The title of Film Forum’s 37-film, four-week series “Essential Westerns” ain’t braggin’. From the expected John Ford touchstones (Stagecoach, The Searchers) to the eccentric (Nicholas Ray’s delirious Johnny Guitar, Raoul Walsh’s Freudian Pursued) to the mesmerizingly minimalist (Budd Boetticher’s serenely poetic Ride Lonesome and The Tall T), this survey is a shotgun blast of Old West themes and directorial styles. This is your father’s Deadwood: sagas told with more polite language but equal emotional force (“You’re not a gunfighter—you’re a mouth-fighter,” sneers an outlaw to a timid citizen in Sam Fuller’s brash 1957 Forty Guns), with an eye to both grand spectacle (King Vidor’s epic Duel in the Sun, in a blazing new 35-mm. print) and social messages subtle (vigilantism in William Wellman’s stunningly quiet The Ox-Bow Incident) and stolid (a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do in George Stevens’s Shane and Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon).
The best entries are the most ambivalent ones. Randolph Scott was the great existential loner of the genre in the B-movie series he starred in for Boetticher, while Anthony Mann drew ornery vindictiveness out of Jimmy Stewart in The Naked Spur and Winchester ’73. A revelation: Walsh’s obscure 1947 Pursued, in which Robert Mitchum is a cowpoke emotionally paralyzed by the half-forgotten violence buried in his youth. Indeed, the Forum’s secret thesis seems to be that Westerns are the parching-sun equivalent of big-city noir, steeped in a dire fatalism that’s as soul-piercing as a gunslinger’s quick-draw burst. And as fatal a femme as Barbara Stanwyck was in, say, Double Indemnity, she was equally wily in oaters like The Violent Men and Forty Guns.
March 4 to March 31.