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Pursued

17 May

Anyone who has visited this site a few times must be aware of my fondness for both film noir and westerns, and it shouldn’t therefore come as any surprise to learn that I find myself drawn to what we might call crossover movies. The noir influence that can be detected in so many 40s films is especially noticeable in a number of westerns, and Raoul Walsh’s Pursued (1947) is one example where this is very evident. Now this is by no means a perfect movie; I’m not convinced that the basic premise of the story, which isn’t fully revealed until the end, is all that logical or capable of bearing too much close scrutiny. However, film noir, regardless of its setting, was never heavily dependent on wholly logical motivation or reactions. In terms of appearance, tone and mood, Pursued is a very stylish piece of western noir that emphasises and revels in its more melodramatic aspects.

The opening has an edgy, breathless quality with Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) holed up in the ruins of a New Mexico homestead, waiting for some inevitable showdown. With the arrival of his girl, Thor (Teresa Wright), Jeb begins delving into their shared past in order to try to make sense of their current predicament. It’s abundantly clear that Jeb is in a heightened emotional state, and the lengthy flashback which occupies the bulk of the running time seems to take on the dizzying, disorienting characteristics of a fever dream at some points. The story traces Jeb’s life from childhood, from the point where he was found cowering and confused by Ma Callum (Judith Anderson) in his deserted home. She adopts the youngster and raises him as her own along with her two natural children, Thor and Adam (John Rodney). Young Jeb has no memory of his life before the night Ma Callum discovered him, and it’s clear that this is the result of some deeply traumatic events that occurred. The practice of employing Freudian theories about the roots of psychological issues and the whole process of memory recovery was woven into the plot strands of many a regular film noir, but it’s something of a departure to see it play such a prominent role in a western. Right from the beginning Jeb is seen to be a victim; not only does he feel a gnawing sense of self-doubt over his failure to fully recall his past, but his life is threatened on numerous occasions. Early on we learn that the principal danger is posed by Ma Callum’s brother-in-law, Grant (Dean Jagger), but the reasons for his apparent determination to see Jeb in his grave are only vaguely hinted at. Grant’s animosity stems from the existence of a vendetta between the Rand’s and the Callum’s and, like Jeb, the viewer has to wait and discover the meaning as the story unfolds. This element of mystery serves the twin purpose of maintaining our interest and also of emphasising the fatalistic nature of Jeb’s life – a man continually stalked by phantoms lurking in the shadows of his childhood.

The movie’s title is highly appropriate, in both a literal and figurative sense, as Jeb spends almost all of his screen time on the run from a variety of perils. Raoul Walsh’s direction, helped enormously by the masterly photography of the great James Wong Howe, hammers the point home by reducing the wide open spaces of the frontier to a series of dark, claustrophobic compositions. Even the exteriors have a tight, constricted quality to them – the ruins of the Rand homestead with broken and burnt rafters clawing despairingly at the lowering sky, and the huge, featureless rock formations that seem to dwarf the tiny riders scampering across their face. In addition, the cramped interiors are often filmed from low angles and bathed in expressionistic shadows, thus enhancing the mood of doom and paranoia. The action scenes, for which Walsh earned a lot of praise throughout his long career, are infrequent but well-shot and jarringly effective. All told, Pursued is arguably one of Walsh’s most artistic and stylized pieces of work. I think the director’s own macho dismissal of pretentious theorizing about subtexts or the artistic value of his vision goes some way towards explaining why he remains an underrated figure, although his reputation has seen some steady growth and reappraisal. The only major weakness I can detect lies in the script, or the resolution to be more precise. Niven Busch’s writing holds out the possibility of a big reveal that ought to shock, although close observers should more or less work things out for themselves anyway, yet fails to deliver on that promise. As I mentioned above, there’s a certain lack of logic to the climactic revelations that I found mildly disappointing.

