High Noon tragically depicts the failure of democracy: Kane’s stand is resisted by the townsmen, who fear killings will alienate potential investors in Hadleyville, and Amy’s ultimate denial of her pacifism reinforces Kane’s insistence that violence alone can fight violence. The irony of Howard Hawks making Rio Bravo as a riposte to High Noon – a film denounced by John Wayne as “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen” – was that Kane’s lone stand annoints him as more of a rugged individualist than Wayne’s sheriff, who defends the Texan town’s jail with four friends behind him.
6. Rancho Notorious
Fritz Lang, 1952
Lang’s early westerns The Return of Frank James (1940) and Western Union (1941) inhabit a recognisably naturalistic frontier. In contrast, Rancho Notorious, adapted by Daniel Taradash from a story by Silvia Richards set in 1870s Wyoming, occupies a baroque Technicolor dream space frequently framed within the frame by doorways, pillars and geological formations, so that the relentless search of cowboy Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) for the rapist-murderer of his fiancée literally mimics the unspooling of a film strip and its moment-by-moment entrapment of its doomed characters.
Interpolated verses of a Brechtian ballad recalling a saga of “Hate, murder, and revenge!” distance the viewer from the driven Haskell, as noir-like flashbacks lead him to a jail-cell encounter with the louche Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), thence beyond the confines of the law to a haven for outlaws that’s named Chuck-a-Luck after a vertical roulette wheel of fate, which provides a visual metaphor for the cinematic apparatus. This refuge – probably suggested by the Butch Cassidy gang’s Hole-in-the-Wall cabin in Wyoming – is run by Frenchy’s lover, the retired saloon singer Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich, iconically cast as a fading version of her Weimar cabaret persona and explicitly as the object of Haskell’s gaze).
Altar’s whitewashing of the crimes that finance her operation and her wearing of a talismanic brooch stolen from Haskell’s girl by her killer support critic Walter Metz’s theory that Rancho Notorious is an allegory of the Holocaust, in which Haskell represents a Nazi hunter, ‘Frenchy’ a Vichy collaborator, Altar a complicit German who refuses to acknowledge the persecution of the Jews, and the brooch and Chuck-a-Luck’s other booty the Jews’ stolen property.
Made as Chuck-a-Luck for RKO, Lang’s western was renamed at Howard Hughes’s insistence, while its fragmented narrative was re-edited to follow Haskell’s quest in a more conventional style. The thought of the completed work Lang intended is tantalising.
7. The Naked Spur
Anthony Mann, 1953
The Manichaean struggle that characterised Mann’s westerns was rendered most starkly in The Naked Spur, shot entirely outdoors and limited to the shifting dynamics among five marginalised whites.
The story begins in medias res in 1868. Howard Kemp (James Stewart) has tracked Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), wanted for killing a marshal, from Kansas to Montana Territory’s metaphysically charged obstacle course of vertiginous crags and rushing rapids. Aided by Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), an ageing gold prospector, and Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), a cavalry lieutenant disgraced for raping a Blackfeet woman, Howard captures Ben and his girl Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), the daughter of a slain bankrobber.
When Jesse and Roy learn that Howard is not a sheriff but a bounty hunter seeking the $5,000 on Ben’s head, each insists on claiming a third share. Heading to Abilene, the five constitute a sick family, the Machiavellian black sheep playing on his captors’ weaknesses to drive them apart. He tempts Jesse with a non-existent gold stake and uses innocent Lina as sexual bait to alienate Roy and Howard, not realising she’s attracted by Howard’s homesteading values.
The group’s perfunctory massacre of 12 Blackfeet suggests that, as ambassadors of Nature, the Native Americans are expendable in the restoration of the cosmic order that will come with Howard’s redemption. If he ever exhibited the greed and priapism that ruined Jesse and Roy, he has suppressed those neuroses. His affinity with Ben is suggested by their wearing check garments and by Ben handing Howard his grub – only to contrive his fall over a precipice.
Howard’s self-loathing stems from the fact that his fiancée Mary sold his ranch and absconded with the proceeds and her lover while Howard was fighting in the Civil War. He became a mercenary to prolong his purgatory unconsciously, masochism being the sine qua non of Mann’s Stewart heroes; his continuing vulnerability is indicated by his being frequently photographed from behind. Finding Lina (who later triggers his prelapsarian dream about Mary) with Ben induces Howard’s moral crisis because they reinvoke the torment that resulted from Mary’s betrayal, which had presumably reawakened vestigial Oedipal anxieties. To kill or not to kill Ben becomes the question that determines Howard’s fate.
8. Track of the Cat
William Wellman, 1954
Wellman’s atypical western, his second adapted from a novel by the Nevada writer Walter Van Tilburg Clark following The Ox-Bow Incident, was produced by John Wayne’s company and featured Hedda Hopper’s son William in a supporting part. The uneasy anti-communist alliance between Wayne and the rabidly right-wing gossip columnist (touched on in 2015’s Trumbo) suggests that the scarlet coat worn by the malign rancher Curt Bridges (Robert Mitchum) in Track of the Cat – and which glares from Wellman’s black-and-white-dominated colour palette – isolates Curt as the Red enemy within or, more plausibly, as the Red Scare personified, his tormented family representing the spooked Hollywood community. He is identified with the black panther he hunts in the snowbound California Sierra, and his spite is as culpable as the unseen beast for inciting the wretched Bridges clan’s muted hysteria – though, as an agri-capitalist like Red River’s Tom Dunson, he scarcely passes muster as a Party member.
