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

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

Postby David Meuel » July 25th, 2015, 12:36 pm

Hi Moira,

It’s a pleasure to be here, and I’m delighted people are asking these questions.

Now, in response to your latest round…

1. Yes, just as in an urban crime noir, landscape is critical in a western. I write about this in some detail in my book. One nice thing about natural wilderness landscapes is that you can choose whatever settings you wish and then depict them in any way you wish. Many traditional westerns, for example, emphasize the rich, bountiful land to suggest limitless possibility, etc. Noir westerns, as you might imagine, approach landscape from a different perspective. In his films, Raoul Walsh, for example, shows giant rock formations that suggest the smallness of the human beings and their struggles in the greater scheme of things. Anthony Mann also uses landscapes with great skill. In his “Man of the West,” for example, the film begins in a “nice” community surrounded by pleasant green countryside and, as the storyline gets harsher and bleaker, the landscape gradually shifts to harsher and bleaker terrain. Finally, Budd Boetticher uses both the Alabama Hills in California’s desert and the wide screen format to convey a sense of emptiness.

2. Yes, the frequency (or lack thereof) of femme fatales in noir westerns might be an interesting idea for an essay! Your point about these characters being absorbed in a male ethos is an excellent one. Stanwyck in “Forty Guns,” for example, is running the ranch (and the whole county for that matter) because she’s the strongest, toughest person around. In conventional terms, she’s very man-like, not a femme fatale. “Johnny Guitar” is more about mannish women and weak men than what I would consider to be classic femme fatales. Yes, Stanwyck in “The Furies” has femme fatale qualities, and Veronica Lake in “Ramrod” is definitely a femme fatale. But, again I don’t think this archtype is as prevalent in noir westerns as it is in urban crime noir.

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

Postby David Meuel » July 25th, 2015, 1:12 pm

Hi Christy,

I see that you’ve been posting lots of wonderful photos. Thanks a bunch for that!

Now to your latest questions…

1. For me, the term “diva western” refers more to the larger-than-life actresses who starred in these films than the actual subject matter of the stories. These films were vehicles for screen divas—such as Dietrich, Crawford, and Stanwyck—to bring their larger-than-life screen personas to the “big country” of westerns. These films are so distinctive, of course, because the western has always been such a male-dominated genre. “Johnny Guitar” also has an operatic quality about it, and, of course, the term “diva” is most often associated with opera singers. And all films are to a greater or lesser extent outrageous. While I like "Forty Guns," I am not a big fan of "Rancho Notorious" or "Johnny Guitar."

2. Yes, you can call Jennifer Jones in “Duel in the Sun” a femme fatale. She definitely uses her female allure to get her way with men to move her personal agenda forward. You can also call the film an early noir western. I include it in my list of 50 additional noir westerns in the back of my book.

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

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » July 25th, 2015, 1:28 pm

Thanks, David!

I'm not particularly a fan of Johnny Guitar or Rancho Notorious, either. And I'm glad you pointed me to the list in your book. Sorry I've overlooked it until now.

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John Ericson uses Barbara Stanwyck as a shield during Forty Guns..

I've never seen The Furies or Forty Guns, and have put them in my queue. I can't believe I've missed those two, but I'm especially interested in Forty Guns. I like Barry Sullivan, and John Ericson must make a particulary sleazy little brother.
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby David Meuel » July 25th, 2015, 2:07 pm

Hi Christy,

Yes, I think you'll like "Forty Guns." Stanwyck is always good, and Barry Sullivan has a lot of gravitas in it. He's a good match for Barbara's tough character. It is a Sam Fuller film, too, and people tend either to really love Fuller films or to really hate them. Like coffee and avocados, he's definitely an acquired taste!

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

Postby moira finnie » July 25th, 2015, 2:28 pm

Sue Sue Applegate wrote:I've never seen The Furies or Forty Guns, and have put them in my queue. I can't believe I've missed those two, but I'm especially interested in Forty Guns.

Can't wait to hear your take on these, Christy---The Furies is one of the best (and not simply because Gilbert Roland is magnificent in one of the best parts of his career).

David, please allow me to ask a few more questions. As the end of WWII was reflected in more "citified" noir films, the dislocation and pain of war's aftermath seems to haunt noir westerns too--only the Civil War was the conflict that overshadowed the events on screen quite often. Which of the noir western movies that you studied did you find were affected by the character's experiences in war?

