Billed as the first “Western noir,” Raoul Walsh’s gripping 1947 film Pursued belongs to the small but distinctive tradition of misbehaving Westerns—Duel In The Sun and Johnny Guitar are others—that defy genre dictates in favor of fevered intensity and dark psychological undercurrents. In his introduction to the new Blu-ray version, which has been ported over from the old VHS edition, Martin Scorsese talks about how brilliantly the film reconciles two genres that would seem diametrically opposed by rejecting the wide-open spaces and simple morality of traditional Westerns and introducing the claustrophobia and pessimism of urban noir into a new setting. In Pursued, the common denominator is the concept of a marked man, here played by Robert Mitchum, who spends a lifetime dodging bullets that come at him from every direction, even from his own family. And in a prairie locale where the law is applied informally, to put it mildly, the sense of danger is heightened considerably.
Unfolding in flashback, Pursued wends through the tortured past of a man who always had death trailing him a few paces back. Though he can’t quite remember the circumstances that led to his family getting slaughtered by gunmen, Mitchum was adopted and raised by a widow (Judith Anderson) who risked the lives of her own two children to protect him. As adults, Mitchum and his stepsister (Teresa Wright) fall in love and intend to marry, but when a longstanding rivalry with his adopted brother (John Rodney) turns violent, he’s cast out of the family once again. Mitchum finds his bearings as a partner at a local casino, but the scoundrels who killed his family—and a few others besides—will stop at nothing to end his life and cover up a secret.
As photographed by the legendary James Wong Howe (Hud, Seconds), Mitchum exudes a dangerous magnetism and beauty, especially in close-up, but there’s a softness to his character that’s unusual in a Western hero. Walsh and screenwriter Niven Busch (who also wrote Duel In The Sun) send him on a quest for redemption and reconciliation that’s more about the patient unveiling of truth than an active attempt to beat back the forces that mean him harm. His relationship with his stepsister, which is strange enough on its face, gives Pursued its distinctive edge, particularly in a climax that puts their wavering trust to the ultimate test. It’s high melodrama in a place where everyone has a gun.
Key features: Just the aforementioned Scorsese intro.