Pursued is probably the movie that saw Robert Mitchum really hit his stride as an actor, and his star was in the ascendancy from this point. His tough, laconic persona had already been put to use in westerns, and the underlying hint of vulnerability meant that he could move comfortably within the shadowy and uncertain world of film noir. This movie’s artful blending of the two filmmaking styles was therefore an ideal showcase for Mitchum’s talents. The sleepy-eyed passivity that he was able to project fits in with the fatalistic character who appears to have grown to accept the fact that life has and will continue to kick dirt in his face. As the architect of the ill-fortune that has dogged Mitchum’s footsteps, Dean Jagger makes for a formidable rival. He gives an electrifying performance as the driven man, consumed with hate for the Rand’s, who thought nothing of losing an arm to even up a score. There’s something chilling about the manic gleam that comes onto his eyes whenever the opportunity arises to compromise Mitchum further. Judith Anderson ought to be a cinematic legend if only for her turn as Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s Rebecca, and she’s very good here too. She didn’t feature in too many westerns – this and Anthony Mann’s The Furies being the most notable – but her role as Ma Callum represents another memorable characterization. She’s a pivotal figure in the development of the story and brings a strong sense of believability to her part. I have to say I was less impressed by Teresa Wright, whose evolution from Girl Friday to femme fatale and back again lacked both consistency and plausibility. Again, this may be more the fault of the leaps in logic demanded by the script than any particular deficiency on the part of the actress.

The R1 DVD of Pursued from Artisan is a middling effort at best. The disc carries a note that the film was restored by the UCLA but there’s inconsistency in the presentation. Early on, there’s a short section that’s noticeably weaker than the rest of the movie, and the sharpness and clarity varies throughout. There are no extra features offered. The film belongs in the Republic library, the recent acquisition of which by Olive in the US has seen the announcement of a number of titles on Blu-ray. I don’t know if this movie is seen as a candidate for a future release in the HD format but it would need to undergo some additional work for that to be a viable option. All in all, I see Pursued as an interesting attempt to fuse the western with film noir and throw some Freudian psychoanalysis into the mix. Personally, I like it and I reckon it should offer something to fans of both types of movie.

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20 Comments

Posted by on May 17, 2012 in 1940s, Raoul Walsh, Robert Mitchum, Westerns

 

20 responses to “Pursued

  1. Cavershamragu

    May 17, 2012 at 10:20 pm

    Another great choice Colin. This is a very odd film but I agree completely that it has a lot going for it – not only is beautiful looking (courtesy of the great James Wong Howe) but it really does have a fascinating atmosphere. Although Busch had a lot to do with the film getting made of course (and was Teresa Wright’s husband at the time too), I know what you mean about the ending not quite paying off, but that can probably partly be blamed on censorship. It was also a massive influence on Sergio Leone and his ONCE UPON A TIME IN WEST in particular

     
    • Colin

      May 18, 2012 at 7:45 am

      Thanks Sergio. I don’t want to go into spoiler territory here, in case anyone’s reading this and hasn’t seen the movie, but everything seems primed for a massive revelation and then, when it does come around, it has nothing like the power the previous hour and a half has alluded to. As you suggest, censorship may have had a part to play although I can’t find any confirmation of that. The story, as it stands, pushes some pretty dark themes anyway – apparently Walsh wanted Busch to stay on hand to explain what was supposed to be going on.

       
      • Cavershamragu

        May 18, 2012 at 8:00 am

        Busch had just written the florid bizarrie that is DUEL IN THE SUN so it is interesting to compare these (and THE FURIES as you mention) in terms of opening up the Western to an overt psychoanalytical style. Busch was the co-producer of the film and although he got along really well with Walsh, I think we do have to probably consider him the primary author. He apprently considered it to be a largely untrampled project (probably because it was made independently with Warner’s son-in-law, which is why it’s no longer part of the Warner library worse luck) so I am probably being a bit kind. In the end this was the story Busch wanted to tell – maybe ten years later he finaly could have been much tougher.

        Apparently Howe used infrared film for the night sequences. It is maddening that there has never been a really top-notch home cideo release, There was a Laser Disc with a commentary by David Thomson (I think). Would be nice of Olive or Criterion did something lovely wouldn’t it …

         
        • Colin

          May 18, 2012 at 8:14 am

          Yes, it’s got Busch’s fingerprints all over it. Apparently, he was inspired by an article he stumbled upon telling of a boy brought up in the shadow of a vendetta like Mitchum’s character in the movie. Whether or not Busch wanted to delve into deeper, darker waters is open to question, but the resolution of the story just feels lighter than the build-up would suggest.

          And I agree that Howe’s contribution to the look and feel of the finished product is enormous, and it would be great if someone could see that the movie is revisited and given a fresh transfer.

