One of the joys of the Western genre is that, because of its long history, it has so many sub-genres that it is easy to avoid monotony, surprisingly, given the limited props and settings of the Western -- wide-open spaces, horses, cows, pistols, hats; the palate is limited, yet the prospects for story ideas remained wide open for decades.
Yellow Sky (1948) could be filed under several sub-genres: good-bad man, bad guys on the run (of which Butch Cassidy is exemplar AND parody), western noir and the small group of Westerns which take place in a theatrically circumscribed area. The Tall T is one of these, and A Fistful of Dollars, as is Ox Bow Incident, the best-known Western by Yellow Sky's director, William Wellman. (My favorite Wellman Western is Westward the Women, a story of pioneering women on their own that, good as it is, could yield a fine all-star remake.) Whereas the standard "dirty old town" Western involves a good man coming to a bad place and cleaning it up, probably exposing the dirty secrets of the corrupt city fathers, Yellow Sky has bad men hiding out in a collapsing ghost town, only to find people and additional treasure there. I couldn't say whether this falling-down town is a symbol or just an interesting place to make a movie. (Some claim the film is inspired by The Tempest, but outside of a remote location, an old man and his daughter, I can't figure out what they're talking about. Old-man-and-daughter-in-remote-location is hardly unique to Shakespeare.)
How shall I enjoy Yellow Sky? Let me count the ways:
- It's a Western. A saloon scene, bad guys with pistols, horses, deserted town, feisty girl with a shotgun, Grizzled Old C, what's not to love?
- The zippy, no-nonsense pace of Wild Bill Wellman
- The razor-sharp black-and-white cinematography Joe MacDonald (My Darling Clementine, The Street With No Name AND Pickup on South Street)
- Gregory Peck as a somewhat more convincing bad guy than in Duel In The Sun (although not as good as in The Gunfighter two years later. The black mustache helped.)
- Richard Widmark, for heaven's sake. Just so there's a badder bad guy than Peck. Also Harry Morgan, Charles Kemper, so wonderfully wicked in Wagon Master and James Barton, a theater giant (the original Hickey in The Iceman Cometh) who didn't make enough movies. He could have taught Walter Huston a few things about the fine art of Grizzled Old Cootdom.
- Ann Baxter pre-All About Eve and smoking hot, even if (or maybe because) she's got a gun with her most of the time. Wellman didn't let her put make-up on, and it's the only time I can remember seeking her freckles. She was 25 when she made this picture, but looks barely 18. No wonder there's trouble among the bad guys.
- A falling-down old town by Lyle Wheeler and Albert Hogsett that Joe MacDonald has a lot of fun shooting in.
- The contrast of the ghost town and the flat desert around it (partly shot in Death Valley), which comes close to the central ethos of Wellman: you can be trapped anywhere, even in the wide-open spaces.