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The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

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The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby moira finnie » July 23rd, 2015, 11:22 am

As Sue Sue Applegate wrote earlier, this is the spot for the Q & A with David Meuel. Please post your questions for him and look for his replies in this thread:

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Beginning in the mid-1940s, the bleak, brooding mood of film noir began seeping into that most optimistic of film genres, the western. Story lines took on a darker tone and western films adopted classic noir elements of moral ambiguity, complex anti-heroes and explicit violence. This “noir western” helped set the standard for the darker science fiction, action and superhero films of today, as well as for acclaimed TV series such as HBO's Deadwood and AMC's Breaking Bad.

Join us in welcoming David Meuel, the author of the new book, The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range 1943-1962 (McFarland, 2015) to The Silver Screen Oasis for a discussion of this intriguing development in film during the mid-20th Century. The dates are Friday July 24 and Saturday July 25 (which, incidentally, has also been designated the 11th Annual Day of the Cowboy).

Since TCM's "Summer of Darkness" project screens films noir every Friday in June and July this summer, 12,000 students have signed up for the online film noir course taught by Richard Edwards from Ball State University on Canvas, and the free course has sparked much renewed interest in the genre. Perhaps a series on Meuel's The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range 1943-1962 might be the next logical step in further focusing on film noir.

This past April, Meuel was a featured speaker at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco for its film series, Dark Horse: Film Noir Westerns.
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A lifelong student of films, he is also the author of Women in the Films of John Ford (McFarland, 2014), an in-depth examination of a fascinating, but often overlooked, facet of the iconic director’s work. Meuel lives in Menlo Park, California, and has also published two volumes of poetry.

Links:
Immortal Ephemera:
Review of Women in the Films of John Ford:
http://immortalephemera.com/53655/women ... john-ford/
Review of The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962: http://immortalephemera.com/57851/tcm-p ... pril-2015/


Barnes and Noble link to The Noir Western: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-noi ... 0786494521

The Evening Class Blogspot has an excerpt from The Noir Western: http://theeveningclass.blogspot.com/201 ... ss-on.html

The National Day of the Cowboy: http://nationaldayofthecowboy.com/wordpress/

Christy Putnam's review of Women in the Films of John Ford: http://www.examiner.com/review/women-th ... -john-ford

TCM and Ball State's Online Film Noir Course: https://www.canvas.net/browse/bsu/tcm/courses/film-noir

David Meuel's author page: http://www.amazon.com/s?ie=UTF8&page=1& ... id%20Meuel
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » July 23rd, 2015, 11:01 pm

David, we are so happy you have taken time out of your busy schedule to visit us this weekend to discuss your newest book, The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962.

Thank you so much for coming to visit us here at The Silver Screen Oasis!

And thank you, Moira, for posting our Guest Star Question and Answer Forum for me during a hectic week. Your expertise and assistance is much appreciated.

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David, In your newest book you state that the Western is a genre that seems to be the quintessence of American optimism, a genre that seems to embody the notion of moral clarity, but starting in the early forties, it seemed to give way to darker themes and more neurotic characters. I've been wondering when you began to have a fascination with the way Westerns began to evolve into something deeper and darker. Was there a a particular film that was the impetus that drew you into developing an interest into these particular Westerns like Raoul Walsh's Pursued (1947) or Andre de Toth's Ramrod (1947)?
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby ChiO » July 24th, 2015, 7:04 am

Welcome, David -

I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of your book, but in the meantime:

1. What were your working definitions or constructs of "Western" and "film noir" as you started the book, and did they change as you were writing?

2. Certain filmmakers that are among my favorites - Anthony Mann, Jacques Tourneur, Andre De Toth, Budd Boetticher, Joseph H. Lewis, come immediately to mind - made, for me at least, their best movies in the categories of film noir and Westerns, though generally within distinct periods of their respective careers. Do you see an affinity between the two categories that drew these directors (and others) to them when they did, or is it an historical accident due to audience tastes and studio desires? (Not to discount the distinct possibility that I'm seeing a pattern that isn't there due to my preferences for noir-infused Westerns.)

