Don’t Fence Her In: On Women of the West

Don’t Fence Her In: On Women of the West

A tight-lipped stranger arrives in a gold-mining town. After checking into a hotel, he heads to Charlie’s Saloon, one of those gambling palaces with glittering chandeliers and be-feathered hostesses. He is told that Charlie “runs the town” and “owns a piece of everything, including the undertaker and the sheriff.” The next day, after making himself an instant celebrity by besting the town’s toughest man in an epic fistfight, the stranger is summoned by the big boss. Imagine his surprise when he discovers that the all-powerful Charlie is a woman—in fact, none other than the alluring brunette who caught his eye the night before, singing in a white satin gown.

Station West (1948), directed by Sidney Lanfield, is one of a handful of films released in the late 1940s and ’50s that make a case for the “noir western,” a hybrid genre that brings the dark shadows, tormented psychology, and moral ambiguity of film noir to the frontier. These films also frequently elevated women from their traditionally marginal role in westerns to more potent and central positions. Charlie is played by Jane Greer, wielding the same sloe-eyed glance and sardonic contralto with which she felled Robert Mitchum in the definitive film noir Out of the Past (1947). With Dick Powell as an undercover agent investigating a string of gold thefts and murders, Station West has all the wisecracking cynicism, convoluted deceptions, and sudden violence of a hard-boiled detective story. Chimneys of rock loom over the dusty little town like skyscrapers over urban alleys. Charlie, who dominates her many male employees with ruthless cool while sporting flounced bustles and off-the-shoulder gowns, is not the only female power in town. There is also Agnes Moorehead as the owner of one of the region’s gold mines, a poised, elegant widow who doesn’t hesitate to tote a gun to protect her interests.

Noir westerns depicted the West not as an unspoiled frontier ripe for civilizing settlers, but as a lawless jungle already corrupted by money, whether gold dug from the ground or cash piled on a poker table. These films are more likely to be set in towns (“where there’s women and gold,” as Station West’s lilting ballad says), rather than tracking pioneers in covered wagons, cowboys on the range, or cavalry fighting Native Americans. They bring to the surface what was submerged in those more classical stories: the greed and conflict spawned by the perception of the West’s land and resources as up for grabs.

Top of page: Johnny Guitar; above: Station West
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