30 Great Westerns

Robert Mitchum in Pursued.

James Wong Howeís film-noir chirascuro photography combined with Raoul Walshís choice to shoot scenes at night and use a hollowed-out settlerís dwelling as the main setting upon which to spin Jeb Randís flashbacks make Pursued a deeply-felt, psychological Western. And the tough-hitting psychological mystery of the plot makes this film a strong companion to the angst, grit, and revenge of John Fordís My Darling Clementine (1946).

Troubled by childhood flashbacks in which a man with spurs moves about a wooden floor as a series of star-pointed flashes spark in the dark, Robert Mitchum as Jeb Rand, doesnít know why the past haunts him and wonít let him alone. Mitchum with his sleepy-eyed ease, and loping voice, is the perfect noir anti-hero, a loner adrift from the world. In Pursued he knows that the hollowed out house and its forgotten memories "was himself," and his own interior landscape, and the key to his future rests in unlocking his past. Until he can, bad things keep happening. Heís shot off a horse at ten and almost killed. Men, such as the young Prentice McComber (Harry Carey, Jr.), try to kill him in the dark shadows of a horse stable. Even his own brother, Adam, rides the high country, aiming to shoot the troubled hero in the back.

Why? Part of the chilling answer rests in the revenge obsessions of Dean Jagger, in a brilliant performance as Grant Callum. Callum, whose brother was killed by Jebís father, plots a series of machinations to bring down the young Rand. With eyes fiery and his voice lilting with soft-spoken daggers, he attempts to force Rand to enlist in the Civil War in a hope that heíll be killed. Later, upon Randís return as a war hero, Callum reappears, recruiting Adam as Randís assassin. When that fails, he riles up Prentice after his date, Thorley Callum (the sensitively vivacious Teresa Wright), dances with Jeb at the ball. "Did you bring her here so that she can be insulted?" Action-star heavies should note Jaggerís quietly-nuanced hatred: his flash of eyes, tensing of the shoulders, and dramatic pauses convey much more menace than, say, Gary Oldmanís overblown theatrics.

Perhaps Grant Callumís obsession derives from his own incest taboo? In a startling revelation, late in the film, we discover that "Ma" Callum (Judith Anderson), the former wife of Grantís murdered brother, had had an affair with Jebís father, and thatís what precipitated the bitter feud and Grantís desire to kill all Rands. But maybe the desire to "kill, kill, kill" displaces Grantís forbidden desire for Mrs. Callum? Incest-like desire also dances around the sibling relationship of Jeb and Thorley, adopted son and biological daughter of Mrs. Callum. Thorley, with sincere urgency, confesses before Jeb departs for war that, "I was supposed to be your sister . . . (looks away). I had to go on everyday pretending, watching you all day, letting you touch me, at night going into my room, lying there (looks at him), thinking about you (looks away, looks at him)." Verbs such as "watching," "touch," "lying," and "thinking" tingle with sexual longing, and following her tenderly, troubled confession the siblings passionately kiss, forcing a new wedge in Callumís family feud.

Ultimately, obsessive guilt surrounds and envelopes the text, giving it a strong noir edge, but in the end a therapeutic catharsis, a solving of the psychological mystery, finishes the feud. Mrs. Callum atones for her forsaken love and saves the redemptive young couple from Callumís twisted and lusty revenge.

--by Grant Tracey