3. What are the reasons that a large segment of the film noir fan community seems to be reluctant to accept the category of Noir Westerns, or is my perception faulty?

4. On the surfaces, certain key aspects generally associated with Westerns and film noir appear diametrically opposed: sunlit, rural open space vs. dark, urban, claustrophobic space; heroic, bigger-than-life protagonists vs. doomed protagonists; supportive women vs. femmes fatale. What does it take for a filmmaker to overcome those distinctions, and what, if any, attitudinal adjustments in approaching the melding of Western and film noir does an audience need to make?

Thank you, and I apologize for the above barrage, but we are leaving town in a couple of hours, and typing on a phone is a skill that is not in my arsenal.
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby David Meuel » July 24th, 2015, 10:21 am

Hi Christy! And thanks for your question.

The idea for the book began to take shape about three years ago after I’d taken a continuing studies class at a local university on the film western between 1939 and 1959. The teacher began with “Stagecoach,” and after that many of the films became quite dark—“The Ox-Bow Incident” and so on. The first film that struck me as being a classic noir in form was Raoul Walsh’s very under-appreciated 1949 western “Colorado Territory” with Joel McCrea and Virginia Mayo. I had never heard of it before, but I really enjoyed it. I also found out that it was a very conscious remake of Walsh’s early film noir, 1941’s “High Sierra” with Bogart and Lupino. Apparently, there was a shortage of good scripts at the time at Warners, and Walsh convinced Jack Warner to let him do a remake of the earlier film as a western. Warner loved the idea.

As I saw other films in the class, notably Andre de Toth’s 1959 film “Day of the Outlaw,” it stuck me that noir westerns constituted a legitimate sub-genre of the western. I wanted to learn more about these films, but I couldn’t find any in-depth study of them that went beyond blogs, articles, and short sections of longer books on westerns. So, I started to write some essays of my own, and the book came together.
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby David Meuel » July 24th, 2015, 11:20 am

Hi ChiO,

Thanks for your four very thoughtful questions. I will try to do them justice in my responses.

1. My definitions of what constitutes a film noir and what constitutes a film western are fairly conventional. I go into them in great detail in the Introduction in my book, so I’ll spare you all that detail here. A western, of course, is a major film genre involving stories that usually take place in the western United States in the post-Civil War 19th Century and perhaps the first few years of the 20th Century. These stories were often about the hearty people crossing the vast continent to build the great nation and were usually very optimistic in tone. As I point out in the book, they became less optimistic around the mid-1940s and have by and large stayed that way since then. In contrast, film noir is not a genre but a specific style and sensibility that first manifested itself in the crime film genre and then spread to other genres such as the western, sci fi, and even a few musicals. Both the western and the noir have distinctive characteristics, but I am personally fairly flexible when categorizing them. John Ford’s “Wagon Master,” for example, is clearly a western even though it takes place before the Civil War. And Anthony Mann’s “Raw Deal” is clearly a noir even though it has no femme fatale in it.

2. Yes, directors such as Mann, Tourneur, de Toth, Boetticher, Lewis (I would also add Walsh, Daves, Fuller, and others) made both crime noirs and noir westerns. It’s hard to second-guess why so many worked on both kinds of films. Certainly, personal sensibility has something to do with it. Andre de Toth, for example, was one pretty dark guy! My feeling is that, as westerns came more into fashion in the late 1940s, these directors, along with the rest of Hollywood, adapted to accommodate the demands of the market.

3. This is an interesting question. I don’t know exactly why many in the film noir community can’t accept the category of the noir western. But, I know that many don’t. In fact, someone on Facebook is on the warpath with me for writing this book. He insists that there’s just so such thing as a noir western and that I’m full of hogwash. My feeling is that there are many noir purists with very strict ideas about what constitutes noir. And when someone starts writing about noir westerns, neo-noir, or something other than classic crime noir, they go nuts.

