Late Westerns: The Persistence of a Genre

Late Westerns: The Persistence of a Genre

by Lee Clark Mitchell


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For more than a century the cinematic Western has been America’s most familiar genre, always teetering on the verge of exhaustion and yet regularly revived in new forms. Why does this outmoded vehicle—with the most narrowly based historical setting of any popular genre—maintain its appeal? In Late Westerns Lee Clark Mitchell takes a position against those critics looking to attach “post” to the all-too-familiar genre. For though the frontier disappeared long ago, though men on horseback have become commonplace, and though films of all sorts have always, necessarily, defied generic patterns, the Western continues to enthrall audiences. It does so by engaging narrative expectations stamped on our collective consciousness so firmly as to integrate materials that might not seem obviously “Western” at all.

Through plot cues, narrative reminders, and even cinematic frameworks, recent films shape interpretive understanding by triggering a long-standing familiarity audiences have with the genre. Mitchell’s critical analysis reveals how these films engage a thematic and cinematic border-crossing in which their formal innovations and odd plots succeed deconstructively, encouraging by allusion, implication, and citation the evocation of generic meaning from ingredients that otherwise might be interpreted quite differently. Applying genre theory with close cinematic readings, Mitchell posits that the Western has essentially been “post” all along.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496201966
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 12/01/2018
Series: Postwestern Horizons
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Lee Clark Mitchell is the Holmes Professor of Belles-Lettres and a professor of English at Princeton University. He is the author of Mere Reading: The Poetics of Wonder in Modern American NovelsWesterns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film; and Determined Fictions: American Literary Naturalism, among other books.

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Ghostly Evocations in Bad Day at Black Rock

Normally, a precredit sequence sets the tone for a film, generating the overall mood for nearly everything that follows. But Bad Day at Black Rock defies that familiar axiom in opening with a high helicopter view of a Southern Pacific train bisecting an arid landscape at top speed, urged on by a sustained acoustic clamor. The sequence registers an all but unstoppable force accompanied by a loudly percussive score, generating an immediate emotional turmoil that far exceeds the mystery that follows. Soon, the predictable transition from frenzy to exhaustion occurs as the passenger Streamliner slowly pulls into the ominous setting of Black Rock, Arizona, its whistle now reduced to uncanny blares, alerting us (through cinematic pacing, sound track, and lackluster setting combined) to how fully this community looms as little more than abandoned ghost town. The irony is that this sequence is dramatically, all but self-consciously counterpoised against the rest of the film, as if the largely static plot that follows were meant as strident contrast to the world here approaching. Another way to understand so dislocating an introduction is that its very intensity alerts us to other discrepancies in a noir Western, a film that consists as much of interior scenes held in medium frame (counterintuitively opposed to the genre's characteristic mode) as of epic CinemaScope landscapes. And even those views of barren terrain are regularly drab and washed out, evoked in thin sepia tints. Characters (all men, with one exception) rarely move around freely or unconstrained in loose configurations but instead are militantly lined up, found sitting or standing in place against walls and windows, as the camera persistently angles down on the hero, John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy), placing him in turn in a routinely subservient position. Moreover, Macreedy's strangely enigmatic undertaking, unexplained until late in the film, seems eerily like a mirror image of the town's behavior in safeguarding its own secretive, history-burdened dilemma.

In fact, the film's opening introduces the first of various paradoxes, heralding the vibrant, electrifying arrival of an outside world (the first time the train has stopped in over four years), only to let off an aged, apparitional figure who seems little different from the ghosts he will soon encounter. A specter enters a community of kindred phantoms, who become suddenly animated by his presence even as he embodies a mystery they are increasingly desperate to suppress. As we learn much later, Macreedy has arrived simply to honor his dead army comrade, to deliver the Medal of Honor Joe Komoko earned in saving Macreedy's life to Komoko's father, as a belated gesture of respect. He has no reason to suspect anything untoward has happened until the town's blustering intransigence arouses his suspicions about stories of the elder Komoko's death. None of that is apparent at first, except in the sheer draining away of the opening's profusion — its dynamic orchestral range, its hyped-up visual transitions — as if the wide-open landscape made so familiar by the Western genre were being undone by a noir plot of a shamefully buried past, one that adamantly refuses to stay buried. And curiously, when that past is finally laid bare, we discover the Japanese subplot has nothing to do with the whole and does not explain the plot transpositions. For all its lingering power, the Asian backstory (unusual as a theme in 1955) emerges as merely a Hitchcockian MacGuffin, a past trauma that signals the present's racism and small-mindedness but otherwise contributes little to the film's dynamic strains.

