"Right then I knew I had to have you. I'd have to climb across two graves to get to you, but nothing in the world would hold me back."
Jeb Rand is the last of his family line. When he was a little boy, he was the only survivor in the showdown of a blood feud between his father and siblings and the Callums. When the smoke cleared, Jeb was rescued by Ma Callum (Judith Anderson, Rebecca), who took him and raised the boy with her two children. This is despite warnings by her ruthless brother-in-law, Grant (Dean Jagger, Private Hell 36), who lost his arm and his brother fighting Jeb's clan. Grant believes once a Rand, always a Rand, and when Jeb gets old enough, he'll kill the remaining Callums. It's in his DNA. Ma wants to prove Grant wrong, and she divides everything equally amongst the three children to try and foster harmony.
Of course, in a Western like Pursued, fate is a dangerous thing. The elder Jeb is played by Robert Mitchum (Out of the Past, Cape Fear), and we meet him when he is on the run. All his life, Jeb has been haunted by snatches of memories. He knows very little about what went on the night he was rescued by Ma, but the tragedy dogs him all the same. Writer Niven Busch (Duel in the Sun) and director Raoul Walsh (White Heat) bring Freudian psychodrama to the American frontier. Jeb is convinced that people hate him and want him dead, but he doesn't understand why. If he can unlock his mind and relive the night his family died, he can solve this emotional riddle.
Busch's script relies on this kind of easy subtext, and so it can feel slightly anemic in terms of character development. The three kids grow up into a love triangle of sorts. Jeb and Thorley (Teresa Wright, Shadow of a Doubt) harbor feelings for one another, while Adam (John Rodney, Key Largo) resents him for taking a third of their birthright. Things heat up after Jeb returns from the army, having enlisted on behalf of their ranch to fight the Spanish forces laying claim to the territory. Adam decides he deserves more for having worked the land while the "outsider" was away (a coin toss decided which of them would sign up). Grant is also hanging about, waiting to see his theories come to fruition, and he pokes at the rivalry between the two men.
What Pursued may lack in character nuance, it makes up for in plot. A lot happens in the film, and the narrative grows more knotty the further we get into it. Most of the tale is told in flashback, narrated by Jeb, a common technique of the late 1940s, particularly in film noir. This is a large reason why Walsh is often credited with inventing "Western noir." Pursued's psychological fatalism goes against the grain of most cowboy pictures, which tended to embody the frontier spirit where a man could make of himself what he would. Jeb can't escape a past he can't understand, and it leads him into gunfights time and time again, with the consequence that Thorley begins to slip away. One of the most intriguing parts of Pursued is seeing her transform into a vengeful version of a femme fatale (albeit a temporary one). The mature, knowing woman using love as a vehicle for revenge gives Teresa Wright plenty of opportunity to prove she's more than the innocent little girl who lit up the screen for Hitchcock four years prior.
While the open spaces of the American west don't particularly allow for the kind of expressionistic shadows that are an essential staple of standard noir, cinematographer James Wong Howe (Hud) does get a few sequences in which he can show off. Jeb's second gunfight takes place at night in the back alleys behind the casino he co-owns, and the men stalk each other in the cramped spaces between buildings, backlit by whatever lamps are left burning. Later, when Jeb is on the run and being chased on horseback, the rocky canyons and mountainous landscape allow for surprising angles and chiaroscuro lighting, creating the required sense of dread. All of the forces that have been toying with Jeb since he was a kid are starting to gather in one place.
Though, with his ruffled shirt and tousled hair, Jeb looks more like he should be running across the romantic moors of Wuthering Heights than he resembles either a cowboy or a noir antihero. The real center of this mash-up of a motion picture is the love story. Mitchum and Wright make a great couple, and the more commanding he is, the more obvious why Mitchum remained so popular as a leading man. He could play the tough guy, the lout, and the lover, and Pursued gives him opportunities for all three.