Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dirty little town

yellow sky wellman Pictures, Images and Photos

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.
I'm sure everyone involved in this film believed they were just making something to divert some bored kids and teens on a long Sunday afternoon, which only demonstrates how easy it was for the machinery of the Golden Age of Hollywood to crank out first-rate work without special exertion.

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