Bonnie and Clyde, move over – there’s a new sheriff in town. Great partnerships are hard to come by, but we’ve tracked down one of the most criminally underrated from the world of film, and rounded up 10 great examples of the hybrid genre. The case at hand – Noir Western, where the iconic, rugged landscape of the Wild West is populated by hard-boiled, cynical cowboys battling their own consciences as much as they fight outlaws.
Classic Westerns are typically associated with a cheery, heroic motif which so sanitizes historical reality that they often elicit little more than groans from savvy film viewers. So the marriage of the Western with the gritty world of Film Noir is perhaps a welcome one, and its divorce from charming naivety a necessary one. And on that note, John Wayne symbolically rides off into the colorful sunset while Robert Mitchum sits tall in the saddle, sneering slightly as deep shadows threaten to engulf the scene. Here are 10 great Noir Western films worth your time.
10. Track of the Cat (1954) – William A. Wellman
Maintaining the essential Noir ingredient of the moody loner (reliably played by Robert Mitchum), but transposing the setting from the concrete jungle to a Western winter wasteland, Track of the Cat blends the two iconic genres seamlessly. And if you’re a bit tired of Westerns filled with dusty streets, raucous saloons, and rolling tumbleweeds, you’ll welcome the snow-soaked backdrop of this little gem. The tension remains high though, and the mood is dark and suspenseful.
Mitchum and Teresa Wright help populate the cast of a dysfunctional family in snowbound Northern California. The isolation and close quarters are a recipe for disaster in this contentious clan, and their internal turmoil is soon complicated by external circumstances. A panther kills one of the younger brothers, and Curt (played by Mitchum) is determined to brave the elements and exterminate the predator. Will his quest also help to slay the demons tormenting his own family? Track of the Cat is engaging and memorable viewing.
9. The Furies (1950) – Anthony Mann
Brimming with melodrama and adventure, and featuring a strong, savvy female protagonist, Anthony Mann’s The Furies is an essential addition to this list. If that isn’t enough to grab your attention, are you really going to miss the chance to watch the great Barbara Stanwyck in a classic Western? Well, you shouldn’t. This is a uniquely great Noir Western which Criterion found worthy of their collection, and which deserves a chance to be in yours.
Walter Huston (in his last film) plays a tough-as-nails ranch owner whose daughter (Stanwyck) is the only person willing to stand up to him. But, their relationship is also a loving one, until both of them become entangled in romances that threaten to split the family. Watching the two go head to head on screen is a treat, and this edgy drama easily earns its place as a great Noir Western.
8. 3:10 to Yuma (1957) – Delmer Daves
A brilliant character study like this couldn’t be better suited to the unique watermark that signifies the Noir Western. A claustrophobic psychological duel, constantly threatening to blossom into a physical duel, lies at the heart of this tense classic. Glenn Ford and Van Heflin perfectly play the lead characters in this classic which inspired the 2007 remake starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. They breathe life into a brilliant adaptation of Elmore Leonard’s 1953 short story of the same name.
When a desperately poor farmer accepts a freelance job from the local sheriff, he little realizes the drama it will bring. His mission is to escort a prisoner from the town and safely put him on the 3:10 train to Yuma. A tense story with more twists and turns than a railroad track follows, and both men learn much about themselves and each other. Featuring two great actors at the top of their games, 3:10 to Yuma is the definition of a can’t-miss Noir Western.
7. Johnny Guitar (1954) – Nicholas Ray
Movie fans may not have had many chances to watch the legendary Joan Crawford act in Western attire, but she made the most of her visit to the Old West with a brilliant performance in 1954’s Johnny Guitar. Most Noir films are associated with black and white cinematography, but this one breaks the trend with its bright, vivid colors. Along with the saturation increase, Johnny Guitar cranks up the melodrama to make a true cinema classic, and an essential Noir Western.
Crawford plays a tough saloonkeeper named Vienna who is viewed with hostility and suspicion by the neighboring townspeople. In addition to having a mysterious past, Vienna also supports a railroad being built near the town; this is enough to incite the townspeople to drive her away by any means necessary. But Vienna won’t give up that easily, and with help from some formidable old friends, she makes a determined final stand. Joan Crawford and Sterling Hayden light up the screen in the unforgettable Johnny Guitar.
6. Forty Guns (1957) – Samuel Fuller
Any Western by director Samuel Fuller always had a better than average chance of also becoming a Noir film, and the resulting Forty Guns more than confirms those suspicions. Fuller’s trademark moody, sullen style takes a trip to the Old West for a film that’s as memorable as it is unconventional. Barbara Stanwyck lends her considerable star power to this one of a kind film helmed by the maverick director.
Stanwyck plays a tough-as-nails rancher who is the undisputed ruler of her domain, supported by a regiment of cowboys ready and willing to do her bidding. But when one of her group goes too far and shoots a local lawman, the entire town erupts in chaos and violence. Melodrama flies with the flurry of bullets, and unpredictability defines the plot. Forty Guns is a great film by a legendary director, and it’s the perfect vehicle for another towering performance by Barbara Stanwyck.