Western Noir: Man of the West

I never made a better investment in a streaming service than subscribing to the Criterion Channel when it premiered last April. Criterion Channel is the streaming platform extension of the Criterion Collection, the famous home video line of high quality classic and contemporary films. The Criterion Channel library contains great films of every era, genre, and country. I’ve mostly watched their cult films (glad I got to experience Demon Seed, God Told Me To, and Phase IV, because … wow, those are nuts) and classic Hollywood movies, in particular the deep dives they take into film noir. Since signing up for Criterion, my knowledge of film noir feels like it’s doubled.

This month Criterion Channel is presenting a topic that’s personal for me: the influence of film noir on the Hollywood Western. Film noir was not recognized as a genre during its main period of the 1940s and ‘50s. It was French critics who first used the term as they started to study the US-American crime films they had missed during World War II. Not until the 1970s, after the original noir moment was long over, did the phrase “film noir” become established in the movie lexicon. Whether film noir is a genre or not is still a hot topic of debate among film scholars. I like Alain Silver’s definition of it as a “style” rather than a genre. That definition helps to understand how noir influenced an established genre, the Western, that would seem to have nothing in common with it. What we might call the “Western noir” isn’t as much a transplanting of crime film tropes into the Western as it is the dark style and troubled psychology of film noir affecting common Western stories. The two film types do have one important element they share: most are about crime, and often the criminal is the protagonist.

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Westerns ‘39: Dodge City

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Of the quintet of Western hits of 1939 that revitalized the genre, Dodge City is the most straightforward. It’s an action spectacle picture first and foremost. It’s the most accessible of the five for twenty-first-century audiences—after Stagecoach, of course, which is flat-out one of the greatest films ever made and therefore accessible.

Dodge City takes a basic view of the taming of the West, where civilization manifests as the railroad and a gun-wielding Errol Flynn flashing a killer smile. It’s a big glob of Old Hollywood glory, with the bonus of gorgeous early three-strip Technicolor images filling the screen. And I mean gorgeous. If you get nothing else out of this post, at least know that Dodge City is one of the finest-looking things ever placed onto celluloid. It’s not quite Barry Lyndon, but it’s still something to behold.

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Westerns ‘39: Union Pacific

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This is Movie #2 of my resumed attempt to examine all five hit Westerns of 1939.

A re-cap for those coming in late (you’ve only missed Destry Rides Again at this point): 1939 was the most important year for the Hollywood Western. For most of the 1930s, the genre was relegated to B-picture status, with cheap films churned out by smaller studios like Republic, Mascot, and PRC as part of continuing series like the Three Mesquiteers. But in 1939, a storied year for the film biz, five A-budget Westerns turned into smash hits that changed how filmmakers would handle the genre for the next twenty years.

Union Pacific is the least-seen of the “Big Five” today. Its gift to viewers in 1939 was an enormous scope they weren’t used to seeing in the Western, or at least not since the last gasp of the epic Western in the early ‘30s with The Big Trail (a massive flop) and Cimarron (arguably the most forgotten Best Picture Oscar-winner ever). Cecil B. DeMille brought his customary sweep to the milieu; although not a great director, DeMille was a superb showman and could handle big pictures in a way that appealed to audiences. Union Pacific is no exception, even if it looks paler besides the other movies of the Great Western drive of ’39. (I’d call it a tie with Jesse James for last place.) It’s a middle-of-the-road crowd-pleaser, what we would today called a “popcorn movie,” although the way it mythologizes Western Expansion for contemporary audiences is intriguing.

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Westerns ‘39: Destry Rides Again

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Eons ago, I started a project at my old blog of writing about the five hit Western movies released in 1939 that led to the genre’s revitalizing in the 1940s and ’50s. I never finished the project, writing about only three of the movies, but I’m starting it up again—first by digging up and revising the three posts I did finish. So I’ll begin with, let’s see … Destry Rides Again.

It may sound strange to people unfamiliar with film history, but for a good stretch of the Golden Age of Hollywood—the 1930s—the Western was at a low point in popularity, almost as low as during the 1980s. For most of the decade, “A” picture Westerns were almost unknown; the genre was restricted to low-budget “B” status and thought to be mostly for kiddies.

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My Thanksgiving Horror Picks: Ravenous and The Witch

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Poor Thanksgiving! Not only is it jammed awkwardly between two larger, more ornate holidays, both of which are chewing away at it from top and bottom, but it doesn’t have much in the way of a horror movie tradition. Halloween, of course, is wall-to-wall with horror goodies—it’s the only movie genre that has its own holiday!—and the winter seasonal horror film has developed into its own subgenre, offering everything from family friendly thrills (Gremlins) to gruesome slasher flicks (all those Silent Night, Deadly Night films; please note this is not a recommendation).

Thanksgiving is the official holiday for The Twilight Zone and Mystery Science Theater 3000, so it has that going for it. In fact, I’d prefer to drop the whole “Thanksgiving” business and think of the fourth Thursday in November as MST3K Day. Discard the turkey and family and football and replace it with pizza and the Satellite of Love. I’m not excited about turkey, too much family gets stressful, and I hate football.

But I do have two horror film picks that are good matches to the season. Once the kids are in bed, the adults can release pent up tensions and guilt about the holiday with The Witch (2015) and Ravenous (1999).

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