Special Topics in Film: Western Noir
108 - 001 | Rhetoric 131T | CCN: 31651
In this course we will examine the hybridization of two American genres, the Western and film noir. We’ll examine how the combined traits of the two genres complicate the social conflicts they depict and defamiliarize their defining locales and geographies. In film noir the space is urban, labyrinthine, and entrapping, and in the Western it is rural, vast, and open. The classic Western hero represents assured traditional masculinity, whereas the troubled anti-hero of film noir is the embodiment of post-World War II masculinity in crisis. The tension created by representing opposed elements in combination (heroic anti-heroes, open yet entrapping spaces) defines the early action films of the 1970s, such as the Dirty Harry films starring Clint Eastwood, and the Spaghetti Westerns directed by Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) that made him a major star.
We’ll study recent examples of the Western noir hybrid including the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, the 2007 remake of 3:10 to Yuma, and the acclaimed television series Justified and Deadwood. We’ll also trace the antecedents of this genre hybrid back to the late 1940s – ’50s, when dark Westerns emphasizing psychopathology and existential entrapment were produced in great numbers (Pursued, Blood on the Moon, The Furies, The Gunfighter, Yellow Sky), along with film noirs set in contemporary rural Western areas and taking on Western themes, such as Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra, Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole and Nicholas Ray’s On Dangerous Ground. Two directors in particular specialized in both film noir and the Western, colonizing the violent territory between them: Anthony Mann (Raw Deal, T-Men, Border Incident, Desperate, The Furies, The Naked Spur, Winchester ’73) and Delmar Daves (Dark Passage, Jubal, The Badlanders, The Hanging Tree, and the 1957 version of 3:10 to Yuma).
And we’ll explore the 1960s – ‘70s development of the Western genre in its “revisionist” phase, seeking to interrogate the Manifest Destiny pieties that imbued the classic Western film. This revisionism has continued to inform the Western, expressing a harsher view of America’s founding principles and frontier expansion by focusing on racism, vigilante violence, political corruption, rampant capitalist exploitation, and the genocidal government policies enacted against Native Americans and people of color. We’ll see similar preoccupations in the neo-noir inflected action films of the same period, such as Point Blank, Dirty Harry, Billy Jack, and blaxploitation films such as Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song, Shaft, and Superfly.
There will be a required course reader. Students should expect to read and write a lot, watch many films, and engage in class discussion. Attendance is a must!