Ride the High Country (1962): A Sam Peckinpah Western

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Admittedly at times, I fall into the trap of getting so caught up in the context of a film and its history I miss out on elements of the experience. However, when I watched Ride the High Country it didn’t feel like I was getting distracted by how this story pertained to others — at least not when I was immersed in it.

I probably don’t foster enough of a respect for Sam Peckinpah as other viewers or perhaps as much as I should, but watching a picture like this there’s this undying sense that he knows full-well the tradition of the western. He builds off some of the best themes of the genre with two fine actors straight out of the tradition. It comes with not only tightening the script to make it more resonate but honing in on the inner conflict of our characters as well.

Lucien Ballard’s photography is equally phenomenal in its use of the width of the screen to capture horizontal panoramas of majesty. Instantly he makes the high country synonymous with raw and rugged beauty that’s a joy to behold.

Like the most riveting westerns, this stunning imagery paired with the compelling narrative of two men, played by Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, picked me up and carried me away. Implicitly I knew that the West was changing; themes that we would be reminded of again most definitively in The Wild Bunch (1969).

In the opening minutes, we already have camels, automobiles, Arabian music, and popcorn machines out in the West and if they’re not purely anachronistic, the times must be changing. And our two main characters too were a different breed of cowboy. It’s more so a simple reality than the point of the drama.

And anyway what we learn and would do well to remember is that sometimes it’s not a generational thing at all. Each person has their own makeup and circuitry that ultimately dictates their decisions and moral framework. But, again, that comes later.

With no acting marshall in the territory and six miners recently killed and robbed trying to get their spoils down to the bank, there’s a need to be met. Steve Judd (McCrea) soon earns the gig guarding a shipment of gold to be extracted from the mining outpost of Hornitos. Granted he’s not as young as he used to be but his name still means something in the territory and when he runs across his old comrade Gil Westrum (Scott) working a carnival show, they bring an entire history with them that we only have to imagine. The other man coaxes his buddy into letting his young partner Heck (Ron Starr) come on too. It’s very reluctantly agreed to.

Their first stop is a ranch ruled by a puritanical homesteader who distrusts all men and their earthly ways; he deems them deserving of God’s wrath. His outlook is so pernicious because there is not an ounce of affection in him and it reveals himself in how he maintains a severe existence that deeply affects his daughter. Such that at the first sign of a man she perks up and runs off to put on some different duds.

Her father begrudingly gives them lodging in his barn far away from his daughter and chides the trio with the words out of Proverbs 22. Perceiving them as godless fortune seekers he lords over them with the words that “gold is a stumbling block.” He’s not wrong exactly and yet Steve coolly comes back with his own scriptural knowledge, suggesting he’s not some heathen. He can ably play the game and hold his own.

Mariette Hartley had yet to become the familiar face who flooded my childhood from The Bob Newhart Show to M*A*S*H but she’s an important piece of this picture just as Ron Starr is. They are the youth, representative of the new generation still trying to find their way. Elsa makes a rash decision to travel up to the mining town to get hitched with a man named Billy Hammond (James Drury) who formerly promised marriage.

She gets there and finds the wheels turning toward matrimony with Billy’s four lascivious brothers intent on the marriage and the added benefits for them. What becomes so striking is the harsh reality of this whirling wedding. It’s crowded with people and photographed in such a way that is claustrophobic, raucous, and dare I say, garish. It hearkens back to a similar sequence in Day of The Outlaw (1959) except the color in this one makes the palette come alive evocatively.

Simultaneously, in her youthful exuberance, it was nothing of what Elsa imagined her wedding day would be like presided over by a drunken buffoon (Edgar Buchannan) and frequented by an ensemble of floozies and lewd miners. It’s completely bereft of the loveliness or intimacy of true matrimony as its meant to be but she’s made her decision. Surely, she has to live with it now.

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Ride the High Country is situated as a moral tale deceptively simple like a High Noon (1952) or Magnificent Seven (1960) in a sense, and yet it gives way to so much of note. Like many stories, it gets to one place only to realize it must go back from whence it came and yet the game and the stakes indubitably change.

