In the 1950s director Anthony Mann and actor Jimmy Stewart made eight films together, five of which were westerns. These westerns were darker tonally than most of the action adventure westerns that had come before. The “hero” that Stewart played went against the “all-American-good-guy” type for which he had become famous. The main character of these films tended to be troubled and out for revenge. Here are a couple of examples:
Winchester ’73 (1950)
This story has the ingenious idea of following the trail of a rifle as it passes from man to man and bad things happen to them as they have it. It all starts when Lin McAdam wins the rifle in a contest while he is tracking down a man named Dutch Henry. Dutch steals the rifle from Lin and escapes from town. The rest of the movie follows Lin as he chases Dutch in addition to the story of the rifle. The rifle symbolizes the chain of evil that spreads as bad men do bad things to each other. The evil in the world grows and escalates as time passes. In the end, we learn why Lin is so bent on chasing and killing Dutch. It is a case of revenge that is more like western justice.
The Naked Spur (1953)
Here we again follow the story of Jimmy Stewart’s character Howard Kemp as he is tracking down a criminal named Ben Vandergroat, this time for a bounty. Along the way, he enlists the help of a couple men and when they catch Ben and a girl traveling with him, Ben begins to play them against each other. To make matters worse, Howard begins to fall in love with the girl (Lina, played by Janet Leigh). We gradually learn that Howard’s heart was broken and his livelihood was ruined when his fiancée sold his land during the war and took off with another man. He needs the reward money to get his land back. So, once again we have a man driven by revenge—not precisely against Ben, but rather against life in general. In the end, greed and temptation destroy the weak partnership and kill the two men helping Howard. Lina begs him to abandon his vengeful course and start over with her out west.
These films are not the fun, adventure and shoot-‘em-up westerns that the genre is known for. They are more like films noir filmed in the bright light of the American West. They are essential viewing for the genre. Look for Bend of the River (1952), The Man from Laramie (1955) and The Far Country (1955) too.