Feb 2, 2016

On DVD: Western Noir in Roughshod (1948) and Station West (1948)

It wouldn't take much to transform Roughshod (1948) and Station West (1948) into city-set noirs. Just take away the horses and add a pool of light from a streetlamp. These newly-released westerns from Warner Archive have the wisecracks, gangsters, and even the stars of the genre.

Roughshod has a most western cast of characters: Gloria Grahame, an exiled dance hall girl leading her fellow hoofers from uptight Aspen to a new job in Sonora; Robert Sterling, a cowboy transporting a herd of horses with his kid brother (The Yearling's Claude Jarman); and John Ireland, a psychopathic escaped convict looking for revenge on Sterling, who captured him once after the bandit murdered his friend. They all clamber across Sonora Pass, some of them finding what they want along the way and veering off the trail; the rest moving forward towards their desires, or because they have nowhere else to go.

Grahame knows Sterling wants her, as much as she irritates his morals, and she tries to make it easy for him to accept her. The problem is that she looks and talks like a femme fatale. Grahame can't be the wholesome girl forced into a shady life; she looks like she was born knowing where the bodies are buried.

That contradiction makes her character more plausible. Sure she's teaching Jarman how to read, but she also makes sure to look seductive while resting on the ground, giving Sterling her best "you want this" look. She also has an unnerving habit of never breaking eye contact with him. This woman is bold and modern in a way he doesn't recognize, and it excites him.

Roughshod gets its noir pedigree from the ground up: the script was written by Out of the Past (1947) scribe Geoffrey Homes. There's an interesting sharpness to the dialogue, it tells a familiar story, but there's always just a bit of bite, often provided by Grahame and Ireland as different representatives of the seedy side of life. Most of the action takes place at night, adding a moody, and menacing gloominess to the proceedings. Director Mark Robson heightens the intensity by making his villains loom dangerously in the foreground, and giving Ireland the most extreme close-ups, leaving the honest folks to cowering in the background, out-of-focus and out-of-control.

Station West (1948) benefits from a strong, diverse cast, including Agnes Moorehead, one-man Greek chorus Burl Ives, and noir superstars Dick Powell and Jane Greer. Powell is a military intelligence officer working undercover to find the murderer of a pair of enlisted men who were killed while serving as gold shipment guards. He's in familiar territory--playing a western version of his grim-faced gumshoe character. As the ambitious owner of a saloon, and leader of the murderous bandits, Greer is also in a recognizably dark realm, using her subtle beauty to conceal her viciousness as only she can.

The script has snap; characters banter with the sharp efficiency of a fencing match. They say all the clever kinds of things an ordinary person might think of a couple of hours after the party is over. Everyone is on their toes and ready to strike.

An interesting cast does much with that dialogue. Ives is the guitar-playing hotel owner, who provides wry comic relief with his spontaneous and pointed songs. In an unusual move, it is the women who hold power here: Agnes Moorehead as a wealthy, and self-possessed widow who as owner of the gold mine helps Powell behind the scenes, and Greer as the refined gangster in angelic white gowns who quietly rules from her plush saloon. Guinn "Big Boy" Williams adds some rough-fisted grime to all that refinement, while Raymond Burr is his cowering opposite in a viscerally craven performance as an understandably nervous lawyer.

It is a brilliantly self-assured production. The action flows easily and everyone seems happily cast and confident in their roles. There's nothing remarkable about the story; this one is all about the execution, and even more than Roughshod it could be easily transferred from the Wild West to a dark street corner. This underseen classic is deserving of a wider audience.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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