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Friday, November 9, 2007

Western Hybrids, Part 2 (originally published 6/00)

When we think of Western movies, most of us think in terms of formulaic plots and familiar conventions such as good guys in white hats and bad guys in black hats. The conventions of a genre do not, however, exist merely to be followed slavishly every time the cameras roll. Creative filmmakers generally view those conventions as a point of departure. They can be subjected to variations, reacted against, or combined with the conventions of other genres to see what the result will be.

Following this last approach, the producers of "Shanghai Noon," the latest Jackie Chan vehicle, have combined elements of the Western with those of the martial arts thriller genre, along with a generous leavening of comedy. As we saw last week, lots of earlier filmmakers have also found it fruitful to combine Westerns with other genres.

The examples we considered last time mainly fell into the category of combinations of a Western setting with elements gleaned from other action-adventure genres. This is only natural, but it by no means exhausts the potential for cross-pollination between Westerns and other narrative forms. Some of the most interesting Western hybrids have resulted from the marriage of six-guns and saddles with more serious, less melodramatic forms of storytelling. To see a few examples of what I'm talking about, look for these titles on home video.

"Pursued" (1947). Just after World War II, a certain segment of American cinema, most especially the detective stories, seemed to turn dark and cynical. The plots of such films tended to focus on the seamy side of life, and everyone, even the sympathetic characters, seemed to be up to no good. Collectively, such films came to be known as "film noir" ("dark cinema"). The most common setting for film noir was an urban environment - dark, grimy city streets teeming with sin. In "Pursued," however, screenwriter Niven Busch and director Raoul Walsh succeeded in combining the film noir sensibility with a Western setting. It helped that they had Robert Mitchum, who had become identified with the urban variety of film noir, playing the lead. Mitchum plays a typical noir hero, haunted by a tortured past and alienated from those he loves the most by a perverse set of circumstances. The familiar Western settings are all here - saloons and ranches and open prairies - but the feel is more like that of a James M. Cain story of urban corruption.

"Johnny Guitar" (1953). There's an old joke about the sexual content of Westerns being limited to the cowboy kissing his horse, but the truth is far more interesting. Howard Hughes had pushed the envelope in terms of simple prurient content in Westerns with "The Outlaw" (1943), but that's just kids' stuff. The really fascinating storylines dealing with sex have almost always been stories of sexual obsession. From "Tristan and Isolde" to "Othello," this theme has produced some of our most enduring classics. In "Johnny Guitar," screenwriter Philip Yordan and director Nicholas Ray wove a disturbing tapestry of sexual obsessions and jealousies between saloon owner Vienna (Joan Crawford), her ex-lover Johnny (Sterling Hayden), rancher Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge), and an outlaw called the Dancin' Kid (Scott Brady). From gender role-reversal to genre parody to political commentary, there's so much going on in this film that a first viewing is likely to leave your head spinning. Stick with it; you'll find that repeated viewings are richly rewarded.

"Track of the Cat" (1954). In pondering how to describe this indescribable little film, the best I can do is to say that it's a combination of Zane Grey and Eugene O'Neill. On a northern California ranch, a hunt for the panther that has been killing the family's livestock provides the backdrop for an intense drama of domestic warfare. Robert Mitchum stars as the brother who is determined to wrest control of the family from his alcoholic father.

I'd also love to tell you about a 1950 Western called "The Furies" that was based on a Greek tragedy, but unfortunately it's not yet available on video. The point of all this is that we musn't sell the Western genre short based on the common image of cliché-ridden shoot-em-ups. We're dealing here with a potent mythology, capable of sustaining just about any type of narrative ever devised. Anytime you can contain everything from Greek tragedy to film noir in the same corral, you've got yourself quite a roundup.

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