Run for Cover: Nicholas Ray’s Non-Western Western

Run for Cover Title

“It is difficult to see the director of Run for Cover doing anything but making films.” (Hiller 116). Such a highly laudatory remark from Jean-Luc Godard appeared, along with many others, in the 1957 pages of the Cahiers du Cinema, the French journal advocating les politiques des auteurs. The French auteurists had their own motives for signaling Ray out as “a great auteur,” a “poet of violence” with “his own vision of the world” (Rhomer in Hiller 111-2). Yet how does one reconcile such praise with a director’s less popular, less distinctive, even less good films?? Nicholas Ray’s western Run for Cover (1955) is one such film; it was praised by Cahiers founder Andre Bazin in 1955, largely dismissed, or at least passively tolerated, by American critics of the time, and has been mostly forgotten since then. Though many of Ray’s personal preoccupations and the so-called Rayean elements of his oeuvre are visible here as they are in most of his films, admittedly to a smaller, less compelling degree, Run for Cover is not a film which is optimally studied solely within the context of such auteurist models of analysis. Rather, I will explore the ways it both fits and subverts the conventions of the classical western and the evolution of the genre, the way in which it reflects the 1950s Cold War moment in which it was made, and the way it interacts with others of Ray’s films and his own personal thematic concerns. For Run for Cover, though of the western genre like Johnny Guitar (1954) and The True Story of Jesse James (1957), is in many ways a very atypical western, a hybridized blend in which the genre provides more of context or springboard for Ray’s exploration of human relationships, emotions, and psychology, than it does a structure for Ray to loyally adhere to.

As numerous scholars have noted, the western genre had reached the height of its popularity and its so-called “classic” incarnation in the years between the end of World War II and the beginning of the 1960s, with the American involvement in Vietnam. During this period, as Stanley Corkin points out, “A-picture westerns – large budget features – burgeoned as at no other time,” with westerns comprising approximately 30 percent of all the films produced by Hollywood studios between 1947 and 1950 (2). Despite such popularity and the formalization of the genre’s “classic” conventions, doubts were already beginning to “skulk into the western myth” by the 1950s, as Durgnat and Simmon write (81-2). Indeed, such doubts were creeping into most post-war cinema, particularly visible in the genre which became known as film noir, and these doubts would soon solidify and become blatantly obvious in the more ambiguous, more modernly mature films of the 1960s. By 1962 – the year of several darker-toned, anti-westerns including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (John Ford), Lonely Are the Brave (David Miller), and Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah) — the western genre had moved away from its earlier “classical” articulations as well as its high commercial popularity and had evolved to embody and highlight, as did many of the films of this decade, the “irony and self-criticism,” “the cynicism and dissent” born of America’s experiences and political policies in Vietnam (Nachbar 6; Corkin 2; Lenihan 25). But before such dark transformations and commercial decline, the western’s “golden age of the golden age” saw the production of three films between 1952 and 1956 which came to “define a pinnacle of the genre’s popularity” and also foreshadowed the darker turn the genre would soon take: Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which many reviewers labeled a narrative inspiration for Ray’s Run for Cover, George Stevens’ Shane (1953), and John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) (Corkin 127, 15).
As is clear from this timeline, Ray’s Run for Cover fits nicely within these watershed years of the western’s popularity and critical and commercial success, even if it did not make the Top lists or receive the awards and recognition that these other iconic westerns did . Initially, the film comes across as a perfectly respectable little western, competent and pleasant. The mountainous Colorado wilderness is pretty to look at and enhanced by the film’s use of VistaVision, and the characters are compelling and nuanced enough to be effective, even if the father-son dynamic between the aged hero Matt and the young rebel Davey seems a bit unjustified in its extremity and a bit unrealistic in its elasticity concerning Davey’s many moral lapses and betrayals. Yet, as many critics of the time noted, not only is it less striking a western than High Noon which foreshadowed it, but it ultimately seems very little like a western. Ray’s film is missing much of the masculine bravura, the laconic shoot-outs and stand-offs, and the tough guy heroics typical of the rugged genre; there are no fights with Indians and there is more dialogue than action. Run for Cover doesn’t have the powerful Man vs. Nature or even a clear manifestation of the Frontier vs. Civilization dynamic which often iconically defines the genre’s drama. Gone are the fire-red, monstrously-huge rocks of Monument Valley, made almost synonymous with the western through the films of John Ford, replaced by a relaxing palate of blue waters and green pine trees, of grey, more humanly-scaled mountains, of farms’ lush green grass and the neutral tan expanses of deserts.
Run for Cover also lacks the mythic elements which make the western so iconic as well as the presentation of America’s past and the idealized view of its frontier history which scholars nearly-universally posit as the foundational definition of the genre. Jim Kitses writes that “first of all, the western is American history,” it is “the idea of the West” (57). Considering the vast number of westerns made about the myth of this time period since Edwin S. Porter’s “first western” The Great Train Robbery in 1903, the historical period of frontier settlement is actually quite small; it stretches only between 1860 and 1890, by which point all of the Native Americans had been exterminated or relocated to reservations and the last remaining part of the Western frontier, the Oklahoma territory, had been opened to homesteaders (Wright 5). Given this relative brevity of time in comparison to the large breadth of representation and mythic significance, many scholars have struggled to pin down the relationship between the role of history, the idealization of the (our American) past, and the precise nature and definition of myth in this influential and long-lasting genre. John Lenihan writes that “the western’s central myth [is that] of an emergent American civilization settling an open frontier,” involving the land, the first instillations of civilization, and the dangers which came from those large open spaces” (12). Similarly, John Cawelti defines a western as “a reenactment of an American ‘epic moment’ when the settler faced the West and, fighting it desperately for survival, ultimately tamed and controlled it” (Nachbar 5).
However, much of these elemental foundation myths of American history and of the expansion of civilization into the wilds of the west are absent from Run for Cover, which only cursorily includes the frontier setting in its examination of law and order, crime and punishment, and the individual’s relation to society. Ray’s film seems to elide the genre’s quintessential focus on an actual, or even idealized, American past as well as the legendary settlement of the frontier land; in Ray’s western, the town and the immigrant farm are already clearly settled by the time of Matt’s arrival and function more like the small town, Heartland America of Ray’s day than they do like a burgeoning frontier settlement. But despite these seemingly crucial deviations from western tradition and mythology, Run for Cover nonetheless aligns with the “heart” of the genre as laid out by Lenihan, who examined it within its postwar contexts. What he calls “the democratic preoccupation with individual freedom amid social constraint” thematically defines not only this western, but Ray’s cinema as a whole (14-5). It is precisely this theme, so important to Ray and to the genre, that made the western the ideal context for Run for Cover and which allowed the director to explore his own thematic concerns while also referencing the 1950s Cold War moment.
Whatever other intentions Ray had in mind for Run for Cover, perhaps he was simply interested, as biographer Bernard Eisenschitz proposes, in trying to “wipe out” the memory of his last western Johnny Guitar, which was everything this more modest film was not: campy, luridly colorful, highly theatrical and reflexive, and it “plays fast and loose” with the conventions of the genre in a way that is the absolute antithesis of Run for Cover (216). If such musings are correct, then perhaps it is not so surprising that Run for Cover comes off as rather unimpassioned in comparison to many of Ray’s other, more compelling films, and that it follows many of the plot structures and characterizations of the “classic” western which was at the peak of its popularity at this time. Playing against his tough gangster type, James Cagney as the film’s older hero Matt embodies many of the classic characterizations of the western hero. Additionally, Run for Cover very neatly adheres to the “classical plot” as enumerated by Will Wright in his structural and mythic analysis of the genre, listed below, which he posits lasted between 1930 and 1955 (15).
1. The hero enters a social group
2. The hero is unknown to the society
3. The hero is revealed to have an exceptional ability
4. The society recognizes a difference between themselves and the hero; the hero is given a special status
5. The society does not completely accept the hero
6. There is a conflict of interest between the villains and the society
7. The villains are stronger than the society; the society is weak
8. There is a strong friendship or respect between the hero and the villain
9. The villains threaten the society
10. The hero avoids involvement in the conflict
11. The villains endanger a friend of the hero
12. The hero fights the villains
13. The hero defeats the villains
14. The society is safe
15. The society accepts the hero
16. The hero loses or gives up his special status (Wright 48-9)

