Monday, December 1, 2014
Reeling Backward: "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" (1970)
After essentially blowing up the Western genre, what do you do next?
In the case of Sam Peckinpah, coming off the divisive glory of "The Wild Bunch," which was excoriated for its brutal violence, you make a silly -- yet slyly consequential -- comedy like 1970's "The Ballad of Cable Hogue."
A casual observer of Peckinpah would be hard-pressed to even recognize the filmmaker's fingerprints on this gentle, life-affirming movie starring Jason Robards as a desert hermit who builds his own oasis in between tumbleweed towns. But they are there, including a general pessimism about the ability of the individual to conform to the strictures of society, and a sober realism about the usefulness, and misuse, of violence to address conflicts.
A big flop at the time, "Cable Hogue" essentially ended Peckinpah's career as an auteur. From there on out, he became a hired gun brought in -- usually reluctantly, due to his well-earned reputation for drunkenness and absenteeism on the set -- to work on prepackaged studio projects. But the movie has come to be reevaluated over the years and found new admirers, including myself.
Cable Hogue is not your typical Western protagonist, and he's certainly no hero -- at least not a cookie-cutter one. He's illiterate, ill-tempered, a skinflint to barter with, and seems to prefer the sun-baked company of lizards and rattlesnakes to that of most people. In the opening minutes he's even revealed to be a bit of a coward, declining to shoot his back-stabbing gold mining partners when he has the drop on them.
Yet Peckinpah and screenwriters John Crawford and Edmund Penney (plus an uncredited Gordon T. Dawson) delve deeper into Hogue's dust-caked, odorous personage and find a well-hidden nobility. Cable may be uncouth but he's not dull-witted; he's stubborn but capable of self-reflection and change; and he's intrinsically invested with enough pride to demand respect from those who would laugh at him -- which is pretty much everyone he meets, at least initially.
The movie is a celebration of a seemingly ordinary man who demands that he be accepted as he is, prodigious faults and all. He will make his own rules and abide by them, as will those who wander into his tiny two-acre domain. And he will never forget himself and dream of becoming something other than what he is.
In short, he is Cable Hogue, he is a man, and he will not be denied.
The story begins with those scheming partners, Taggart and Bowen (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones, respectively), betraying Cable and leaving him in the desert to die without a drop of water or any possessions beyond the clothes on his back. Near death, he communes with the Lord, giving his feeble life over into His hands, and is rewarded by stumbling across a tiny water hole in the middle of nowhere.
Actually, the hole -- soon expanded into a well -- is right along the stagecoach route to the town of Deaddog. Cagey Cable reasons that having a place to stop and water horses will prove valuable to parched travelers. He refuses the offer of a lift into town and sets up shop, though his first transaction doesn't go so well when the customer refuses to pay the 10 cent fee to drink and Cable is forced to shoot him dead. But the miscreant has enough money in his pockets to secure the deed to the land, and Cable is officially in business.
His second customer is a mite better, the lecherous Reverend Joshua Sloan (David Warner), who sees the descended light of heaven in the curves of the female form, and is always ready to lay his gentle ministrations upon their quivering flesh. He wears a reverend's collar that can be turned around to become a gentleman's tie, depending on need and circumstance. Josh soon becomes Cable's confidante, assistant and needler-in-chief.
The heart of the story lies in Cable's initial visit to Deaddog to secure his claim and grubstake to build something out of nothing.. Laughed at by the town children, thrown out of the stagecoach office when he offers to sell half the deed to his land for $35, Cable runs into a pair of friendly faces that brighten his perpetually sour mood.
The first is Hildy (Stella Stevens), the preternaturally pretty town prostitute who kindly directs Cable to the proper destinations he seeks (since he can't read the signs) and rewards him with a backward glance or two. With her painfully thin waist and incongruously heaving bosom and ample hindquarters -- which Peckinpah's camera lingers over, again and again -- Hildy looks like a caricature of every female character in every Western ever made. She's sweet-natured but ambitious, mercenary but generous of spirit (and flesh). Hildy looks upon Cable with pity, which he interprets as affection, and to her surprise her feelings do eventually evolve in that direction.
The other kind encounter is with Cushing (Peter Whitney), the local banker who, like seemingly every banker in a Western, resembles a cross between a walrus and an owl. Cable barges into his office and starts rambling about how the world has wronged him, and they quibble over the meaning of "collateral," and if Cable has something of value to secure a loan.
Halfway out the door, Cable turns back and gives Cushing this look that is just an ocean of emotion and meaning -- pain, anger, regret, confusion, despair, neediness. Honestly, it's probably my single favorite moment of Jason Robard's career. The words that follow are almost beside the point:
"Well, I'm worth something, ain't I?"
In every other movie you've ever seen, the penitent man walks away rebuffed, and the unctuous official returns to his paperwork. But Cushing is genuinely moved and offers Cable $100 to start his business. He later makes sporadic visits to Jackass Flats, now redubbed Cable Springs, to check on his newest customer. In one sojourn, Cable is moved nearly to tears to receive an American flag designating his outpost as an official stop on the stagecoach line.
Most of the second half of the movie is taken up with romance. Joshua becomes enamored with a town woman whom he thinks has just been widowed, until her huge husband shows up in a huff. Hildy is thrown out of Deaddog by the burgeoning Bible-thumber movement, and opts to shack up with Cable (he has built himself a shack by this time) before lighting out for San Francisco. Her plans are to marry a rich man, preferably old or frail, and become "the ladyiest damn lady you ever saw!"
The love between Cable and Hildy deepens, but she is too set in her plans to remain, and he too focused on his little empire to go. That, and Cable has an ulterior purpose. He figures that if he remains in one key spot long enough, Taggart and Bowen are bound to stumble across it and he can exact his revenge.
This actually does come to pass, but plays out in a completely different way than you'd expect of a Peckinpah film. It soon becomes clear that though Cable did have a score to settle, it was not with his erstwhile partners but with himself. Having failed to live up to his self-image of manhood, he cannot complete his journey until he proves to himself that he can pull a trigger when he has to. Having done so, his bloodthirst leaks out of him like sweat in the hot sun, and is consumed by the insatiable, uncaring desert.
The ending of "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" is a little too quick and gimmicky for my taste. I often feel that filmmakers kill off their main character because, having completed his or her personal quest, they don't really know what else to do with them. Personally, I would've liked to known if Cable Hogue, the humble but defiantly self-made man, could've stuck it out as Hildy's nicely creased arm candy.