Genre and ‘Incorporation’ in two films of 1947


Robert Mitchum and Teresa Wright, on their wedding day, in /Pursued/

I’ve watched two oddly similar films in the past two days – Delmer Daves’ noir Dark Passage, and Raoul Walsh’s western Pursued, both from 1947. Walsh is of course most famous for his gangster films, while Daves was certainly known to make some fine westerns, most notably 3:10 to Yuma – so it’s interesting to see the two directors working, in effect, in reverse on these two films. Both films are quite genre-ambiguous, to be sure – Martin Scorsese, who was partly responsible for the recent restoration of Pursued, calls it a “noir western,” which is not a bad description; Dark Passage is in many ways a straight noir (in its photography, its presentation of a social milieu, its dialogue), but its basic narrative thrust, concerning an outcast trying to redress the evils of a backward society that has passed unfair judgement on him and to claim a piece of the social for himself, could easily be that of a western. A noir western and a western noir, then; but what, more precisely, can we learn about how the two films are functioning, having made this observation?

At the most basic narrative level, Dark Passage and Pursued are united by the plight of their protagonists: in Dark Passage, Vincent Parry (Humphrey Bogart) has escaped from San Quentin, and spends the film trying to stay one step ahead of the police chasing him while at the same time trying to figure out who really killed his wife, for whose murder he has been wrongly imprisoned (as this description suggests, Dark Passage is an obvious inspiration for Andrew Davis’ overrated The Fugitive [1993]). In Pursued, Jeb Rand (Robert Mitchum) spends most of the film trying to avoid being killed by Grant Callum, a mysterious relative of the family Jeb grew up with after he was orphaned as a child. In trying to escape Grant and the various others Grant seduces into helping him act out his bloodlust, Jeb must search in his past to learn why Grant is after him and how he can be stopped.

When we say that both films contain elements of the western and the noir, then (or, more accurately, that Dark Passage is an ostensible film noir with a [perhaps unacknowledged] western underpinning, Pursued an ostensible western with a noir underpinning), what we more precisely mean is that both narratives are structured in terms of simultaneous processes of forward movement (the western) and backward movement (the film noir). Ultimately, both films will attempt to bring these complementary trajectories together in a climactic ending, the revelation of past trauma immediately motivating a conclusive act in the present that will bring emancipation and the achievement of sociality as represented by the female love interest (Lauren Bacall for Bogie, Teresa Wright for Mitchum – neither of whom figures much as an object of sexual desire, but in both cases as a stand-in for the achievement of the social world, an admittance for our protagonist). In both cases this attempt is rather forced and perhaps unconvincing – there are too few characters and too little plot contrivance for the identity of Dark Passage’s murderer to be much of a mystery, or its final revelation to be nearly as compelling as the other part of the story, the run from the authorities; Mitchum’s final revelation (of a forbidden love between his dead father and Wright’s mother) is too disappointingly bourgeois to satisfy the fascination the film has attempted to build through an hour and a half of interweaving flashbacks.

Though it would be easy (and not entirely wrong) to simply chalk this up to flawed screenwriting (from Daves on his film, Niven Busch on Walsh’s), we might also say that these unsuccessfully converging endings mark a fissure between the twin generic logics the two films are formed upon. That is, the ‘flaw’ in the endings is constituted by that which makes the films’ very existence possible – the pairing of the two genres, the dovetailing of the narrative that moves forwards with that which moves backwards. The point of this argument is of course not to suggest that these two films are failures, or that any attempt to bend or combine or complicate genre in a film is destined to result in an unsatisfactory ending; what it does show, I hope, is something of how the workings of genre can take over from or interrupt the ‘personal vision’ of the writer or director (not at all in the pejorative sense of genre as an uncreative, repetitive purveyor of the same impersonal stories over and over; rather in the sense that film genres, like all human acts of classification and delineation, define and delimit and make possible our capacity to see the world and its inhabitants, in ways that cannot but supersede the individuality of the author [of a film] or subject [of the social/institutional world]). I think also what we learn from the workings of genre in Dark Passage and Pursued is something of how classical Hollywood cinema constitutes human psychology, affirming a certain ideologically dominant version of ‘the human,’ while also responding to and incorporating elements of more subversive theories of subjectivity – namely, psychoanalysis.

