Ed here: Jake Hinson writes fine noirish fiction and fine noirish essays. Here's just one more example.
Noir is like a disease. Its symptoms are moodiness, despair, guilt, and paranoia. There were early strains of it in German Expressionism; in the crime fiction of Woolrich, Holding, and Cain; in the prewar American cinema of Welles, Ingster, and Huston. The first full-fledged outbreak started somewhere in the war years. Some say Street Of Chance in 1942; others point to Double Indemnity and The Woman In The Window in 1944. Gradually noir spread out of the crime genre, however, and attached itself to different genres. Perhaps the first victim was the cinematic stalwart, the Western.
At first glance the Western would seem antithetical to noir. (A fetishist for strict definitions would probably insist that noir be defined essentially as a crime genre. I’m taking more of a thematic approach, here, interpreting noir as something closer to a moral thesis: that people are weak and existentially screwed.) The tropes of the Western—sunlight, open spaces, nature—would seem to immune to the noir disease. But make no mistake, the Western caught the disease. A genre that seemed to be the quintessence of American optimism, a genre that seemed to embody the notion of moral clarity, slowly gave way to darker themes and more neurotic characters.
One reason for the spread of the noir ethos to the Western is the overlap of talent between crime pictures and oaters. Noir icons like Robert Mitchum, Barbara Stanwyck, and Dick Powell all spent plenty of time out on the plains. Moreover, the behind the scenes talent—directors, writers, cinematographers—all did double duty as well.
It’s no coincidence that many early experiments came out of RKO Pictures, the company that noir historian Eddie Muller once dubbed “The House Of Noir” for its prodigious output of the dark stuff. RKO’s stable of supporting actors looks like a roll call of noir’s great goons, and most of these mugs and hoodlums popped up in dusters and six-shooters at one time or another.
Here then is a beginner’s guide to the classic Western Noir:
1. Pursued (1947): Released in film noir’s golden year, this Raoul Walsh oater stars noir’s greatest leading man, Robert Mitchum, as an orphan tormented by nightmares of his family’s death (not to mention a quasi-incestuous love for his adopted sister). With full-on noir cinematography by the great James Wong Howe, this film is one of the premiere examples of Neurosis In The West.
2. Blood On The Moon (1948): Robert Mitchum is back as a drifter caught up in the age-old land war between homesteaders and cattlemen. He’s pitted against his old pal, played by Robert Preston, and romanced by a spunky gun-wielding Barbara Bel Geddes. The team here is a who’s who of noir greats—director Robert Wise, cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, composer Roy Webb. Hell, it even has Charles McGraw in a supporting role.
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