"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Yellow Sky (Fox, 1948)

Tension builds

1948 was a wonderful year for Westerns. Although Red River and Fort Apache (and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre if you think that’s a Western) towered over all, there were some very good smaller pictures such as Whispering Smith, The Paleface, 3 Godfathers and, in particular, Four Faces West and Yellow Sky. It’s a pretty impressive list. And Yellow Sky, directed by the great William W Wellman, was perhaps the ‘best of the rest’.

We know that Gregory Peck was always fine in Westerns. In this he is one tough hombre, an outlaw leader, who gradually moves towards decency and honor. He starts unshaven and hard as nails, but once he has bathed and put on his The Bravados shirt (he has fallen for Anne Baxter, you see) he becomes a goody. He is in fact the classic good badman brought to decency by the maid. William S Hart did virtually nothing else.

In his gang are smooth Dude (Richard Widmark), unscrupulous frock-coated gambler with only one lung who always throws a 7 with his dice; young Bull Run (Robert Arthur) – there has to be a kid; Lengthy (the excellent John Russell), Clint-like in appearance and seriously nasty; Harry Morgan as Half Pint, who can’t help being cheery, even as a badman; and Walrus (Charles Kemper) providing the fat-man/slightly-comic relief. James Barton plays Anne Baxter’s grandpa so that we can have an old timer and thus there is the full deck. Peck acts the pants off all of them, though.

Top marksperson Baxter, a demon with both Colt and Winchester, and her grandfather live in a ghost town and mine gold secretly. The badmen get wind of it and boy, do the bullets fly. First Peck falls out with the rest of the gang, then the other gang members fall out with each other.

It’s not a fast-paced movie - in fact at times it’s quite slow - but it’s one of those Westerns in which the tension builds. Visually it’s stark and hard, photographed in bright black and white by Joe MacDonald in Death Valley. The Alfred Newman score is brooding and sinister. It has similarities with another picture directed by William Wellman, The Ox-Bow Incident.

Baxter is called Mike. There’s quite a tradition in Westerns of the girl being called Mike. Jane Russell in Son of Paleface (Paramount, 1952) and Ms. Learned in Gunsmoke: The Last Apache (CBS TV, 1990) also have this moniker. And Claire Trevor was the rancher's daughter Mike in Texas (Columbia, 1941).

There’s a camera view taken down the barrel of a gun which must have inspired the people who did the credits for the James Bond movies.

The three-way gunfight in the ruined saloon at the end is good. A bit like The Shootist in a ghost town.

Overall, it’s dark and tense, although it has an oddly chirpy intro with happy music and a similar ending as Peck unrobs the bank and Harry Morgan dudes up (though he can only throw a two with Widmark’s dice). Tautly directed and well written as well as produced by Lamar Trotti, it’s no masterpiece, it’s no Red River, but it’s a terrific little Wellman Western that certainly deserves 3 revolvers. Because of Peck it verges on 4.

It was remade in 1967 as The Jackals, with an entertaining Vincent Price topping the bill in the Barton old-timer prospector part, but the remake was really weak.


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