The Ox-Bow Incident condemned mob rule, so the Red Scare interpretation is plausible, not least because Track of the Cat was adapted by A.I. Bezzerides, a leftist who had struggled to find work during the McCarthy era. Having previously scripted Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground (1950), he crafted for Wellman an analogous psychological drama about corrosive machismo and intolerance – and about the need of those who dwell in the wilderness to honour its codes.
The earth-friendly exemplar is the Bridges’ Native American hired hand Joe Sam (Carl Switzer), who reports that the panther is preying on cattle in the snowbound foothills. Curt and his gentle eldest brother Arthur (Hopper) set off to kill it, leaving their callow younger brother Harold (Tab Hunter) at home with his poised fiancée Gwen (Diana Lynn), his bitter sister Grace (Teresa Wright), their pathetic English father (Philip Tonge) and their religious bigot of a mother (Beulah Bondi). Pa Bridges being maimed by drink, it is Curt’s lust for Gwen and emasculatory jibes that, echoing Major Tetley’s humiliation of his son in Ox-Bow, pose the equivalent of an Oedipal threat to Harold, who must himself turn hunter.
9. 3:10 to Yuma
Delmer Daves, 1957
Though Duel in the Sun had celebrated “lust in the dust”, Daves’s 3:10 to Yuma, expanded by writer Halsted Welles from a terse Elmore Leonard story, was the first western to suggest that non-marital sex is a normal part of life for consenting adults, if more so in the 1950s than in the frontier era, when Victorian morality coexisted with organised prostitution.
The hookup between the outlaw leader Ben Wade (Glenn Ford) and the lonely barmaid Emmy (Felicia Farr) in a saloon in Bisbee, Arizona, satisfies both without creating romantic expectations in them or the audience, or inducing a sense of sin. Though Emmy first broaches the idea of them going to bed, their fleeting affair establishes Wade as an arch seducer. This becomes relevant in his later dealings with the poor farmer charged with guarding him after his arrest. Dan Evans (Van Heflin) and his two sons had earlier stood by while Wade inexplicably shot one of his own gunmen and a stagecoach driver during a hold-up, after which Evans was rebuked by his wife Alice (Leora Dana) for failing to take action.
Desperate to finance the irrigation of his parched land and to restore his manhood in Alice’s eyes, Evans seizes the chance to earn the $200 offered to bring Wade in handcuffs to the Yuma prison via stopovers at Evans’s place – where Wade sweet-talks the careworn Alice – and in a bridal suite in Contention City, from where the 3.10 train will leave. Playing cat and mouse, Wade tempts Evans with increasingly high bribes to make a Faustian bargain to release him.
High Noon was influential here: the cowardice of the Bisbee posse and Contention deputies asked to help bring Wade to justice is a residue of witch-hunt paranoia. The film is too humorous to be considered a western noir, though DP Charles Lawton Jr brought noirish claustrophobia to the hotel sequence and used long shadows to suggest the Evanses are entrapped by the arid land. Daves’s westerns are subtly humanistic, and 3:10 allows for Wade’s redemption. His final self-sacrifice, though born of respect for Evan’s grit and compassion for Alice, remains ambiguous.
10. The Tall T
Budd Boetticher, 1957
+ Ride Lonesome
Boetticher had been a toreador, so it is telling that his Seven Men from Now (1956) and the six Ranown Cycle westerns that followed are contests of guile between unequal forces: Randolph Scott’s strategically agile loners on one hand, and the unpredictable villains who outgun him on the other. The Tall T and Ride Lonesome are spare, wry morality plays about masculine conduct, written by Burt Kennedy (as were Seven Men and Comanche Station): each ignites at a swing station, the portal to a testing ground – deserts, gulches, clustered granite boulders, decrepit man-made structures – so divorced from civilisation that each character is answerable only to his or her conscience.
In The Tall T, adapted from an Elmore Leonard story, ramrod-turned-rancher Pat Brennan must rescue himself and a cruelly abandoned middle-aged bride (Maureen O’Sullivan) from the killers (Richard Boone, Henry Silva, Skip Homeier) of three of his friends; the task entails pressing the woman to drop her virgin act.
In Ride Lonesome, bounty hunter Ben Brigade is forced by marauding Mescaleros to travel with the station keeper’s deserted wife (Karen Steele), and outlaws Sam Boone (Pernell Roberts) and Whit (James Coburn), who intend to trade his captive (James Best) for amnesty. Brigade doesn’t seek the bounty but wants instead to avenge the hanging of his wife by the captive’s pursuing brother after forcing him into the open; Boetticher subverted the role of the defenceless beauty who taxes the men’s self-discipline, by having her question the hero’s mercenary nature.
