Exactly a week back, this blog was celebrating the birthday of a favourite of mine: the gorgeous Mumtaz turned 70. Today, Dusted Off celebrates the birth anniversary—the centenary, in fact—of another favourite of mine: Robert Mitchum.
Born on August 6, 1917, Mitchum first began appearing in cinema during the early 40s (having already worked in an eclectic range of jobs, from ditch-digging, professional boxing, theatre actor and writer, to a machine operator at Lockheed). Although he is today best known for noir films (think Cape Fear and The Night of the Hunter), Mitchum acted in varied roles and genres. From one of the best submarine war films ever (The Enemy Below) to an unusual—and endearing—love story in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison; from the angsty medical drama Not as a Stranger to the hard-hitting expression against anti-Semitism, Crossfire… Mitchum was in films of all types.
To commemorate Mitchum’s birth centenary, I found myself in a dilemma. I’ve already reviewed several of his best-known films (not to mention several that are barely known). I’ve even devoted an entire week on Dusted Off to Mitchum. It seemed appropriate to review a Mitchum film: one of the classic noirs? Blog reader Hurdy Gurdy Man suggested Out of the Past or The Big Steal. I decided, instead, to review an unusual film, a sort of cusp between the Westerns that marked Mitchum’s early career and the noirs that marked his later years as an actor. Pursued is a noir Western.
The film begins with a woman, Thorley ‘Thor’ Callum (Teresa Wright), riding a horse through the hilly countryside of New Mexico. Thor arrives at a ruined ranch house, hurriedly dismounts, and calls for Jeb. After a minute or so of searching, Jeb Rand (Mitchum) emerges warily. Thor and Jeb hug each other, and Thor asks him if he’s all right. It’s obvious that Jeb is hiding here—but from whom? And why?
In answer to Thor’s anxious questions about what this is all about, Jeb begins to tell her where this began: here, in these ruins, when it was still a home. He has faint memories of when he was a small child, plagued by nightmares in which a man’s spurred boots pace about, menacing and hurried.
Little Jeb comes awake, frightened by his own dreams, and calls for his father. Instead of a father, the person who comes is a woman, Ma Callum (Judith Anderson), who pulls him out from under the floorboards and hurries him to her own home. At home are Ma’s own children, Adam and little Thor. Ma gets Adam and Thor out of their beds, has them get dressed as quickly as they can, and flees the house with the three children shortly after.
… just in time, because a little while later, along comes Grant Callum (Dean Jagger) and a crony, Grant hurt badly in his left arm. He looks around, discovers that Ma Callum and her brood are gone, and does not appear surprised by that.
Thus it is that Jeb Rand becomes part of the Callum household, and begins to grow up with Adam and Thor. When he’s about ten years old, one day while out riding, Jeb narrowly escapes being shot dead. The colt he’s on is hit instead, and dies. Jeb hurries home and picks a fight with Adam, the two boys pulling and tugging and hitting each other: Jeb accuses Adam of taking pot shots at him because Adam had wanted that colt Jeb had got. Adam denies it.
Ma Callum, who hears them out, comes to a decision which she announces to her small family. From now on, like it or not, Jeb is a part of their family, and everything she owns—ranch, house, everything—will be divided equally between Jeb, Adam, and Thor. Adam looks mutinous at this, but is too young to do more. Ma also reiterates that she loves Jeb as much as her own children. Would he like to call himself Jeb Callum from now on, she asks?
But Jeb says no. He’s always been Jeb Rand; he will remain Jeb Rand.
Ma then goes into town and strides up to the local hotel, where she soon finds out that Grant Callum is staying there. She goes up to his room and faces him, accusing him of having tried to kill Jeb earlier in the day. Callum admits it, and rues the fact that he missed. After all, he, Grant Callum, had vowed to finish off the Rand family; now, only Jeb is left. He points out the fact that his left arm is gone (there’s a pinned-up sleeve there instead of an arm), and remembers that the feud with the Rands is to blame for that.
Ma Callum tells Grant that it’s time he put that behind him. She lost a husband and he lost a brother to that feud; let it be, now. She has taken Jeb into her home and her family. She loves him as much as she loves her own children. Grant Callum is least affected by her words, and Ma Callum leaves.
The next time we see Grant Callum is years later, when a grown-up Jeb Rand rides into town to find that war has broken out with Spain and men are being egged on to enlist. Grant Callum, older and dignified in a suit and hat, is now the county prosecutor, and is administering the oath to the eager young men who are signing up. Jeb is egged on to enlist as well, but says no. There are only two of them on the ranch, he and Adam; if one of them goes off to fight, it’ll be next to impossible for the other to manage on his own.
But that is inevitable, it seems, because an order arrives soon: each ranch must send one man. Adam (now John Rodney) and Jeb decide by a coin toss, and Jeb loses. He has to go enlist, but even as he’s leaving, Thor confesses the truth to him: she has never thought of him as a brother; she’s in love with him. Jeb admits he loves her too, and the parting is an emotional one.
