Beth Kelly hit the ground running with her first OBAAT post, and got me to thinking why I enjoy some Westerns so much, others only a little and (unfortunately) the rest, not at all. It was The Beloved Spouse who reminded me: the best Westerns are very much noir stories, set fifty to seventy-five years before film noir became a thing.
The stereotypical Western has become a cultural cliché: white hats = good guys, black hates = bad guys. Anyone with a true understanding of “American Exceptionalism” can figure that can’t have been how things really were. Better and more honest histories have since been written, and we now know “good guy” and “bad guy” were often situational, as many Western legends walked on both sides of that road, sometimes simultaneously. (Wyatt Earp a prime example.)
The earliest Western I know of to embrace these noirish roots was Shane(1953). Alan Ladd plays a gunfighter who tries to give it up, only to learn his past is not so easily eluded, and good intentions cannot alter one’s destiny. There’s no secret how the film will play out once Jack Palance makes his screen debut, but earlier Westerns would have Shane clean up the town and ride off into the sunset as the adoring citizens wave. In the movie, he rides into the dark mountains with only a child to see him, presumably to die.
Ride the High Country (1962) takes things another step down the road. Randolph Scott, the stock Western good guy (In Blazing Saddles, Cleavon Little rallies the people of Rock Ridge to follow him by saying, “You’d do it for Randolph Scott”), betrays old friend Joel McCrae. Scott can’t go through with it and dies for his sins—classic Western stuff—the tone of the film is what matters. The mining camp and its residents place one in mind more of Deadwood than of Dodge City, and you’re really not sure how things will fall out with Scott and McCrae until the final scene.
Ride the High Country was directed by Sam Peckinpaugh, who’d break the mold with 1969’s The Wild Bunch. The film created a stir with its ground-breaking graphic violence, but holds up over time thanks to its portrayals of the Wild Bunch as not only ruthless outlaws, but men who care enough about a comrade—the one they’re least close to, no less—to sacrifice themselves for him. It’s thealleged good guys—Robert Ryan and his posse—who are the low-lifes, stealing the clothes off dead men and fighting over who killed who for the bounty money. Let’s also not forget, Peckinpaugh’s violence is graphic, not gratuitous. Over forty years later, the Battle of the Bloody Porch is still a difficult scene to watch, not least because of how the viewer has come to identify with William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, and Ben Johnson. (Yeah, Sam had a decent cast to work with, too.)
Television got into the act in 1989 with Lonesome Dove. While many would not think of it as noir, the final scene establishes its credentials. Woodrow Call(Tommy Lee Jones) has returned to Lonesome Dove, where a reporter recognizes him as the man who ramrodded a cattle drive from the Rio Grande to be the first man to graze cattle in Montana, and tells Call people say he is a man of vision. Call reflects on how his quest has resulted in the deaths of everyone he was close to, and mutters, “Yeah. Hell of a vision.” A key element of noir is that of someone who kicks off events that will spiral out of his control and end badly. If this doesn’t qualify, I don’t know what does.
Clint Eastwood (you knew he’d show up sooner orlater) takes Shane’s premise to its pinnacle with Unforgiven (1992). (Eastwood made several movies that deserved mention here: A Fistful of Dollars; For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; and The Outlaw Josie Wales. I chose Unforgiven as his masterpiece.) All characters are multidimensional. That Eastwood’s character William Munny comes out on top at the end is recognition that the most dangerous man is one who has no boundaries.
All of which brings us to what may be the darkest—and most realistic—depiction of its chosen Western element: Deadwood (2004 – 2006). Intended by creatorDavid Milch to show how order will of necessity arise in any situation, HBO’s brilliant series played self-interest against moral compass (or lack thereof) against greed against a desire to do what’s best for the most people, a morality play defined by the acrimony and marriages of convenience between Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant) and Al Swearengen (Ian McShane, playing what may be the ultimate multidimensional villain). Extremely loosely based on real people and events, Deadwood shows how society inelegantly climbs from anarchy despite—and because of—the baser natures of all involved.
It’s no great surprise Elmore Leonard was able to transition so well fromWesterns to crime fiction, the core elements are so much the same. (The movie Hombre (1967) could also have made this list, and may well be Leonard’s masterpiece; a brilliant book.) A casual disrespect for the letter of the law, the use of violence as an acceptable means to an end, and characters who, when done right, are not what they seem to be, link both genres.