I Sat Down to Watch a Western, and a Film Noir Broke Out: Station West (1948)
Station West (1948)
Directed by Sidney Lanfield
Produced by Robert Sparks
Screenplay by Frank Fenton, Winston Miller
Based on the novel Station West by Luke Short
Cinematography by Harry J. Wild
Edited by Frederic Knudtson
Music by Heinz Roemheld
(1:27) Warner Archive DVD (MOD)
Watching Station West reminds me of the old joke, “I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out.” I’ve been on something of a Western kick for the past month or two, so when I noticed the recent Warner Archive 4 for $44 sale, I decided to purchase four Westerns, including Station West. That choice was based on the suggestions of several of my online movie buddies, but I was leaning toward it anyway. I looked at the cast — including Dick Powell, Jane Greer, Raymond Burr, among others — and thought, “Man, that’s a film noir cast if I ever saw one.”
And that’s exactly what Station West is.
Someone has been robbing gold shipments, and government agent John Martin Haven (Dick Powell) has been assigned to find out who’s responsible. But this is a covert assignment, and Haven shows up to a not-so-friendly gold mining town posing as an arrogant drifter, raising the suspicions (and ire) of the locals, including Charlie (Jane Greer), the woman who controls the town, and the boys who work for her.
That’s the plot. But substitute a fedora for a Western hat on Powell’s head, turn the town into a metropolitan city, make Greer a femme fatale (Maybe she’s already one here in the Old West?), put her boys in suits, update the heist element just a bit, and you’ve got a film noir.
We’ve seen several noir Westerns, or at least noir-stained Westerns, including Man of the West (1958), The Man from Laramie (1955) (or practically any Western directed by Anthony Mann), Pursued (1947), Blood on the Moon (1948), and many others. Writing for the Toronto International Film Festival, Nick Pinkerton states:
It is in fact difficult to conceive of a western being made today without a hint of noir about it — the western had a measure of innocence to lose, while noir never did, and as such it suits our ever-more cynical times. But as the above, far-from-complete taxonomy indicates, the existence of darkness on the plains is no new discovery: filmmakers have long known that night falls in the lonesome desert just as it does in the city, and the self-congratulatory kind of “moral complexity” which so many of our contemporary genre exercises dress themselves up in has an older and (considerably more authentic) history stretching far back down the trail.
(You really should read Pinkerton’s entire article, “The Family Tree of the Noir Western.”)
What’s interesting to me in examining Station West is its pedigree. You’ve got a director, Sidney Lanfield, with almost no noir films to his credit before Station West. Lanfield made mostly light comedies and romance pictures before leaving movies for TV (where he did dabble in TV noir, directing episodes of M Squad and Johnny Staccato). Yet, once we get past Lanfield, the noir connections get thicker.
Frank Fenton and Winston Miller, the screenwriters for Station West, have interesting stories. Fenton went on to write noir (His Kind of Woman, 1951) and noir-stained scripts (Garden of Evil, 1954), but those were later. Before Station West, he’d written some crime pictures, The Saint Takes Over (1940), and a couple of the Falcon pictures starring George Sanders. Winston Miller had dabbled in noir, writing the screenplay for They Made Me a Killer (1946), Danger Street (1947), and a Western classic with noir-stained elements, My Darling Clementine (1946).
But let’s take a closer look at the cast:
Dick Powell had practically graduated from Film Noir University before walking on the set of Station West, appearing in five consecutive movies that are either bonafide film noir titles or at least noir-stained: Murder, My Sweet (1944), Cornered (1945), Johnny O’Clock (1947), To the Ends of the Earth (1948), and Pitfall (1948). That’s a lot of noir, especially one after another. You can put him in spurs and drop him in the saddle, but at that point, Powell had pure noir running in his veins.
Jane Greer had just come off of They Won’t Believe Me (1947) and the noir classic Out of the Past (1947).
Other than an uncredited appearance in Fighting Father Dunne (1948), Raymond Burr appeared in six film noir or noir-stained pictures in a row: Desperate (1947), I Love Trouble (1948), Sleep, My Love (1948), Ruthless (1948), Raw Deal (1948), and Pitfall (1948). Impressive...
We’ve also got Steve Brodie (right) from Desperate, Crossfire, and Out of the Past (all 1947). And then there’s Regis Toomey, who appeared in a ton of noir pictures before Station West, including Phantom Lady (1944), The Big Sleep (1946), High Tide (1947), Raw Deal (1948), and others. And then there's Tom Powers, from The Blue Dahlia (1946), The Last Crooked Mile (1946), They Won’t Believe Me (1947), and Double friggin’ Indemnity (1944), for Pete’s sake!
Okay, I’ll stop. But I find it fascinating that so many noir elements (especially actors) converged on this RKO Western. Was it a conscious decision to include so many actors familiar with and comfortable in noir? Did the producers realize the influence of noir (They would’ve called them “crime pictures”) and make a conscious decision to implement those elements? I don’t know, but I’m sure there are some film scholars out there (maybe some of you reading this) who do know.
The film also includes appearances by Burl Ives and Agnes Moorehead, and features a pretty exciting fight between Dick Powell and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams (center) that’s not to be missed.
Regardless of whether you’re a film noir fan that’s not really into Westerns, or a Western fan who’s not really into film noir, I highly recommend Station West.
Photos: IMDb, DVD Beaver, Heritage Auctions, The Movie Database, TCM, DVD Talk