Generally, the plots of these “classic” westerns involve a lone gunfighter rescuing a town or other group of settled people from bad guys, a stranger who rides in and “cleans up” the troubled town (15, 32, 41). In this “prototype of all westerns,” the hero “is somehow estranged from his society” and yet it is upon him and his abilities which the fate of the town rests (32, 40). Run for Cover follows Wright’s plot points very closely, especially the initial ones. Matt, a weary stranger looking to settle down after a life of disappointment, having lost his wife and son and been wrongfully imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, enters the vicinity of the town. Almost instantly he meets the young Davey, played by John Derek, who had played a similar angsty, socially-wronged teen rebel in Ray’s Knock on Any Door (1949). Hearing the noises of Davey’s approach, the wary and suspicious older man quickly draws his gun, revealing in the first moments of the movie his remarkable skill and speed. This initial action illustrates Matt’s seasoned calm and his commendable discriminatory use of violence, his jaded experience of the world and his moral code which is nonetheless intact, thus instantly defining him as a classic western hero. Matt solidifies this heroic characterization a few minutes later, cleanly shooting the hawk Davey had missed in a moment of impulsive youthful bravado, telling the boy “it doesn’t matter how fast you are, it’s where you place your bullet,” further revealing both his skill, modestly dismissed, and a strong power of discretion and clarity of thought which already appears to be missing in his younger, weaker counterpart.
These two men, who have already formed a characteristically Rayean mentor-mentee/ father-son relationship, are then mistaken for train robbers and tossed a bagful of money. As they ride to return it, the town’s posse charges up to exact their hot blooded brand of justice, refusing the men even “a chance to give up,” let alone a trial, before firing on them without warning, cripplingly hitting Davey in the leg. Just as Matt had immediately established himself as clearly, diametrically different from the young, impetuous Davey, older and more experienced, so too is he starkly differentiated from the posse, in both moral terms and in relation to the judicial use of violence. “What kind of sheriff are you, hang a man without a trial!?” Matt yells angrily after Davey is shot. Seeing the unshakable presence of this strong moral code as embodied in Matt, the townspeople, meekly acknowledging their own failures, beg this outsider to be their sheriff, conferring upon him the “special status” Wright indicates for the western hero. “You were the only one who kept his head that day,” a representative tells him, “and we don’t need another gun-slinger with a badge.”
Without tracing the whole plot point by point, Ray’s film merges interestingly with Wright’s outline in relation to the villains, for the film’s “bad guys” are not only the bank robbers who appear later in the story, but also Davey, increasingly resentful of the wrong society has done him and “running for cover” from life’s “raw deals,” who ends up betraying Matt and joining the robbers. The townspeople/posse turn on Matt once again when the lead bank robber reveals that he shared a jail cell with their new sheriff; ever quick to judge and condemn, they take the provocative word of a criminal over that of the man who has repeatedly proven himself an unimpeachable defender of justice. Disgustedly, Matt explains that he had been wrongfully imprisoned merely for looking like the criminal, just as he and Davey had been shot because of the posse’s mistaken perceptions and eagerness to condemn, which shows the dangers of rash mob mentality to be more systemic and farther-reaching than this single frontier town. Lenihan explains that the western hero does “what he has to do” with an “instinctive natural awareness of right and wrong” and his actions, this personal moral code, “serves society’s best interests” (15). As just such a hero, Matt leaves to save the rabble-rousing crowd once again, alone because they refuse to risk their own lives to defend what’s right, to bring the villains back for trial and to rescue the “son” he believes has been kidnapped, but who in fact helped plan the robbery.
Wright explains that the classical westerner hero is defined by a Strong vs. Weak dichotomy which distinguishes him, the “good” guy, from society (49). But in Run for Cover, the Strong vs. Weak dialectic positively defines the hero Matt in relation not only to this weak-willed, easily-stirred up society, but also to Davey, whose physical wound literalizes and externalizes the weakness of his moral fiber and his masculinity. Ray’s films are littered with scarred and limping men who were either wounded in machismo performance, like rodeo rider Jeff in The Lusty Men or childhood show-off Tommy in Party Girl, or because of their rough lifestyle, like They Live By Night’s one-eyed criminal Chickamaw; in contrast, Davey’s crippling and (thus) emasculating (especially in this active-defined western world) wound was inflicted by his own society, the people who were supposed to be his home. The physically and morally weaker of the two, Davey lets this injustice consume his life; he remains a “kid” in comparison to Matt’s “man” and ultimately flees from that inferiority, looking for an easy way out.
Matt finally kills the bank robbers and Davey, who in a last moment of good after repeated betrayals and failures, raised his gun to save his father figure from the bullet of a not-quite-dead robber; thinking the boy was aiming at him again, Matt, the better shot, fired. Returning to the mob-controlled town, Matt tosses them the money “with Davey’s compliments,” thus once again making the town safe, asserting the moral code they could not live up to, and also protecting Davey’s memory from their attacks. “Davey did fine” Matt tells his new wife Helga, thus proclaiming his own fatherly success with the boy as well as the legitimacy of his own moral and masculine teachings. With this point satisfied, the couple turns to face their presumably happy and prosperous future, this western hero now conclusively defined as settled farm-owning husband rather than lone gunman outsider. Thus Matt gains the peace he sought without losing his “special status” as Wright outlines, while also defying Robert Warshow’s assertion that the classical westerner hero would “be without a calling” if “justice and order did not continually demand his protection,” for this tin star hero is a clear Rayean character who is content to settle peaceably into his homestead with his wife and live out the American dream (48). But though this is clearly meant to be a positive ending, the film has given no indication that the townspeople have changed, so the next time a bank is robbed or someone appears to be out of line, Sheriff Matt will presumably be silently called forth to enforce justice and rationality in the face of the madness and conformity of the mob.
