The Family Tree of the Noir Western
How the doom-haunted shadows of film noir made their way to the open range
Ben Foster and Chris Pine in HELL OR HIGH WATER
Has any genre (if we listen to criticspeak) been so constantly in need of redemption and rejuvenation as the western? In writing about new westerns, or, more commonly, contemporary-set movies utilizing western locales and tropes, we are forever discovering a “new” darkness making overcast the once-blue skies of the open country. This was true of the Coens’ No Country for Old Men (2007), as of the handful of western thrillers it begat, like the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water (2016) — which apparently “resurrects the power of western mayhem done right,” as per the crowing of Indiewire — with its soundtrack by Nick Cave, co-author of the bushwhacker western dirge The Proposition (2005), and HHW scripter Taylor Sheridan’s follow-up Wind River (2017).
The basic thrust of this Whig film history is the idea that the western, for most of its lifespan, was a genre made according to a rigid white hat-black hat template. In fact, one of the strengths of the genre from its earliest days has been its malleability, its capacity to absorb all manner of disparate influences. While the Sheridan-penned items above won praise for their seemingly novel fusion of old-timey western iconography and modern-style moral murkiness, the western has had a long and intertwined history with this genre/style that would seem to be its polar opposite: the film noir.
Case in point: Pursued, a 1947 Warner Bros. oater set in turn-of-the-last-century New Mexico, which stars Robert Mitchum as Jeb Rand, the adopted son to widowed ranch owner Judith Anderson, who has raised Jeb as her own alongside a sister who becomes a lover, and a brother who becomes an archenemy. Though it has its fair share of airy compositions courtesy of cinematographer James Wong Howe, the film is equally dominated by low-ceilinged interiors drenched in inky shadow. When Rand goes on trial for murder, the townsfolk who cluster in to watch his trial have faces like rutted trail, men who look like they might’ve been rustled out of a drunk tank that very morning. And though he’s a big, hearty, healthy-looking specimen of man, Rand is at the mercy of his own mind, haunted by bad dreams bringing him back to a buried trauma whose import he dreads but doesn’t fully grasp.
Pursued launched a new wave of dark, psychologically fraught westerns that have been variously referred to as “noir westerns” or “western noir” — and before we establish a preference for one or the other, we might here do well to backpedal a bit and define our terms. Both variants, of course, are portmanteaus comprised of two distinctly (if not exclusively) American film genres — the western and the film noir — apparent diametric opposites at a glance. The former is pretty easy to identify in its classical form, defined as it is by archetypal figures, geography, and timeframe: if it involves men with guns and takes place in the liminal zone between license and law in a sparsely-settled North America, usually west of the Mississippi River and usually in the years between the Civil War and World War I, then like as not it’s a western, pardner.
The noir, by contrast, is both urban and contemporary: typically set in a mid-to-post-WWII America, it substituted a dark, shadow-streaked landscape of waterfront warehouses, fly-blown hash houses, juke joints and boxing gyms for the sun-kissed mesas, plains and rugged declivities of the American West. As befits a genre that brought forth titles like Cornered (1945), Desperate (1947), Caught (1949), and Trapped (1949), the noir film is almost inherently claustrophobic, which seems to place it directly at odds with the open-range spaciousness of the western. A recurring point of conflict in the western is the encroachment of civilization and the setting up of fences on previously unbounded land; in noir not only have fences gone up, but the walls are closing in.
The western also differs from the noir in that the former was conscious of itself as a genre from quite early on. The most renowned practitioner of the form famously introduced himself at a legendary 1950 meeting of the Screen Directors Guild by saying “My name is John Ford. I am a director of westerns.” By contrast, if in 1947 you were to have asked, say, Anthony Mann how his new film noir was going, he would have almost certainly had no idea what you were talking about. The preferred contemporary term for films like Mann’s Raw Deal (1948) and Side Street (1950) was “thriller” — a term that David Bordwell, in his recent Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, contends to be a principally British import, one descended from the lineage of the 19th-century “penny dreadful” and given currency thanks to the success of Alfred Hitchcock’s English films and the plays of Patrick Hamilton.
