Wednesday 11 August 2021

Movie Review: Pursued (1947)

A western drama with strong noir elements, Pursued features a feud, troubled love, revenge, and the search for a sense of belonging.

In New Mexico around 1900, lovers Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) and Thor Callum (Teresa Wright) reunite in the ruins of his childhood home. In flashback, he recounts their story.

Jeb was adopted as a child by Thor's mother Mrs. Callum (Judith Anderson), after his father was killed by Grant Callum (Dean Jagger) to resolve a family feud. The brother of Thor's deceased father, Grant would have preferred to also kill young Jeb but agrees to wait until the boy matures.

Growing up, Jeb and Thor are close, then as adults they start a romance and are eager to get married. However, Jeb's relationship with Thor's brother Adam (John Rodney) is never less than fractious. Jeb then loses a coin toss and joins the army, and upon his return Adam is even more hostile. Grant reappears and starts agitating others to kill Jeb. Forced to defend himself, Jeb risks losing Thor's love.

Directed by Raoul Walsh, Pursued is a character-driven drama and romance that happens to be set in a western milieu. The script by Niven Busch explores a dark fate hovering over Jeb through no fault of his own. Beset by nightmares since the traumatic night his father was killed, hunted by Grant since he was a child, and always resented by Adam, Jeb suffers even more as Mrs. Callum and Thor turn against him at critical junctures. If ever a man had enough reasons to turn into a prototypical western bad guy, Jeb checks off the entire list.

But from the opening context-setting scene, Busch is also interested in the luminous power of a true love. Jeb and Thor share a resilient connection which might just be strong enough to save them both, and although events severely test their relationship, often pushing them apart and nudging love towards animosity, they both always have something to reach back for.

The noir elements include the flashback structure, effective narration, Thor exploring her fatale side, plenty of scenes set at night, and nice touches including a cold courtship and a coin that always lands on the wrong side. 

The visual style is economical, and does not attempt to conceal some of the weaker narrative moments. Thor's emotional transformations are jarring, driven more by the whims of the script than true exposition. Grant's malevolence, wayward targeting, and penchant for contracting out his dirty work would have benefited from more depth, and the ending is abrupt.

But Pursued succeeds in tracing an eloquent arc of discovery, Jeb's journey finding a resolution where it started. He is less innocent and more resigned, but now has love by his side.

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