The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range 1943-1962 by David Meuel

The Noir Western: Darkness on the Range 1943-1962 is a fantastic addition to those interested in film critique, the film noir genre and westerns. It is accessible as a great non-fiction read for people interested in the subject but is well foot noted and researched and is appropriate as an academic text in any film program.

The author chose the dates between 1943 and 1962 to highlight a prevailing feeling that people had in the post-World War II era. Veterans came back from the European theater of war having seen the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazi regime. In particular, U.S. troops had participated in the liberation of Dachau and had witnessed the inhuman treatment of one man to another. Other vets had spent time in the Pacific theater and were witness to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the after effects of the bombs.

A more pessimistic view of humanity crept into films. Gone were the bright and breezy musicals of the 1930’s. Many of Hollywood’s actors and directors had served in the armed forces and were not only exposed to war but also to European film makers, many of whom brought their world view and craft to the United States as they escaped their home countries and the ravages of war on their lives and crafts.

Film noir is generally attributed to the world of crime films. In this book, the genre is explored in depth as it influenced westerns, the auteurs and others who worked in this genre. Eleven directors are examined. There are famous names like John Ford and those like Robert Wise whose work is not usually associated with westerns. For each director, two works are chosen to represent an entry to the noir western genre.

Each chapter is set out similarly.  A short discussion summing up the number of westerns that director made with a brief explanation as to why the author selected the two films he chooses to discuss. This is followed by a biography of the director – brief but well detailed and leads the reader to understand the directors whole work product and where the western sits in their overall body of work.

The wo films are then looked at separately. A synopsis of the film, the cast and then a more in depth look at the noir elements that make up the film. The organization of the book is strong and makes the reading easy and accessible. This is very important for students because often they are trying to get the maximum amount of information in a limited time frame. There are extensive chapter notes, footnotes and a bibliography for those interested in delving deeper into either noir or western films.

This book is 3.75 stars. The marks off come through two areas. One is a production issue: there are some photographs placed incorrectly. Right caption description, wrong director. The other is an editorial issue. The word noir is used way too much. There are times it doesn’t need to be used at all and other times where there just has to be another word or description that can be used. I noticed it throughout the book but in the final chapters, it is particularly noticeable. There are certain descriptions that are also over used.

Claustrophobic, noir-ish and complexity are just a few examples of words that are used too much. This is where writing is  tricky – finding new words to convey your ideas without wearing others out. This is also where great editors rise to the challenge in  assisting the author. These are small nit picks but they are noticeable to the reader.

I would highly recommend this book. I found it interesting, entertaining and engrossing. I had never looked at the western genre from this perspective and it definitely has made me want to seek out these westerns on streaming services and have a look at what was very well explained in the book. Don’t be put off by the small stuff. For film students especially, take a look. It will give you some insight into current works such as  Django Unchained, There Will Be Blood and Unforgiven.


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