What happened, in a prominent strain of American crime films beginning in the 1940s, was a coalescing of narrative and stylistic influences that included the Anglo thriller, the American vernacular school of hard-boiled crime writing (whose best-known representatives were Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler), and a chiaroscuro visual style that owed no small debt to the German Expressionism of the 1920s — a legacy that could be accessed with relative ease, as many of the leading lights of the Germany film industry had decamped to Hollywood in advance of or during the European political catastrophe of the 1930s. (Hitchcock, it should be mentioned, had himself been profoundly shaped by the time he spent around German studios in the 1920s.) In his 1972 essay “Notes on Film Noir,” Paul Schrader defines the emergent noir style through its propensity for nocturnal settings, “oblique and vertical lines,” flashback-heavy narratives, and “compositional tension,” as well as that oft-cited, catch-all symptom of “postwar disillusionment.”
The term “film noir” itself, of course, comes from the French, and is commonly believed to have been invented in reference to the above-mentioned American films that began to flood French theatres following the end of the war. However, as Imogen Sara Smith points out, the 1946 coinage by Jean-Pierre Chartier places the American noir in a lineage with a pre-existing genre of French thrillers, such as Julien Duvivier’s Pépé le Moko (1937), Jean Renoir’s La Bête humaine (1938), and Marcel Carné’s Port of Shadows (1938). If the noir style was being most extensively and fruitfully explored in Hollywood films of this period, it was in fact popping up everywhere: Raymond Durgnat, in his 1970 study “Paint It Black: The Family Tree of the Film Noir,” cites French and English traditions as well as the parallel phenomenon of Italian neorealism, and noir variants could also be found emerging from Mexico City to Oslo to Buenos Aires.
All of which is to say that noir, like Art Deco, was an international style — one pliable enough to adapt to most any context while never surrendering its essential qualities. And just as it was able to cross national borders so also could it cross the lines of genre. You could have a noir melodrama, like Michael Curtiz’s Mildred Pierce (1945), which was adapted from the novel of the same name by James M. Cain, whose work also provided the basis for classic noirs like Double Indemnity (1944), The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Slightly Scarlet (1956), as well as Luchino Visconti’s foundational neorealist work Ossessione (1943). You could have a noir period film, like Mann’s French Revolution drama Reign of Terror (1949), which was shot by John Alton, who was to shadow what Michelangelo was to marble. You could find elements of the musical in a noir — e.g., Rita Hayworth belting out “Put the Blame on Mame” in Gilda (1946) — and of noir in the musical (the “Girl Hunt Ballet” in The Band Wagon, 1953). And finally, as per Pursued, you had noir on the open range.
So to come back to our two inverted terms above, they can usefully be employed to describe two linked yet discrete generic traditions. One, after the model of Pursued, brings the stylistic elements of noir to the historical setting of the western — let’s call these “noir westerns.” The other model, for which we’ll use the tag “western noir,” brings the subject matter and fatalistic attitude of the noir to the terrain of the contemporary West: settled, paved-over, strip-mined, stolen. While Ford may have proudly identified himself as principally a maker of westerns, many of the genre directors of this period moved freely back and forth between oaters and contemporary thrillers, and in so doing it was not uncommon for them to track a little back-alley city slime into the wide open spaces.
One need only look at the director of Pursued, Raoul Walsh, who by 1947 was practically a dinosaur by the standards of the still-young American cinema. By the time he took on Pursued, Walsh had put together a rich and varied filmography since starting off at D.W. Griffith’s side, including breezy, knockabout pre-Code comedies (Me and My Gal, 1932), gangster pictures (The Roaring Twenties, 1939), and one of the great pre-Stagecoach (1939) sound westerns, The Big Trail (1930), which starred a trim, fresh-faced young neophyte by the name of John Wayne. In a half-century of moviemaking there was scarcely a type of film that Walsh hadn’t tried his hand at, and by the 1940s he had become something of a specialist in mixing tones: e.g., the jackknife-structured trucking film They Drive by Night (1940), which turns to pure melodrama in the last reel, or the tragic Humphrey Bogart-Ida Lupino crime film High Sierra (1941), which toggles between pastoral sentiment and gritty cynicism and represents something of a bridge between the gangster film and the emergent film noir. (That Walsh subsequently remade that latter picture eight years later as a Joel McCrea western, Colorado Territory, only further attests to the basic parts-and-labour compatibility of the genres.)