Though the western’s popularity after the end of World War II is well established, scholars hold varying perspectives on the qualification of classicism and its importance. Andre Bazin himself theorized on the western genre, publishing “Evolution of the Western” the same year Run for Cover was released, one year after Johnny Guitar. Declaring the “classical” incarnations of the genre to have already been established on the “eve of the war” with films like John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), Bazin, an auteurist critic invested in seeing the director as the means of determining a film’s quality, labeled the westerns which were proliferating after the war “super westerns” (47). Bazin saw these newest incarnations of the genre, released largely within the period of the “golden age” later identified by Corkin and others, as incorporating new elements which were external to the classical genre and whose addition enhanced it (50-1). The best, he claimed, were the products of gifted auteurs who would “substitute a social or moral theme for the traditional one,” such as the “rampant McCarthyism” in High Noon, in which Gary Cooper’s Marshall Kane has to fight to save a town that refuses to save itself, a social theme which also permeates Ray’s two westerns of this period (51).
In contrast to Bazin’s auteurist praise of such socially-minded westerns like William Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), Robert Warshow, who in 1954 put forth the now-famous definition of “the westerner” as “the last gentleman,” stubbornly supports classical definitions of genre (48). “Social problems” or “social drama,” he believes, ruin the true nature of the western and break the pleasure of the generic pattern by removing its traditional focus on the westerner hero (52). However, such loyalty to notions of classicism, especially in a genre as diverse and full of contradiction and variation as the western, seems to be extremely limiting and to severely curtail future generic development, innovation, and cultural critique. Warshow rejects High Noon for defying the traditional structures of the genre as he sees them, believing that the “social drama” of the allegorization of post-war McCarthyism and the Cold War unforgivably “makes the western setting irrelevant, a mere backdrop of beautiful scenery” (53). But rather than diminish the effectiveness of the genre and its iconic hero, such social treatments expand the genre and encourage its fullest potential and its progressive evolution, as both High Noon and Run for Cover show. Indeed, it is this very quality, the contextualizing use of the western genre as more of a “backdrop of beautiful scenery” than a strictly-adhered-to set of structural rules, which characterizes Ray’s Run for Cover and allows his own personal preoccupations and social critiques to shine through and to interact with the well-known conventions of the genre, allowing for the fuller expression of both.
For instance, one of Ray’s most primary cinematic concerns is the relationship of the individual (or the couple) to a constraining society, as seen in They Live By Night, In A Lonely Place, Party Girl, Rebel Without A Cause, and his westerns, among others. This inherently aligns him with the concerns of the western genre as a whole, which John Lenihan posited principally as “the democratic preoccupation with individual freedom amid social constraint,” as well as with notions of generic classicism, in which Wright explains that the most important opposition is that which separates the hero from society, which distinguishes between those inside the society and those outside of it (Lenihan 14-5; Wright 49). Aligning with the themes of alienation and the search for home and belonging which mark most of Ray’s cinema, this element of the western genre plays out perfectly around Matt and Davey, each outsiders in their own way. As a ward of the town, Davey’s orphan status has always made him a bit of an outsider and so, as he tells Matt at their first meeting, he plans to “go out into the rest of the world” and find a life of excitement, in stark contrast to the older man who has outgrown such youthful fantasies and has learned that there is no going “outside” of society’ influence. However, Davey’s increasing rage at the wrong society has done him makes him more of an outsider even than Matt, the once-stranger who has become the town’s sheriff and is forging a new family with Helga; it pushes him away from the town that was his home and his injury prevents him from doing the prototypically manly things he had dreamed of when he was still “a nice kid.” This impotent rage and his inability to live up to his mentor’s code tears him apart and pushes him entirely beyond the bounds of “good” society into the realm of criminal villainy. And though Matt “settles down,” he remains a geographic (and moral) outsider in relation to the cowardly, conformist town, residing in the immigrant homestead of Helga and her father on the outskirts of town, a distinction further demarcated by its natural surroundings of green grass, plowed fields and bordering mountains, in contrast to the dusty, lifeless streets of civilization.