Hollywood was of course curious about psychoanalysis during the forties – these two films came two years after Hitchcock’s Spellbound, a film that has a lot in common with Dark Passage, and two years before Preminger’s Whirlpool. In these as in other – less explicitly ‘psychoanalytic’ – films of the time, an effort was made to incorporate certain aspects of psychoanalytic discourse into Hollywood cinema, which essentially meant to redefine psychoanalytic discourse within Hollywood cinema’s own terms. Freud’s investigations of fetishistic and symptomatic manifestations of trauma are incorporated into these films, but always (or nearly always, for there are exceptions, or at least partial ones) moulded to accommodate to an aggressively teleological narrative which necessitates a successful unification of the human subject with the social world by the film’s ending (the hero gets married, goes to jail, dies and is mourned, etc). As with our discussion of genre-ambiguity above, what we see here is an attempt to combine or interweave two discourses for the purpose of achieving a kind of totalizing knowledge – here, instead of the combination of two Hollywood film genres, we have the combination of psychoanalytic discourse with the discourse of classical Hollywood cinema (which we could, perhaps naively or perhaps not entirely accurately, more broadly define as the discourse of US liberal-capitalist hegemony). As was true of the combining of genre in Dark Passage and Pursued, this pairing does produce fissures, points where the incorporation is not perfect and where those less congenial aspects of psychoanalytic discourse rear their heads, interrupting the inevitable teleology of the Hollywood narrative (psychoanalytic theory itself here functions as an enactment of one of its own concepts, the ‘return of the repressed’).

Any incorporation, then, any attempt to legitimize and totalize a dominant position through incorporating contradictory or subversive discourses into this position, contains the risk – if this incorporated discourse is sufficiently sophisticated and sufficiently ‘real,’ if its inherent logic produces revelations concerning the world and the human that are not easily dismissed (true enough of the film noir, the western, and psychoanalysis) – that the incorporation will be incomplete, that what is incorporated will act upon its host in unanticipated ways (many a science-fiction film has been inspired by this idea). In Dark Passage and Pursued, we have discussed how this incorporation functions in one case – the incorporation of the noir into the western, and the western into the noir – but not yet in the other: the impregnation of a certain external theory of human psychology (psychoanalysis) into Hollywood cinema and its pre-existing ideological conception (in all senses of the word) of the human. For, like any good film noir – and any good western – ‘psychoanalysis,’ whether in its ‘legitimate’ or its ‘incorporated’ version, has an undoubtable presence in these two films.

In Pursued, we have a character (Jeb Rand) and a situation (a flight from assassins that can only be finally achieved through the unearthing of a buried childhood memory) that have been to a large extent produced by (pop-)psychoanalysis. Jeb’s two homes (the Callum home where he is raised and falls in love with his adopted sister, Thor [Wright] – and which, in a brilliant move by Walsh and Busch, he buys back for himself and Wright when they are married; and his own, massacred family’s farmhouse at Bear Paw Butte, where the final showdown takes place) potently represent Jeb’s differing psychological states, while the erotic interplay between Jeb, Thor and her brother Adam produces a kind of Freudian ‘family romance’: details like this make Pursued readily identifiable as a ‘psychological’ film, a noirish western. Psychoanalytic discourse is present in this film, and not merely as a by-product of the incorporation of the (more psychologically ‘complex’) genre of the film noir into the western; even if the second incorporation was initially triggered by the first (even if psychoanalysis was not asked to enter, but entered quietly, innocently, in the tame, popularized form given it by the noir genre), in effect, once it is there, it cannot fail to do its work, even if surreptitiously and inconclusively.

