Violent Beauty

No, this isn’t about Tonya Harding, Harley Quinn or any other Margot Robbie performance.  It’s about the West, as in “Wild.”  Not in its heyday, but toward the end.  And not the “print the legend” masterpieces of John Ford, but the gritty, unvarnished truth, as brutally painted by the genre’s key American revisionist practitioner, Sam Peckinpah.

What makes this piece so special to me is that The Warner Archive Collection, to whom legions of movie buffs owe a debt of gratitude, has chosen to release my two all-time favorite Peckinpah movies in stunning new Blu-Ray editions, 1962’s  RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY and 1970’s THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE.  What?  No Wild Bunch?  Listen, I could go on for paragraphs about that 1969 classic, and, yeah, I do love it.  But not as much as this pair.  Indeed, many novices or occasional visitors to the western or Peckinpah may not have even heard of CABLE HOGUE.  If so, you’re in for a treat.  As for HIGH COUNTRY, it’s simply not one of the director’s finest works, but, in my humble opinion, one of the greatest westerns ever made.  So, let’s saddle up!

Fact:  RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY is one of the most beautiful westerns in the history of cinema.  That’s not to say it isn’t uncompromising in that oh-so-Peckinpah way.  It is.  It’s a raw depiction of the end of the west, as personified by two aging lawmen.  The lean and perfect script by N.B. Stone, Jr., William Roberts, and Peckinpah himself is easily one of the best the director ever worked with.

Long separated by encroaching years, Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) are reunited in a small town celebrating the birth of America.  Judd is a by-the-book ex-sheriff/deputy, fallen on hard times (so bad he had to hire on as a bouncer in a brothel) who offers to bring back a hefty gold shipment from a lawless mining camp.  Judd’s pride is his only vice, as he tries not to reveal his frayed cuffs to his employers or the fact that he needs glasses to read their contract.  At first what seems like a fortuitous meet-up with Westrum turns into an emotional rollercoaster.  At various times in their lives, Steve worked for Gil, and then vice versa.  Since then, Westrum has gone for the easy buck, working as pitchman in a sleazy carnival with his young, hothead sidekick Heck Longtree (Ron Starr).

The three form an uneasy alliance (Westrum admits to his underling that they will steal the gold once the trio leaves the camp).  Judd’s credo is to live honorably so that he “can enter my house justified.” These words fall deaf on Gil’s ears, as an amused Westrum scoffs at the weathered lawman’s integrity.  Along the way the group stops overnight at the home of widower Joshua Knudsen (R.G. Armstrong), a religious fanatic farmer, who shares the land with his tomboy daughter, Elsa (Mariette Hartley).  As sexually repressed as the elder Knudsen is, Elsa is the opposite – a curious child-woman on the brink of raging hormones, stupidly engaged to the first man who showed interest in her, a beefy miner, Billy Hammond (James Drury).  Longtree attempts to change her mind in the worst possible way, causing yet another of many comeuppances from Judd.  Elsa, sick of the fire-and-brimstone lectures and beatings, escapes after the triad, before they adopt the girl as their unofficial fourth member.

The trip is memorable, trekking along gorgeous scenery of our country’s magnificent mountains and rivers (Inyo National Forest and Malibu State Park ably subbing for the western wilderness).  During this odyssey, Judd and Westrum underline their friendship by reminiscing of better times past; these sequences are among the best in the picture, and stand as a testament to the skills of McCrea and Scott. One of my favorite moments in this section is a literal throwaway bit.  Longtree brashly tosses his food remains into the picturesque background, and is severely admonished by Judd.  “These mountains don’t need your garbage!” he tells the fool.  A wonderful ecology message, one of the few in pre-1970 cinema.