Ray further crystallizes Matt’s heroic superiority to the “weak” townsfolk and his “outsider” status in relation to their mob mentality through his framing and shot structure, which all work to validate and convey the importance of this extraordinary (male) individual authority figure in relation to this weak society, a staple of the genre and a personal preoccupation of Ray’s, which also alludes quietly to the power of Joseph McCarthy. Matt is often secluded in his own shot, which he either dominates or shares equally with the beautiful landscape behind him, and is frequently shot slightly from below to increase his sense of moral authority and personal power. Ray uses similar devices to frame Ed Avery in his horrifying domestic melodrama Bigger Than Life, though where such effects there conveyed the terror of Ed’s overwhelming patriarchal domination and megalomaniacal masculinity, here they work to privilege Matt, the “good” authorial male, in stark comparison to the townspeople/posse. These people are always framed as a group and shot from directly head on, which reveals their common failures as a society, their collective weakness in relation to the strong, clear-sighted individual who must save them, as well as the way in which a type of groupthink dominates this town who leave the safety of “civilization” only to lynch someone. They are not merely a crowd, as Matt knowledgeably says, but a dangerous mob, and “it takes a man to handle a mob.”
Despite these outsider and authoritarian characterizations and framings which align Matt with the classic Western hero and genre of this period, Matt is not the “typical Ray outsider;” he is no Dix Steele or Jim Stark, personally anguished and violently destructive (Andrews 80). It is Davey who presents the typical Ray outsider and prefigures, as Geoff Andrews writes, “the study of a confused adolescent” which would define Ray’s next film, Rebel Without A Cause, an exploration of the social phenomenon of juvenile delinquency which I will discuss further later (79). But Matt is more than just such a Ray protagonist; he is also a classical western hero, one who fully incarnates the characteristics which were borrowed wholesale from the genre. Matt embodies the “apparent moral clarity” and “appearance of unshakable control” which Robert Warshow put forth in his definition of the classic Westerner (47). Thus when one of the bank robbers offers him a bribe to let him go rather than bring him to trial, telling him that no one would know the difference, Matt unhesitatingly replies “no one but me.” He knows when to pull the trigger and when not to, as John Lenihan describes of the western hero’s discriminate use of violence, and he knows the difference between legitimate and illegitimate violence, as Cold War historian Stanley Corkin classifies for the hero (Lenihan 13; Corkin 15). It is perhaps this unshakable moral code, a trait which Davey ultimately cannot live up to and which is missing almost entirely from Ray’s other male characters (including the titular gunslinger of Ray’s previous revisionist western), that makes the western hero Matt truly “one of Ray’s most positive characters;” for unlike the troubled, violent men of Ray’s cinema, he doesn’t succumb to the pressures of his past or his own capacity for violence (Andrews 83). Instead he finds the peace he was looking for in the American dream of owning a house, a piece of property, and a wife, and he walks off into one of Ray’s happiest, and perhaps one of his least ironic endings.
This strong characterization of the moral-coded, outsider western hero and his antagonistic relationship to a weak society not only connects Run for Cover with the classical westerns of its period, but it also, encouraged by Ray’s own thematic concerns and his elements of societal critique, helps predict the next historical evolution of the western genre. Ray’s western combines elements from Wright’s classical plot structure with features from what he termed the “transitional theme” marking films between Classicism and the Vengeance Variation which lasted into the 1960s (15, 74). Wright explains that this “transitional theme” marks a critical change in the relationship between the hero and society, and he thus includes both the “social drama”-filled High Noon and Ray’s own Johnny Guitar in this characterization (74). Run for Cover also fits such a characterization, for it too blurs the clear-cut distinction between the ostensibly “good” hero and society and shows that the “conceptual weight of ‘bad’ [is now] carried by the townspeople, or society, rather than by the villains” (Wright 75).
John Lenihan, who analyzed the genre from the context of postwar, Cold War society, supports this characterization of Wright’s transitional theme; he cites High Noon, of which Run for Cover can be seen as a type of descendant, as the “the most significant turning point in the western’s treatment of the individual-societal relationship” (117-9). Building off of films like The Ox-Bow Incident and The Gunfighter (Henry King, 1950) and becoming especially evident in films after 1952, the year of High Noon’s release, the western genre began to question the very society which the hero had traditionally defended. At this time, America itself was removing its own rosy glasses, having witnessed death, destruction, pain, and suffering during the war years and the Cold War’s oppressive environment of fear and paranoia, in addition to a culture of individuality-smothering, 9-to-5 “normalcy” and hegemonic conformity. It is unsurprising that these experiences and perceptions began to appear in popular films, including the western, which no longer saw civilization as an inherently positive entity, nor indeed as the “good” position in relation to the typically savage wilderness and Indians.
By the mid-1950s the genre had largely abandoned its focus on a central lone hero distanced from civilization, centering instead upon the “problem of personal reconciliation with society,” which these transitional westerns directly associated with a “failing within the society itself” (Lenihan 115). As such, Matt is an outsider struggling to reconnect with society, to find “a nice place to settle down,” not because of any problems in his own personal nature, but because society itself has failed him (and Davey), wrongfully stealing six years of his life and shooting at him for a crime he didn’t commit. Just as contemporary society critiqued “postwar America’s placid and conformist character,” so too did these westerns challenge the previously unquestioned value of civilized, community life (Lenihan 115). Run for Cover does not take all of these transitionary themes to their fullest extent, for it is still deeply rooted in classicism and its central protagonist, like earlier western heroes, seeks to, and ultimately does, reconcile with society (and with heteronormative romance, which is usually seen as the spiritual death of the rugged loner western hero). And yet, like the westerns of this period, Run for Cover clearly suggests that it is not the anti-social western hero, but the cowardly, conformist “society itself [that] needs redeeming” (Lenihan 122).