          BTW, I’m very fond of Duel in the Sun – a marvellous piece of ripe, OTT entertainment.

           
          • Cavershamragu

            May 18, 2012 at 8:23 am

            At a festival in London several years ago I was very fortunate to be able to attend a screening of an original nitrate TechniColor print of DUEL IN THE SUN. As daft as the movie is, that was a great experience. From a health and safety standpoint, it’s hard to imagine that happening again!

             
            • Colin

              May 18, 2012 at 8:41 am

              That must have been fantastic! Objectively speaking, the story is overcooked nonsense, pure tripe yet I find the overblown ambition of it all strangely attractive.

               
              • Cavershamragu

                May 18, 2012 at 8:49 am

                The colours were more subdued and the image grainier than you might imagine from video presentations but I think pretty accurate – but watching it with an audience was the other major benefit – if I could I would write all my film reviews and differentiate between those seen in company and not because I think it creates a totally different experience even from a reviewing standpoint. Mind you, the post-facto blog comments serve as an opportunity to re-evaluate I suppose …

                 
                • Colin

                  May 18, 2012 at 9:02 am

                  Yeah, watching a movie with an audience – especially an appreciative one – adds another dimension. Here in Athens, we’re lucky enough to get to see a selection of classic era movies in the open air cinemas in the summer, and it’s something I always enjoy. The last one I got to attend, before the weather ruled out such viewings was Sunset Boulevard back in September – a great evening.
                  Mind you, there can be the occasional unexpected reaction too. I remember watching Vertigo in the cinema not so long ago and, when the final traumatic scene was played out, some audience members giggled. I was quite taken aback and puzzled at this, but I guess it just goes to show that different people will be affected in different ways by what’s up there on the screen.

                   
  2. le0pard13

    May 18, 2012 at 3:43 am

    Never seen this Robert Mitchum / Raoul Walsh film. Must rectify that. Well done, Colin.

     
    • Colin

      May 18, 2012 at 7:48 am

      You ought to try and see it Michael. It’s one of Mitchum’s best early roles, one of his best performances at any time in fact.

       
  3. Jeff Flugel

    May 18, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    Great review as usual, Colin! It’s been ages since I’ve seen this film and I remember very little of it. I bought the DVD late last year and it’s waiting for me back at my parents’ place in the U.S. in anticipation of my next visit home this August (during my annual visits back Stateside is when I do the majority of my DVD shopping). I’m certainly looking forward to watching it when I get my greedy paws on the disc.

    I’m a big Mitchum fan and am glad to hear you think this is one of his best roles. Mitchum was equally good in both westerns and noir, so it seems he was a wise casting choice.

     
    • Colin

      May 18, 2012 at 8:01 pm

      I think you’ll enjoy it Jeff, especially as a Mitchum fan. It’s not one of his show-off roles, instead it’s restrained and subtle – a very human performance.

      You know I also find myself sending movies to or leaving them at my parents’ place back in Ireland. It’s nice to have a selection of stuff waiting for me when I pay a visit.

       
      • Jeff Flugel

        May 18, 2012 at 10:33 pm

        I had no idea you lived in Athens, Colin! Very cool.

        Since I live in Japan (where DVD and Blu-Ray prices are pretty high), I usually stockpile up a bunch of titles in the States and cart them back with me when I return to Osaka. It’s a habit I’ve gotten into over the past 10 years or so and it seems to work well for me, as I can take advantage of great deals on Amazon and the occasional other retailer. Stuff I order from Amazon UK I have shipped directly to Japan, as for some reason their shipping prices are much more reasonable.

        You living in Greece makes sense, as a lot of the titles you review seem to come from Europe, as well as quite a few Region 1 imports (such as Pursued). I did notice that a slew of new 50s western releases have just come out in the UK, some from Universal, and a bunch from two labels I don’t know anything about: Odeon Entertainment and Pegasus. Titles like Smoke Signal, Pillars of the Sky and Saskatchewan, to name just a few.

        I envy you seeing all those revival showings. They do occur sometimes in Japan, but more often in Tokyo, far away from where I live. I did manage to catch River of No Return and Rear Window on the big screen here over the years, which was nice.

         
        • Colin

          May 18, 2012 at 10:46 pm

          Living in Athens was kind of cool I suppose, once upon a time. Now it’s a pain as much as anything, but it’s home.