The paradox of Bad Day at Black Rock resonates more profoundly in the assortment of strangely dissociated plot materials brought together into a more or less familiar configuration. Characters who first appear little more than zombies, devoted to endless, undead behavior, rearrange themselves into patterns that eerily remind us this is a Western. Long before the genre had exhausted familiar possibilities, the film seems prescient in anticipating ways that later Westerns would surprise us into deconstructively imposing remembered paradigms on scenes in order to grasp a narrative trajectory. The formally spectral look of Bad Day confirms this legacy by quietly invoking the genre's more usual visual appeal, if only by contrast with what is here absent or etiolated, the desolate landscapes and washed-out settings. Sturges brilliantly reveals how even his tired mise-en-scène cannot avoid the Western's continuing structural power to persuade. And characters function likewise, as perverse deformations silently enforcing a genre from which they so obviously diverge: the lone (if elderly and disabled) figure unswervingly committed to righting injustice; the craven (if perversely powerful) community riven by dissension, challenged by external threats; the open (if desolate) frontier, transforming individuals for the better; and above all, the prospect of starting over again, escaping the past (if a past no one acknowledges, so never in fact to be successfully escaped from). Each of these gestures seems antigeneric, unsettling us as viewers, since the film's very defiance of familiar patterns makes it slowly recognizable as a Western that focuses on the dynamics of Westerns themselves.

Vague quotations from the tradition alert us to that heritage, beginning with the telegraph office placed near the railway station that replicates the recurrent scene in High Noon, with tracks converging toward the horizon — though here as symbol of constraint rather than ready access of violence. Hector David (Lee Marvin) tilted back in his porch chair gestures recognizably to Wyatt Earp (Henry Fonda) in My Darling Clementine — though with no sense of civilized ease in the posture. And Macreedy's stalwart patience in the face of local, browbeating thugs reminds us of countless other Western heroes who have dominated the big screen. More generally, the film arouses expectations for a genre otherwise familiar through costumes, gestures, and attitudes in a distinctive locale rather than for its recognizable plot (after all, the initiating event in this case is hidden, arbitrary, finally a lie). The menace of Black Rock the town, its bullying and taunts, expresses a generic motif that seems at once excessive and unearned. No reason exists for this threatening dynamic at the very beginning, at least that we can discern, intimating how fully local spirits embody the very historical self-consciousness that will destroy them. The crime that has occurred in the past, that has clearly silenced the present, and that requires a revenant outsider to set a town free: this is the mysterious narrative premise that promises to bring Black Rock alive once again, as it simultaneously signals the dead will at last be allowed to rest in peace.

More importantly, the film parades distinctive (if mixed) generic materials for their own sake: a past revealed by the very energy of making it secret (noir? melodrama?); landscape surveyed not for celebration but simply to register its drabness (Western? Italian neo-realism?); the promise of working economies exposed as empty, perhaps senseless (crime or gangster films? road films?); and masculinity tested as a series of otherwise shallow gestures (action-adventure? historical epic?). In that uncertain parade, Bad Day at once adopts signature features and yet moves relentlessly forward as an exposé of the redemptive aspects to which the Western genre has long laid claim. Granted, this deconstructive reading of a genre film has become a familiar practice in recent decades, though earlier directors had themselves created films with this in mind, most pointedly John Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, which has long been cited as having initiated the practice. It comes as something of a surprise, however, to realize that screenwriter Millard Kaufman and director John Sturges should already in 1955, in the midst of the Western's efflorescence (a year before The Searchers), have exposed the genre's continuing power to persuade by focusing so intently on its limits.