Another of the key figures in the history of the noir western/western noir is the aforementioned Anthony Mann, who made his name in thrillers before moving on to work extensively in the boots-and-spurs field in the 1950s, most famously turning out five critically and commercially successful oaters with James Stewart: Winchester ’73 (1950), Bend of the River (1952), The Naked Spur (1953), The Far Country, and The Man from Laramie (both 1955). While it would be a bit of a stretch to call these Stewart-Mann pictures noir westerns, they are nonetheless marked by an attention to pathological behavior and the tragic, deranging dimension of trading in violence — something that was highly unusual (if not unheard of) in the genre at the time, and akin to the sweaty intensity and striking brutality of Mann’s contemporary crime films, the movies that prompted critic Manny Farber to memorably dub Mann a “tin-can de Sade.”
A stronger case can be made for Mann’s first two westerns, both released in 1950: The Furies and Devil’s Doorway, the latter shot by Alton, who had earned his reputation with his work on Mann’s previous crime pictures. The first features Barbara Stanwyck as the scion of a cattle barony disillusioned by her larger-than-life father (played by western mainstay Walter Huston); the second has Robert Taylor as a Shoshone Indian who returns to his home as a highly decorated Civil War veteran, only to discover that his valour has won him little esteem in the eyes of his white neighbours. Both films are distinguished by an atmosphere of festering resentment and high baroque style. (It is often taken for granted that the western, implicitly jingoist and expansionist, is by nature the conservative genre and the film noir, with its proximity to contemporary social problems and the stink of the street, comparatively progressive, but if true in the abstract they’re not of much use in the fine-grain analysis of individual films, those slippery, multivalent things.)
As switch-hitters, Walsh and Mann were hardly unique. André De Toth, maker of superlative noirs like Pitfall (1948) and Crime Wave (1954), was also often in the saddle, and among his western output are two films — Ramrod (1947), with De Toth’s then-wife Veronica Lake as a cattle queen femme fatale, and Day of the Outlaw (1959), starring the often noir-identified Robert Ryan as a hero with aspects of a heavy — that have pronounced noir characteristics. (The snowbound setting of the latter recalls another Ryan outing that begins in the alleys of an archetypal noir city and ends in the deceptive serenity of the great outdoors: Nicholas Ray’s 1951 masterpiece On Dangerous Ground.)
Rancho Notorious (1952) by Fritz Lang — a formative influence on the noir style, thanks to his silent-era crime epics like Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler (1922) and the classic serial-killer film M (1931) — exists somewhere at the intersection of the western, the film noir, and Weimar cabaret, while Track of the Cat (1954) — a doom-haunted cabin-fever drama devised by director William Wellman as “a black-and-white film in colour” — is practically a genre unto itself.
That film’s star, Mitchum, equally at ease in a trenchcoat or a gunbelt, is also the lead in Blood on the Moon, which stands as Exhibit B to Pursued’s A in the case for the existence of the noir western — not least because the film’s director Robert Wise turned this one out in between two highly regarded noirs, Born to Kill (1947) and The Set-Up (1949), and cinematographer Nicolas Musaraca had just recently lensed the Mitchum-starring uber-noir Out of the Past (1947).
Even in cases where the noir influence is less immediately evident than in Pursued or Blood on the Moon, there is a perceptible darkening of perspective in westerns of the late 1940s, from Ford’s Fort Apache (1948) to smaller films like Sidney Lanfield’s Station West (1948), Henry Hathaway’s Rawhide, or Charles Marquis Warren’s Little Big Horn (both 1951). Warren’s film is one of the usually hard-charging cheapo westerns turned out by independent producer Robert L. Lippert, who also underwrote the early directorial career of Sam Fuller, another genre utility man whose early and profoundly weird westerns I Shot Jesse James (1949) and The Baron of Arizona (1950) evinced noir undertones and as much abnormal psychology as you’d find in any rain-slicked, studio-set slum.
As actors, cinematographers, and directors moved freely between genres, so too did stories. The case of Colorado Territory was not unique: Kiss of Death, a noir hit for Henry Hathaway in 1947, was recycled in 1958 as The Fiend Who Walked the West, with Gordon Douglas in the director’s chair and Richard Widmark’s giggle-prone killer replaced by none other than a young Robert Evans. The same year brought Delmer Daves’ The Badlanders, in which mining engineer turned felon (Alan Ladd) fresh out of stir in the Arizona Territory uses his newfound freedom to set up a big score — a plot that, in its basic elements, hews quite closely to that of John Huston’s seminal 1950 noir The Asphalt Jungle. (Though in execution, the Daves film, imbued with its director’s belief in the basic good of man and his capacity to be redeemed, arrives at a point very far from the cul-de-sac of the fatalistic Huston. If ever there were a case study in the very real operations of auteur personality, this brace of films is it.)
