Women With Whips

Name a classic Western of the 1950s starring a great actress of the 1930s. She should play a woman of power and influence, maybe with a little bit of a dominatrix vibe. (When critics talk about the film, they will probably call it “psychosexual”.) It is highly stylized. Whatever happens in it, it doesn’t take place in the West of the United States sometime between the 1860s and the 1890s, but in the West of Hollywood movies, and it wants you to know that it knows it. Deep down, it is all about sex and violence. Horsewhips feature prominently. And the French New Wave was obsessed with it. Three movies spring to mind: Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious, from 1952, with Marlene Dietrich; Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, from 1954, with Joan Crawford; and Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns, from 1957, with Barbara Stanwyck. That might not be quite enough to constitute a microgenre, but it is remarkable that three such films exist at all. Not that it’s a coincidence: Ray and Fuller both revered Lang, and both certainly had Rancho Notorious in mind when making their own movies. And all three drew on trends that reflected the growing discomfort of the post-war Western: Western noirs, which paint the wide-open range with chiaroscuro shadows, and psychological Westerns, which explored how pioneer virtues such as freedom and self-reliance sour into obsessive greed, lust for power, or rancid cruelty. The post-war years even saw an uptick in films where women owned land and property —Veronica Lake in Ramrod, Agnes Moorehead in Station West, Ruth Roman in The Far Country, Barbara Stanwyck in any of half a dozen roles. The films in question here are doing something stranger and more specific. More than any other entries in the genre (including the others starring Stanwyck), they are

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