Like Lenihan, Stanley Corkin too examines western films of this time in relation to their postwar historical environs, allegorically reading “cowboys as cold warriors.” Corkin explains that a genre’s development can be “expressive of the shifts in national mood and circumstance” and thus he sees the westerns of this period, especially the transitionary ones marked by an increasing moral ambiguity and a changing relationship between the hero and society, like High Noon or The Searchers, as “speaking to” the network of events and policies surrounding the Korean War: Joseph McCarthy and the red scare, the military dynamism of Douglas MacArthur, and the increased development of a security state defined by suspicion and secrets (2, 15).
Many scholars have noted the potential for concealing or embedding social critique within popular genres, and the western has often been successfully used for this purpose (Coyne; French). For instance, the western genre was used to convey critiques and concerns about the Vietnam War before such overt commentary and expression became possible in the late 1970s; see The Wild Bunch (Sam Peckinpah, 1969), Little Big Man (Arthur Penn, 1970), and Ulzana’s Raid (Robert Aldrich, 1973) (Neale 28). During the Cold War, when it was dangerous to appear anti-patriotic or non-conformist, directors and screenwriters like Carl Foreman, who penned High Noon, could conceal their commentaries within the conventions and clearly identifiable structures of the popular genre, which offered additional protection in being set safely in the past, its social concerns thus sealed off, and because it carried its own “inherently patriotic nuances” (French 13; Coyne 68). Foreman admitted that he intended his screenplay to (not so veiledly) allegorize the fear and paranoia which the McCarthy era, the HUAC trials, and the blacklists were causing in Hollywood, as prominent members of the community, like Elia Kazan, named names and “subversive” liberals were exiled (Lenihan 119-20). Indeed, Foreman wrote the script while under subpoena to appear before HUAC, and, as Lenihan argues, Marshal Kane’s choice between his own moral conscious and the pressures of community conformity mirror the screenwriter’s own struggles; he was ultimately blacklisted for refusing to testify (120).
Ray too had reason to fear such entities and the way in which suspicion and ideas, especially bad ideas, can spread quickly. His presentation in Run for Cover of society as a morally weak, cowardly and conformist lynch mob not only followed developments in the western’s treatment of society, but also channeled his own social criticism of the times. Mindless, and therefore dangerous, crowds recur relatively often in Ray’s cinema, but are at their most frightening in Johnny Guitar wherein an incendiary lynch mob is led against the innocent heroine Vienna and a young kid, Turkey, who is hung. Emma, the wholly evil leader of the mob, presents a clear allegory for the figure of McCarthy, a “false prophet misleading a blind society” as Lenihan describes it, and she ferociously interrogates Turkey until he names the name she personally wants to hear (127). Having coerced the boy’s broken and defeated naming of Vienna, Emma leads her murderous mob to lynch both Turkey, to whom they promised clemency, and the innocent Vienna, seeking to expunge any “different” or “dangerous” element, any figure who challenged their authority. Though the allegory is slightly less pronounced in Run for Cover, Matt’s impartial judgment and principled upholding of the legal process in the face of frenzied lynchings and hysterical posses links the film to its McCarthyist era of paranoia, to its predecessor Johnny Guitar (if only that small western town had had a Matt Dow to stand up for Vienna and Turkey!), and indeed to many of Ray’s other films which deal with society’s constraint on the individual. Condemning the town’s mob for lynching a man he was holding for trial, Matt says that though the man “was a criminal, it wasn’t your right to judge him; we have courts and trials for that.” And though the film may be less overt and less condemnatory in its social critique than High Noon or Johnny Guitar, it shows the way in which Ray uses historical and cultural context as a springboard for the personal themes which motivate him, as an element which, like his flexible use of genre, supplements his character-driven stories.
John Lenihan wrote that “during the late forties and the fifties, western filmmakers revealed a preoccupation with anxiety, alienation, disillusionment, and the search for individual dignity and meaning in a confused and hostile world,” preoccupations which define Ray’s own thematic interests and his cinema overall, regardless of genre (90). In addition to such elements of Cold War suspicion and fear-mongering and postwar conformity which pervade Run for Cover, Ray’s western also addresses the contemporary issue of juvenile delinquency which was the subject of many films and cultural discussions in the 1950s. In contrast to the classic, principled western hero Matt, Davey is a precise fit for the “mold of anguished, self-destructive Ray outsider” and exhibits “all the confusion of inflamed and embittered youth that one has come to expect in Ray’s films” (Andrew 80, 83). Andre Bazin too noted Davey’s embodiment of Ray’s “pet theme” of the “violence and mystery of adolescence,” which James Dean would immortalize as the ultimate rebel without a cause (54). However, though Davey is depicted as a weak-willed schemer looking for a “free ride” from anyone he can take advantage of, his character deficiencies and adolescent angst are presented in terms of society’s failings, which are offered as partial explanations for his impotent rage and self-pity. As such, this western aligns with films like Rebel Without A Cause and Blackboard Jungle, both released in 1955, which combined the popular postwar social problem film with the vogue topic of juvenile delinquency.