While many of the hard-boiled writers who helped shape the tone and terrain of noir had urban hometown affiliations — Hammett to San Francisco, Chandler to Los Angeles, David Goodis to Philadelphia — there was another rusticated, shitheel pulp tradition led by the Oklahoman Jim Thompson, whose work found a bounty of graft, vice, depravity, and corruption outside of the metropolitan centres. Two of his novels in particular could serve as potential ur-texts of the modern western noir: 1964’s Pop. 1280, set in the nowheresville West Texas hinterlands of Pottsville (which became the colonial backwaters of French West Africa in Bertrand Tavernier’s 1981 adaptation Coup de Torchon); and the 1952 The Killer Inside Me, about a psycho sheriff running riot under cover of the badge, which was subsequently cinematized by the dab western hand Budd Boetticher in 1976 and again by Michael Winterbottom in 2010.
Thompson’s particular admixture of western and noir elements had little opportunity to directly influence postwar film noir, to which his contributions were fairly minimal — Stanley Kubrick hired him to adapt the screenplay for The Killing (1955), and years later his border-hopping The Getaway would be adapted by that old desperado Sam Peckinpah — but during his pulp-writing heyday Hollywood was independently exploring the possibility of hard-boiled scenarios in dusty horse-opera settings. Mann’s Border Incident (1949), whose title makes it sound an awful lot like a western, is a thriller set in the Imperial Valley on the California-Mexico international line hinging on the smuggling of migrant Mexican workers.
Border or culturally Mexican towns figure prominently in such American noirs as Robert Montgomery’s Ride the Pink Horse (1947) to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), the film often pointed to as the magnificent last gasp of noir proper.
Others take place entirely in Mexico, such as The Naked Dawn (directed by Edgar G. Ulmer in 1955, a decade after the filmmaker had made that noir-est of Poverty Row noirs Detour), or The Capture (1950), which begins with a wary and wounded Lew Ayres flees through the Mexican countryside evading pursuers and searching for shelter — a scene that so much resembles the opening of a cowboy picture that it’s a little startling when Ayres starts narrating his past travails to a sympathetic priest, occasioning a flashback that shows him riding along in a newfangled automobile. (The Capture was written and produced by Niven Busch, a key figure in both the noir western and western noir — he also wrote the screenplay of Pursued and the novel on which The Furies was based — and directed by John Sturges, whose desert-set murder-mystery showdown Bad Day at Black Rock  is something like the exemplar of the western noir.)
Other cases aren’t so cut and dried. The taxonomy for identifying western noir, like identifying noir itself, is tricky business. Joseph H. Lewis’ Gun Crazy (1950) must make the cut by virtue of Peggy Cummins’ introduction as a mid-century Annie Oakley alone; after their meet-cute at a small-town fair, she and stickup partner John Dall head to the end of the desperado line, planning an escape to (where else?) Mexico before being finally cut down in a Bonnie and Clyde-style ambush.
Don Siegel’s Edge of Eternity (1959) has a Grand Canyon backdrop, grizzled-old-cuss gold prospectors, and a passel of murders in its favour, but seems altogether too sunny and zesty to categorize as noir. And how to label something like Roy Ward Baker’s Inferno, with our old friend Robert Ryan crawling through the Mojave Desert on a mission of vengeance against his adulterous wife and her murderous lover, all in glorious Technicolor 3-D?
Shot largely on location in the mining town of Bisbee, Arizona, Violent Saturday (1955), a heist movie/melodrama by erstwhile noir expert Richard Fleischer, is a strong candidate for western noir designation, featuring the requisite nocturnal scenes and oodles of disillusionment, postwar and otherwise (mine foreman Victor Mature’s preadolescent son is ashamed that daddy didn’t serve in the war, mine manager Richard Egan’s wife is playing around, etc.). And Gerd Oswald’s A Kiss Before Dying (1956), filmed in Tuscon and the old mining town of Miami, Arizona, is the straight dope, with Robert Wagner playing a manipulative, high-functioning sociopath quite near the sort that Thompson specialized in. (Schrader doesn’t mention Oswald’s film in his “Notes,” though its story of a conscienceless gigolo killer trying to marry his way into a copper fortune certainly fits his description of the third and final phase of noir’s development, in which he includes Gun Crazy: “After ten years of steadily shedding romantic conventions, the later noir films finally got down to the root causes of the period: the loss of public honor, heroic conventions, personal integrity, and, finally, psychic stability.”)