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BTW, in my partial reading of your book, I noted that you do not regard Track of the Cat (1954-William Wellman) as a successful film. Have you ever watched it with the sound off? I'm serious, it's great then. Cinematographer William Clothier and Wellman made the most of this opportunity to create one of the more visually striking films of that time using only a few colors (largely black, white, and red). Too bad the actors didn't always meld together well. Why do you think that this happened?

Getting back to the female in noir westerns, did you think that the interesting, almost forgotten The Secret of Convict Lake (1951-Michael Gordon), with a largely female cast (Ethel Barrymore, Gene Tierney, Ann Dvorak and more) despite the presence of noir veterans Glenn Ford & Zachary Scott, might qualify as a noir western?
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Also, what is the real difference between a violent melodrama and a noir western?

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

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » July 25th, 2015, 3:08 pm

Wonderful question with great images, Moira!
Confession Time: I haven't seen Secret of Convict Lake, either!

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

Postby David Meuel » July 25th, 2015, 3:19 pm

Hi again, Moira,

Thanks for your continuing curiosity!

1. Yes, you are absolutely right about the returning war veteran themes in both urban noir and noir westerns. The Civil War seemed to work to portray disillusioned veterans just was well as World War II did. Two noir westerns I found this subject particularly striking were William Wellman’s “Yellow Sky” and Anthony Mann’s “Devil’s Doorway.” There are others, of course, but these two stand out for me. In “Yellow Sky,” the main character played by Gregory Peck turns to crime after his war experience. And in “Devil’s Doorway,” the character played by Robert Taylor—a Native-American who served in the Union Army—becomes particularly disillusioned, feeling betrayed by the country he fought for.

2. Yes, I love the cinematography in “Track of the Cat,” too. It’s a great film to look at, and it’s a shame Wellman didn’t make it as a silent film. But, unfortunately, it’s a sound film with a lot of bad dialogue and a clunky story.

3. Sadly, I’ve never seen “The Secret of Convict Lake.” It looks very interesting, and I love the cast. I think I tried to get a DVD a couple of years ago and couldn’t for some reason.

4. No, I don’t think there is a real difference between violent melodrama and western noir. I would say that western noir is one very particular kind of violent melodrama.

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

Postby TopBilled » July 25th, 2015, 4:29 pm

Regarding the latest comments on violent melodrama and western noir, I think THE VIOLENT MEN (again with Stanwyck) can be described either way.

My next question for David is about Jacques Tourneur's use of color in western noir. Two notable examples here being CANYON PASSAGE and GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING (with Ruth Roman as a saloon owner with a checkered past, taken out by the morally bankrupt character played by Raymond Burr). Do you think these films are richer thematically because of Tourneur's use of color, compared to something like STARS IN MY CROWN which has to use other tricks to convey its theme(s)..?

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

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » July 25th, 2015, 5:48 pm

Nice question, TopBilled! We appreciate you dropping by!

David, you reveal in your book that Budd Boetticher had a "great eye for up and coming talent" and cast young actors in villanous roles, and all of them went on to successful entertainment careers. Can you share with us a little more about these actors and why you think he had such a keen vision about their abilities?
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It's evident that the "dark cowboy" still rides. The influence of John Ford on the filmakers of Breaking Bad is also a topic that you discuss, and I think that there are many more examples of how the Noir Western legacy is linked to current television and film projects. What are the prospects for the future?
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby David Meuel » July 25th, 2015, 6:37 pm

Hi again, TopBilled,

And thanks again for another thought-provoking question.

The use of color in western noir is an interesting subject. But it's been a while since I've seen "Canyon Passage," and I have't seen the film with Ruth Roman. Also, while I like "Stars in My Crown" a lot, I think it's much too uplifting to be a western noir. So, I might not be a great deal of help to you on this question with respect to these Tourneur films.

Many people, especially noir purists, might feel that color, by its very nature, would detract from the noir-ish experience. But, I agree with you that, if the circumstances are right, color can give a noir western a certain character that black and white can't do. (Of course, black and white can give a film a certain character that color can't do, too.) Of the noir westerns in color I focused on in the book, several really stand out. One is Leon Shamroy's cinematography in Henry King's "The Bravados." In a few scenes, he uses a rich blue filter to great effect the way a cinematographer working in black-and-white would simply use black. This gives these scenes a unique, eerie quality. Also, the use of color in Budd Boetticher's best films captures both the beauty and the emptiness of his spare, desert settings quite well. Color gives them a quality black and white would not be able to.

