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Cowboy noir: The darker side of the genre

Movies | CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

WWII left its mark on the western. UCLA corrals 'Reprisal!' and other Columbia gems of this era for screening.

July 11, 2003|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

The western has always been the story of a man and his gun, but as the genre teaches us time and again, just as a man can always find a new reason to fire a Colt revolver, so can a filmmaker.

Built on myth and chaparral, the western was for decades an important part of the Hollywood studio mix, at times accounting for upward of a quarter of total production. Nowhere was it more important than at Columbia Pictures. From 1930 through the mid-1950s, the house built by the pugnacious Harry Cohn produced more westerns than any other major studio, many featuring second-tier talent and stars on the fade. Many of the films were forgettable, but others were remarkable. Starting today, the UCLA Film and Television Archive begins screening 10 produced at the studio after World War II, the era in which the genre achieved its apotheosis.

All the titles in the program, which carries the literally accurate if somewhat misleading title "Columbia Restorations: Westerns in the Age of Noir," have been fully restored, with new prints struck from the negatives; half these refurbished prints have never been screened before and most of the rest have been shown only once in Europe. If that's not enough incentive to grab a seat at UCLA's James Bridges Theater, consider that Sony -- which owns the Columbia library -- has released only one featured title on DVD and has no plans to release the others. You may be able to rent a DVD copy of Delmer Daves' tense psychological showdown "3:10 to Yuma" (1957), in which a smoothly seductive Glenn Ford matches wits against a jittery Van Heflin, but here's the chance to see these films the way they were meant to be seen.

Sony's refusal to step up to the DVD plate is too bad, not only because these are -- for the most part -- exceptional entertainments, but also because the western has always been central to how we understand ourselves as Americans. The genre didn't just keep the Western frontier open, at least symbolically; it became our Ur-movie narrative, the template for our self-mythology. In the industry's early years, that narrative commonly observed a fairly simple cowboys-and-Indians arc. After World War II, notes historian Edward Buscombe, the major studios produced westerns distinguished by social themes and the related "tendency" toward more complex character development. The war and its aftershocks, along with the climate of fear provoked by the Red scare, left their mark on the genre, but so did juvenile delinquency, pop psychology and the familiar tug between radical individualism and social conformity.

Most of the films in this Columbia sampler don't carry their social issues heavily enough to bog down the story or the characters. In George Sherman's "Reprisal!" (1956), Guy Madison comes up against three racist white brothers (one of whom, rather disconcertingly, is played by Edward Platt, Max's boss on the sitcom "Get Smart") who have lynched a pair of Native Americans. As in many of the films in the series, Madison's character enters a community in the grip of villainy and brushes off the suggestion that he get involved. He echoes the isolationist cry of the Loner, insisting that the fight isn't his -- "What's it got to do with me?" or "This has nothing to do with me" or "I never asked nothing of nobody" -- as his love interest wrings her hands prettily and wonders, "Why doesn't somebody do something?"

Madison's character does do something -- something good and violent -- but as in Phil Karlson's more richly conceived "Gunman's Walk" (1958), "Reprisal!" sounds the call to racial equality principally with an appeal to old-fashioned humanism rather than an invocation of radical social change. In both films, racial tolerance has less to do with civil rights for Native Americans -- or the African Americans who are the aggrieved Indians' obvious metaphoric doubles -- but as an index of white righteousness. The Native American characters in these films may no longer be the shrieking anonymous savages of Hollywood's tarnished past, but most are still played by white actors and tend to be alternately out of the picture or as inert as a cigar store's wooden Indian.

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