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For all intents and purposes the psychological western of the late '40s, Raoul Walsh and Niven Busch's Pursued is a dark and grim affair about a seemingly haunted young hero trapped in a dangerous, frustratingly unexplained predicament. Anchored by expressionist flashbacks to a traumatic childhood incident, the movie is celebrated by film aesthetes because of its complexity and its relationship to other '40s 'Chinese Box' riddle mysteries like The Locket. It has been cited many times as the first film noir western, the prime example showing that noir variants can be found in genres other than crime and detective stories.
The actual plot is too convoluted to fully explain. Rancher-gambler Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) is the victim of a childhood trauma -- the murder of his family -- and his adoptive mother Ma Callum (Judith Anderson) has never told him the whole truth behind the story. Raised with Ma's children Thorley (Teresa Wright) and Adam (John Rodney), Jeb is unaware of the behind-the-scenes schemes of the vengeance seeking, one-armed Grant Callum (Dean Jagger). The vindictive Grant turned Adam against Jeb and has even tried to kill Jeb on various occasions. Jeb loses three major life decisions over coin tosses, which cause him to go away to the Spanish-American War and to forfeit his share of the family ranch. Grant turns Jeb into a killer by prodding a local boy Prentice (Harry Carey Jr.) to challenge him to a gunfight. After becoming part owner of a casino run by Jake Dingle (Alan Hale) Jeb eventually gets to the bottom of the mystery, overcoming Thorley's misplaced hatred and finding out the true nature of the forces that have opposed him.
Pursued is one of the best-made westerns of the 'forties. Raoul Walsh's direction is effective in every scene, the sterling cast provide interesting characterizations and ace cameraman James Wong Howe contributes brilliant noir lighting in scene after scene. Max Steiner's edgy score adapts his familiar western motifs heard in everything from Errol Flynn vehicles to The Searchers.
The mystery angle is well handled, albeit a bit frustrating. If Judith Anderson's Ma Callum just explained a thing or two, Jeb would know who his real enemy is and his brother and sister wouldn't mistrust him. Robert Mitchum is an excellent passive hero, recoiling from various insults and assaults without ever knowing what exactly is hitting him. Jeb has adjusted well to an unusually hostile world, where even his adoptive mother has mixed feelings for him. The only thing that shakes him up is a recurring nightmare memory of a fateful night spent hiding in a cellar, watching flashes of gunshots and a pair of boots with big flashing spurs.
Pursued is just as much author-screenwriter Niven Busch's film as it is director Raoul Walsh's. Busch's other westerns build on complex relationships, such as The Westerner. His work for the deliriously baroque Duel in the Sun was made even more bizarre by other writers, and the strange family of Pursued is outdone only by the film version of his novel The Furies, directed by Anthony Mann.
The multitude of perverse relationships and symbolic indicators (coin tosses, amputated limbs, etc.) suggest Freudian forces at work. With so much happening on the thematic plane it's important to note that Pursued is also a reasonably involving emotional experience. Jeb and Thorley's strange love is threatened by what seems an invisible, malign fate. We know who is interfering in Jeb's life but not why, and it is no surprise to discover that the problem is a murderous family matter, very close to home. Pursued isn't exactly a pleasant experience -- what with a wedding night with the groom quite aware that his bride intends to kill him -- but it is surely different.
Robert Mitchum is consistently dashing, even as he is haunted by "a feeling that something's after me." His predicament as a decorated war hero, returning to a town full of enemies, must have resonated with ex- G.I.s in 1947. Teresa Wright doesn't get to smile very much, but does very well with a part requiring wild melodramatic swings of temperament. Dean Jagger is indeed memorable as the attorney-lawman who does everything he can to try to get someone else to kill Jeb, working on Adam's greed and Prentice's jealousy.
It all plays out in an unusually stark B&W, aided by James Wong Howe's use of filters, angles that make the western scenery look menacing, and night-for-night lighting of key exterior scenes. When Jeb returns to the half-burned homestead where his family was massacred twenty years before, he senses a strange relationship to the ruined house: "It's me." Without need for the strained histrionics and wailing music of similar scenes in The Red House, we understand Jeb's feeling.
We also wonder if this is the first movie in which Robert Mitchum does a bit of singing... something he'd return to on many an occasion.
Olive Films' Blu-ray of Pursued is an excellent HD encoding that flatters James Wong Howe's great images and shows why 1947 was the year that Robert Mitchum became a front-rank star -- with those heavy eyes and relaxed features he often seems more beautiful than the leading lady. Max Steiner's music score sounds even more brassy on the clear soundtrack.
Pursued was originally released by Warner Bros. but the rights migrated over time; the disc includes a brief Martin Scorsese introduction recorded some years ago for a canceled DVD release. The attractive cover art uses an original advertising illustration. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pursued Blu-ray rates:
1. A personal story about Pursued: in 1975 student Nick Peterson screened it at UCLA, and I was dispatched to Warners to pick up the print. It was a studio copy that hadn't been touched since 1947, packed in two lard cans with each reel tied off with heavy paper wrappers. An added wrinkle: it was a NITRATE print. Nobody at the Warners editorial office even noted the fact that I was carrying such dangerous cargo in an ordinary Volkswagen, on the Los Angeles freeway! I also remember that the office was run as a rather tight ship. The man in charge was Rudi Fehr -- who might have been the famous editor Rudi Fehr, or maybe Fehr's son. Typical of me at the time, I asked no questions and politely carried out my errand.
The nitrate print, projected in Melnitz Hall, was flawless.
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T'was Ever Thus.