An Alien World

Should one have wanted to waken the dead, the frenzy of Bad Day's opening sequence would offer a suitably appropriate tone, registering sonically and visually the rousing of another world. The combination of strident, overwrought music with a landscape that holds vague appeal, all filmed via a camera that zooms, hovers, and glides: how else might the past be brought alive? Strangely, this scene was unplanned, with Sturges initially having chosen to introduce Tracy descending from the train with no sound other than prairie wind. The producer Dore Schary had "decided not to have any music. Only sounds. First the quiet of the speck of a station in the heart of desolation. A wind blowing, a yowl of a coyote, the far-off horn of a diesel engine, then the roar of the train" (1979, 279). Previews, however, revealed viewers were "puzzled" by this ambiguous entry, and the present scene was added as an afterthought: a Streamliner seen hurtling across the landscape from different points of view, arousing intrigue at this maniacal machine in an incongruous garden. As well, contrary to the initial decision to use only ambient sounds throughout (wind, clocks, slamming doors, automobile horns), a young André Previn was hired to compose an orchestral sound track following the success of High Noon, which had suffered a similar failure in previews before Dimitri Tiomkin's score was added. Previn's music is far more dissonant than Tiomkin's, relying on a series of string repetitions over the blasts of a syncopated, off-kilter brass, all in sixteenth notes. Immediately, the viewer is unsettled by sonic discontinuity, with the music imitating the noise of a train in its clipped ostinatos punctuated by "stingers" (loud discordant punctuations), each of which comes when a credit interrupts the scene. The woodwind trills and continuing brass syncopations never settle into a clear counterrhythm but keep fragmenting in a sequence that remains at once recognizable and somehow new. Gradually, actual sounds (clacking wheels, shrieking steam whistle) start to cross over the musical sound track as the train pulls into the station. The completed sequence — which began with the camera seeming to fly into the front of the train, then over alongside it, accompanied by the brass and percussive score that corresponded to Schary's desire for "something loud, throbbing, and martial in undertone" (1979, 280) — suggests a mildly sinister, emotionally fraught advent to the town of Black Rock, as a solitary, apparently elderly, clearly burdened man disembarks. The opening is done, closed off, underlining its flagrant contrast with the cinematography of the rest of the film. Hereafter, we have a more or less silent, cinematically benign view, slow-paced and understated. And the figure who finally descends as a phantom ready to confront the town — a town we will learn that desperately wants to remain inert — is himself an ironic gesture against the plot to come: a figure unutterably weary, conspicuously aged, acutely handicapped.

Critics have disparaged this opening scene as "overstated," an otherwise irrelevant addition to the film, but its very theatricality arouses self-consciousness about what ensues. For the film contrasts this melodramatic opening with its closing view of the same train slowly departing from a depleted town, with narrative returning us to the status quo before everything was disrupted by the stigma left on this community. The contrast of loud, initial agitation with quiet, closing enervation reinforces the aftermath of murder fully disclosed, incapable of being suppressed, no longer urgent. That sudden transition from turmoil to calm seems to encapsulate the film's own disclosure of murder settled to memory, long since resolved, and now simply there to be suppressed. Part of the logic of this opening sequence is to pressure viewers into resisting the slip into inertia, to maintain an energy that corresponds to what we later learn of Macreedy's obsession. After all, he is the paradoxical figure of absence, the ghost witness of a historical past that refuses to die, and yet the immediate presence of ongoing accusation as well, keeping the energized citizens now fully alive. The town itself is presented as the antithesis of any such energy, statically self-alienated and thoroughly impotent to effect any change. And while the sound track periodically reasserts an ambient emotional energy, that mood is rarely sustained in productive ways. Strangely, one of the few insistent sequences of dramatic emotion occurs in Coley Trimble's (Ernest Borgnine) brutal car chase of Macreedy, where the non-diegetic score is remarkably absent as all we hear is the violence of his honking car.

