Noirvember Day 10: Western Noir – The Violent Men (1955)

A couple of years ago, I discovered the “Western Noir” genre through a collection of movies airing on the Criterion Channel. According to author and historian Imogen Sara Smith, who introduced the films, the stories of Western noir could be “transported into an urban setting and fit right in as hard-boiled crime or gangster movies.” Back then, I wrote about one of the films from the Criterion collection, Blood on the Moon (1948), which was to be the kick-off for a Western Noir series here at Shadows and Satin. Today’s Noirvember post will continue that series (better late than never, amirite?) with The Violent Men (1955).

This picture stars Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson – two-thirds of the cast that headed my favorite noir, Double Indemnity). Here they play Martha and Lew Wilkison, owners of Anchor, a sprawling, highly profitable ranch, which is increasing its sprawl as Lew forces neighboring ranchers to sell their land to him at bargain basement prices. Incidentally, Lew Wilkison’s legs are paralyzed and he gets around on crutches, and Martha, who appears to be hopelessly devoted to Lew, is having an affair with his younger brother, Cole (Brian Keith), quite literally under her husband’s nose. Lending extra drama to the proceedings is the Wilkisons’ daughter, Judith (Dianne Foster), who suspects her mother’s involvement with her Uncle Cole.

— Matlock and Parrish face off.

The film’s conflict is sparked by John Parrish (Glenn Ford), who has recently returned home after the Civil War with plans to marry his girl, Caroline Vail (May Wynn). Parrish intends to sell his ranch to Wilkison and move east with Caroline, but he’s not in much of a bargaining mood after he sees Wade Matlock (Richard Jaeckel), one of Wilkison’s henchmen, shoot the town’s sheriff in the back. He’s feeling even less charitable when Matlock murders one of the men who works on Parrish’s ranch – an act designed to convince Parrish to sell.

When Parrish realizes that the new sheriff (who’s on Wilkison’s payroll) has no plans to pursue justice in this set of killings, he takes matters into his own hands, killing Matlock during a brief gun battle. This kicks off a war between Wilkison’s men and Parrish’s – a war that claims numerous lives and results in the destruction of both ranches, as well as others in the area. Among the visuals served up during this battle is an impressive stampede of horses and cattle, and an all-consuming fire which illuminates a betrayal by Martha Wilkison that you won’t soon forget.

— Martha isn’t as devoted as she seems

In playing the character of Martha Wilkison, Barbara Stanwyck is up to her old tricks – even in a floor-length, tightly corseted gown (by Jean Louis, no less), she’s one of the big screen’s most formidable femme fatales. Martha demonstrates her unique capacities in her first scene alone with her brother-in-law slash lover – after asking where he’d been the night before, she sternly orders him to look at her when she’s speaking (he obeys, by the way), and then pointedly accuses him of being with a local Mexican girl. “Don’t lie to me. I know all about her,” Martha barks. “I know what she looks like. I know the cheap perfume she uses. I’ve smelled it on you often enough after you’ve come home.”

— Martha used her fatal femme charms on Cole.

But in the blink of an eye, Martha abruptly revises her tactics, throwing herself into Cole’s arms, begging him to send the Mexican girl back to her home in Texas, and assuring him that one day he will run Anchor ranch. Later in the film, when her husband hesitates to become involved in a prolonged battle with Parrish, Martha, in true femme fatale fashion, convinces him to proceed. “You didn’t build Anchor by depending on others – you fought and struggled!” she insists. “It’s weight, strength and endurance that counts, and purpose – to know what you want and never to allow anyone or anything to stop you! I didn’t think you’d allow Parrish to stop you.”

The film (which reminded me several times of Stanwyck’s 1946 noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers) was directed by Rudolph Mate, who lent his notable noir pedigree to the production; he was the cinematographer for Gilda (1946) and The Lady from Shanghai (1947), and director of The Dark Past (1948), D.O.A. (1949), and Union Station (1950). The film’s noirish connections extended to the score by Max Steiner, who composed the music for numerous noirs including Mildred Pierce (1945), The Big Sleep (1946), Key Largo (1948), and White Heat (1949).

If you have any doubts that a western can be infused with the characteristics of noir, look no further than The Violent Men. I guarantee you’ll be convinced.

And join me tomorrow for Day 11 of Noirvember!

~ by shadowsandsatin on November 10, 2022.

8 Responses to “Noirvember Day 10: Western Noir – The Violent Men (1955)”

  1. Thank you, Karen. I saw this movie ages ago. I knew who Eddie G was, but I had no idea then what Noir was. Now I need to see it again with different eyes.

    • I know what you mean about seeing a movie from a different perspective, Wesley. It wasn’t until my third viewing of The Violent Men that I actually saw those parallels with Martha Ivers. I hope you enjoy your fresh look! 🙂

  2. If it wasn’t for this blog, I would have no idea that Western Noir was a thing!

    The comparison to THE STRANGE LOVE OF MARTHA IVERS is so apt — THE VIOLENT MEN just has more livestock, less asphalt, and a different wardrobe.

    And I love Western Stanwyck. Like vinegar in a red velvet cake, a Brooklyn broad on the range shouldn’t work, but the result is SO delicious!

  3. This is a good one. By 1955 Stanwyck must have been able to play this kind of character in her sleep, though to her credit I must say I can’t think of a movie where she simply phoned it in. She was a true professional.
    I just thought the dresses and the bleached hair did her no favors.

    Here’s some more Western Noir 🙂

    Blood on the Moon, Pursued, Ramrod, Roughshod, The Gunfighter, The Walking Hills, Silver Lode, The Halliday Brand, Station West, The Outcasts of Poker Flat, Raton Pass, Rawhide and my all-time favorite Colorado Territory.

    • Thanks so much for the Western Noir playlist, Margot — RAMROD has been on my to-watch list for ages!

      Stanwyck could do no wrong onscreen in my book: Big screen, small screen, precode, screwball, melodrama, noir, woman’s picture, western, she hit it all out of the park, and she did it without a trace of vanity.

    • Thank you for these, Margot. I’ve only seen a few — the rest I’ve added to my watchlist!

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