In westerns cowboys are usually depicted as symbols of ultimate freedom. In John Huston’s epitaph to the western, 1961’s The Misfits, Clark Gable’s character explains the life of a cowboy as “Well, you start by going to sleep. You get up when you feel like it. You scratch yourself. You fry yourself some eggs. You see what kind of a day it is; throw stones at a can, whistle.”* And this notion of freedom is part what makes Raoul Walsh’s 1947 film Pursued so interesting. Billed as the first ever western-noir, Pursued takes the vastness of the old west and transforms it into a stifling landscape where you can run but you can’t hide.
Pursued stars Robert Mitchum as Jeb Rand, a man haunted by the scattered memories of a traumatic event. The film opens with Jeb hiding out in the dilapidated remains of a weathered ranch. Then through a series of flashbacks Jeb narrates how fate led him to this point. This narrative framing device is often used in noir* as a way to start off the movie by letting the audience know how it’s going to end: badly. It steeps the rest of the film in an ominous dread because no matter how good things look for our characters we know their ultimate and unfortunate fates.
The story Jeb tells us is that of his upbringing with his adopted family the Callums. Ma Callum finds the orphaned Jeb and brings him home to live and work on her ranch with her two other children Thor and Adam. Although Jeb finds himself getting along with Thor, he frequently gets into fight with Adam, as Adam considers Jeb “an outsider.” As they grow up together Jeb and Thor’s relationship blossoms into a romantic affair which only raises the tension between Jeb and Adam. The Callum family dynamic is best seen in this wonderful shot:
Here Walsh gives you a literal color bar from the immaculate Ma Callum in all white to the haunted Jeb Rand in all black hanging over the family like a shadow. The two women look onto Jeb with love and concern but Jeb only shows mistrust. Another great shot from earlier in the film once again shows the distance between brothers Jeb and Adam:
Here once again Jeb, on horseback, is literally turned into a shadow. The tension between Adam and Jeb continues to build until through a shoot-out instigated by Adam, Jeb kills Adam. Yet it isn’t until the body lands at his feet that Jeb realizes that he killed his brother, as when Adam fired on him he was hidden behind a rock. Following Adam’s death Ma and Thor Callum disown Jeb, refusing to look or speak to him. As Ma Callum put it “If you cross the fence onto my property, I’ll sick the dogs on you!”
From there Jeb’s troubles continue. He is engaged in another shoot-out and again kills the other man. During the funeral scene there is a wonderful visual that allows the audience to see how much this violence is torturing Jeb.
The cowboy boot is the symbol of Jeb’s haunted past. In fact although Jeb enjoys the life of a ranch hand he spends his life trying to evade the more violent aspects of the west. In Pursued all of the usual symbols of freedom come to represent the oppression of Jeb. Even the landscape is used to present a wall of darkness that Jeb can’t escape.
Pursued is a wonderful film that uses the style of noir to explore the more aggressive aspects of the western film. It features a great cast and is wonderfully shot by James Wong Howe who also worked on another great revisionist western film, Hud. A remastered edition is currently available through local video boutique Olive Films.
So what do you think? Have you ever seen Pursued? Can you think of any other genres you’d like to see mixed with the western? Please leave some comments below so we can continue our conversation on Pursued, shoot-outs, and our favorite genre remixes.
*Ironically, The Misfits is also a film where cowboys are ultimately portrayed as violent and selfish.
-Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes