Wednesday, March 7, 2012
A Noirish Western
Pursued (1947) directed by Raoul Walsh, is a largely forgotten film in this underrated director's body of work. Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by the great cinematographer James Wong Howe (sorry about the colorized photo, but I couldn't find a b&w image), this is an introspective, moody Western with obvious film noir overtones. It's a film you're not likely to forget after one viewing; two viewings display the texture of the film to an even greater degree.
The story concerns one Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) who is seen in the opening sequence riding across the open spaces of New Mexico to a small cabin in which he was rescued as an orphan by a widow named Mrs. Callum. Jeb watched his father and mother be gunned down in this cabin, but was able to hide under some floorboards so as not to be seen; he can't recall what exactly happened years ago (the film is told as one long flashback) except for a pair of jangling spurs.
Mrs. Callum took the boy in to live with her and her two children Thor (Teresa Wright plays the adult Thor) and Adam (portrayed by John Rodney as an adult). The three of them have a typical childhood on the ranch, getting into small fistfights and quarrels much like any set of siblings, but the difference here is that Jeb, while treated as a member of the family, is not a blood relative, so by the time Thor and Jeb reach early adulthood, she professes her love for him and asks her to marry him; this is certainly a semi-incestuous relationship that was a bit daring for the late 1940s.
A side plot concerns a harsh man named Grant (a beautifully subtle performance by Dean Jagger), who seeks revenge against every member of the Rand family, for reasons I won't give away here. Thus Jeb is constantly on the run in this film, trying to escape the henchmen of Grant, who are all too willing to obey his orders to kill Jeb.
But Jeb is also in a constant feud with Adam, who believes that Jeb has prospered from Adam's work on the ranch when Jeb was fighting in the Spanish-American War (interestingly these two decided which one would join the army via a coin toss; Jeb lost. This notion of chance is certainly a common theme in film noir). Adam also sees how Thor and Jeb are attracted to each other and despises him for wanting to take Thor away from his mother and he.
This is a hypnotic, introspective Western that has many themes that turn up in Walsh's best films, especially High Sierra (1941) and White Heat (1949). Like both those works, this is a portrait of a man who is constantly on the run. Jeb is not a gangster or evil man as are Roy Earle (Humphrey Bogart) in High Sierra or Cody Jarrett (James Cagney) in White Heat, yet he share similar feelings of loneliness and despair. There's also the angle of an unusual love affair in this story as in those films; this one turns out better for Jeb and Thor than they do for the other couples.
Walsh's direction alternates between long shots amidst canyons and wide-open vistas and tight shots amidst the claustrophobia of a cave or a small room in a house. The remarkable work turned in by cameraman Howe is quite something; many scenes are at night and are barely lit - one mesmerizing image is of Wright walking across a pitch black room with only a candle to light the scene. The blacks are deep blacks and the whites - when they appear - are bright white, making this a real black and white film- gray is rarely a part of this film's visual storyboard.
Pursued was preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive in association with Republic Pictures. Among those who funded this project was none other than Martin Scorsese. The film, except for a few brief scenes early on, looks marvelous as we see b&w photography take on a Gothic, paranoid, film noirish look that instantly deepens our empathy for the characters in this slightly perverse tale.
Pursued takes us to a world in which one man deals with his present troubles, all the while trying to figure out the mystery of his past. Along the way, some characters battle him, while others try to help him to varying degrees, but ultimately, it's one man against the world, a universal theme so dazzingly portrayed by Walsh and Howe.