Jeb’s return to town some time later is a far grander affair: he’s a war hero, he’s been wounded (and, though he doesn’t tell this to anyone, has suffered a return of those nightmares from his childhood). Now, in uniform and with his medal on his chest, he’s given a warm welcome by the town. And by Ma Callum, and an exultant Thor.
Adam is not as happy; he resents the fact that he has been the one to handle the ranch on his own while Jeb has been away getting all the glory. When Adam offers Jeb the account books (Jeb will be getting his share of the profits) and Jeb shows no interest in them, Adam gets even angrier.
The resultant altercation blows up into a full-fledged fight, and this time Ma Callum is unable to put an end to it as easily as she had, years ago. Jeb and Adam agree: only one of them can stay on the ranch. It isn’t big enough for both.
There’s a coin toss again, and again Jeb loses. He will leave the ranch, immediately. Before going, however, Jeb urges Thor to come with him. They will find a preacher and get married. But Thor refuses. She says that she doesn’t want to get married in this hurried, unromantic way. She wants all the trappings: to be courted, to have Jeb call on her, to talk over coffee and go out driving in a carriage…
Nothing Jeb can say will change her mind, so Jeb eventually leaves that night without Thor. As it turns out, this is going to be a momentous night, not just for Jeb, but for the Callums as well. Rand, heading away from the ranch and into town, goes into a gambling hall and decides to play—and wins enough money for the owner to ask him (in all seriousness) if Jeb would like to go into partnership with him.
Jeb refuses, however, and rides out of town and into the mountains again. As he’s riding along, someone—a very determined someone, whose face we do not see at this stage—takes aim at Jeb from up above, and fires. He also, fortunately for Jeb, misses. Jeb leaps for cover and fires back. It becomes a duel between gully and cliff, up and down, and Jeb finally manages to shoot his attacker. The man dies, and tumbles over down the cliff, his corpse landing on the ground not far from Jeb.
Jeb goes and turns over the dead man, only to find that it’s Adam.
Who will believe Jeb? Not, at any rate, the two women who have loved him the most all these years: both Ma Callum and Thor are devastated by Adam’s death, and firmly believe that the enmity of the two men has finally resulted in this. Thor vows that she will avenge her brother’s death, no matter that a jury has acquitted Jeb, having come to the conclusion that the killing happened in self-defence.
From there, how did Jeb and Thor get to the point where she comes looking for him, anxious and worried about his welfare? More importantly, what is the secret that Jeb’s mind only half-remembers in nightmares? Who was the man with the spurs? Why is Grant Callum hell-bent on killing Jeb, through fair means or foul?
As I wrote in the introduction to this review, Pursued is an interesting example of a crossover genre: not completely noir, not just Western, but something in between. And with elements of the psychological thriller thrown in; not on the Hitchcockian level of Spellbound or Marnie, but still.
What I liked about this film:
Mitchum as Jeb Rand. Jeb is a character with many facets that might encourage hamminess in an actor’s portrayal of this man. After all, he is a tormented soul; pretty much his entire life has been spent wondering who he really is, why his entire family was killed off, and what these nightmares mean. His identity remains a question mark, and one even more frustrating because he knows, deep down, that he has seen it all, that in his subconscious lie the answers to his questions. Worse, his being adopted (even if only informally) by Ma Callum doesn’t make things much simpler: he may receive affection from her and Thor, but his uneasy relationship with Adam is always on the brink of toppling over (as it does, every now and then) into outright fights.
I can well imagine how Jeb Rand may have been played by some other actors: there’s enough pent-up emotion in this man to encourage a somewhat unbridled display of all that emotion. Mitchum, however, manages a restrained, understated portrayal of Jeb Rand. The only time Jeb loses his temper enough to lose control is when he’s up against Adam: his dialogue is sparing, his expressions are controlled, and mostly, it is just his eyes that speak. A very good performance indeed.
Among the other elements I liked: the cinematography, Judith Anderson as Ma Callum, and the interesting twist in the tale.
What I didn’t like:
Teresa Wright as Thor, whom I thought miscast, and whom anyway I did not think of as an interesting character. Thor came across as wishy-washy and mercurial in a dumb, as-the-spirit-moves-her way. She was all right till the point where the fight between Adam and Jeb results in Jeb leaving the ranch; after that, a lot of what Thor does marks her out as more than a little stupid. The man you love is leaving, and you know that your brother hates him (so it will eventually boil down to choosing between a brother and a husband), and all you think of is to tell him you want to be courted?
Then, even after you’ve vowed vengeance for your brother’s death, your method of killing the man in question is to marry him (after forcing a period of painful courtship on him, which neither of you enjoy or mistake for genuine courtship) and murder him on the wedding night? That’s melodramatic and silly. Worst of all, when you shoot at your new husband and miss, you fall into his arms and decide you cannot live with him after all?
Basically, iffy characterization, coupled with acting that didn’t compensate for that. I can imagine that a more accomplished actress—think Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara—could’ve pulled off this role. But Teresa Wright falls short.
Despite that, worth a watch. Mitchum, Anderson, Jagger and the story make up for Wright.