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

Postby David Meuel » July 25th, 2015, 6:54 pm

Hi again, Christy!

Such interesting questions I’m getting! I really appreciate not being asked: “Who’s your favorite cowboy?”

1. Yes, Budd Boetticher definitely had an eye for spotting young acting talent. In his Randolph Scott westerns alone, we see some great actors right at the beginning of their careers. Just a few examples include: Lee Marvin, Richard Boone, Henry Silva, James Coburn, and Pernell Roberts. (People might wonder why I put Pernell Roberts in with people like Marvin and Coburn, but he is just terrific in “Ride Lonesome.” In many scenes, I think he totally steals the show.) Boetticher worked with emerging actors more out of necessity—they didn’t cost as much money as more established actors did, and his films were always low-budget affairs. Knowing this—and knowing his desire to make good films—he must have constantly been on the prowl for talent. Also, he must have lured young actors to work on his low-budget efforts with offers of interesting roles. His villains, for example, are so much more complex and appealing that most villains in 1950's B-westerns that smart young actors must have jumped at the chance to play them.

2. What are the prospects for the noir western going forward? It's always tough to predict the future, but I think the noir influence is quite strong. There will, of course, always be westerns. There might not be as many new ones being made as there once were, but they will always be with us. For years now, we've also been seeing various versions of the "dark cowboy" in other genres such as action and superhero films and on cable TV shows. HBO's "Deadwood" is one obvious example. AMC's "Breaking Bad," while less obvious, is certainly another example. I think these dark characters will continue to appear because people -- at least for the time being -- will continue to relate and respond to them. Unfortunately, we live in pessimistic times, and the whole noir sensibility plays into this dark mood very naturally.

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

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » July 25th, 2015, 8:43 pm

Well, I am glad I didn't ask the obvious, David. But feel free to share with us if you like! Or you might tell us who is your least favorite cowboy. :wink:

We are so grateful for your visit this weekend, and hope you will not be a stranger here at the SSO! I am so glad you celebrated the National Day of the Cowboy with us, and shared your comments on The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range, 1943-1962.

Thank you so much for your time and your considerably detailed responses.

Note to SSO Members: David has kindly extended his visit until tomorrow, so members will be able to ask more questions tomorrow, too.

I'd love to know a little bit more about Raoul Walsh. You entitled a portion of one of your chapters "One of Hollywood's Best Kept Secrets," and Walsh was the director who took a chance on an unknown in The Big Trail by the name of John Wayne.

You stated that Walsh's output was "Herculean," yet he is not as well known as Ford, Hawks, or HItchcock. Why do you think that is?
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby David Meuel » July 26th, 2015, 11:43 am

Hi Christy,

Thank YOU for a great experience here on the SSO. I've thoroughly enjoyed myself.

You asked a question about Raoul Walsh, about why he's not nearly as well known as people such as Ford, Hawks, and Hitchcock. One theory that I find very believable is that the box office failure of Walsh's "The Big Trail" set back his career during the 1930s -- the same decade that sound films and these other directors were establishing themselves. It wasn't until Walsh was firmly entrenched at Warners in the 1940s that he started making good films consistently. Another theory is that he was seen simply as a director of action movies. His films often have much more depth than they get credit for. Finally, he never got ANY Academy Award recognition -- no nominations, nada. As silly as some of the Academy's choices have been over the years, a nod from the Academy goes a long way in the public mind. Think all the obituaries of Hollywood types that begin with a mention of an Academy Award the person received decades before. At any rate, that's my two cents about Raoul!
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » July 26th, 2015, 12:41 pm

David, we enjoyed having you as a Guest Star. Please drop by anytime!
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Re: The Q & A with David Meuel, author of The Noir Western

Postby Mr. Arkadin » July 26th, 2015, 6:02 pm

Hi David, I know I'm late to the party, but I wanted to ask your thoughts on the legacy of western noir. While the first notable spaghetti western was based on Yojimbo (1961), later films dealt with more revenge type stories, which seemed to borrow quite freely from these movies. Leone's For a Few Dollars More (1965) for example, recycles the watch theme from The Bravados (1959) & even borrows one of its players (Lee Van Cleef). Westerns in general seemed to become more cynical, but then so did the world. What are your thoughts along these lines?


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