The mining town is even more horrific than anticipated, rife with rogues, rapscallions, whores and conmen.  Elsa’s romantic aspirations are, too, short-lived.  Billy is one of a family of psychopaths, led by merciless killer Elder (John Anderson); his siblings are the illiterate, lust-craven thugs Sylvus (L.Q. Jones), Jimmy (John Davis Chandler) and Henry (Warren Oates).  Billy’s delight at seeing Elsa gives way to a freakish wedding in the local whorehouse.  The honeymoon is worse.  Taking the phrase “all in the family” literally, each Hammond is determined to initiate her into the clan.  Heck, gradually reforming into a mensch, saves her and the quartet light out for the return trip.  Like Elsa’s wedded bliss, the gold strike, too, turns out to be a bust, as the loot is far below what was promised (20K, as opposed to the projected quarter of a million).  Of course, the ride back is a nightmare, as the Hammonds are in pursuit of the woman, the money and revenge. Furthermore, Westrum is still determined to rob his old pal when the moment is right.  Except now, Heck, truly in love with Elsa, and having learned respect from Judd, isn’t so sure.  When Steve gets wind of Gil’s plans, he violently responds.  As a beaten and banished Westrum sardonically asks why he gets the extra-bad treatment, Judd splendiferously replies, “you were my friend.”

How all of this sews up is a spectacular display of ferocity, adventure, love and friendship.  The final heartfelt exchange between Steve and Gil (“See ya later”), and the fade-out image will leave a lump in your throat and a tear in your eye.  Suffice to say, Steve Judd enters his house justified.

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY was a difficult pic to see in 1962; truth be told, it almost didn’t get seen at all.  A new regime at MGM absolutely hated it, and wanted the movie shelved indefinitely.  The studio, at the time still reaping the rewards of Ben-Hur, was hell-bent to remake every old title they could lay their greedy hands on (Cimarron, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, etc.).  The only other pics that piqued their interest were the trashy sex adaptations of bestselling novels (BUtterfield 8, All the Fine Young Cannibals, Two Weeks in Another Town).

HIGH COUNTRY was finally thrown into the public view as a one-week hardtop/drive-in/grindhouse attraction, where it played on the bottom half of a double bill with The Tartars, an Italian import co-starring Victor Mature and Orson Welles.  Metro wanted to have the western quickly forgotten.  But the critics wouldn’t let them.  The movie was cited by many American scribes as one of the best of the year.  Overseas, it instantly became a classic (especially in the UK, where it was released under the title Guns in the Afternoon).

This studio’s response may have provided more than a spur to prompt both Scott and McCrea to vow that it would be their last screen appearances (McCrea later came out of retirement in 1966 to grace The Young Rounders, followed by brief appearances in low-budget oaters Cry Blood Apache, Sioux Nation, both 1970, and Mustang Country, in 1976; Scott, secure with his Wall Street investments, held steadfast and never made another movie).

The brutal reaction from HIGH COUNTRY‘s own studio was an early lesson that an already cynical Peckinpah would learn to accept (and it would be one repeated many times over the next several decades).

HIGH COUNTRY‘s stymied ascension to classic movie status was nevertheless the victim of other technological setbacks.  The sumptuous CinemaScope photography by Lucien Ballard was delivered a devastating blow by the use of Metro Color, a process which faded rather quickly.  The first few times I saw this movie in scope, it was beet red.

Well, folks, start burning the incense!  The new Warner Archive Blu-Ray is sensational!  Crystal-clear High Def imagery in ebullient colors and tones, as it’s likely never looked before.  The mono track is crisp and dynamic and features a glorious score by George Bassman.  There are also nifty supplements, including a featurette on the movie, and audio commentary by Peckinpah aficionados/scholars Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle.

 

After the phenomenal success of The Wild Bunch, in 1969, Warners uttered two words to Sam Peckinpah he never thought he’d ever hear:  carte blanche.  Any project he wanted to do.  Sam was wise enough to take full advantage of this (likely) limited-time offer, and opted to do a quiet, modest little comedy.  A kinder, gentler Peckinpah.  That said, the opening of 1970’s THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE features a lizard being splattered into bits, and the title character being tortured in the desert.  Yet, hold on folks, ’cause the John Crawford/Edmund Penney/Gordon T. Dawson script is a beautifully constructed character piece, seemingly tailor-made for the three leads, Jason Robards, Stella Stevens and David Warner.

