Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962 (David Meuel)

Even though the literature on film noir continues to grow at a dizzying pace, there is still some virgin territory to be claimed. David Meuel's The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962 would appear to be the first book-length treatment of its subject (I say "appears to be" because such assertions have a way of being disproven later). The concept of noir westerns as a subset of "off-genre noirs" goes back a long way, and has been discussed in sections of books (such as Alain Silver et al.'s Film Noir: An Encyclopedic Reference to the American Style, which first appeared in 1979) and in articles (such as Michael Shepler's 2008 "Sagebrush Noir: The Western as 'Social Problem" Film," which oddly goes unmentioned by Meuel). But it has long merited fuller treatment, and Meuel's well-written, engaging study is an excellent start on that. There will certainly be more books on the subject ahead.

Discussions of film noir can easily bog down in definitional disputes, which even though I am a participant at one of the best noir discussion boards, The Blackboard, I try to steer clear of. Although "film noir" was first used as a descriptor in France in the late 1940s, it was not a recognized term in the United States until the early 1970s. Therefore, as one of our finest noir scholars James Naremore has pointed out, it is "a concept that was generated ex post facto." No director or screenwriter of the "classic noir period" (fairly close to Meuel's defined dates of 1943 to 1962) would have known at the time that noir films were what they were making. It was inevitable that complete consensus on the use of the term would never be reached, and it has not been; as Naremore states, "no writer has been able to find the category's necessary and sufficient characteristics." The edges of the phenomenon are blurry even if the core is not.

In dealing with a branch of off-genre noir, David Meuel is necessarily operating at the edges, where disputes about what is in and what is out are potentially the most bruising. I'm not going to worry it. He has chosen 21 films by 11 directors to concentrate on, while identifying another 50 relevant movies in an appendix. His arguments on behalf of the inclusion of the 21 films are reasonably persuasive without amounting to a "Meuel test" for what constitutes a noir western. Thematic complexity, psychological depth, visual style, and bleakness of outlook all figure into his analysis, but in differing proportions with respect to each title and director.

When you look at it that way, the scope of the noir western could be construed very broadly. Any double fan of noir and westerns, and there are many, will readily think of some titles that Meuel has not listed - Joseph Kane's Ride the Man Down or Don Siegel's The Duel at Silver Creek, for instance (both 1952). In fact, it is harder to exclude many 1946-1960 Westerns from consideration than it is to include them. If one combs carefully through any of the numerous printed iterations of Phil Hardy's indispensable work on the Western, many of the descriptions of obscure A-/B+ Westerns spring off the page as meriting viewing and additional research in connection with this theme. And no one, as far as I am aware, has even started working on the noir strain in television Westerns.

So Meuel is a pioneer, and all that ultimately matters is whether he is a good pioneer, which he manifestly is. He found the spot-on publisher for this sort of material, McFarland, which has long specialized in offering the findings of independent scholars in popular culture, whose work is many cuts above mere fan writing, but generally more accessible and less jargon-ridden than the books that university presses put out. (Many such volumes are invaluable, but may present more of a challenge to the uninitiated.)

Well before the tag "noir" was applied to Westerns, the sort of movies that Meuel discusses were called adult, psychological, serious, and literary Westerns, and later, as we headed into the Sixties and Seventies, revisionist Westerns. An equally good description for some of them would be "arthouse Westerns"; in fact, a book parallel to Meuel's and covering many of the same films could be written that minimized references to noir and concentrated on how the arthouse attitude came to shape a genre one might think would be immune to it. I have a soft spot for many of the more extreme arthouse Westerns that Meuel resists a little bit - Anthony Mann's The Furies, William Wellman's Track of the Cat, Delmer Daves' Jubal - although he does very well by Wellman's The Ox-Bow Incident, one of the very first arthouse Westerns. Somehow John Ford always escapes being labeled "arthouse," despite the obvious fact that every single last thing in his films, every frame, is intensely considered.

The shift to more "adult" Westerns involved a number of directors, among whom Anthony Mann has received his just due, and Delmer Daves definitely has not. Meuel has a fine feel for the different personalities and strategies of these directors and honors all of them, who in addition to Mann, Ford, Wellman, and Daves include Budd Boetticher and Sam Fuller (long cult favorites), Raoul Walsh (not one bit inferior to the more celebrated Howard Hawks), Robert Wise (a supreme craftsman), Henry King, Allan Dwan, and Andre De Toth.

In short, this is a highly worthy addition to the film buff's bookshelf.

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