Initially it sounds like a contradiction in terms. Westerns are supposed to be the great American affirmation–our Everlasting Yea–whereas crime movies, many of which are also films noir, are our Everlasting Nay. But there have been noir westerns–and in the 1970s noir westerns (or if you prefer Revisionist Westerns) practically became the norm. Noir westerns made during the classic period tend to be a fairly discreet group. There were westerns like “My Darling Clementine” that had noir shadings, and westerns like “Duel in the Sun” and “Yellow Sky” that were finally a bit too romantic to be truly noir. Eventually there were westerns that used noir conceits but lacked bite. The true noir westerns were disturbing. Even if the heroes survived to the fade-out, they were unsettled, changed by their experiences.
Doomed heroes were relatively rare. In Raoul Walsh’s “Colorado Territory,” Joel McCrea’s train-robber Wes McQueen and in Henry King’s “The Gunfighter,” Gregory Peck’s gunfighter Jimmy Ringo are prime examples. Both are prisoners of a past that they desperately wish to escape from, but what they are defeats who they are and determines their fate. McQueen has to rob that final train; Ringo has to become a walking target just because he’s Ringo, the Top Gun. Robert Mitchum’s prime contributions, Jeb Rand in Raoul Walsh’s “Pursued” and Jim Geary in Robert Wise’s “Blood on the Moon” suffer from confusion. Rand’s confusion is purely internal. Suffering from nightmares and forced by fate into a series of arbitrary, but life-changing decisions, he’s literally a puppet who has no idea who is pulling his strings, or why. Geary’s confusion is more pragmatic in nature. Brought into the territory to help an old friend, he gradually learns that the friend is a rotter who is victimizing good people. Should Geary stick with his old pal or break with him? Perhaps because they are first-and-foremost westerns, the femme fatale character doesn’t enjoy quite as much prominence in noir westerns as she does in traditional films noir. Jane Greer’s dance-hall queen/criminal mastermind in Sidney Lanfield’s “Station West” is more like a fugitive from a crime film, but Veronica Lake’s Connie Dickason in Andre de Toth’s “Ramrod” is the real deal. She starts the film as an admirable character. The only person willing to stand up to bullying rancher Frank Ivey. When he humiliates her fiancé, forcing him to flee the town and even stares down Joel McCrea, who we’d expected to stand up to Preston Foster just as he’d earlier stood up to Brian Donlevy’s intimidating Trampas in the non-noir “The Virginian,” we hardly expect that tiny blonde Veronica Lake will tell him off, but she does. Unfortunately, the humiliation she had indirectly undergone at Foster’s hands has sufficiently deranged her that she now lives only to see him dead. When she assumes control of her vanished fiancé’s small ranch, we think “good for her,” but it soon becomes clear that she has done so only to touch off a range war in which she hopes Ivey will perish. To this end, she snares her new foreman Dave Nash (McCrea) and his happy-go-lucky pal Bill Schell played by Don De Fore, convincing De Fore to stampede her own cattle in the hope that Foster and his men will be blamed. When Ivey emerges unscathed by the law, she provokes a final, fatal confrontation between Foster and McCrea. In Edwin L. Marin’s somewhat later semi-noir “Raton Pass” Patricia Neal played another scheming lady empire-builder, but the later film telegraphed Neal’s villainy so blatantly there it was far less effective than De Toth’s gradual revelation of Lake’s deceitfulness. Still later the old noir pro Barbara Stanwyck played crippled empire-builder Edward G. Robinson’s wife in Rudolph Mate’s “The Violent Men.” Again, her true nature was revealed too early for it to have any real impact, even when she removes Robinson’s crutches as he tries to escape his burning ranch house. The impact of Mate’s film was conditioned upon our accepting that Glenn Ford’s newly-arrived settler is a pacifist of sorts. Only when he calls upon his Civil War experience to ruthlessly dismantle Robinson’s prairie kingdom do we learn the sort of man we and Robinson are dealing with.
As for Glenn Ford, this usually affable leading-man was willing to be the Robert Mitchum of noir westerns, playing characters who were mad, bad and nobody’s idea of a hero. In Henry Levin’s “The Man from Colorado” he played a Union Army major who is named a federal judge after the war only to have his power, and his wartime experiences, go to his head and in S. Sylvan Simon’s “Lust for Gold” he played Jacob Walz, a prospector who kills to obtain the secret of a lost gold mine and is willing to continue killing to keep the secret to himself. He’s so ruthless in the latter film that he even rolls over Ida Lupino’s scheming phoney “widow” who thought she could seduce it out of him.
This has hardly been a comprehensive discussion. I’ve tried to touch on what I think are the more important and interesting noir westerns, but I haven’t dug too deeply into the 1950s, in a way THE decade for Westerns, and I haven’t considered Revisionist Westerns at all. Even though some of the best noir westerns, like “Hour of the Gun” and “Hombre” appeared during this period. This was just my reminiscing over “a few of my favorite things.”