Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.
Released in December, 1948
Directed by William A. Wellman
Written by Lamar Trotti, based on a story by W.R. Burnett
Cast: Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark, John Russell, Harry Morgan, Robert Arthur, John Kemper, James Barton, Hank Worden, Robert Adler, William Gould, Jay Silverheels
If you’ve ever dreamed of seeing Gregory Peck play a bad guy in a film, then you may want to check out Yellow Sky, a well-made and entertaining Western, more cerebral than action-oriented, that pits Peck and his band of thieves against feisty Anne Baxter and her gold-mining grandfather. And though Peck may not be all that bad (he’s more of a ‘good’ bad guy, along the lines of an Elmore Leonard hero), I’d say he can still stand proudly alongside James Stewart (The Naked Spur), John Wayne (Red River), and especially Henry Fonda (Once Upon a Time in the West) as actors who turn the tables on you by playing characters from the dark side.
Across seventy miles of arid salt flats lies the crumbling ghost town of Yellow Sky, where Peck and his cohorts bravely trek by horse after robbing a bank and making their getaway; dying of thirst, the men collapse in the center of town, but are soon found by a gun-toting Baxter, who lives on a small ranch nearby. From there the story takes off, as Baxter not only has to thwart the advances of Peck (after one such tussle, she nearly takes his head off with a well-placed bullet), but prevent the money-hungry gang from making off with their hidden stash of gold. Will Peck eventually catch Baxter’s eye and redeem himself, or will he fall in with his villainous pals and escape with the loot?
What I loved most about this one was the skilled direction of William Wellman: his camera angles, his framing, and his ability to choose just the right set-up to compliment the scene and story. I haven’t watched many of his films, but those I have I’ve loved: Wings, The Public Enemy, and another great atypical Western, The Ox-Bow Incident. Here Wellman was ably assisted by cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, whose history of noir films gave the proceedings a dusty chiaroscuro tone, which effectively brought out the sharp black-and-white contrasts of open sky, clouds, and desert landscapes. To me, it was exactly how a Western film was supposed to look.
I also enjoyed watching Peck and Baxter at work, as well as antagonist Richard Widmark, fresh off his memorable debut in the noir classic Kiss of Death. I like Peck and Widmark in most anything they do, but Baxter was new to me, and she had a simple style and beauty that had me hooked (and she looked swell in rancher duds, too). The supporting cast of gang members—which included Harry Morgan and John Russell—did just as well, and for me no Western should be considered complete without the presence of Russell, one of the most definitive ‘cowboy-looking’ cowboys you’ll ever see. He really fit the part in this one, and had a menacing attitude to match.
All in all, a decent little Western that did its job and held my attention, whose story was smart, peppered with good dialogue, and showed how a little greed and lust can cut the threads that hold a group of men together, especially when loyalties are in question and tensions are running high. And for those of you who might miss the sight of stagecoaches, flaming arrows, and dance hall girls, I’d say stick around and at least catch this one for its technical aspects, and for the interactions between a group of fine actors being directed by someone who knew what he was doing. (7/10)