As Rebel Without A Cause makes clear, and perhaps as can also be predicted for little Richie from Bigger than Life, “many films throughout the fifties interpret[ed] juvenile delinquents as indicative of middle-class failings and, especially, of instability” (Lenihan 138). As such, Jim Stark’s parents move him from place to place because of his fighting, he feels that his dad is woefully emasculated, and he experiences other such “failings” of middle class existence to which he can only yell frustratedly “you’re tearing me apart!” Orphan Davey too has experienced plenty of familial “instabilities” and “failings” of support, which is perhaps what makes it so hard for him to conform to Matt’s tough love brand of fatherly instruction and his “be a man” type of active masculinity. However, just as westerns of this period became increasingly critical of society itself, Run for Cover is directly critical of Davey’s society for more than its middle class ethos, blaming them as he does for the wrongs of his life; the film is sympathetic to Davey’s victimization by the mob, who crippled him and denied him the exciting life and adventurous masculinity he dreamed of. Ray took a similar social-minded approach to juvenile delinquency in Knock On Any Door, which contextualizes teen Nick’s crimes within a damaging judicial and reform system, a too-busy lawyer, and the crippling woes of poverty.
And yet, Ray’s western treatment of juvenile delinquency ultimately becomes a more conservative film, for it does not wholly excuse Davey’s criminality and weakness because of the failings of his society. Rather, it seems to ultimately declare them a matter of (masculine) will: Matt too was wronged by society and he didn’t succumb to criminality and moral short cuts. The film, through its privileged authoritarian hero, condemns Davey for his own inherent weakness, his failings as a man, as an American, and as a person. “You’d have gone bad sooner or later, no matter what, as soon as the pressure got big enough,” Matt tells the boy he mentored so carefully, ” you just didn’t have it in you.” Though Matt failed with Davey where he failed with his own son, thus potentially calling into question the efficacy of his rigid code, Helga affirms that Davey’s weakness and bitter rage are a product of his “heart,” his own natural failings. And so, Matt turns his eye away from Davey towards all the boys of his generation, recalling again Knock On Any Door where Nick is held up as a universal example of the kind of good-kid-gone-bad you might find if you “knocked on any door in this town.” But where lawyer Humphrey Bogart’s sentimental speech there indicts society, Matt wholly denounces Davey’s personal deficiencies, promising to bring him back for trial because “it might do someone good to see you hang, might stop another kid turning out same way; that’s all you’re good for.”
Though Ray is thus deeply concerned with social commentary and with working within and against generic convention, these are not ultimately his primary cinematic concerns; instead, they serve more as conduits for the expression and exploration of his personal themes of alienation, violence, homecoming, salvation, and the relationship between the individual and society, as well as popular platforms for his deep investment in interpersonal relationships, character psychology, and human emotion, personal preoccupations which almost all of the reviewers of Run for Cover noted in the film.
A 1955 Newsweek article described the film as possessing “brick-hard realism, sky-high poetry, psychological penetration, and noisy melodrama” (“A Moving Performance” 117). These first two aesthetic descriptions recall the film’s western geography, shot on location in Colorado and beautifully delivered in the new VistaVision technology. Yet it is significant that the reviewer noted not only this environmental staple of the genre but also the film’s melodramatic elements of plot and character as well as the psychological depth of the characters and the acting, which contrast with the more dynamic action and unpsychologized archetypes typical of the genre. Ray had a reputation for working intimately with his actors and getting highly complex performances from them, especially from psychologically-emotive Method actors like James Dean, whose emotional integrity and sense of inner torment well-suited the thematics of his films. In Run for Cover, Ray gets a perfectly fine performance from James Cagney, noting that “Jimmy has not only a great serenity…he has a great love of the earth and his fellow man, an understanding of loneliness. I wanted to try to use all that,” which foretells the more emotion- and character-based western he planned to make (Eisenschitz 216). Reviewers were keen to highlight Cagney’s presence in the picture, along with the VistaVision technology, assuming it would be one of the more crucial draws for audiences; however, they all seemed careful to warn of the “quieter,” more “serene” performance fans of Angels with Dirty Faces or White Heat would be getting under Ray’s direction (Brog 6 and Scheuer A9). Though not all critics praised Cagney, the consensus about the inferiority of John Derek who, like the character he played, lacked Cagney’s magnetic intensity and sense of purpose, was nearly unanimous; he merely recycled Knock On Any Door’s unconvincing, baby-faced pouting, with New York Times critic Bosely Crowther calling the performance “random and watery” (10).
In addition to these elements, it is significant that many of the film’s reviewers noted the “in-between” quality of Run for Cover, the fact that it clearly qualified as a generic western (men ride around on horses and there are bank and train robberies) but that it also bypassed many of the staples of the genre and foregrounded many un-western attributes, namely its preferencing of emotional performances, character psychology, and interpersonal relationships over masculine daring and violent action (Brog). Newsweek called it an “unconventional western” while Film Bulletin seems to have been unconvinced by what they saw as a “rather confused and improbable western” (92). In reporting the film’s very decent “medium returns overall” at the box office, Variety praised Cagney in what they called a “good combo-western” (Brog 6). Reviewer Philip Scheuer wrote that though Run for Cover is “nominally a western in that it takes place in the Old West,” Ray’s characters do a lot “less of the expected” because of his focus on the psychological and relational “development of character” (A9).