Just as dramatically and deliberately, however, visual details match the film's unnervingly muted acoustic realm, its mise-en-scène extending a singular dreariness from landscape scenery to personal wardrobe to interior furnishings. The Western celebrated by John Ford and Anthony Mann, André de Toth and Budd Boetticher, appears here as bleached out and comfortless, a dingy palette lacking much that might catch the eye. All is ghostlike, revealed as if through deadened eyes. The only deep-hued color is Reno Smith's (Robert Ryan) red baseball cap, worn as emblem of revived emotional rage but also offered as a singular (and dramatic) contrast to all the other washed-out tints of clothes, furniture, interior decor, weathered buildings, thread-bare desert hues. He is, as the singular demonic figure through the film, identified by this ironic blotch of blood-red color, drawing everyone else in the town under his aegis. The script itself expands Howard Breslin's brief story description to corroborate more elaborately this sense of insignificant void: "The town is minute, dismal and forgotten, crouching in isolation where the single line of railroad track intersects a secondary dirt road. The twin strips of steel glisten in the fierce sunlight, fencing the dreary plain from the false fronts of the town. In b.g. is the bluff of a black stony mountain. Against this ancient mass the houses of Black Rock's single street are scanty in number and insignificant in architecture, a conglomerate paint-peeled modern trussed together with rusty nails and battered tin strips torn from signs." And then, confirming this physical dilapidation, it stresses "the quality of inertia and immutability — nothing moves, not even an insect; nothing breathes, not even the wind. Town and terrain seem to be trapped, caught and held forever in the sullen, abrasive earth." When Macreedy arrives, he is described as smiling "a sad, distasteful greeting to the town, its wretched dust, its mean, modest buildings" (McGuire and Kaufman 2015, n.p.). And with Spencer Tracy's tight-lipped grimace, the agitated music almost immediately subsides into a static rhythm, though the reason for his pause is left mysteriously unanswered. Curiously, the craggy, sallow features of Tracy's face (drooping, deeply creased, immobile) form a living embodiment of the arid landscape itself, exposing him as an autochthonous figure, giving expression to the land's memorial demands.

Again, the long panoramic shots intercut with credits, spurred on acoustically by off-balance music, inject an energy into the landscape that it cannot produce on its own: "The composition of each shot has that hard, sun-beaten texture of American primitive painting — pressurized in its simplicity — best exemplified, perhaps, by the work of Grant Wood." In a genre that nearly everywhere celebrates landscape, Sturges evokes a region reduced to the most provocative extremes of "dismal," "dreary," "barren," and "empty" — or as the script once more needlessly adds: "The morning sun lays over this wasteland of the American Southwest, a gigantic yellow bruise from which heat waves like bloodshot arteries spread themselves over the poisoned sky." Perhaps, given this joyless if surreal terrain, it is unsurprising that so few outdoor scenes should be shown, rather than simply alluded to through windows. Macreedy's central (mystery-resolving) jeep ride out to Adobe Flats is itself shot in relative close-up, with Sturges resisting the suasive advantages of a CinemaScope technique that was the very reason for adopting it (the first MGM film to be shot with this lens). The oddness of these scenic choices and notable omissions has been best (if elliptically) captured by the director Wim Wenders in a telling comment: "You could say of this John Sturges film that it doesn't show a succession of images, but of sentences. A whole dozen of these sentences are written up in the display cases of the theatres showing Bad Day at Black Rock" (2001, 48). That is, the dreariness of setting demanded by the script seems better detailed as a verbal conceit in the script than visually in the film itself, which we translate into expressions of exhaustion. Another way of putting it, as Wenders bluntly adds, is, "In this film all details were really details!" (2001, 49). Deftly, the film expresses the script's assertions of a drab venue, with nothing warranting either further effort or greater attention.


Excerpted from "Late Westerns"
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Introduction: There’s No Such Thing as Postwestern, and It’s a Good Thing Too
1. Ghostly Evocations in Bad Day at Black Rock
2. Catching the 3:10 to Yuma
3. Border-Crossing in Lone Star
4. Alternative Facts in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
5. Defying Expectations in A History of Violence and Brokeback Mountain
6. Dueling Genres in No Country for Old Men
7. Subverting Late Westerns in The Counselor
Epilogue: Habits of Imagination

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