What is the Corral about?

Well, simply, it is a place to round-up ideas, thoughts, comments and anything else you may like to hear about. My original intention was to have a forum but the time to manage such a gathering is really beyond me at this stage. But via email I can gather up your input and get it into the Corral.

So, would you like to make comment?

What is your favorite western story, either as a book or a movie?

Want to tell us why?

What are you currently reading, watching or listening to (regardless if it is a Western or not)?

What do you want to see in future Western stories (grit or romance, maybe both, gunplay or justice, grim reality or happy endings)?

Anything you would like to see in one of my stories?



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What am I currently reading?

The Time It Never Rained by Elmer Kelton – how I would have loved to have met this author.

Is there such a thing as western noir?

This topic has been aired before, I know, but it deserves to remain on the hotplate to simmer away until we get some sort of definitive answer. Why? Well, because I think there is an audience out there who likes what noir has to offer in style and substance to the grit of a story, and would like to see that applied to the western genre.

Now, I know there will be those very well read western fans who will say, its already been done, and will rattle off a number of titles to back-up that claim, and I will agree that there are some fancy examples out there. But, are those samples enough to say that western noir exists as a genre in its own right? A genre that could be declared on a book cover and be easily understood by all readers as to what is a noir western? So that’s my pitch: is it possible for western noir to become a familiar and accepted category by the general reading public. So on that basis, I guess the first question to be asked is – what is noir?

Just a little history and I’ll be quick. Noir, pronounced ‘nwahr’, is the French word for black, and it seems that the French first used the term in the 18th century to describe the British Gothic novel. The first of these is credited to Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. No, I haven’t read it, but he started something because others followed in his footsteps over the next 200 years or more and that included Edgar Allan Poe, and Daphne du Maurie who wrote the wonderful Rebecca. Interestingly, those authors who were drawn to writing this style of fiction were some of the smartest and most artistically creative of their generation.

But for most of us ‘noir is best known as a description of the hardboiled crime thriller films that came out of the in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. These were Hollywood B-movies, made in black and white, on a budget, and played before the main movie. However, a number of these flics were so good that they crossed that magical and invisible line where entertainment crosses over and becomes art. Some of my favorite examples are The Big Sleep, which came from the pen of Raymond Chandler; Double Indemnity, co-written by Chandler with director Billy Wilder; and Touch of Evil, written and directed by Orson Welles. But hey, there are some absolute gems out there if you care to look around. Not all are perfect, but who want’s perfect? Not me. I like those little imperfections that show the story to be grounded in the messy everyday world we live in.

Now, the interesting thing about these movies was that when they were made and watched by movie going audiences, they were not referred to as ‘noir’. That title only emerged in the 60s as critics and students re-examined the films of the 1940s. That most of these films had been adapted into screenplays from novels, it could be assumed that noir literature or the ‘black novel’ would have become a generally used tag, but that didn’t seem to occur until the 1980s, yet great noir fiction, such as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice had been around since 1934, when it was first published.

Both the noir film and novel contained consistent traits in style and substance that gave them that black or dark aspect. These included a mix of up-close and personal drama mixed with menace, intrigue, suspense, and of course, unresolved sexual tension. This was the sizzle factor, and the best of these stories not only had great plots and were well paced, but they also delivered scenery that underpinned the shadowy nature of the location, the situation and the characters, often touching on psychological or neurotic aspects of those involved.

 So where does this fit into the western?     

Keith Chapman’s Black Horse Extra raised the issue of western noir back in 2008 and Steve Lewis made comment on his Mystery*File just after, citing author James Reasoner’s reference to the 1956 novel Rope Law. Written by Lewis Patten (and published by Gold Medal Books, a publisher who reinvigorated the pulp market by producing paperback originals much to the chagrin of traditional hardcover publishers), this western novel managed that transition from that of a traditional western to noir. I also think it may have crossed the line from pulp to art, but that of course is always in the eye of the reader (or fan). Gold Medal releases could be a bit trashy and sleazy from time to time, but they were releasing a lot of books to feed the almost insatiable apatite of readers in the 1950s and early 60s. Titles covered such genres and sub-genres as mystery-adventure, hardboiled crime, science fiction, lesbian pulp, and of course the western.

Rope Law is a western in the style of a crime noir novel, with robbery, murder, drunkenness, and dare I say it, sex. Keith Chapman also uses Patten’s westerns as an example by pointing to the imagery of the writing as important in making them ‘noir’. This aspect of style is, I believe, significant as it sets the mood, much as a movie producer and director does when they bring together a script, actors, costumes, lighting and cinematography. The example given by Keith is from Patten’s 1964 release (and first published as a hardcover by Ace) titled Giant On Horseback:

Rain fell, gently drizzling, shining on the slicker worn by the stationmaster, dripping softly from the eaves of the weather-beaten, yellow-frame station. The train hissed patiently as it waited for the passenger to alight . . .

For me, that says it all regarding mood, and it is as good as watching the same scene in a darkened theater. The other aspect raised in this western noir discussion, now some four years ago, relates to the matter of the happy ending. The traditional western normally draws to a conclusion that ties up all the ends nicely. The good guys win, and the bad guys always get their comeuppance. In the crime noir novel that is rarely the case, because the behavior of the good and bad guys makes them hard to separate from time to time, as they are never black and white, just varying shades of grey. The cops are often on the take or bending the law to get a conviction, while the crims are just trying to make some money so they can get an even break and go straight with their good looking girlfriend who wants a home in the suburbs!

James Reasoner laments that it is the editors who constrain western authors from having other than the happy ending, and Keith Chapman gives support to this view. The question therefore needs to be asked: but is that what the readers want?    

From my cursory glance around the internet blogs and commentaries, it would seem that there is an interest in westerns with a hardboiled, gritty noir edge. After all the Hollywood has been doing it to the western for years. Take High Noon for instance. The screenplay was written by Carl Foreman and came from the short story titled The Tin Star by John W. Cunningham and was directed by Fred Zinnemann, who also directed the James Jones novel From Here to Eternity. On its release in 1952, High Noon got a mixed reception. Some audiences didn’t like the lack of action that usually characterizes the traditional western, and even today High Noon draws criticism when it appears in a top western films list. But this movie has the dark aspects of menace and betrayal that seems to work so well with crime noir movies.

Blood on the Moon, a 1948 western staring Robert Mitchum, that comes from a story adapted from the Luke Short novel Gunman’s Chance is considered the quintessential noir Western with its duplicity, doom-laden atmospherics and outbursts of violence and vengeance. This movie comes just one year after the Hungarian director Andre De Toth bought Luke Short’s novel Ramrod, which also has all the hallmarks of western noir. The leading man in this story is Dave Nash, who is played by Joel McCrea, while the leading lady is none other than Veronica Lake, who appeared in many noir films, including the Dashiell Hammett story The Glass Key, and the Raymond Chandler story The Blue Dahlia that both starred Alan Ladd.

And then in 1992 along came Clint Eastwood to introduce us to the dark and brooding William Munny in Unforgiven. Need I say more, other than it was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won four, and returned $160m in box office receipts on a movie that cost $15m to make? This would indicate that the public liked it a lot. I know I did.  

So, is there a bona fide noir genre out there for the western novel? And if not, should there be? Or more importantly, is there a readership for western noir? I think so, but would be more than interested to hear your views.



May 2012

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