Defined by his individualism and spare, blunt manner of communication, the Scott character is a reactive player in the frontier farce, a man against whom charismatic talkers such as Boone’s Frank Usher and Roberts’s Boone measure themselves. Having subsisted on crime instead of making the existential choice to graft on the land, each of these feckless men invites the hero’s scepticism by claiming he wants to own a ranch. Whereas Frank is unable to renounce violence, Sam and Whit appear ready to settle down at the end of Ride Lonesome, thus becoming part of the historical process that Boetticher’s pithy microcosmic westerns seldom explicitly acknowledge.
11. Day of the Outlaw
André de Toth, 1959
Renouncing violence is the central theme in the last of the 11 westerns directed by the Hungarian émigré de Toth. Possibly an allegory of the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the black-and-white Day of the Outlaw, adapted by Philip Yordan (Johnny Guitar) from Lee E. Wells’s novel, exerts greater fascination as a pacifist alternative to Shane’s mythifying of the gunfighter.
Like George Stevens’s classic, it is set during the Johnson County War between cattle barons and the small farmers who were fencing off Wyoming’s open range. It privileges the perspective not of a homesteader like Shane’s Joe Starrett but that of cattleman Blaise Starrett (Robert Ryan), whose rancorous defence of his right to run his cattle on the range, based on his having helped to purge the territory’s human vermin, closely echoes Rufus Ryker’s justification in Shane.
Though Blaise is a responsible member of the 20-strong town of Bitters, bleakly snowbound in the dead of winter, he is prepared to kill the eastern farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshal) to prevent the erection of his barbed-wire fences. His hatred of the man is stoked by his passion for Crane’s wife Helen (Tina Louise), who offers to renew their affair if he spares her husband.
The feud is sidelined by the seizure of Bitters by seven bank robbers. Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives), the gang’s mortally wounded leader, effects a psychological transformation in Blaise: first, he is struck by how the disciplinarian ex-army captain stops his vilest men from abusing Bitters’ four women; second, when Bruhn admits he ordered the 1857 Mormon massacre of emigrants in Utah, Blaise realises he is tormented by the memory.
As several gang members enact a frenzied simulacrum of mass rape (parodying Blaise’s illicit passion for Helen) at the dance Bruhn permits, Blaise contrives to eliminate the thugs among them, without using his gun, by leading them away from the pursuing cavalry into the impassable mountains. (The bravura sequence, photographed by Russell Harlan, inspired The Hateful Eight’s opening.) Like Shane, Blaise relinquishes the woman he loves, but he intends to remain in Bitters, his mastering of his violent impulses and selfish sensuality serving the greater good.
Edward Dmytryk, 1959
The last event western of the 1950s brought the genre’s engagement with McCarthyism to its high-water mark, but Dmytryk’s counter-mythic approach to his allegory – more labyrinthine than High Noon’s or Johnny Guitar’s – cost Warlock popular acclaim and canonical status.
Adapted by Robert Alan Aurthur from Oakley Hall’s veiled Gunfight at the O.K. Corral novel, Warlock was Dmytryk’s justification for becoming the only member of the Hollywood Ten to recant on his non-cooperation with HUAC in 1947. Blacklisted after serving prison time and believing he had been manipulated by the Communist Party, Dmytryk reappeared before HUAC in 1951, confessed his 1944-45 party membership, and named 26 previously identified witnesses.
His onscreen director’s credit identifies him with Johnny Gannon (Richard Widmark) as he rides apart from the other cowboys heading from Abe McQuown’s ranch to the prosperous town of Warlock for their habitual rampage. The local leaders send for the Wyatt Earp-like vigilante gunman Clay Blaisdell (Henry Fonda) to end the cowboys’ reign of terror. He and his compadre Tom Morgan (Anthony Quinn) – their relative masculine strengths denoted via Freudian symbolism – quell the cowboys without drawing blood.
After Gannon breaks with McQuown (Tom Drake) to become Warlock’s legally appointed deputy, the film evolves into an analysis of who should police insurgents in America. Blaisdell is the authoritarian HUAC investigator to Gannon’s moderate officer of the people. No ignoble McCarthyite, Blaisdell mentors the wounded Gannon on the eve of the climactic showdown with McQuown, but Morgan prevents him from backing the deputy with his gun. A crippled and corrupt amalgam of Doc Holliday and (as noted by film historian Michael Coyne) McCarthy’s shady legal counsel Roy Cohn, Morgan hopes McQuown will kill Gannon, who has become involved with the sometime prostitute (Dorothy Malone), whom Morgan loves obsessively.
Morgan also needs to preserve Blaisdell so they can maintain their legendary sway as the fascistic scourge of the West and seemingly because there is a sublimated sexual bond between them. But their day is over. The townsmen and McQuown’s go-between rally to Gannon’s side when he confronts the cowboys. In showing the restoration of law and order through democracy, Warlock figuratively picks up and dusts off the sheriff’s badge Will Kane dropped contemptuously in High Noon.