5. High Noon (1952) – Fred Zinnemann
High Noon is one of the all-time great Westerns for many reasons: its plot is simple but profound, its performances are perfectly tuned, and its musical score is iconic. But the sheer beauty of High Noon ties all these qualities into an attractively pleasing package that’s a real joy to watch. Floyd Crosby, the cinematographer, deserves much of the credit for the visually stunning black and white images in this timeless classic.
Famous for unfolding on screen in almost real time, High Noon makes the viewer sweat along with its hero. Gary Cooper plays marshal Will Kane, who’s newly married to a Quaker woman whose religion explicitly forbids violence. Kane dutifully turns in his lawman’s badge, but is soon given the news that a criminal he helped convict is coming to town to exact revenge. Kane is faced not only with the choice of staying or leaving town with his new wife, but also with the possibility that he might have to face his foe alone if he stays. During High Noon, you’re guaranteed to be sweating bullets!
4. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) – Sergio Leone
Italian director Sergio Leone left his stamp on the Western genre in a way that few others ever have. In Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone is at his stylish best, redefining the norms of the genre in every frame of film. Tonino Delli Colli helps execute Leone’s vision behind the camera, capturing everything from vast, barren wilderness to the whites of the cast’s eyes.
The essence of this film’s plot centers around a fight over a coveted piece of land. For newcomers, the story can be a little hard to follow at first, but that’s ok – the main attractions here are the star-studded cast and the riveting beauty of the cinematography. Henry Fonda turns in a legendary performance as the villain, with Jason Robards and Charles Bronson providing unforgettable acting of their own. All the signatures of a Leone Western are here – claustrophobic closeups and lingering landscape shots make Once Upon a Time in the West one of the greats.
3. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) – Robert Altman
Robert Altman made brilliant movies in a multitude of genres – so why not a Western too? Altman plunges the viewer into the visual realm of the Old West so thoroughly that the film feels like a theatrical time portal. With the help of cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, McCabe & Mrs. Miller will forever be one of the most beautiful Westerns ever made.
Warren Beatty plays a gambler who decides to open a brothel in a small Western town. Just as he starts to gain trust and feel like he has the town in the palm of his hand, he meets his match in a local prostitute, played by Julie Christie. The two match wits and end up joining forces, but their combined success gains the attention of rivals who want to destroy their business. There’s a lot to love here – a legendary director, fantastic actors, and stunningly beautiful cinematography. Westerns don’t come much better than McCabe & Mrs. Miller.
2. The Searchers (1956) – John Ford
The names John Ford and John Wayne are forever linked with quality Western films. But of all the classics they made together, perhaps none is as celebrated as The Searchers. Popular with critics and audiences alike, this is a film to be studied as well as enjoyed. Cinematography was handled by Winton C. Hoch, who helped create the many indelible images on display here.
John Wayne plays a man forced into a rescue mission after he returns to his Texas home from the American Civil War. Members of his family have been captured by Comanches during his absence, and Wayne sets out in search of them before even getting any personal time to rest. But the searchers will have to battle their own demons and prejudices in addition to the Comanches before their task is done. The Searchers is idolized by film lovers for good reason, and its reputation shows no sign of tarnish.
1. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) – Andrew Dominik
This is a film that successfully reinterprets a familiar story – a feat which always calls for some special magic. In this case, the magical factor is stunning cinematography, which lifts this film to another tier of quality. The magician was famed cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose involvement in any film almost guarantees a gorgeous result.
The outlaw Jesse James is as legendary as they come. With a larger-than-life persona which only grew after his death, James has been the subject of countless stories and myths. It’s no spoiler, in this case, to point out that this film deals with his assassination by someone who worked his way into James’s inner circle. Watching the personal dynamics of the betrayal is intriguing to watch, and this is an indisputably beautiful modern Western.