When The Midnite Drive-In unveiled plans for a Film Noir Blogathon, it was easy to opt in. The difficulty for a noir-centered blog was to pick a subject…one that I wasn’t already going to cover anyway. Pretty much anything I post August 12-14, 2016 is going to be appropriate, so I decided on a less obvious focus: the noir western, specifically those of director John Sturges, The Walking Hills (1949) and The Capture (1950).
I want to begin with discussion of the concept of a “noir western.” If both halves of such a picture (the noir and the western) are genres, you have a blend of genres, and that’s a reliable description. However, I’m convinced by the writings of scholars and fans along with my own experience that central to film noir is style. It’s more adjective than noun. There are content elements we see in noir, such as character types: the femme fatale, the hard-boiled dick, the good wife, the gangster, and the everyman sucker-punched by fate. There are plot and thematic elements, including violence, mistrust, criminality, death, deceit, ill-fated love, lust, corporate greed, and the disruption of the traditional family. And there is style: lighting, cinematography, sets, and settings (aka mise-en-scene). All of these aspects must be considered when we apply the label “noir” to a film, and there is plenty of argument over both the defining factors and the application of the label to specific films.
What I love about films that can be called both noir and western, or noir westerns are the way the noir turns the often hypermasculine and ultra-confident western into a study in anxiety. Noirs don’t have heroes, they have protagonists, often torn or twisted by personal history or fate. Complex, angst-ridden characters are not common in classic westerns, though when they appear they are most often sidekicks who must be avenged, villains, or bystanders who let the hero shine more brightly. But such stereotypes are made to be broken. Consider the distance between the brave Ringo Kid (John Wayne), who saves the fallen woman Dallas (Claire Trevor) in Stagecoach (1939), and Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) in High Noon (1952), a man who can’t save anyone — not himself nor his bride, Quaker Amy Fowler (Grace Kelly) or his Latina ex-lover Helen Ramirez (Katy Jurado). Even his deputy Harvey Pell (Lloyd Bridges) turns against him. Such differences, of course, say much about the eras in which they were written — from pre-WWII to the Cold War. And shifting cultural mood is a significant factor (along with the influx of artistically inclined emigre directors coming from Europe fleeing the Nazis) in the development of classic-era film noir.
John Sturges (1910-1992) is a director best known for hard-hitting, male-dominated action flicks. Odds are that if you know his work, it is for his westerns, including Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), or for his military pictures, such as The Great Escape (1963), Ice Station Zebra (1968), and The Eagle Has Landed (1976). But perhaps you know him for his direction of films that blend noir and the western, best exemplified by Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), for which he received a Best Director Oscar nomination.
If you like to dig deeper, you may also known Sturges from his earlier films, such as the noir-police procedural Mystery Street (1950), starring Ricardo Montalban as a cop seeking the murderer of a prostitute in a small town. But if you keep digging, you’ll find two more pictures that say much about the impact of the western on noir and noir on the western in the immediate post-WWII era.
The Walking Hills (1949)
In simplest terms, The Walking Hills is a western about a group of treasure hunters who search for a buried wagon load of gold in Death Valley. The mistrust and violence that erupts among the characters, however, is clearly noir-influenced. (IMDb calls it an “adventure thriller western,” which shows its complexity in terms of generic identification.)
Our lead in the film is Randolph Scott, best known for his western films. The central woman in the film is played by Ella Raines, known to noir fans as the plucky working girl of B noir. Arthur Kennedy and John Ireland are also featured, actors known for both noir and westerns. Tensions among the characters run high as they sweat out the hard work and harbor suspicions and jealousies.
The Death Valley setting is fascinating: wide open and sunny yet lonely and dangerous. The simple plot reveals complex character relations, including intrigues and hatreds that lead to violence. There is a desperate fight with shovels, and fate steps in with a raging sand-storm to bring the film to its conclusion.
As you watch, you know by dialogue and costume that you’re watching a western, but the mood feels darkly noir.
The Capture (1950)
Even more obviously noirish than The Walking Hills is 1950’s The Capture. Here again we have a western setting, this time in Mexico’s oil fields. The mood, however, is typically noirish plot twists and anxiety straight through.
Through the noir device of narrative framing, we meet protagonist Lin Vanner (Lew Ayres) as he finds sanctuary in a priest’s tiny home after having been shot by the police. He knows he will be killed, and seeks solace in telling his tale to the priest. When managing an oil field, Vanner captured a man who was suspected of robbing the payroll. The suspect was shot and unable to raise both arms to signal his surrender, but Vanner did not know this and shot him dead. As a result of the incident, Vanner’s social-climbing fiancée broke off their engagement, and Vanner resigned from his job. Guilt drove him to visit the dead man’s widow Ellen (Teresa Wright) and her son, and he decides to work on her ranch. Complex emotions emerge as the two grow attracted to one another, but when Ellen finds out who Vanner is, she turns cold and vindictive. Another twist comes as Vanner learns the truth of Ellen’s relationship with her abusive former husband. The film eventually returns to the present, where Vanner’s past has fully caught up with him and he must pay the price…or must he?
If The Walking Hills is a western with noirish tensions, The Capture is noir with a western setting. The two films together illustrate well how the mood of the immediate post-war era impacted Hollywood film and worked within John Sturges early directing career, leading to his best known and award-nominated films.