It is precisely this hybridized “combo” approach to genre which truly defines Run for Cover and allows Ray to blend his interest in human emotion and relationships with the conventions of a popular genre. Such hybridization permeates most of Ray’s films and defines his best work within the Hollywood system. The director worked across many popular genres and always the films ended up focused more on character than one would expect. For Ray, genre functioned as a springboard for personal projects, a structuring means to a character-driven, theme-based end. And by using genres at the height of their popularity, like this golden age western, Ray is also able to synthesize his own personal preoccupations with the preoccupations of the larger culture. For instance, with In A Lonely Place Ray utilized the generic outlines of film noir to not only most fully explore Dix’s dark psychology and his fateful romance with Laurel but also to contextualize the story within the web of isolation, pain, scarcely-contained violence, and troubled masculinity which was circulating in postwar America at the time and which was beginning to find expression in the genre. And yet, these themes are also personal concerns of Ray’s and nearly universal to his cinema, concerns which here become effectively articulated through the prism of noir. And yet, as Dana Polan has pointed out, this classic film noir is also a perfect example of Ray’s hybrid approach to genre, for it is both a man’s film and a woman’s film, a film noir crossed with the female gothic which was rising in popularity and resonance after the war (20-3, 66). Indeed, almost none of Ray’s films seem to strictly abide the confines of a single genre: the blending of domestic romance and lovers-on-the-lam themes with the crime film in They Live By Night; the elements of horror and suspense percolating within the domestic melodrama in Bigger Than Life; the social problem film mixed with the teen movie in Rebel Without A Cause; and Party Girl’s quirky diffusion of musical dance numbers and escapist romance into the tommy gun-blaring world of the gangster film.
Invoking this Rayean preference for dialogue and emotion over action and this “in-between” quality which marks many of his genre films, a reviewer at Variety wrote that in Run for Cover “well-valued character and plot development stand in most of the time for straight giddyup action…making it more of an outdoor drama than a western” (Brog 6). This predilection doesn’t just characterize Run for Cover, but marks Ray’s entire oeuvre. His gangster and crime films, like On Dangerous Ground and They Live By Night, emphasize domestic scenes over shoot-out action and choose to depict, for example, the moments of dialogue which immediately follow a bank robbery rather than the robbery itself; his war film Bitter Victory centers on largely word-based conflict within the group of Allied soldiers rather than on any glorious military action against the German enemy; and his rodeo-focused pseudo-western, aptly titled The Lusty Men, addresses the psychological (and economical) motives behind the bull-riding performances as well as the older, physically (and mentally) scarred men produced in the ring as opposed to any “lusty” male action as such.
In Run for Cover, Ray highlights the dynamics of the tortured relationship between the mentor, father figure Matt and the always-failing, always-whining mentee Davey; rather than focusing on the action or violence itself, he concerns himself with depicting through dialogue the personal tensions and emotional exchanges which follow each episode of increasingly painful and violent failure and betrayal. For instance, one of the tensest exchanges between Davey and Matt follows the doctor’s prediction that because of his wound Davey will never walk again, with Ray raising a largely internal struggle to the dynamic level traditionally held by physical, action-packed fights in this manly genre. Through the sheer force of his tough, hypermasculine words, our western hero gets Davey to slowly pull himself to his feet and to (momentarily) embody the erect type of masculinity that Jim Stark desired so badly for his own father, who “crawled,” as Matt would say, through life. Additionally, Run for Cover involves long, tense, and dangerous trips through the desert, but no fight scenes; shooting matches end almost as quickly as they begin and are dominated by dialogue; even the Indians who usually provide the genre’s climactic center of violent conflict, remain a largely talked-about phenomenon, visualized only once, playing a lacrosse-type game while Matt and Davey, now enemies, just sit and wait for the threat to pass. “Outdoor drama” indeed.
Thus, Ray uses the western genre, which was at the height of its popularity, commercial success, and “classical” definitions in the early- to mid-1950s, to explore the issues and preoccupations which were most important to him and which recur throughout his oeuvre regardless of genre. However, by using a genre which was so highly recognizable and deeply resonant, Ray was also able to comment on the postwar, Cold War society in which the film was made, and to further enforce the classicism of the genre while also manipulating it towards his own ends. This film, which is one of the happiest, most positive films that Ray, the “poet of violence,” ever made, ultimately conveys a heartfelt desire for peace and a settled home that was personally relevant for Ray himself and resonant for 1950s culture at large (Rhomer in Hiller 111-2). After the destructive Second World War and the unsatisfying conclusion of the war in Korean, western films advocated a “peaceful-negotiation theme” that mirrored current political policies and also “reflected contemporary yearnings for peaceful coexistence” (Lenihan 25). People were tired of war, tired of pain, and sought peace and stability after years of disorienting, troubling struggle; thus the postwar cultural domination of conformity, homogeneity, anonymity, and a return to traditional gender roles and images of “normalcy” (not to mention a rise in the consumption of alcohol and sleeping pills). As The Gunfighter saw Ringo, a weary, worn man, seeking peace, so too were audiences “seeking solace after the tensions of World War II” (Lenihan 111). And like Ray’s many characters who are wounded and alienated and looking for a safe place for themselves, indeed like Ray himself who felt that “you can never go home again,” Matt seeks a “nice place” to settle down in after the hardships and disappointments of life, to find a woman to love and a home to call his own. Ray graciously grants him, and postwar audiences, this peace. Thus, in so many ways, Run for Cover reflects the Cold War era of which it is a product and response and also expresses Nicholas Ray’s own personal mentality and thematic concerns.

