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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Director Report Card: Sam Peckinpah (1970)

5. The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Following the success of “The Wild Bunch,” Sam Peckinpah was in a rare position. He could make just about any movie he wanted. He would use this leeway to create “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” turning down the chance to direct both “Deliverance” and “Jeremiah Johnson.” Typically, production was difficult. Made on-location in the desert, rain often prevented filming. The cast and crew passed the days inside the local bars and ran up an impressive tab. Naturally, the movie went over-schedule and over-budget. The hectic production would end up burning through all the good will Peckinpah endeared with studios after “The Wild Bunch.” Bloody Sam, it seemed, just couldn't change his hellraising ways. But what of “The Ballad of Cable Hogue?”

In the Arizona desert, Cable Hogue is left for dead by his two partners, Taggert and Bowen. Wandering for four days, Cable eventually stumbles upon a wellspring. Realizing the spring is the only source of water in a long stretch of desert between two towns, Cable immediately sees an opportunity. He begins to charge travelers to drink his water. Cable travels into the near-by town of Dead Dog, purchasing a claim on his little stretch of desert land. He names his claim Cable Springs. Soon, he befriends Joshua, an eccentric preacher, and falls in love with Hildy, a local prostitute. All the while, he plots revenge against Bowen and Taggert.

“The Ballad of Cable Hogue” is a very noticeable change of pace for Sam Peckinpah. Though still falling within the western genre, the movie could not be more different from the films Peckinpah made before. There's an occasional flash of violence, and a dead body or two. However, “Cable Hogue” is not especially concerned with the weight of bloodshed and men waging war on each other. It's more about its characters and the frequently farcical adventures they get up to. It's easily the only Peckinpah movie that could ever be described as folksy or even whimsical.

In fact, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” is even zany at times. Instead of his trademark slow motion, “The Ballad” actually features several scenes where the film is sped up. After accidentally dropping some rattlesnakes out of a bag, Cable and Joshua make a zippy run for it. Earlier, the philandering preacher comically runs out of a house after the husband of the young girl he's attempting to seduce shows up. By far the silliest scene in the movie is when Hildy rampages through the saloon, after Cable leaves without paying her. She actually kicks a hole in a door. Moments of broad humor like this is probably not what you'd expect from the director of “The Wild Bunch.” However, Peckinpah adapts to the change well, utilizing the broad comedy well.

Even though it is a comedy, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” contains some not-entirely-serious thoughts on the nature of revenge. After being left for dead, before the opening credits roll, Cable swears vengeance against Bowen and Taggert. His determination to turn his little plot of desert land into a success is partly driven by spite. A need to prove to his enemies that he didn't just survive but prospered too. His desire to take his revenge nearly drives Cable and Hildy part. When the treacherous duo reappears, Cable just about goes through with it. Ultimately, though, he shows some degree of mercy. Though light-hearted, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” seems to believe that forgiveness is possible, that men can change for the better.

This goes hand-in-hand with the film's eccentric approach to religion. As Cable wanders the desert in the beginning, he asks God for some water. When he finally discovers water, he takes sole credit for it and disregards God. Later, a pious but buffoonish rich couple appear. Joshua is among the least chaste preachers in cinema. He preaches his own version of the Gospel and seems primarily preoccupied with seducing young women. Cable's first coupling with Hildy is interrupted when he hears a street preacher outside the window, distracting him. “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” does not take religion seriously, pointing out the hypocritical men who preach the word and how ineffective it can be when applied to life.

Even in a project as atypical as this, Peckinpah can't help but insert his favorite theme. “Cable Hogue” is yet another movie about the end of the Wild West era. Throughout the film, Hildy says she plans to leave rural Arizona for the urban San Francisco, leaving the untamed west behind. This thread is most obvious in the story's last act. As in “The Wild Bunch,” automobiles are used as symbols of this progress, the onward march of technology that will bring the American West to a conclusion. This is made all too obvious at the very end, when the car accidentally rolls over Cable, killing him. “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” makes its not-so-subtle point clear by having a symbol of modernity literally kill off its fiercely independent protagonist.

My favorite part of “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” is among its most unexpected. Hogue is entranced by Hildy's beauty when he first sees her. However, their initial encounter is just a transaction and one that ends badly. The next time they met, their chemistry takes over. After being chased out of town, she goes to live with Hogue in his desert home. From there, their romance blossoms, shown through a series of charming and easy-going moments. The two compliment each other and their existence together is cozy. It's easy to see why any man would fall in love with Hildy, as she plays by the gorgeous and radiant Stella Stevens. Stevens' performance is funny and incredibly charming to boot.

“The Ballad of Cable Hogue” is a vehicle for Jason Robards, his second western after “Once Upon a Time in the West.” Robards would end the decade a back-to-back Oscar winner. By this point, he was more of a respected character actor than a box office draw. Still, Robards is perfect in the part. His raspy voice is perfectly suited to the frequently caustic and crotchety Cable Hogue. Yet Robards also gives the character a warm side, making him capable of regrets and affections. Though a rascal, Robards makes Cable an immensely likable character.

After Robards and Stevens, the most important performance in the film is David Warner as Joshua. Well on his way to becoming a busy character actor, Warner is memorable as the far from pious preacher. Warner manages to keep the character intriguing and even charming, despite his clear lapse in morality. The scene where he attempts to seduce a grieving girl could've gone into creepy territory really easily but Warner keeps the moment light. Beyond that, Warner also has good chemistry with Robards, the two sharing an amusing back-and-forth, a snide tolerance of each other that soon grows into a genuine fondness.

Peckinpah fills the supporting cast with some familiar faces, including several actors he's worked with before. L.Q. Jones, in his third collaboration with Sam, appears as Taggert, the far more stoic half of the pair of men who betrayed Hogue. Veteran Western performer Strother Martin, who also appeared in “The Deadly Companions,” plays the other half, Bowen. While Jones mostly squints silently, Martin goes for comic cowardliness. Slim Pickins, another legendary western performer who showed up in “Major Dundee,” has an amusing role as a stagecoach driver who befriends Hogue. Interestingly, Picken's brother, Easy, makes his sole cinematic appearance here as the other stagecoach driver.

Another thing that's surprising about “The Ballad of Cable Hogue?” It's practically a musical. Yes, the manliest of directors working in the manliest of genres came close to making a singing-and-dancing movie. Several songs are provided by actor/composer/singer Richard Gillis. The main theme, “Tomorrow is the Song I Sing,” is a catchy and folksy number summing up Hogue's philosophies. Gillis also sings “Wait for Me, Sunrise,”  a more introspective song that scores the film's more melancholic moments. The movie's best musical moment is “Butterfly Mornings,” a lovely sung by Stevens and Robards. Providing the soundtrack to a romantic montage, it's a sweet song that also provides a lot of insight into Stevens' dreams and aspirations.

When released in theaters in 1971, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” was mostly ignored. It managed to surpass its budget at the box office, though by a fairly small fraction. Audiences and critics didn't have much to say about it. However, Peckinpah would always maintain it was his favorite of his own films. In time, the movie has been rediscovered. It's undeniably shaggy, running far too long at over two hours with a plot that is mostly a series of loose encounters. However, the movie is funny, oddly sweet, and features a wonderful cast. I'd recommend seeking it out. [Grade: B+]

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