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Sleepy eyes make sense
(Pursued, Raoul Walsh / 1947)
Mirko Stopar

"Pursued" can be ranked among Walsh’s best westerns. It’s inferior to "Colorado Territory" (probably Walsh’s best), but is part of a trilogy of underrated masterpieces with "Along the great divide" and "Gun fury".
This peculiar film incorporates elements of the film noir, a genre frequently visited by the director. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks in which the hero Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) struggles to evoke an obscure incident of his early childhood. This memory might give him the key to deal with a series of tragedies that take place one after the other with no apparent reason.

The film loses its logic early on, and we are so engaged in Walsh’s storytelling, that we don’t mind. Nothing makes sense here. Everything is dually disconnected, from Theresa Wright’s angelical progression into furious revenge (she wants to marry Jeb just to shoot him during the wedding night), to that loving mother saving the heir of the family war and also leading him to destruction. If destiny can be dictated by luck (the flipping of the coin to go to war, the casino), luck also can be manipulated (the wheel of fortune incident, later picked up by Lang in "Rancho Notorious"). The only thing that prevails unmoved is Micthum’s stoic acceptance of his misfortunes.

This is not John Ford’s contemporary universe ruled by tradition and heroism. In fact, the film’s tone anticipates the pessimistic mood of Ford’s "The Searchers". "Pursued" is like a farewell to classicism, is departing from an era that has decayed like the hero’s cottage of his childhood. Walsh is showing the way to a new expressionism in western, eventually taken over by Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann (all the motivations of James Stewart’s characters in his westerns with Mann are condensed in Mitchum’s role).

In this film, whose dramatic structure is as pristine as a greek tragedy, the real star is James Wong Howe’s photography. The interiors are sombre, the exteriors are wasted. The night scenes are as nocturne as any western ever portrayed. The funeral is pure pictorial chiaroscuro. The overwhelming landscape of Gallup, New Mexico (used again in "Colorado Territory") acquire a dramatic and oppressive meaning, significant enough to match Ford’s utilization of Monument Valley.

Walsh’s direction turns a somehow standard script into a sordid exploration of human misery. It could have been an oniric tale but with the aid of Howe’s outstanding photo and Steiner’s powerful score, it developed into a nightmare. In such a scenario, it makes good sense that "Sleepy Eyes" Mitchum appears like a sleepwalker throughout the film.

© Mirko Stopar August 2003

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