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.