5. Terror in a Texas Town (1958) – Joseph H. Lewis
Like any Noir film worth its salt, Terror in a Texas Town is haunted by dread and soaked in fear. A tale of courage and vengeance, this is a welcome change of pace from hundreds of other cookie-cutter Westerns. Noir legend Sterling Hayden delivers a sterling performance as the peaceful son of a murdered father, now on a mission of justice. The film’s journey from script to screen is a fascinating one (its writer was the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo); but we’re glad they found a way to deliver this Noir Western to the masses.
An indelible single image, often seen on advertisement posters for the film, continues to define it for many viewers: a man standing in a dusty Western street, holding – not a pistol – but a harpoon. And this image represents the movie well, as the harpoon is in effect a supporting character. Its owner is the son of a murdered father, who now wields the spear in the pursuit of justice against the men who tried to steal oil from his father’s land. But is a harpoon any match for a six-shooter in a duel, or will the son meet the same tragic end as his father? That’s for you to find out in Terror in a Texas Town.
4. Lonely Are the Brave (1962) – David Miller
Perfectly capturing the self-destructive mood of Noir films, Lonely Are the Brave is a Western to remember. Featuring a phenomenal performance by the great Kirk Douglas, with fantastic support from Walter Matthau, this is a refreshing change from standard Western fare. In addition, it’s often cited as Douglas’ favorite of all the films he made… So, you have little to lose and everything to gain with this one.
In a slightly more modern world than most Westerns occupy, an itinerant loner named Burns (played by Douglas) lives the life of a cowboy for hire. When he finds out that an old friend has been thrown in jail, Burns determines to help him escape. With nihilistic abandon, he decides that the best way to accomplish this task is from the inside; so, he gets himself arrested, and the drama really begins. This isn’t a fluffy, feel-good film, but film lovers are sure to get that familiar good feeling that comes with great cinema.
3. Pursued (1947) – Raoul Walsh
Of all the Noir Westerns on this list, the plot of this underrated classic is perhaps the purest Noir. In fact, if it were lifted from its Western setting and dropped in the middle of 1940’s New York, little more than the costumes would have to be changed. Forming the perfect bridge between the two genres is lead actor Robert Mitchum, whose very presence gives the film instant Noir pedigree. Seasoned Western director Raoul Walsh sets the tone for this tale of a lonely man haunted and sabotaged by his own past.
Mitchum plays Jeb, a moody cowhand haunted by faint memories of the murder of his parents as a child. Though he is adopted by a kind family, his new home also becomes the source of fresh drama. While enjoying a close relationship with his foster mother, Jeb develops romantic feelings for her daughter, and is looked on with suspicion by his adoptive brother. After Jeb declares his hopes of marriage, someone takes a shot at him, and Jeb kills the attacker in self-defense. Believe it or not, this is just the beginning of the drama, as family tensions run high and forgotten memories and betrayals resurface.
2. The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) – William A. Wellman
The tone and subject matter of this Western masterpiece places it squarely in Noir territory. With a cast full of menacing characters bent on shedding blood, and a noble-minded everyman taking a lonely stand against them, the contrast between good and evil is as stark as the black and white cinematography. In typical Noir fashion, the hero is at war with his conscience; however, in this film his internal struggle places his own life squarely in danger.
Henry Fonda and Dana Andrews head up an all-star cast in this masterpiece which lost the Oscar for Best Picture to Casablanca. Still, cinema lovers will always recognize its pedigree – a perfectly realized film with a strong moral compass. Fonda plays an accidental member of a posse which quickly threatens to turn violent when they catch a group of cattle thieves. His efforts to prevent the hanging of the men without a proper trial draw suspicion and anger from the group, who were already mistrustful of their newest member. The Ox-Bow Incident is flawlessly executed, and is guaranteed to stick with you long after the credits roll.
1. 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 this is also a highly effective Noir, placing the viewer in the shoes of the main character, whose agonizing afternoon is felt with each miserable minute that passes. A lone hero, wandering empty streets while his friends hide just out of sight in their houses, riddled with anxiety knowing that his sworn enemies are on their way to kill him – what could possibly be more Noir than that? Not much, in our opinion, which is why High Noon might just be the greatest Noir Western of all time.
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!