In this case, Steve just occupied himself with his task at hand initially and yet in a righteous moment he decides to insert himself into this young woman’s plight and intercede on her behalf. He doesn’t have to do it but it is the right thing and since Heck’s in love with her, he’s right there too. Judd has the girl and the gold in toe planning to do right by both. Gil has his own agenda planned since the first moment they ever set out. Justice relies on men acting in honor and they rarely do. But when they do, it’s important. It’s what this story ultimately hinges on, this constant shifting of moral tectonics.

There’s a deep satisfaction in watching two giants of the genre riding out together in style. It’s true that both Scott and McCrea took a premature retirement (though McCrea would come back years later). The sentiment being, “why not quit when you’re ahead?” and when you look at the landscape of westerns and where they were headed, Ride the High Country is a perfect cantilever jutting out into the great unknown.

Because most important of all and crucial to understanding this inherently American genre is some sense of a moral code — good and evil that must always be grappled with in the hearts and minds of any man who gets on a horse and takes to the West. That’s Ride the High Country at its finest revealing how muddled this tradition would become even in a few years time. It was the direction of the new west still untrod that Peckinpah’s film openly anticipates.

4/5 Stars

 

My Favorite Wife (1940)

My_Favorite_Wife_posterThis is a film that I arrived at by a rather roundabout route indeed. Let me explain. I genuinely loved Cary Grant and Irene Dunne’s chemistry in The Awful Truth, but I wanted to watch My Favorite Wife before moving onto their final film together Penny Serenade. Time passed and I found two other films.

First, Something’s Got to Give which was Marilyn Monroe‘s final project that remained unfinished after her death. Only about 30 minutes were completed and it was scrapped, only to be reincarnated a year later as a Doris Day vehicle co-starring James Garner. Being a fan of Day and especially of the late-great Garner, I had to indulge in this romantic comedy Move Over, Darling.

All that is to say that the Monroe film and ultimately the Doris Day film were both based on this same basic plot. A man just recently gets married only to learn that his wife who has been missing for seven years is alive. He must figure out how to break it to his new wife, only to learn that she was shipwrecked on a tropical island with a strapping young man.

After three renditions it certainly feels over-trod, but the beauty of each adaptation is that they only have this basic framework intact. A lot of the really juicy bits are filled out by the cast. Of course, your stars change. Because James Garner is no Dean Martin is no Cary Grant. And the same goes for Monroe, Day, and Dunne. However, the same goes for the crotchety judge, the desk clerk at the hotel, the bookish shoe salesman who takes part in a deception, or even the friendly neighborhood insurance salesman.

It becomes a fun game of compare and contrast, but these different performances also free you up to watch these films on their own merit and enjoy that three times over. I have found myself to often be a proponent of characters over plot and this is another case of that.

Grant and Dunne are a lot of fun together once more even if I have seen these predicaments before because Day and Garner are great to watch, but for different reasons. And of course, all the locales and fashion trends changed a lot in two decades.

Also, I will not pass judgment on who my favorite wife was out of the three and, truth be told, I saw them out of order — I would usually pick the original. In this rendition, the judge played by Granville Bates was a real scene stealer so I was sorry to discover he passed away the same year and had very few other roles.

My only question is, would this film have been propelled to greater status if Leo McCarey had been able to direct it? Also, I am now excited I finally feel clear to watch Penny Serenade and I might just have to go back and revisit The Awful Truth because it has been a while.

3.5/5 Stars

Comanche Station (1960)

Comanche_Station_FilmPosterComanche Station opens with a man who willfully goes into Comanche territory. We don’t quite know why at first, but through haggling and bartering he’s able to save a captured white woman. It doesn’t come out until much later but it turns out that Jefferson Cody’s (Randolph Scott) own wife was captured by Comanche well nigh 10 years ago and he has never stopped looking.

The saved damsel Nancy Lowe gets the wrong impression about Cody believing the gruff figure was only in it for the money and that is far from the truth, as he intends to take her back to her husband out of harms way. That’s until they’re joined out on the trail by Ben Lane (Claude Atkins) and his two hired guns. Akins in fact takes on a role almost identical to Lee Marvin a few years before and he’s not quite as memorable. However, his two stooge sidekicks are more interesting, because although they are “outlaws” in a sense, we cannot help but like them for their buffoonery and conflicted morals.

Lane looks to ambush Cody and Mrs. Lowe so he can snag the reward, but Dobie will not take part. The shootout ensues between Cody and Lane. Afterwards the searcher leads the lady back to the arms of her husband. This final installment of Budd Boetticher’s Ranown Cycle shares some similarities to Seven Men From Now, but there is a totally different feel because the visuals are very different.