          Those UK DVDs you mention are generally pretty good. Odeon can be a little variable, depending on the quality of print they get their hands on, but they have put out some good stuff. Pegasus were once a label to avoid. However, they have a licensing deal for Universal movies right now and their output has improved dramatically. The three titles you mentioned are all excellent quality transfers, and they have more (a bunch of Audie Murphy westerns) on the way.

          The summer revivals are indeed great – I caught Rear Window myself about two years ago, and To Catch a Thief, Sunset Boulevard and How to Steal a Million last summer.

           
  4. billyriel1971

    May 23, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Good work to touch on potential cross-over “noirish Westerns”, Colin. As an addendum….one of Robert Mitchum’s very last roles was also in a Western….where he played an industrialist in Jim Jarmusch’s interesting and non-conventional Western, Dead Man (1995).

    Here is a trailer:

    Chad
    http://www.westernsreboot.com

     
    • Colin

      May 23, 2012 at 8:53 pm

      Hi Chad. It’s been said that the western/noir crossover is never wholly successful due to western stories inevitably leading to some form of redemption, a feature that’s not really to be found in conventional noir pictures. I guess that’s hard to argue with, but there are a number of westerns that exhibit a darkness in both tone and cinematography that comes very close.

      Dead Man is a movie that seems to get a mixed reception. I quite like it though.

       
  5. Laura

    May 25, 2012 at 6:32 am

    This is a movie I’ve always been fond of and have seen several times — it’s fairly strange but I think that’s part of its charm (grin). Last summer I was fortunate to see the UCLA restoration on the big screen at UCLA, shown with another Mitchum “Western noir” I also love, Robert Wise’s BLOOD ON THE MOON.

    On my last viewing I picked up some interesting undercurrents in Adam’s jealousy of Jeb. One of the marks of a very good movie is that new things continue to pop out on repeat viewings.

    Thanks for an excellent post, as always!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

     
    • Colin

      May 25, 2012 at 7:31 am

      Thanks Laura. I think much of the strangeness that can be detected in the film stems from fact that we’re not so used to seeing such a heavy emphasis on Freudian theory in a western – it does crop up from time to time in other movies, but it’s always a bit startling.

      Blood on the Moon is another excellent piece of western noir that I’ve been meaning to feature for a while now. I hope to get round to it soon.

       
  6. Mike

    June 8, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Fine write-up of an equally fine piece of work – whilst I agree that the story’s central mystery doesn’t necessarily work too well, I have to admit I was enjoying the unfolding events too much to really care. Especially enjoyable was the element of chance, for which Robert Mitchum’s acting style was the perfect fit. It really had that post-war, noir sensibility, didn’t it, the sense that you might decide your future on the toss of a coin because there were things happening in the world too horrific to give a damn about your share of the farm.

    Elsewhere, it too kme a little while to recognise Ms Danvers, and then I was really embarassed because I looked at her IMDb page and realised I’d seen her in many things and never made the connection.

    I guess Pursued helps to prove what I’ve thought for some time, that Westerns really could support just about any story you wanted to tell. The crossover from noir is quite apparent, and as you say there’s some great camera work, whether it’s the shot of the prone, beaten Adam seen through Jeb’s legs or those amazing New Mexico rock formations. The latter is the sort of thing John Ford’s famous for, but I do love that classic Western shot of tiny humans against huge backdrops as though to emphasise the eternal country and the fleeting lives of the people living in it.

     
    • Colin

      June 8, 2012 at 8:09 am

      Thanks Mike. Like a lot of noir related stuff, the plot doesn’t really have to make perfect sense for the whole film to work. Mitchum, with that particular style of his, came to the movies at just the right time. Ten years earlier, it wouldn’t have blended in at all.

      I’m in complete agreement with you about the western being big enough and flexible enough to accommodate just about any story. I think that’s one of the factors, although there are plenty of others too, that contributed to the western holding such a significant and influential place in cinematic history.

      As for the use of landscape, and the symbolic weight attached to it, Ford is the acknowledged master. However all the great western directors had a feel for this and incorporated it into their work. Walsh may not be regarded as quite up there with the “greats”, but when he was on form he got very close.

      Since I wrote the piece, the Blu-ray has been announced for release by Olive Films – I’m really curious how it will fare in HD.

       

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