A film like the Searchers (1956) or even The Bravados (1958) frames the western as a tale of vengeance, where a vendetta is carried out from start to finish, only to get twisted up along the way across moral lines. Pursued is a psychological western that takes up the story from the opposite end of the barrel, as its name implies, though the way it goes about it isn’t altogether straightforward. Such stories very rarely are.
Jeb (Robert Mitchum) is hiding out in a cave as his love Thor (played by Teresa Wright) rides to him. We don’t know their history, why he is there, or who is coming after him. All we know through obvious inference is that all these things must be true.
It’s screenwriter Niven Busch’s ploy to draw us into our story and then he fades into a flashback that carries most of the picture’s weight. As many stories channeling Freudian theories must begin, this one is conceived in childhood.
A young boy remembers glimpses of a horrible event. Bullets flying. A body of a woman crawling towards him as he hides under a bed. And this woman (Judith Anderson) would become his adopted mother as her two own kids become rather like his siblings. Thor and Jeb get on well enough but from their boyhood, there has always been an unresolved conflict between Jeb and Adam. The animosity stems from the fact Adam will always see the other as not a true part of his family and Jeb lives with a bit of a chip on his shoulder, understandable or not.
For the sake of their mother and their sister, they begrudgingly tolerate each other and that’s the extent of it. When the Spanish-American War erupts one of them must go and so they decide it in the most arbitrary way possible. With a coin flip. Jeb loses and goes off to be a war hero.
When the family finally reunites and gathers around to sing “Danny Boy” to the tune of Londonderry Aire, there is a sensitivity we feel unaccustomed to, since the rest of the story is brusque and distant nearly scene after scene.
While in its opening moments it began as a story of hospitality and family, Pursued really starts falling apart and allows its core themes to exert their full presence. It’s in these moments where we begin to see hints of a story playing out not unlike a crazed version of the prodigal son.
On another coin flip, Jeb loses out on his piece of the ranch and after having it out with Adam turns to his buddy (Alan Hale Sr.) at a gambling house. He is brought on as part of the operation. Meanwhile, the jealous older brother character begrudges the fact his mother will give Jeb an equal inheritance so he is looking to avenge this personal affront. It doesn’t end peaceably.
At his ensuing trial, Jeb’s life is on the line but even though he gets away scot-free, his relations with his surrogate family will never be the same. And it’s only made worse with every subsequent moment including a town dance where Thor’s latest beau (Harry Carey Jr.) is egged on to confront Jeb.
Dean Jagger makes a nuisance of himself hanging over the entire picture menacingly, but it does feel like his talents are generally wasted. Because when everyone else is gone, the most traumatized parties are Mitchum, Wright, and Anderson.
However, this noir western is a genre-bender blessed by the beautiful black and white imagery of James Wong Howe matched with the direction of that old Warner Bros. vet Raoul Walsh. Whether it’s the distant silhouette of Robert Mitchum illuminated in the doorway at night or the sheer magnitude of the cliffs and crags as they frame insignificant riders galloping by on their horses, the images are undeniably evocative.
There’s nothing all that surprising or thematically interesting about the film’s content initially. Still, this is not a full denunciation of the picture outright. Because the way it plays out does become marginally more intriguing as Mitchum comes under attack and finds himself becoming more abhorred by the minute.
I must admit it’s hard to buy sweet, innocent Teresa Wright could be vindictive at all. However, what the two stars breed is the most detached married life known to man. It’s a tribute to both of them. But they can’t stay that way forever.
What does remain is the fact Mitchum has been hounded his whole life by some unnameable specter hanging over him, and the picture has been hemming and hawing for a final showdown all along. It finally comes, though the ones who take a stand are not who we might expect.
The psychology puzzle of it all is up for debate — how memories come flooding back at just the right moment or how people can love someone and them turn around and hate them and then love them again almost on a dime.
But this does not completely neutralize Pursued which still deserves a reputation as a brooding and atmospheric take on the West. It’s not as mentally stimulating as might have been warranted but with the cast of Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright, even ill-fit as they may seem, this oater still comes as a fairly easy recommendation.