Cable Hogue is a cantankerous, non-book larn’d prospector/hermit/hobo, blessed by enough wisdom to know that he’s smarter than most of the other human specimens (particularly the rich ones) in his orbit.  In the throes of death, he discovers a watering hole, exactly twenty miles from each stagecoach depot, and figures, “Why not build a rest stop, and charge for aqua and vittles?”  Barely making it to town, Cable approaches the local muckety-muck, who instantly tosses his filthy, grubby butt into the street.  There, he instantly meets the love of his life, a beauteous prostitute named Hildy.  Embarrassed over his appearance and lack of fun-funds, he settles on a smile, which is returned in kind.  Then, another miracle happens.  He barges into the bank and pitches his proposal to the no-nonsense head suit.  In a complete reversal of movie stereotype, the hardened businessman takes a liking to Cable (whose lack of education is comically accentuated as he spells his name “Hogue: C-A-B-L-E!”), and gives him a bigger loan than he asked for.  First stop, the brothel – and the whore of his dreams (that is, after a much-needed bath), and before you can say “sidewalks paved with gold,” Cable Hogue is an American businessman.

The waystation is a mammoth success; and assists the neighboring towns to grow, enough so that they react like all “good citizens” in westerns do:  by throwing the hookers out.  Hildy moves in with Cable and their endearing relationship is one of my fave celluloid romances.

A hurtful moment causes Hildy to rethink her life and original career ambitions; abruptly, she heads west to San Francisco; Cable becomes unlucky in cards and love, as the modernization of America rapidly threatens to close him out.  This isn’t helped by the reappearance of the two rogues who nearly killed him at the start of the picture.

Hildy’s return as a rich (now “widowed”) woman of means, replete with new-fangled horseless carriage and chauffeur, prompts Hogue to reassess his life, and journey back to Frisco with his love, but not before handing over his failing station to one of his would-be assassins, whose gratitude is bolstered by a late case of smarts, as he eyes the glistening automobile and muses that a body might make a good living selling gasoline, thus inventing the service station.

The tragedy that ends this piece is one of the most poignant fade-outs since Billy Bitzer started cranking for D.W. Griffith; certainly, the bittersweet peak of Peckinpah’s career.

THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE is a winner all the way.  From Lucien Ballard’s gorgeous Technicolor cinematography to the splendid score by Jerry Goldsmith.  The latter even includes a lovely song (by composer Richard Gillis), “Butterfly Mornin’s and Wildflower Afternoons,” nicely sung by Robards and Stevens.  The stellar Stella, it should be noted, plays this role entirely sans makeup; she is nevertheless still breathtaking, and undoubtedly gives the performance of her life.

The outstanding roster of supporting players give it their all as well, and include such icons of character-actor heaven as R.G. Armstrong (as the know-it-all suit), Peter Whitney as the banker, Slim Pickens, his real-life wife, Easy, and, as the pair of murderous rascals, L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin.  The aforementioned Warner is superb as a comic self-proclaimed preacher, author of his own horndog religion that reaches out to lonely women everywhere (“Since I cannot rouse Heaven, I intend to raise Hell”).  And, finally, as the title character, Robards delivers perhaps his finest screen impersonation; HOGUE cemented a trilogy of fantastic Robards roles that forever put him in the pantheon of great movie westerners.  Within three years, he graced the genre with gem turns in Hour of the Gun, Once Upon a Time in the West and this triumph.

Peckinpah personally loved this movie, and it’s easy to see why.  It’s like a little vacation piece, a wink at his growing fan base and critics.  HOGUE is to Sam what The Trouble with Harry was to Hitchcock and Wagon Master was to Ford.  The director even parodies himself, taking his trademark use of slo-mo footage and reversing it to speeded-up action for slapstick relief (of which there is plenty).

The Warner Archive Blu-Ray of HOGUE looks and sounds marvelous, in its new 1080p rendition.  Like with RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY, Warners has included some terrific extras, including audio commentary by the aforementioned Redman, Seydor, Simmons and Weddle and a dandy featurette, The Ladiest Damn’d Lady: An Afternoon with Actress Stella Stevens.

I play these two pics often as a double feature at the Neuhaus Bijou Palace; it’s a twofer that just gets better with each screening.  LSS, they do what The Movies are supposed to do:  they make me happy.

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]. 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # 1000642536.  SRP: $21.99.

THE BALLAD OF CABLE HOGUE. Color. Widescreen. [1.78;1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. CAT # 1000642701.  SRP: $21.99.

Available from the Warner Archive Collection:  http://www.wbshop.com/warnerarchive or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.

 

 

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