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Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Geek obsession: The “psychological Westerns” and taut pulp adventures that transformed the genre in the 1950s
Why it’s daunting: The Western began declining in popularity in the ’60s, right around the time a wave of exciting young directors began deconstructing the genre with spare films full of graphic violence and existentialist cool. Prior to the ’60s, though? Glut city. In the ’50s in particular, Westerns dominated the box office and the release calendar, which sets up one significant roadblock to getting into the decade’s classic Westerns: there’s just so darn many of them. It’s also somewhat off-putting that the genre gets treated so reverently, with scholars and cinephiles often referring to the Western as the “purest” form of cinema storytelling, reduced to the simplicity of white hats, black hats, and barren landscapes. College film courses tend to lean heavy on the same handful of somber ’50s Western standouts—primarily Shane, High Noon, and The Searchers—and though those are all great films, their weightiness isn’t fully inviting. The Searchers may encourage young film students to seek out more classic movies, but it won’t necessarily make them want to watch more Westerns.
Possible gateway: The 1959 gunfighter classic No Name On The Bullet
Why: The ’50s were the decade of the “psychological Western,” with greater emphasis on historical detail and more complex motivations for heroes and villains alike. It was also a decade so crammed with Westerns—on TV as well as at the cinema—that writers had to work a little harder to come up with stories that stood out. It’s hard to think of a Western with a cooler premise than No Name On The Bullet, directed by Jack Arnold, and adapted by screenwriter Gene L. Coon from a Howard Amacker short story. Audie Murphy plays a hired killer whose M.O. is to goad his targets into drawing on him first, so he can gun them down without getting into trouble with the law. At the start of the movie, he rides into a small town and refuses to state his business. Soon the townsfolk are at each other’s throats, tossing around accusations over whose misdeeds has called down the ultimate death-dealer. Simultaneously tense, philosophical, and loosely metaphorical—in that the movie implies that guilt and mistrust are worse than overt evil—No Name On The Bullet is primarily a compact, entertaining piece of storytelling, and a fitting capper to a decade packed with movies in the same mode.
Next steps: Take your pick of Anthony Mann Westerns, especially the five he made with Jimmy Stewart: Winchester ’73, Bend Of The River, The Naked Spur, The Far Country, and The Man From Laramie. Mann favored vivid, complicated stories set on the far edges of the frontier, where troubled loners try to make their way through deeply corrupt makeshift societies. Similarly, the Westerns director Budd Boetticher made with Randolph Scott—particularly 7 Men From Now, The Tall T, and Ride Lonesome—feature well-crafted plots, well-choreographed shootouts, and a still-resonant consideration of how self-reliance can bleed into amorality. And Nicholas Ray’s ’50s Westerns have a vibe unlike any other, whether he’s exploring rodeo life with low-key realism in The Lusty Men or showing what happens when simple misunderstandings run amuck in Run For Cover.
In fact, the whole decade was pretty much a heyday for great directors who liked to try their hand at horse operas. Fritz Lang’s best Westerns (The Return Of Frank James and Western Union) were made in the ‘40s, but he also left his signature on 1952’s Rancho Notorious, a twisted thriller about a man who goes undercover in a den of thieves to exact revenge. Sam Fuller similarly did his best work in the genre with 1949’s I Shot Jesse James, but his 1957 effort Run Of The Arrow is almost as good, telling the story of a disgraced Confederate soldier who starts a new life with an Indian tribe. Howard Hawks is responsible for a pair of great ’50s Westerns: the rousing river adventure The Big Sky and the convivial redemption tale Rio Bravo. Journeyman director Delmer Daves arguably did all his best work on Westerns, particularly Broken Arrow, Cowboy, and the nail-biter 3:10 To Yuma. And it’s hard to fault the ’50s genre excursions of Otto Preminger and William Wellman. The former’s River Of No Return is a rich drama about an ex-con trying to reconnect with his son, while the latter’s Track Of The Cat contrasts a panther-hunt with the spiritual dissolution of a ranching family. (Also, both star Robert Mitchum, which only enhances their stature.)
Leaving directors aside, it’s worth noting the subgenre of ’50s Westerns that deal with the sad lot of the professional gunfighter: forever doomed to be challenged by young bucks who want to make their reputations by proving that they’re faster on the draw. For example: the 1950 potboiler The Gunfighter, which follows a legendary assassin on a disastrous attempt to sneak back to his old town to see his girl, or 1956’s The Fastest Gun Alive, which considers a poor soul who tries to hide his talent for gunplay at each new town he enters, but continues to be goaded into proving his mettle. Both are right up there with No Name On The Bullet, which in a way completes the decade’s unofficial “gunfighter trilogy.”
Where not to start: Though part of the appeal of the movie Western’s silver age is the filmmakers’ grind-’em-out approach, steer clear of the series Westerns of Roy Rogers, Rex Allen, and the like. No knock intended on William Witney—who directed many of these pluggers quite skillfully—but the interchangeable plots and colorless dialogue don’t exactly represent the genre at its best. These are back-lot Westerns, with none of the flavor and gritty realism that make the true classic Westerns so addictive.