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Pursued (Blu-ray Review)

17 Sep, 2012 By: Mike Clark

$19.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Teresa Wright, Robert Mitchum, Judith Anderson, Dean Jagger.

Thanks to its plot-central couple so sexually hot for each other that killing each other almost seems like the only way to go, I suppose David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun (1946) could be called the first so-called “adult” Western — though it is so (entertainingly) lurid that it seems adult only when compared to the alternative behavior by Gene Autry and Smiley Burnette were doing on screen at the same time. A sturdier candidate for the crown, and this has been said more than once, is director Raoul Walsh’s 1947 Pursued with a screenplay by Sun’s writer, Niven Busch, who at the time was married to its lead actress: Teresa Wright.

Though less in our faces or “out there” as the ones in Olive Films’ new recently released Johnny Guitar, the emotions in Walsh’s oft-termed “noir Western” are dominant enough but have been forced under the surface. As witness to horrific events involving his family that he immediately represses, young Jeb (to be played as an adult by Robert Mitchum) is whisked away and adopted by a female stranger (Judith Anderson) to go live as an adoptive brother to Adam (John Rodney, an actor who never went of anywhere) and Thor (played by Wright). Interestingly, the movie never makes an issue of the fact that Jeb and Thor develop a thing for each other once they become adults and probably before, though certainly it complicates matters when Jeb reluctantly ends up killing a couple people who are close to Thor in one way or another. Maybe censors of the day took an atypical “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude to the situation.

There are a couple compelling cross-references here. Pursued came out the same year Mitchum had one of his signature roles as the tortured joe Jane Greer plays for a chump in the noir masterpiece Out of the Past, and there are many indications in Walsh’s film that Jeb may end up suffering a not dissimilar fate if he doesn’t catch some luck (certainly, there’s one character here who perpetually has it in for him, which is treated as something of a mystery). It was also the year that Anderson had a key supporting role in the recently on Blu-ray The Red House, where, as here, her character is part of a deep dark secret that has a severe impact on the story’s younger characters. In the latter picture, she is a tangential player in the intrigue, but this time, she’s a major participant.

Pursued has a reputation as one of the better movies directed by longtime Hollywood vet Raoul Walsh, whose only detractor I’ve ever noted was Kirk Douglas, who apparently clashed with him when they worked on 1951’s agreeably middling Across the Great Divide. To a great deal the movie works for me because Wright (top-billed) and Mitchum make an imposing couple — not merely on screen but even in the ad art. My favorite actress of the 1940s, Wright was extraordinary at playing “nice girls” who nonetheless were very strong-willed, and I will never forget the scene in The Best Years of Our Lives where she vows to her parents that she’ll be actively breaking up the marriage of unhappily wed Dana Andrews — which has to be a movie first for the era. Right after Pursued, her career took a sudden turn downward (she seemed to age quickly, for one thing) — but of her first seven movies, only one (Casanova Brown) wasn’t either a major Oscar-bait release at the time or a subsequent cult movie. She also got Oscar nominations for her first three screen performances, which I’m reasonably sure is still a record.

The other great virtue here is James Wong Howe’s photography, which makes the rugged barrenness of the land a major character without rubbing our noses in it. Olive’s recent transfers of ’40s and ’50s fare (even more than its more recent Paramount releases) are have ranged between solid and extraordinary — a contribution to film history that probably no one expected as recently as six months ago.

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