4. This is another very interesting question. Yes, many aspects of the traditional western and crime noir are diametrically opposed. And yes, it takes some real skill to handle all of this. But, I find it quite exciting when an artist in whatever medium juxtaposes opposites to create something new. Seeing a femme fatale in “Ramrod,” for example, is startling for a western. But it’s also quite exciting. I think that when you juxtapose opposites and handle it well there’s the potential to extend and enrich the form. This is exactly what I believe the noir influence did for the western. Do audiences need to adjust their thinking? Of course, they do. But seeing something different and challenging often forces them to anyway.
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » July 24th, 2015, 2:06 pm

Thanks for your response, David. We are glad you are here.

In Chapter 10 of your book, you discuss the creative partnership of director Budd Boetticher and screenwriter Burt Kennedy. The Tall T is one of those films, and the Library of Congress selected it for inclusion into its National Film Registry in 2000, about a year before both Kennedy and Boetticher passed.

Randolph Scott preferred to call Kennedy's scripts "lyrics," and John Wayne likened them to writing "Broadway in Arizona."
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John Wayne, Randolph Scott, and Budd Boetticher...
Scott obviously relished his connection with the Boetticher/Kennedy team, and I was wondering if you had anything to add to the reasons for their combined creativity and success on the projects in which they worked.
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Budd Boetticher discussing his bullfighting scars in the study of his home..

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Screenwriter Burt Kennedy on the set of The War Wagon (1967) with John Wayne...

Thanks in advance for your reply.
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby David Meuel » July 24th, 2015, 3:08 pm

Hi Christy,

Thanks for another intriguing question.

Yes, there was something special about a Budd Boetticher film when Burt Kennedy was the screenwriter. Of course, it helps with "The Tall T" that it's also based on a short story by the great Elmore Leonard. But, along with "The Tall T," "Seven Men from Now," "Ride Lonesome," and "Comanche Station" -- all Boetticher-Kennedy collaborations -- are all a cut above Boetticher's other collaborations with Randolph Scott. Kennedy really did make a major contribution.

Though I hate to use that word "synergistic," Boetticher and Kennedy had that kind of a professional relationship. Each worked on many other projects separately (Kennedy directing as well as writing), and the handful of films the two did together are -- in my opinion -- by far their best.

From what I've gathered, the two sat down and developed the screenplays together, each feeding the other ideas. Kennedy had a great way with dialogue, too. It could sound very rustic while also sounding very witty. That's really a talent. His scripts are often repetitive (he loved doing the same things over and over again), but I just love lines like: "Fancy running into you in the middle of all this empty."

John Wayne was also a fan of both men and brought them together for "Seven Men from Now" in 1956. He once referred to Kennedy's dialogue as "writing Broadway in Arizona." Was Kennedy the Noel Coward of westerns? I'll let other people tackle that question.

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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby TopBilled » July 24th, 2015, 3:29 pm

Hello David,

You mentioned SEVEN MEN FROM NOW, which I love. I wanted to ask about what you perceive to be the role of women in western-noir. They are not exactly femme fatale-types that we see in pure noir. Gail Russell's character in SEVEN MEN could hardly be seen as fatal, though her motives may be a bit enigmatic. Also, what do you think about Barbara Stanwyck's role in THE FURIES-- as well as the character Judith Anderson plays in both PURSUED and THE FURIES. Are these common representations for women in western noir, or is it not fully defined?

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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby moira finnie » July 24th, 2015, 7:46 pm

Hi David!

Thanks for visiting us this weekend. I've been reading excerpts from your book online, but can't wait to get fully into the book soon. Here are two questions for you:

1.) After writing this book, did you develop a particular fondness for any director? Were there any unsung screenwriters or directors for whom you gained more respect (or disdain)?

