Monday, August 13, 2018

Water and Gold Nowhere

You think you're hot now, try crossing Death Valley without any water. That's what a gang of bank robbers do in 1948's Yellow Sky, a magnificently shot Western loosely based on The Tempest.

Gregory Peck is the leader of the gang, called "Stretch", that also includes Richard Widmark as "Dude" and Harry Morgan as "Half Pint". They're all wearing the remains of Union uniforms in this film set a few years after the Civil War, though whether they were ever actually soldiers or acquired the clothes some other way is never made clear. They wander into town and ask about which side the sheriff fought on, though, as they gaze at this peculiar pin-up in the saloon.

Is she falling off the horse or tied to the side? What's going on in this picture? The only question a gang member named Lengthy (John Russell) has is, "What's she going to do after she's done ridin' that horse?" This isn't the last time "riding" will be invoked regarding a woman.

After a heist, they cross Death Valley--actually shot on location in Death Valley--and find themselves at an abandoned prospecting town named Yellow Sky. There they run into the local gun totting Miranda, called Mike, played by Anne Baxter in my favourite of her roles.

I guess she could be a combination of Miranda and Ariel. The Prospero here, played by James Barton, is her grandfather instead of her father and he's established a useful friendship with the local Apaches, who may collectively be taken as the film's Caliban.

The displays of lust in this film certainly push the Hays envelope. Director William A. Wellman made several films, like Safe in Hell, a lot more explicit than this before the Hays Code was enforced but the group of proven scoundrels just eyeing Mike as she takes water from the spring is loaded enough. They all want her but of course Gregory Peck is the front runner. He encounters her alone one evening and when he finally talks her into lowering her gun he tackles her.

Lads, just because she's not pointing a gun at you doesn't mean she's up for wrestling. But as Stretch tells her, he and his men are used to taking what they want without permission. Gregory Peck is primarily known nowadays for his saintly roles but he's quite good as someone a little more volatile. Though of course he ends up being more of a gentleman than he might seem at first.

The movie's filled with tension as we're compelled to watch these guys along with Mike and her Grandfather and try to figure out if they're any good or just a threat. They're stuck with each other, in any case, so it's an opportunity to explore a nice, precarious situation of human relations.

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