Even when not cohabiting in the same movie, the western and the film noir share significant overlap. They are both, in their way, genres concerned with issues of law, order and outlawry, with the uneasy relationship between civilization and its discontents, and with wealth and property — who has them, how they got them, and who wants to take them away. The archetypal outsider hero of the western is the “good-bad man,” a non-committal, self-sustaining, liminal figure living on the fringe of society who, in the course of events, is drawn into action on behalf of fledgling society. The noir hero, by contrast, is usually first encountered as a variously worn-down cog in society who — for want of money, or opportunity, or adventure, or a woman — stumbles into transgression and finds himself on the outside with no direction back home. With crime comes punishment, court-appointed or otherwise — and frontier vigilantism, a singular preoccupation of the western since before Gary Cooper strung up his pal on principle in The Virginian (1929), also surfaces in a handful of western noirs.
See, for example, Cy Endfield’s largely Phoenix-shot The Sound of Fury (a.k.a Try and Get Me!, 1950), which is, along with William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Fritz Lang’s Fury (1936), one of the finest movies made about lynch law and mob justice, marked by a violence that exceeds anything in those films. (And it should be noted that Wellman's Ox-Bow, with its fatalism, grisaille tonality and stylized, neo-Expressionist studio-bound set design, is a veritable precursor to Pursued in the genealogy of the noir western.) Both Endfield’s and Lang’s movies drew their inspiration from the same source, the events surrounding the kidnap and killing of Brooke Hart and the subsequent lynching of his alleged killers in San Jose, California — evidence of how both the western and the film noir, unlike the sci-fi/fantasy and superhero films that are the most visible Hollywood genre products of today, kept a toehold in lived experience, whatever their significant embellishments.
Once a dominant cultural force to a degree that is scarcely comprehensible now, the western has been gradually receding in prevalence since the mid-’70s, although so long as there is a Hollywood-based film industry or a United States you can count on one or two to come straggling along every year, maybe even a good one. As for the film noir, the supposed termination of the genre proper [sic] with Touch of Evil in 1958 soon occasioned a series of nostalgic revivals — e.g., Roman Polanski’s 1930s-set Chinatown (1974) or Dick Richards’ 1940s-set Chandler adaptation Farewell, My Lovely (1975), with one-time “axiom of noir” Robert Mitchum donning Philip Marlowe’s fedora — as well as self-conscious returns to or modernizations of elements from the noir toolkit which have merited their own appellation, “neo-noir” (though it should be noted that said term has been rejected by some of the practitioners most frequently associated with the form, such as Michael Mann).
The American neo-noir cycle came on in earnest through the 1980s, a decade that marked a return to stylistic artifice after the generally more neorealist-oriented late-’60s and ’70s; two of the key films from this period are Schrader’s American Gigolo (1980) and Mann’s Thief (1981), in which the dominant international aesthetic influence switches from the Expressionist shadows of prewar Germany to the neon nights of an ascendant Japan.
And this neo-noir revival (we’ll use the term for lack of anything else) brought with it, perhaps inevitably, the western neo-noir: the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple (1984), Montana-born John Dahl’s Kill Me Again (1989) and Red Rock West (1993), Dennis Hopper’s The Hot Spot (1990). As for the neo-noir western, the likeliest candidates are Pale Rider (1985) and Unforgiven (1992), the last two westerns of Clint Eastwood — a workhorse who, like the economical studio grunts of yesteryear, knows the corner-cutting possibilities of swamping an interior shot in shadow.
It is in fact difficult to conceive of a western being made today without a hint of noir about it — the western had a measure of innocence to lose, while noir never did, and as such it suits our ever-more cynical times. But as the above, far-from-complete taxonomy indicates, the existence of darkness on the plains is no new discovery: filmmakers have long known that night falls in the lonesome desert just as it does in the city, and the self-congratulatory kind of “moral complexity” which so many of our contemporary genre exercises dress themselves up in has an older and (considerably more authentic) history stretching far back down the trail.