2.) So much of the enduring appeal of the western seems to be rooted in classic Greek sense of drama, tragedy, and occasionally comedy--evident in even the most formulaic westerns that evolved during the Hollywood studio era. Anthony Mann's films were clearly inspired by classical lit, but instead of making it pretentious, it helped to make what was seen on screen to be much more vital. Being a commercial product was one (inescapable) thing in Hollywood then and now but do you see many parallels in storytelling techniques in Noir Westerns to those that were central to classic drama?

Thanks for any insights you can share.
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby David Meuel » July 24th, 2015, 9:12 pm

Hello TopBilled,

Thanks for your interesting question about women in western noir.

To be honest, femme fatale characters don’t appear very often in noir westerns. Certainly, Veronica Lake’s character of Connie in “Ramrod” is one of the most prominent examples, but she is more the exception than the rule. Stanwyck’s character in “The Furies” comes close, too. Usually, however, women in noir westerns—while varied in personalities—do not fit the classic femme fatale mold and are more representative of the kinds of women we see in traditional westerns.

While I enjoy watching femme fatales in noir films, I’ve been struck by how many crime noirs do not include these kinds of female characters, either. Some of the great noirs do, of course—films such as “Double Indemnity” and “Out of the Past.” That might be why so some people assume that to be a real noir a film has to have a femme fatale.

By the way, wasn’t Gail Russell a wonderful actress? It’s a shame she had so many problems and died so young. I love her in “Seven Men from Now.”

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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby David Meuel » July 24th, 2015, 10:39 pm

Hi Moira!

And thanks for these two thought-provoking questions.

I could write about the first question for a couple of days. But I would need a lot of coffee to do that, so I’ll have to confine myself to a couple of paragraphs. Yes, I did develop a particular fondness for most of the directors featured in the book. Some—such as Raoul Walsh, Robert Wise, Sam Fuller, Anthony Mann, and John Ford—were well known to me when I started, and my estimation of them grew as I wrote about them.

A couple of people who are almost forgotten today also fascinated me. One was Henry King. Everyone seems to dismiss him and his work today, and this is a shame. He was certainly a very traditional filmmaker, and no one would ever call him an “auteur.” But he made some very fine films, such as “The Gunfighter” and “Twelve O’Clock High.” He also adapted quite well to the darker times of the late 1940s and 1950s and the darker themes in films. His film, “The Bravados,” for example, is a very dark, very interesting psychological western. The other director was Allan Dwan. My, what a strange career he had! During the silent era, he was at the top of the Hollywood heap. But, from the 1930s on, he struggled mightily for decades. He had a wonderful attitude about it, too.

Among the writers, I was fascinated by Burt Kennedy’s contribution to Budd Boetticher’s westerns. I wrote a bit about that earlier today.

Among my discoveries, I’d also add some of the great cinematographers who worked on these films—people such as John Alton, Nicholas Musuraca, and James Wong Howe. They made great contributions.

Your second question—about the relationship between these westerns and classical dramas—is a very interesting one as well. Certainly, the strongest tie-ins are in films by Anthony Mann such as “Winchester 73” and “The Furies.” I also found Delmer Daves’ “Jubal” with Glenn Ford—inspired by Shakespeare’s “Othello”—to be another good example. Certainly, westerns can work well to tackle some of these classic stories.

I don’t know if I can comment that much on the parallels in storytelling techniques, though. Noir westerns often took on the “big themes,” though, and heroes often suffered tragic consequences. Good examples of this are Mann’s under-appreciated “Devil’s Doorway” and Walsh’s “Colorado Territory.”

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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby kingrat » July 25th, 2015, 12:41 am

David,

I look forward to reading your book, which sounds very exciting. The Day of the Outlaw, Pursued, The Furies--"noir western" certainly seems to describe those movies, doesn't it?