Jeb’s psychological maturation – ultimately enacted by the conscious recall of his childhood trauma, which allows him to right the wrongs of the past and to establish a healthy marriage with Thor – is intended to bring together not only the film noir and the western (making peace with the past; achieving a certain social stability in the present) but also the psychoanalytic and the Hollywood ‘psychologies’: respectively, the subject as a bundle of libidinal drives, produced and perennially undermined by its attempts to sublimate and order them; Versus the subject as a more-or-less successfully produced whole, dogged by external malevolencies, in pursuit of a harmonious erotic/social unification so as to reaffirm its wholeness. The film remains compelling because it cannot (it does not ‘want to,’ despite what it professes to want) entirely manage this incorporation, and the attempt produces all kinds of dispersals that cannot be contained in this conclusive act – the psychological damage the unfolding of the narrative has had on Thor (in a fantastic portrayal by the underrated Wright, giving as interesting and ambiguous [if less erotically charged] a performance here as in Shadow of a Doubt); the uncontainable depths of hate, vengeance and rapacious bloodlust that have motivated Grant, but always been something less clean and ordered than a mere motivation, acting rather as a kind of compulsion. These and other dispersals of psychic trauma and libidinal energy point to this incompleteness of incorporation, but they also suggest that this is not simply a failure of Pursued, rather that such acts of incorporation resulting in the manifestation of the buried/pacified elements of the incorporated other can occur all over the place, are inherent not only to films that combine genre but to each individual genre itself (which is of course always a combination and adaptation of a multiplicity of pre-existing mythic and generic traits); Pursued is the rare film that allows its contradictory impulses to develop, resulting in this tremendous dispersal of energies that its ending inevitably does not, cannot, will not contain.

Agnes Moorehead jumps to her death in /Dark Passage/

Agnes Moorehead jumps to her death in /Dark Passage/

Dark Passage, as I mentioned above, has a lot in common with Spellbound, in the relationship between the couple, the formulation of Woman-as-cure, etc. But it can also be seen as a precursor to that greatest masterpiece of ‘psychological’ Hollywood cinema, Hitchcock’s Vertigo (Pursued, on the other hand, is Marnie all over) – a precursor not only for its remarkable use of the San Francisco setting, but also in regard to how it deals with this simultaneous backwards-and-forwards trajectory, the movement towards future emancipation necessitating a simultaneous move back into past trauma. As in Pursued, the attempt to bring these twin movements together – as enacted through the generic combination of the noir and the western – results in an uncontainable dispersal of energy, the attempt to ‘tidy up’ and have these combined discursive effects dovetail neatly resulting in abrupt summation and dismissal of elements that will not be put away so easily. What Dark Passage manages momentarily is to have these two events, the act of summation and aggressive, dismissive conclusion and the event of the dispersal of exactly that which this summation wishes to contain, occur simultaneously: here it is the sudden death (accident/suicide?) falling out of a window of the murderess, Madge Rapf (Agnes Moorehead), in a scene that anticipates Madeleine/Judy’s death(s) in Hitchcock’s film.

At once completely necessary and completely crazy, Madge’s death is haunting precisely because it is both highly motivated (by the machinations of the narrative which require it in order to bring the interweaving temporal and spatial movements and the interweaving generic forms into a conclusive unity) and largely unmotivated (at the level of what we are given to be her character, the jealous obsessive). The act that brings about the narrative summation, the reconciliation of the different generic discursive registers, is itself a dispersal, a manifestation of all that will not be contained by this totalizing reconciliation-by-incorporation. Moorehead (brilliant as always) understands that the power of her death scene must come from this odd incongruity, and so she ups the ‘psychology’ of Madge, the use of her voice moving from manipulative and controlling to aggressive and terrified, the (simultaneously anxious and sexually charged) tautness of her body giving way, finally, to looseness as it falls to its destruction on the pavement below (“You need something concrete,” she has said to Vincent moments earlier, and he is about to get it); but in so doing she in a sense gives us too much, presenting a psychological complexity which seems to motivate her death and yet overruns this motivation, continuing to haunt us, as we move swiftly towards Bogart and Bacall’s final reunion, with the knowledge that the (social/sexual) desire we see fulfilled here also produces subjects (like Madge – but also, really, all subjects, even Bogart and Bacall) swallowed whole by desire in its isolating, ravenous, murderous forms.


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