In his introduction to the video release of JOHNNY GUITAR, Martin Scorsese describes the film as "operatic," and the same term applies to PURSUED, which he also chose for the "Martin Scorsese Presents" collection. Thinking about it this way helps: who looks for logic or realistic behavior in an opera? What you look forand get with PURSUEDis intensely aesthetic drama driven by passions both heightened and stylized. The screenplay is by Niven Busch, who also wrote DUEL IN THE SUN, and what saves PURSUED from descending into camp is not a better story but restrained acting, crisp straightforward direction, gloriously dark cinematography and an ominous yet contained mood that feels like an approaching thunderstorm. To properly appreciate the cinematic grandeur, you need to see PURSUED on the big screen, where the vast empty landscapes, looming walls of rock, and enormous close-ups provide the right context for this melodrama flavored with Greek tragedy.
Freud was trendy in the 1940s, and Hollywood turned out a number of overwrought yet simple-minded movies about characters whose twisted psyches can be explained by a single event in their childhoods (SPELLBOUND, THE LOCKET, etc.) The first thing you have to accept in PURSUED is that the hero, Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum), has been scarred all his life by a traumatic childhood experience of violence that he can't clearly recall. We know that his whole family is dead, and he has been adopted by Ma Callum (Judith Anderson), who has a son and daughter of her own. Jeb never quite assimilates into his foster family: he fights constantly with Adam, who sees him as an interloper, while he and Thorley (Teresa Wright) develop a very un-sibling-like attachment. These undercurrents are revealed when Jeb leaves to fight in the Spanish-American war, and nothing improves when he returns as a hero. Controlled by impulses they can't understand, shadowed by the secret that only Ma and her sinister brother-in-law Grant Callum know, the three young people become puppets in a violent ritual. This is where the movie starts to strain credibility, especially when both Ma and Thorley turn implacably against Jeb after he kills Adam in self-defense. They've both known and loved this man all his life, so why can't they believe he's not at fault? "Blood is thicker than water" seems to be the only explanation. And when Thorley decides to marry Jeb and kill him on their wedding night, the film starts tipping towards the ludicrous. Her declaration, and the wedding night itself, are like a soprano's arias, while the scene in which Jeb courts Thorley has a sick, chilling quality, as they act out a polite mockery of their former innocent romance.
The role written for Teresa Wright by her husband Niven Busch is pretty much impossible to pull off credibly, since she starts as an open, gentle, loving girl and suddenly morphs into a cold, hate-filled avenger, only to change back again just as abruptly. Wright does her best, which is very good. Judith Anderson is superbly subtle in her portrait of a woman whose stubbornness and inability to admit her mistakes poisons her noble effort to make amends. Dean Jagger, a smooth-talker with an evil glint in his eye, manages to make a man insanely obsessed with vengeance believable enough to be scary. John Rodney is also excellent as Adam, whose envy and gnawing resentment destroy his decency. Where other actors might have worked harder to depict the mental torment, the waking nightmares that haunt Jeb Rand, Mitchum plays him with a numb remoteness, as an emotionally paralyzed man who has never really been able to connect with anything. His love for his foster sister is a yearning to latch onto her rooted normality, to be fully accepted, to make something good out of the wreckage of his past. But the perversity of the match, with its incestuous overtones, makes it an unlikely vehicle of salvation.
PURSUED was Mitchum's first lead in an A picture, and he not only makes the most of it, it makes the most of him. In the first scene he rises out of the shadows in a ruined stone house, his ruffled white shirt torn, long hair mussed, eyes dreamily haunted. His physical magnificence competes with the landscape, and both are monumentally flattered by James Wong Howe's camera. (Forgive me if I sound like one of the "Droolettes,"as an RKO publicist dubbed Mitchum's teenage fans.) He speaks in a hushed, weary voice sometimes barely above a whisper; as an added treat, he croons "Londonderry Air" and "The Streets of Laredo." PURSUED was also the first film to fully express Mitchum's persona as the eternal outsider, the man fundamentally alone and unable to fit into any community. "All my life I've known I didn't really belong," Jeb Rand says. Uninterested in steady work, adrift from conventional moralitythough he has his own code, and a tender heart hidden awayhe is distrusted, disapproved of and envied by other men. He's gambler, willing to risk whatever he has (here he loses his stake in the Callum ranch on a coin toss) because he knows in the end the best he can hope for, as he says in OUT OF THE PAST, is to "lose more slowly." A man doomed, alienated, yet strangely comfortable in that condition, relaxing into his peculiar blend of lucklessness and invincible self-assurance. In real life, Mitchum the former hobo loved to quote from Look Homeward, Angel: "Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father's heart? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?" Or as Ma Callum tells Jeb, "We're alone, each of us, and each in a different way."
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