Written by Niven Busch
Directed Raoul Walsh
In a small, dilapidated home in the middle of the New Mexico desert, the beautiful but worried Thor Callum (Theresa Wright) arrives to convene with her on-the-run lover Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum). From whom or what he is fleeing is unclear at first, but he seems convinced that the conclusion to his arduous adventure is near. In the calm before the approaching storm, Jeb recounts the tale from the beginning to fill in Thor and the audience on all the details. As a child, Jeb is adopted by Thor’s mother (Judith Anderson) when the latter found him asleep and alone under a trapdoor in his home, the same place seen in the opening sequence. Unaware of how or why his family died, Jeb is haunted by mysterious visions of the eventful night through much of his life while living on the Callum ranch with adoptive sister Thor and brother Adam. As the years go by, his relationship with Adam sours whereas his feelings for Thor evolve from that which bind siblings to that binding lovers. What’s more, an old enemy of the family (Dean Jagger) is pulling the strings to put Jeb in a tight spot vis à vis his adoptive family and even get him killed.
Raoul Walsh is up to his usual tricks with Pursued. One of the most consistent and talented directors of his generation, Walsh presents viewers with another picture replete with great character depth and a discomforting sense of malaise permeating throughout. Pursued is a dark film, less so for any impressionistic scenes (there are a few, however) but the underlying sensation that something is amiss within and around Jeb. He has done nothing to merit the scorn of the forces closing in on him step by step. On the contrary, he is, in a classical twist of fate, the scapegoat of one’s wrath because of an immediate ancestor. So long as Jeb preserves his original family name Rand, the enemies of his parents shall hound him. Walsh seems to naturally gravitate towards noir pictures in which the evil poisons the very the characters breath.
First-time viewers may be taken aback by the film’s setting: turn-of-the-20th-century New Mexico. The post-Second World War cynical climate and imposing city landscapes are entirely absent. The New Mexican territory is piping hot and lacks a metropolis’ gloomy, treacherous personality used to ensnare its anti-heroes. With open ranges and rocky vistas as far as the eye can see, there is no place to hide from danger. Few people populate the region, making it all the more unnerving for Jeb to be the target of someone’s ire, someone unbeknownst to him. If there is an opportunity missed as the plot thickens, it is the revelation early on of his enemy’s identity. One wonders how Pursued would have played out with the villain kept in shadow for the most part with a handful of suspects floating in and out of the picture to keep both Jeb and the audience on their toes. The film’s entire dynamic would have differed, that much is true, but film noir has dabbled in mystery stories before and Pursued feels like an good opportunity to layer its foundations with added tension. That said, Dean Jagger, despite limited screen time, is effectively conniving as Jeb’s omnipresent oppressor.
Lest it be forgotten that several other entries in the genre have made excellent use of the southern, more barren regions of the United States and Mexico. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre occurs almost exclusively in the Mexican desert, The Hitch-Hiker’s story’s happens alongside the Mexican border and High Sierra’s climax is beyond the outskirts of nearby towns in the unforgiving titular mountains. Noir, albeit traditionally associated with shadowy, wet nighttime scenes in grand cityscapes, is not exclusive to that setting alone. There is something deeply effective and stimulating when noir leaves its comfort zone, setting its story and exploring its themes under the hot southern sun.
Who better to play the part of the protagonist in a film where his or her past returns to haunt them than Robert Mitchum? Strong yet passive, bold yet accepting of the evil specters dooming his fate, Mitchum is the ultimate anti-hero, the definition of which is often limited to describing a hero with a mean streak. In contrast, Jeb is a good guy. In fact, most of the characters Mitchum played during the classic noir period were decent fellows at their core. What makes them and, by extension, Mitchum so compelling is their uncanny ability to never fret in the face of imminent danger. Nor do they relish danger. Rather, they accept it as a normal challenge in the life of someone with as bad luck as theirs. Notwithstanding special exceptions (The Night of the Hunter), Mitchum’s roles do not differ a great deal from one another because that is where his strengths lie as an actor. What had to be done to use the actor was to write a character that reflected the real man, not ask him to play a part radically beyond of his range. Who can complain when the results are this consistently entertaining?
His leading co-star is up to the task even though she’s no Jane Greer (Mitchum’s most famous co-star from Out of the Past). Teresa Wright does have some heavy lifting to do, because Thor goes through so many psychological changes as the story evolves chronologically in time to rejoin the moment that opens the picture. She goes from loving sister to hopeful lover to betrayed and broken-hearted to vengeful seductress and finally staunch ally and partner. A testament to her range as a performer, Wright is quite convincing regardless of the persona the scripts asks that she adopt. John Rodney is less effective as the prejudiced adoptive brother who never truly accepts Jeb as part of the family. Lacking any kind of screen presence that could even stand a chance of rivaling Robert Mitchum, Rodney thankfully is not asked to appear in too many scenes.
Pursued’s script is not exactly the tightest. While the concept of the framing device (Jeb narrating the story to Thor) is interesting, in practice, there are a few loose screws. For one, why does Jeb talk about moments in history to which Thor was a witness? Unless suffering from a serious case of amnesia, she should know this already. It is understandably to clue the audience in on what has led them to that point, but within the parameters of the movie’s world it makes little sense. Second, how is he narrating the details of scenes he himself did not participate in, such as when Thor converses with Ma Callum? This is a bit trickier to explain.
Notwithstanding a few cracks in the armour, Raoul Walsh’s Pursued is another solid effort. Supported by a legendary lead actor, a brilliant setting and a terrifically foreboding atmosphere, the movie is a noteworthy entry in the ill-known western-noir hybrid genre.
– Edgar Chaput