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Generally forgotten by critics, and classified as alternately a cult classic and a B-movie (in reference to both its budget and its reception), Monte Hellman's The Shooting is a film worth revisiting. At a remote camp in the middle of the desert, a Woman With No Name arrives to hire two men to lead her to the town of Kingsley, days after one of the camp members was shot dead and another ran away. On their descent into the scorching desert, it becomes apparent that the Woman has misled her employees as a hired gun joins their party and they continue their journey, it would seem, to execute somebody. The Woman from time to time physically leads the pack, and is always deliberately in control of their actions. She is granted much agency in terms of both plot, and cinematic structure, frequently, for instance, holding a position in the frame physically over the men in order to deliver a command. She enacts the ability to do, without being done to, resorting to a performance of femininity/desirability at times to do her bidding. A textual analysis of the scene in which the childlike Coley is ordered by the Woman With No Name to stay behind in the blistering sun reveals a unique style with which Hellman plays with the conventions of the Western and the utilization of the gaze to question gender roles and authority.
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The scene in question opens with an image (shot 1 in the storyboard) atypical in a film coded as a Western: two men riding together atop the same horse, as one critic points out, "jogging listlessly in a limbo without perspectives" (Strick, 50). At the heart of the scene is the metaphor central to this opening shot; that of male instability, masculinity in crisis. Coley has given his horse to the Woman With No Name and rides on the back of Gashsade's steed out of necessity. He has given up his means of transport, his agency. Without his horse, Coley lacks mobility in the narrative and his position as a male is challenged. The male body is celebrated in the Western with "the phallic image of a man on horseback, sitting high above the ground, upright and superior, gazing down at a world whose gaze he in turn solicits" (Mitchell, 167).
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"The Woman With No Name in Monte Hellman's The Shooting." 123HelpMe.com. 21 Nov 2019
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The Woman With No Name demonstrates authority in the scene, and dominance over Coley, Gashade, and her hired gun. She maintains her position on her horse and refuses to allow another man to ride with her despite Gashade's insistence. Her place on the horse is relevant, as Mitchell points out: "the fact that horses can be tamed and ridden, and in the riding seem actually to extend the body, is important to other displacements in the Western, where women are also meant to be tamed to male domination" (Mitchell, 168). The Woman With No Name can be read as a wild woman in this sense as she is untamable. Her behaviour is characteristic of a type of independent woman to emerge from the cinema of the 60s. This type was problematic and challenging to the viewer as "a femininity with the attribute of competence outside certain limited spheres is perceived as deviant or abnormal" (Brundson, 22). Yet she is unique in her specificity as an independent woman of the Western. The 60s gave rise to two changes in roles for women in Westerns: "the exclusion of women from the scene of the action and the development of a new stereotype, the strong, determined 'modern' woman" (Schaekal, 213). In this particular scene, she adopts both of these stereotypes to defy the familiar expectations of the woman-as-spectacle. Although she reasserts herself constantly throughout the scene, and maintains the upper hand at all costs as the 'modern' woman of determination, she has very limited screen time. Her presence, nonetheless hovers over the action. She maintains control in the diegesis through ordering her hired gun to do her bidding; his actions are dependent on her demands. Through her existence as a generally off screen presence and guiding force, she dismisses the female role of that to-be-looked- at. Quite on the contrary, she holds the position as bearer of the look.
At several instances in the scene (shot 4, shot 11, shot 14) the Woman With No Name appears to address the camera directly. On the first occasion (shot 4), she turns to the camera and in reference to not allowing Coley on her horse, proclaims "You take him." At this point in the scene, the diegetic subject of her look has not yet been established. Her turn towards the camera and the delivery of her dialogue have no place in the space of the scene, thus making her actions directed into the camera and at the viewer at which point we become "complicitous in the spectacle being presented, at one with the world which we only seek to visit" (Dixon, 179). This jarring predicament is explained with a reverse shot of her hired gunman staring off screen in the direction of the Woman With No Name; the previous shot was a point of view shot This does not remove the spectator from her/his new complicitness in the spectacle, but it does serve to clarify the narrative logic of the scene. Still at hand are the implications of an on screen woman looking out into her audience and returning the gaze.
Classic narrative cinema of all genres "constitutes the woman not only as the image of desire but as the desirous image, one which the devoted cinephile can cherish and embrace. To 'have' the cinema is, in some sense, to 'have' the woman" (Doane, 498). Yet a returned gaze denies that possibility to have her. This action upsets expectations of the viewing experience and brands this woman as a threat. As "the voyeur ... must maintain a distance between himself and the image" (Doane, 499) representative of the distance between desire and its object, the voyeuristic act is turned on its end in this scene. The apparent interaction of the screen and the viewer breaks the act of viewing a spectacle and forces the audience's gaze away from the object of voyeurism. This is in keeping with the tradition of the intellectual woman who "looks and analyzes, and in usurping the gaze ... poses a threat to an entire system of representation" (Doane, 504). The woman as looker is an affront to subordinate female roles. Mulvey points out that men "cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification (and are) reluctant to gaze at (their) exhibitionist like" (Mulvey, 488). The general roles of "woman as image (and) man as bearer of the look" (Mulvey, 487), become complicated through Hellman's camera placement in the scene, and work with the narrative by reinforcing the Woman With No Name's position as an independent and determined woman, and emphasizing Gashade's and Coley's struggle with the performance of masculinity.
At the request of his employer, the hired gunman strips Coley and Gashade of their weapons at gunpoint (shot 16 - shot 20). Hellman employs an interesting structuring device in exposing the protgaonists' instability. shot 16a and shot 16b are cut by the off screen sound of a gun being cocked, precisely timed to take the place of a physical edit in the film. Apart from demonstrating Hellman's remarkable skill, this moment is relevant in reaffirming the emphasis on off screen space in the scene. The Woman With No Name nods toward her hired gun, and into the camera at the viewer, in shot 14 ordering him to take action. The threat of the gun cocking, as posed from out of the frame, comes from the woman as she holds dominance over the scene, and as the gunman is an agent of her bidding. The look at the camera granting the woman the position as bearer of the look in shot 14, enacts a castration anxiety in the audience as she closes that gap between object and the viewer. This castration anxiety is literally acted out in the scene as the hired gun strips the other men of their weapons. Their guns function as the last refuge for their masculinity as "a comprehensive ideology had emerged by the 1950s through which gun ownership and gunplay are represented as a socially sanctioned form of male heterosexual display, and where the gun itself features a medium for the maintenance of a homosocial identity or position" (Lairlamb, 21). The Woman With No Name, through her direct address to the camera and her off screen authoritative position, enacts a disavowing of her stereotypical position, as well as a refusal of masculine, phallic superiority.
This scene is representative of the film's urge to deny preconceived ideas about the position of men and women through a skewing of the expectations of the Western genre. Hellman forces a rift in the pleasure of the viewing experience, and causes the viewer to confront the image and its imbued meaning in a manner not common to classic narrative cinema. The look back from the screen jolts the viewer out of the fiction and calls attention to the medium and the manner of its manipulation. In the scene following the abovementioned, this jarring style is continued. In place of an expected establishing shot, the frame is filled with a close-up of the Woman With No Name (shot 41), looking down out of frame. This reaffirms the impression given previously of her omniscient control over the action. She is looking from the outside, down on the consequences of her influence. Her look is always commanding and confrontational, tearing apart the expectations of male dominance.