1. I'm a huge fan of The Furies. This is the film that made me want to see more Anthony Mann films. Is it fair to say that when the auteurist critics discovered Mann, they still neglected the non-James Stewart westerns like The Furies, Devil's Doorway, and Border Incident? By the way, do you consider Border Incident noir, western, noir western, or what?

2. Did the noirish sensibilities of some of these directors lead to the use of more violence in the western than was common at the time? This seems especially true of Anthony Mann.

3. Doesn't Burl Ives in Day of the Outlaw get one of the most exciting introductions of anyone in any movie?

4. Is there a short list of "noir essential" movies for someone unfamiliar with these films?

Thank you so much for chatting with us.

David

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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby moira finnie » July 25th, 2015, 8:47 am

Thanks for coming back, David. The questions and answers in this thread so far have reminded me of how rich and spare a western can be! Here's two more questions:

1.) Another, tacitly acknowledged, but always present character in these films is landscape. In urban crime stories characters are usually hemmed in by their man-made environment, but how do the surroundings shape the noir western?

2.) You mentioned that femme fatales don't seem to be around much in western noirs, but that makes me wonder how you see Dietrich in Rancho Notorious (1952), Crawford & McCambridge in Johnny Guitar (1954), or Stanwyck in everything from The Furies (1950) to Forty Guns (1957)? Have these characters absorbed a male ethos or is their essential femininity a tragic flaw in them in this dark wilderness?

I have lots more to ask, but hope others will post first. ;-)
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » July 25th, 2015, 9:25 am

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"Atop a majestic white stallion...is a lone rider dressed entirely in black."
Barbara Stanwyck in 1947's Forty Guns leads the way....

David, your chapter addressing the "Western Shaken and Stirred" addressed many of the issues concerning the "diva Westerns," and I'd love for you to explain the qualifying criteria that seems to include Forty Guns and The Furies, as well as other "diva Westerns" like Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious.
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Veronica Lake and Joel McCrea on the set of Ramrod (1947)...
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Joan Crawford in her deadly web of deceit in Johnny Guitar...
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Arthur Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, and Mel Ferrer in Rancho Notorious (1952)...

Also would Jennifer Jones' character of Pearl in Duel in the Sun qualify as a Western femme fatale in any way?
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby David Meuel » July 25th, 2015, 11:47 am

Hi kingrat,

Thanks for your interest and questions! I hope I can supply you with some satisfactory answers.

1. Yes, I think that the auteurists still have some work to do with Anthony Mann. “Devil’s Doorway,” “The Furies,” and westerns he made after he and James Stewart parted the ways, particularly the fine “Man of the West” with Gary Cooper are still not as fully appreciated as they should be. In addition, several of his crime noirs are very good. My favorite is “Raw Deal,” with a great Raymond Burr bad guy. More important from an auteurist perspective is that both his crime noirs and his noir westerns all overlap in interesting ways, tackling similar themes, portraying similar kinds of heroes, etc. BTW, I would consider “Border Incident” a crime noir, not a western noir. There’s a good book on Mann appropriately titled “Anthony Mann” by Jeanine Basinger of Wesleyan University. She really knows her stuff.

2. Yes, the noirish sensibilities of the directors did lead to more violence in these films. It’s certainly true of Mann. It’s also very true in the films of de Toth and in films such as Robert Wise’s “Blood on the Moon,” which features a very grim barroom brawl between Robert Mitchum and Robert Preston.

3. Yes, Burl Ives gets a great intro in “Day of the Outlaw.” He also follows it up with a great performance. So many people just think of him as a folk singer, but he was also such a commanding actor.

4. If you want a short list of noir westerns, you might start with the 20 or so I feature in my book. BTW, in the back of the book, I also include a list of 50 additional noirish westerns people might want to check out. My list is very subjective. I’ve also never ranked my “Top 10 Noir Westerns” in order like so many people like to do with crime noirs, Hitchcock films, etc. I would have a lot of trouble deciding on number one!


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