Works Cited:

Andrew, Geoff.  The Films of Nicholas Ray.  London: bfi, 2004.

Bazin, André.  “The Evolution of the Western.”  Eds.  Jim Kitses and Greg Rickman.  The Western Reader.  New York: Limited Editions, 1998.  35-48.

Brog.  “Film Reviews: Rua for Cover [sic].”  Variety 198.3 (23 March 1955): 6.

Corkin, Stanley.  Cowboys as Cold Warriors: The Western and U.S. History.  Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004.

Coyne, Michael.  Dysfunctional Family Structures in Classic Westerns, 1950-61: The

Gunfighter, Shane, The Searchers, and The Last Sunset.  In The Crowded Prairie: American National Identity in the Hollywood Western.  London: I.B. Tauris Purblishers, 1997.

Crowther, Bosley.  “Screen: Sheriff Cagney Goes It Alone.”  New York Times (30 April 1955):    10.

Durgnat, Raymond and Scott Simmon.  “Six Creeds That Won the Western.”  Eds.  Jim Kitses and Greg Rickman.  The Western Reader.  New York: Limited Editions, 1998.  69-84.

Eisenschitz, Bernard.  Nicholas Ray: And American Journey.  Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

French, Philip.  Westerns.  New York: Viking Press, 1974.

Hiller, Jim, ed.  Cahiers du Cinema: The 1950s, Neo-Realism, Hollywood, New Wave.  London: bfi, 1985.

Kitses, Jim.  “Authorship and Genre: Notes on the Western.”  Eds.  Jim Kitses and Greg Rickman.  The Western Reader.  New York: Limited Editions, 1998.  57-68.

Lenihan, John H.  Showdown: Confronting Modern America in the Western Film.  Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1980.

“Movies: Cagney in a Jam.”  Newsweek 45 (21 March 1955): 106-7.

“Movies: A Moving Performance.”  Newsweek 46 (7 November 1955): 117.

Nachbar, Jack, ed.  Focus On The Western.  Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1974.

Neale, Steve.  “War Films.”  In Hollywood and War: The Film Reader.  Ed. J. David Slocum.  New York: Routledge, 2006.

“Paramount presents.” Advertisement for VistaVision.  Variety 198.6 (12 January 1955): 14.

Polan, Dana.  In A Lonely Place.  London: bfi, 1993.

Pye, Douglas.  “Introduction: Criticism and the Western.”  In The Book of Westerns.  Eds. Ian Cameron and Douglas Pye.  New York: Continuum, 1996.  9-21.

“Run for Cover.”  Film Bulletin (1995): 92.

Scheuer, Philip K.  “Cagney, Hersholt Return in Character Western.”  Los Angeles Times (21 April 1955): A9.  Proquest Historical Newspapers.

Warshow, Robert.  “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner.”  Ed. Jack Nachbar.  Focus On The Western.  Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974.  45-56.

Wright, Will.  Six Guns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.