3.5/5 Stars

The Tall T (1957)

The_Tall_T_1957_PosterThe Tall T is a little different riff on the Budd Boetticher western, because it follows a former ranch hand named Pat Brennan who makes a stop at a local stagecoach way station to pay a visit to some locals before riding into the nearby town. Quickly we can see that Brennan is a little more jovial and still as tough as many of the other figures Scott has played.

He also is a first rate ranch hand, and yet after a bet with his old boss he loses his horse, because a bull throws him. Brennan attempts to catch a ride with a stagecoach with happens to be carrying two honeymooners, the timid Mrs. Mims and her stuffy husband. Reluctantly he is allowed to ride shotgun with the old time driver Rintoon (Arthur Hunnicutt) and it ends up being a regrettable decision. Mistaken for the regular stage, the four are hold up by three merciless outlaws looking for a big payoff.

They are led by Frank Usher (Richard Boone in a villainous turn), but the most deadly is Chink (Henry Silva), who seems eager to knockoff as many people as possible. And so a tense game of life and death ensues.  Rintoon attempts to fight back,  Mims agrees to go the cowardly route and ride off to try and attain ransom money. Brennan simply bides his time.

Unrest begins to build between the outlaws and Brennan takes his chance to save Mrs. Mims from the leering Billy Jack and bloodthirsty Chink. As the old story goes, the ringleader Usher is the only one left, but he has one last trick up his sleeve.

O’Sullivan’s role felt relatively minor, but it was quite fun to see Have Gun Will Travel’s Richard Boone opposite Randolph Scott. It made for a relatively interesting conflict.

3.5/5 Stars

Seven Men From Now (1956)

220px-Poster_of_the_movie_Seven_Men_from_NowAlong with Detour, Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now is undoubtedly one of the greatest B-films I have seen to date. It rejuvenated the career of Randolph Scott who plays gruff sheriff Ben Stride. We are introduced to the often stoic man when he walks into a dimly lit cave during a torrential downpour. There he meets two strangers and demonstrates his skill with a gun for the first time.

For the rest of the film, he comes alongside a couple from the East, struggling to move westward with all their possessions carted on a wagon. The husband John Greer (Walter Reed), is a chipper man, but not a very adept pioneer. His kindly wife Annie (Gail Russell) loves him in spite of this ineptitude. He doesn’t say much, but Stride seems to like them both as well or at least, he knows they won’t make it very far without help. So after helping them get their wagon out of some thick mud, he sticks by their side.

They are eventually joined by Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and his accomplice Clete, who look to make some money in the wake of Stride. He willfully explains to the Greers how Stride used to be the sheriff in the town of Silver Springs, before his wife was killed by a group of bandits when they were robbing a Wells Fargo shipment. He made it his mission to track down the seven men who took part in the act. And so as an opportunistic schemer Masters is content with riding along with Stride until the opportune moment to score a big payoff.

In this way, he helps the Greers and Stride fend off some Apache and even puts a bullet through a man before Stride gets it. If we didn’t know better, we might think that Lee Marvin has gone to the good side for once. But that’s not so. He’s full of insinuations, flirtations, and veiled threats that somehow feel more ominous than a Vince Stone or Liberty Valance. It’s not just physical brutality but he is playing perhaps an even deadlier game of mental warfare. Against not only Stride, but Mrs. Greer, and her husband.

It’s around this point that Masters and Clete make a move. They alert Stride’s nemesis to his plans and just like that two men go and ambush the veteran sheriff. He knocks them both off after receiving a wounded leg that leaves him unconscious out in the canyon. Luckily the Greers come across him and John decides to take responsibility for what he has unknowingly done. He goes into town to face the music for the role he has ignorantly taken in this whole deadly affair. After discounting Greer as weak and spineless, Masters is finally forced to recant his previous statement.

What’s left is Ben Stride out in the canyon with the Wells Fargo shipment, but with two new bandits and Masters and Clete, it looks to be a bloody finale. After a bit of backstabbing, Ben Stride stands alone in the aftermath. He has completed his odyssey and he says goodbye to Ms. Greer with a new resolve to take on the role of deputy sheriff in Silver Springs. But it’s doubtful if that is the end of his story.

4/5 Stars