Just because a movie is old doesn't mean it's good. I had positive regard for Pursued going in. When it comes to movies, the darker the better. I have a high tolerance for cloudy mystery and non-linear storytelling. I enjoy the Spartan trappings of a good western. Finally, everyone seems to think this movie is one of the best westerns around and a truly psychological film noir.
Film noirs work because a likeable character is stuck in an oppressive maze of dead ends, saddled with a puzzling mystery he can't quite grasp. The mystery draws us in, the oppression increases the tension, and we are left fighting for the truth along with the protagonist.
In Pursued, the protagonist is "likeable" because he has good looks and a cleft chin. Events are "mysterious" because he has inexplicable difficulty remembering his childhood, and when he asks people they simply don't tell him. He is "oppressed" for no good reason, which makes the people trying to kill him seem deranged rather than mysterious. What is decidedly clear is that the drama, mystery, and plot twists are due solely to artifice. Perhaps I'm unaware of some profound impact this movie had on film history, but as a viewer with modern sensibilities I saw every plot twist coming like a silhouette against the sun. I simply don't see what everyone finds so compelling about this movie.
Facts of the Case
Jeb (Robert Mitchum) and Thor hole up in a ramshackle old house. (Not Thor the Norse god…it's short for Thorley, played by Teresa Wright.) Jeb stares ponderously at the wall past her, seeing dramatic visions of a man in black comin' to git 'im. What brought these star-crossed lovers to such a grim place?
It all goes back to Jeb's childhood, when Ma pulled him out of a cellar and took him to live with her. He grew up fine, strong, and tall. He falls in love with his foster sister, goes off to war, and returns a hero. But something isn't right because people keep trying to kill him.
Even though Ma and everybody else knows why, it's more entertaining to keep him in the dark. Could it be that he isn't the reason at all, but a dark secret from his family's past?
The melodrama was as thick as arrows raining over the battlements. The hero was noble if lackadaisical, raising his voice nary a bit behind narcoleptic eyes. The villain was so obsessed that he wanted to wipe an entire family from the earth forever, yet lives next to Jeb for decades and leaves him be.
That's the heart of my gripe: Pursued feels artificial. Jeb can't remember his childhood, but there's no rationale: no knock on the head, no bad acid, no brain transplant. The real reason is because if he could remember, there'd be no movie. There isn't a plausible reason for it. The dramatic tension is based on an unconvincing premise, therefore it seems artificial.
Amnesia isn't the only subplot affected by this malady. The villain burns with murderous hate, yet he is incomprehensively passive-aggressive. He tries to kill Jeb by sending him to war, or by sending bumbling lackeys with no real gripe against Jeb. This is supposedly due to his one arm, but he seems perfectly fit when it counts, riding and shooting and lassoing with abandon.
Such plot holes are frequent. The most glaring are in Jeb's flashbacks, where he is trying to get at the heart of the mystery. Yet he recounts details that lay the story bare. First, how could he know them? Second, why were we told? Later (and this is a spoiler) he gets shot at by a mysterious man. He shoots back and kills him. When the man's identity is revealed, his family turns on Jeb…all because he shot back at someone trying to kill him.
The acting has a classic feel with none of the weight. Eyebrows pinch, jaws set, and curls shake about in despair, but they are motions without heart. Shall we feel sad for Thor just because she's tearful? Do we feel pride in Jeb because he swells his chest and resolutely juts his cleft chin? Should we fear the villain because he wears black and scowls?
The ponderous score attempts to pour on dark tension, but only serves to underscore the melodrama. Every bass drum roll and muted brass wail sent me further into apathy. There was a neat play on the wedding march, but not enough to save the unyielding tone of the rest. The dialogue was faint at times and the music dissonantly loud. "Dolby 2.0" apparently refers to 2.0 mono.
People comment on the novel mix of film noir and western. I'm all about mixing genres if it leads to something fresh. The approach fell short here. Jeb's stoic outlook on the weirdness around him just seemed odd. The psychological elements were too forced to have meaning. The darkness was complete, which I respect because it is tempting to lighten the mood. I appreciate that they didn't give in. However, as dark films go, this one lacked the depth of despair and pathos usually achieved. The trappings were there, but I wasn't engaged.
The final insult is the ending. Not that the end is surprising in any way, mind you, but there are some niggling details left unclear. When those details are brought to light, it fundamentally invalidates any shred of sense left in the proceedings. Here's an analogy. Let's say I gave you a watch for your birthday, and later stole it. For years afterward I treat you like crap. When you finally ask me why I'm so mad at you, what if I told you "Cause you aren't wearing the watch I stole from you!" Would you think that was stupid?
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As mentioned, I appreciate the way the director stuck with the mood throughout. If you really love westerns, this one is a different take that you might appreciate.
The cinematography is quite good. There are dramatic shots and innovative lighting employed throughout. The image quality is impressive given the film's age. There were numerous scratches and specks, but the grain was kept in check and the contrast was strong, though it suffered in darker scenes. There was a fair amount of shimmer, and one rough patch of scratchy dust.
Teresa Wright was a bright spot, comely and decisive. She did undergo a weird and unreasonable transformation, which might have been dramatic had the film not opened with her and Jeb together. That aside, she had a strong screen presence, as did Ma (Judith Anderson). But they both suffered from the melodramatic virus that plagued this film.
For real rebuttal witnesses, you need only turn to the Internet Movie Database. Pursued scored an impressive 7.8 and raves abound. Everyone seems eager to give thumbs up to Pursued.
Perhaps those reviewers could see past the awkward artifice, unreasonably convoluted plot, melodramatic acting, complete transparency, and insulting finale. I could not.
Robert Mitchum, the court commands you to wake up and pay attention in this courtroom. Ma, why didn't you just tell him what happened and spare us the shenanigans? Despite this noirish quagmire, the court recognizes the achievements of director Raoul Walsh and cinematographer James Wong Howe. I sentence all of you to two half hour sessions with a beginning therapist, which should clear up those deep seated psychological issues.
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