Monday, October 17, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Yellow Sky" (1948)

"Yellow Sky" is one of those movies that is about much more than the superficial story on the screen. Ostensibly it's a Western about a group of desperadoes who stumble upon a gold miner and his tomboy granddaughter in the remote desert, setting up a standoff in which the bandits make designs on a fortune in gold dust.

But the film, directed by William A. Wellman, is more about lust -- lust for gold, lust for sex, and most every other type of yearning mortal man can conjure. Each character in some way lusts for something or other that they cannot have, and only by giving up their avarice can they hope to find any peace.

Gregory Peck, in one of his rare villainous roles -- well, he starts out bad, anyway -- plays "Stretch" Dawson, leader of a gang of seven thieves. The opening sequence pretty well defines their M.O.: They ride into a town, belly up to the saloon bar and inquire about the marshal's whereabouts. Determining he's away on business, they casually saunter over to the bank and rob it.

It seems like easy pickings, but the cavalry soon gives chase, picking off one of the gang. Desperate, they ride into the nearby salt flats to escape. The men are fearful about crossing 70 miles of barren desert, but Stretch insists "it's just a place. It can be crossed."

Though hardly important narratively, the desert sequence is highly evocative in fleshing out the members of the gang. Stretch is taciturn and stern, and is most concerned with protecting his status as leader. "I don't like voting," Stretch says repeatedly whenever they talk about letting democracy rule their actions.

His number two is Dude, played by Richard Widmark. Widmark was one of those actors who bounced between playing authority figures and villains, and was always most interesting as an evil-doer. Something about his large forehead, slitted eyes and prominent cheekbones gave him the appearance of a death's head -- particularly when he smiled. Richard Widmark smiling is one of the most unsettling things you'll ever seen in a movie.

Dude dresses like something of a dandy, but has no taste for women. As he reveals to Stretch in a quiet moment, he used to own a ranch and have a girl, but when he was shot and robbed she left him. With only one working lung, Dude is incapable of physical labor. He wants to become so rich he'll never have to sweat again -- and rub it in the face of the people who same him descend into failure.

Harry Morgan, forever Col. Potter from "M*A*S*H*," has a small role as Half Pint, an undersized cowpoke with a quick smile and an affinity for animals. Lengthy (John Russell) is the hothead of the bunch. Bull Run (Robert Arthur) is the youngest bandit, because it is an unwritten rule in Westerns that when more than three people throw in together, one of them must be a tenderfoot.

Charles Kemper has a memorable role as Walrus, the tubby, bearded older cowboy who serves as both comic relief and ready-made pragmatist, ready to blow with the wind.

In the desert Walrus is threatened with death, because he filled his canteen with whiskey back in town. He offers to trade some booze for water, plaintively begging that he will die soon without it, but no one will give him a drink. Stretch seems unbothered by the idea of Walrus dying of thirst, relegating it as a simple matter of a man living with his own poor choice.

They make it through the desert, and come across the ghost town of Yellow Sky. Once booming with money from silver mines, things dried up awhile ago. But an old man (James Barton) and his granddaughter Mike (Anne Baxter) are still around. After slaking their thirst, the thieves' minds quickly turn to questioning why two people would stick it out alone unless they had something to show for it.

The overt sexuality of the movie is pretty striking by 1948 standards. All the men except for Dude quickly take a shine to Mike (Constance Mae is her real name), with animosity brewing as they vie for a place at the front of what they clearly believe will become a line.

Stretch orders them to leave the old man and girl alone, but doesn't follow his own orders. In one creepy scene, he tackles Mike and pins her down, forcibly kissing her. He gets up and quips something about just wanting to show her what he's capable of, but it clearly was the beginning of a sexual assault.

Mike, though, is a deadeye with her rifle, and parts Stretch's hair with a well-aimed bullet as warning/retribution. Inevitably, though, Mike finds herself drawn to Stretch. She's lived alone with just her grandpa since she was a girl, and Baxter's portrayal of a young woman's unmet raging desires surely brought a blush to audiences' cheeks back in the day.

Even the old man has desires. He's been mining gold dust mote by mote for more than 15 years, and has $50,000 worth saved up -- not for the wealth, but so he can revive the town of Yellow Sky again. Once the bandits' motives become clear, he offers to split the take with them, which Stretch agrees to out of sheer convenience, and perhaps because he's taken a shine to Mike.

Dude isn't having any of it, though, and usurps the leadership of the gang. Bull Run is killed in the ensuing melee, and Walrus and Half Pint don't really have a stake one way or the other, simply following the leadership of whoever seems to be in the strongest position at any given moment.

Stretch's transformation into a well-meaning fellow who sticks by his word isn't terribly convincing, nor is the seemingly pasted-on happy ending, where Stretch and what's left of his gang return the money they stole from the bank. Old habits die hard, though, and Stretch forces the bank workers and customers to hold up their hands at gunpoint, before realizing how silly this is.

The screenplay by Lamar Trotti was based on an unpublished book by W.R. Burnett. According to the film's Wikipedia page, the story is loosely based on Shakespeare's "The Tempest," but it must be pretty loose indeed. The old man in "Yellow Sky" has no sorcerous powers, unless you count his affinity with the local Apache.

The cinematography by Joseph MacDonald is terrific, with a lot of bright whites and high contrasts that make the scenes seem parched and arid.

"Yellow Sky" is a solid Western, but it's even better when considered for its subtext.

3 stars out of four

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