Saturday, March 5, 2016

Ride the High Country

When I say Ride the High Country (1962) resembles the kind of Westerns John Ford made, I don't necessarily mean that as a compliment, not when the director is Sam Peckinpah. Still, this is an early picture from the man who would go on to make The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs, so maybe I should be a little more forgiving.

Fans of Peckinpah will recognize many ideas and themes that would run through much of work: rugged men in rugged country, old professionals reflecting on their lives, the passing of the Old West into modernity, male bonding, and a code of honor, duty, and loyalty. Maybe it's not as good as his later masterpieces, but it's a solid effort nonetheless.

Ride the High Country tells the story of a couple of old friends and aging lawmen. Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) recruits his longtime friend Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott, cue the angelic choir) for a job escorting a company's gold haul out of the mountains. Neither man has much to show for their chosen profession, and when the movie opens, Westrum is working at a carnival booth shooting gallery, complete in a silly costume and fake beard, before Judd recruits him for the job.

Westrum, however, has designs on stealing the gold and brings along the upstart Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to help him. Things get even more complicated when they get involved with the sheltered Elsa (Marietta Hartley), her religious father (R.G. Armstrong), and her "fiancé" Billy Hammond (James Drury) and his brothers (among them a young Warren Oates).

Peckinpah courted controversy throughout his career for his depictions of graphic violence, and while he's not as explicit nor as bloody as he would later get, Ride the High Country has its share of taboo material. The wedding between Elsa and Billy is conducted in a mining town brothel by a drunk judge, and things get ugly when Billy's brothers try to force themselves in on the "fun." Apparently the Hammond boys share everything. During a later shootout, one villain collapses after being hit, clearly in shock and pain before succumbing to his wounds, far from a clean or pretty death.

As a filmmaker, Peckinpah eschews the romanticism of the Old West and shows the morality is not always rewarded. Mostly there are bad people, and some people who aren't as bad. The mining town is a cold, ramshackle place, filled with filthy tents and filthy people. Judd, while respected in his prime, has fallen on hard times, has holes in his boots and clothes. Being just and noble, always taking the moral, has not been financially rewarding for a man who devoted his life to upholding the law, but still, Judd remains stalwart and committed, even as Westrum drops some not-so-subtle hints he's owed more for all he's given.

Technically, the look and feel of the film is a bit old-fashioned. Peckinpah's direction isn't as intense or flamboyant as his later work, but it's serviceable. The action scenes are kind of tame, but the wide shots of the landscape - mountains, lakes, forests, - are beautiful. I got the sense Peckinpah was held back a bit and couldn't cut loose as much as we wanted.

Performances, for the most part, are terrific, with Scott and McCrea carrying the show. Even when they're just riding on trotting horses and reminiscing about the old days, I could listen to them talk all day. Considering this is Scott's final role and one of McCrea's last, it adds a poignant touch as they realize the world is changing and the Old West will soon be gone.

Hartley, in her debut, is appropriately naive and feisty while the Hammonds are a scuzzy but fun bunch. The only weak links are Armstrong, who is limited to a couple of scenes where he has to oversell the Puritanical aspect of his character, and Starr, who just isn't convincingly tough enough to hang with these weathered old gunslingers and spends too much time mooning over Elsa.

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