Pursued (1947)

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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.

3.5/5 Stars

Review: Moonrise (1948)

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It’s like being in a long dark tunnel…the way you look and act and talk. ~ Gail Russel as Gilly

From its very foreboding outset, there’s no question that Frank Borzage’s Moonrise could be characterized as film-noir. Everything suggests as much from the scoring to the stylized imagery and even the subject matter. We have hangings, brawls, fistfights, and murder all under 5 minutes of celluloid. But equally important, the film delves into the psychological depths of despair and more than any of Borzage’s films it seems invested in the mental well-being of its characters.

Dan’s personal narrative is brought to us early on. His father was hung for some inexplicable reason. The kids in school brutally tease him about the ignominious shame of his family which he has no control over and all throughout his life thereafter he carries a chip on his shoulder. We don’t quite understand him but at least we begin to empathize. We meet Dan (Dane Clark) again as an adult at a local dance.

That’s where the next chapter in his story begins as he tries to bridle his anger and keep the reins firmly in check. It doesn’t always work so well for him. After all, he is the man with a constant death wish driving cars on wet roads like it’s the Indy 500. He is the man who is prone to strong-arm tactics. He is the man who trusts no one to be his friend and expects very little from others. But he does have one thing going for him.

Her name is Gilly (Gail Russell), she’s the local schoolteacher, and if nothing else her very presence humanizes him. She formerly ran with the local hotshot (Lloyd Bridges) but she has found some quiet decency in Dan and if she sees it, maybe we can see more in him as well. In some ways, he’s still a little boy and she reads him like one of her students with thinly veiled observations. His frumpy Aunt Jessie pins him as a good boy but that doesn’t make up for the absence of his parents or the anger that he still harbors from boyhood.

But a small town setting and a purported crime prove to be an ever-intriguing synthesis of Americana and the ugly underbelly which if it doesn’t rear its head through gossip alone, then murder certainly fits the bill in a pinch. It’s summed up by dances, carnivals, and coon hunts with an undeniable undercurrent of darkness.

As far as I can tell Charles F. Haas had few other feature scripts to his name but his work in Moonrise offers up some interesting figures full of witticism and unique voices that help to differentiate each from the diverse pack.

The bullied mute Henry Morgan is at one time befriended and also berated by Dan. Rex Ingram proves to be a landmark African-American actor for the era, full of a quiet strength and wisdom. As local keeper of the bloodhounds, he addresses his canines as Mr. Dog surmising that everyone is entitled to a certain amount of dignity. Just as importantly, he rightfully asserts that man is a communal being (Man oughta have a woman. Man oughta live with other folks).

The Local Soda Jerk has the jive talk down pat and Lloyd Bridges and Harry Carey Jr. fill in for a couple relatively minor spots. Of course, Ethel Barrymore is in the coveted keynote cameo as Daniel’s  sagely Grandma. But aside from Ingram’s significant turn, Alyn Joslyn is one of the more entertaining characters as the sheriff who waxes philosophical. One of townsfolk even notes as much that he should have been a preacher man instead of a lawman.

Cinematically speaking, Moonrise proves that the finest places to meet your best gal seem to be darkened interiors and if nothing else it’s a feast for the eyes and a treat for the audience. And it’s true that with its quaint country backwoods and swamps, Borzage’s picture shares some of its world with Joseph L. Lewis’s Gun Crazy (1950). But for Borzage, in particular, this feels very much like a departure which is by no means a bad thing. Here the love story is still present but it seems to ultimately have a different functionality altogether from many of the director’s most remembered entries.

3.5/5 Stars

Moonrise (1948)

MoonriseHere is a low budget yet artistic film from Frank Borzage. I will be honest that I had never heard of Borzage before a year or two ago and he seems to have lost some of the respect he had early on in the 20th century. The same can be said for his stars Dane Clark and Gail Russell who are unknowns to most unless you hailed from those times. I was saddened to find Russell struggled with alcoholism which contrasts with the surprisingly hopeful ending of this melodramatic noir.

Ultimately, Danny Hawkins (Clark) was able to let go of all his hatred and accept justice. Instead of throwing away his life he got the girl and came to terms with reality.

Perhaps the most striking moment of this film was the highly stylized and dark opening showing the hanging of Danny’s father and his early childhood afterwards. In only a few minutes Borzage told us so much about Danny. Thus, during the entire films those images stuck with us and we could still feel a sense of empathy for him.

Despite there small parts, I was excited to see Lloyd Bridges, a young Harry Morgan, and Harry Carey Jr. All in all this was an interesting film and it causes me to want to see more from Borzage.

3.5/5 Stars

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1948)

6a177-sheworeayellowribbonpost“Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.”

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon can probably be considered lighter fare than the Searchers or Liberty Valance, but it is still worth a watch for Ford or Wayne fans.The 2nd installment of John Ford’s cavalry trilogy, this film was shot in Monument Valley in color and features a 41 year old John Wayne playing a 60 year old captain on the verge of retirement. However, before he is done he must diffuse the aggression of the Native Americans due to the aftermath of the Little Big Horn. At base and on the the trail he must deal with two young bucks (James Agar and Harry Carey Jr.) and the stuck up girl (Joanne Dru) they are fighting over. However, he also has some very capable men in his company, two of which are played by Victor McClaigen and Ben Johnson. With his retirement imminent he salvages his last mission before riding off as a civilian towards California. Except they are not quite done with him yet.

Here Wayne takes on a more fatherly role and does a good job dispelling his knowledge and know how as the experienced Nathan Cuttings Brittles. As usual John Ford does not disappoint and there is some brilliant scenery whether it is Monument Valley in the rain or the shine. Next are Fort Apache (1948) and then Rio Grande (1950)!

4/5 Stars