UCLA’s program notes for the current Film and Television Archive program, “Columbia Restorations: Westerns in the Age of Noir,” link the dark mood that overtook the American horse opera to the lingering effects of World War II on the American male psyche. And indeed, it seems obvious that the plight of the recently returned Union Army veterans in Henry Levin’s The Man From Colorado (1948), men who are disposed or forced to turn outlaw in a quest for justice, is a thinly disguised account of the hardships America’s vets encountered when they slogged home from Europe and the Pacific. Again and again in these films we encounter men who are not just weary but sick of violence. The theme of the gunslinger hanging up his sidearms has taken on a new urgency. Reprisal! (1956), a tightly structured little B Western directed by George Sherman, opens with a scene in which three loathsome brothers are acquitted by an all-white jury in the lynching murder of three Native Americans. It doesn’t come as much of a shock to learn that Arthur Gordon’s source novel was set in the Deep South.
Many official genre classics of the period, such as Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) and (above all) John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) — in which John Wayne played a Confederate veteran grappling with inner demons — have similar stresses and strains at work beneath the surface. What the B films and programmers in this series reveal is that the trend toward more complex conflicts, both social and psychological, wasn’t confined to prestigious attempts to make “adult Westerns.” It filtered down even to the meat-and-potatoes product aimed at the genre’s core audience.
The surprise is what a good match the two forms turned out to be, how smoothly their concerns dovetailed. Indeed, two of the films in the UCLA series, Delmer Daves’ 3:10 to Yuma (1957) and Budd Boetticher’s near-perfect chamber Western The Tall T (1957), were based on stories by Elmore Leonard, whose Westerns of the 1950s anticipated the themes of his recent best-selling urban thrillers. Glenn Ford’s garrulous and seductive Ben Wade in 3:10, most menacing when his voice drops to an insinuating whisper, is a very modern sort of amoral monster, recognizable in retrospect as one of Leonard’s trademark smiling sociopaths. But what he’s singing to Van Heflin’s hard-up rancher, who has been paid to escort him to prison, is the siren song of the frontier, the temptation of unbridled freedom.
Those good old days were as good as over. The traditional loner hero of the Western, the gunfighter who could respond to the violence of the wilderness on its own terms, was resigned, even attached, to his role as the perennial outsider. By 1959, even in a routine outing like Paul Wendkos’ Face of a Fugitive, the way of the outsider has taken on a hunted, haunted quality: Noir icon Fred MacMurray, as a convicted bank robber on the run and stranded in a small town, adopts as protective coloration the gruff, upright manner of a solid citizen — only to realize, when it’s already too late, that his feelings have begun to fit the pose.
What was happening here, in effect, was that the noir thriller was supplying the Western with some of the narrative devices it needed to break free of locked-in genre conventions that had come to seem untenable, especially the form’s commitment to violence. The West is often seen here at a later stage of its history in which violence looks like an atavistic relic of the savage past. A couple of these pictures could be described as psychoanalytical Westerns, in which the inner contradictions of genre are acted out as rampaging identity crises.
In Phil Karlson’s Gunman’s Walk (1958), for example, Tab Hunter harbors dreams of bloody glory that shade into psychopathy. The son of an old-school hell-raising rancher (Van Heflin), Hunter’s whippet-lean and dude-groomed Ed Hackett is grimly determined to make a lethal name for himself in the now-peaceable West, the very landscape the gunfighters helped to tame. In the process, of course, they made themselves obsolete, along with the violence that defined them.
There were a lot of people settling into the sprung seats of America’s low-rent movie houses in the late 1940s and early ’50s who, like the heartsick heroes on the screen, had had a bellyful of killing. In the West as it was re-imagined by these filmmakers, who tried to entertain these men without insulting their intelligence, only madmen and the walking wounded insisted on playing by the old rules.
“Columbia Restorations: Westerns in the Age of Noir,” a presentation of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, screens at UCLA’s James Bridges Theater, July 11–27; (310) 206-FILM.