Monday, June 19, 2017

The Ballad of Cable Hogue

With The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), director Sam Peckinpah moves away from the despair, cynicism, and brutal violence of his other Westerns toward a lyrical if bittersweet fable. Here, he celebrates the triumph of individual spirit and the cherished dream of American West, and most surprisingly, he does it with good-natured if sometimes crass humor.

The setup sounds like the expected Peckinpah plot. The titular Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is left to die in the desert by his partners (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), and as they ride away, he vows to survive and get back at them, but first, he has to find water.

When he does, Cable realizes this is the only watering hole in a huge stretch of land between a couple of towns and decides this might make a good business venture. With advice and support from a wandering preacher (David Warner), he makes himself an entrepreneur and even begins to romance a local prostitute, Hildy (Stella Stevens). But one day, Cable knows his former partners will pass through.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue eschews the violence we expect from Sam Peckinpah. I think - and I might be mistaken - there are only two gunshots in the entire movie. Most of the action consists of Cable overcoming obstacles in his way and trying his damnedest to prove himself to a society that treats him like a bum and a fool. All things considered, the movie is rather sweet and a nostalgic. When Old Glory is hung over Cable's Spring, it's a genuine celebration of the American spirit.

Robards is the perfect actor for this role. He's tough and weathered; he's clearly lived through a great deal and has the will to survive, but there's a glimmer in his eyes, an inner light that says deep down, he's really an OK guy, never bitter or cynical. A man of great spirit, you might say, he takes everything in stride. As he wanders the desert looking for water, he turns to the sky and says, "Ain't had no water since yesterday, Lord. Gettin' a little thirsty. Just thought I'd mention it. Amen."

It is said of Cable that he is not a good man or a bad man, but truth be told, no one in the movie is all good or all bad. His partners betray him, but it's not hard to see their logic: they have enough water for two but not three. Joshua, the preacher played by Warner, is a man of God, and his preferred form of testimony involves comforting emotionally vulnerable women by sleeping with them. Even when hiding from one jealous husband, he can't resist copping feels or other attempts at seduction.

The movie is filled with that kind of bawdiness. When a not-quite dead husband turns up while Joshua is with a supposed widow, the film speeds up as the preacher tries to flee like in an episode of Benny Hill. This slapstick occurs on a grand scale when Cable, after insulting Hildy, ends up spreading chaos and confusion through the town as he tries to leave, culminating with the collapse of a revival tent on top of the congregation.

The humor also includes moments of triumph. Early on, after securing his claim, Cable tries to partner with a stage business and is humiliated when the owner (R.G. Armstrong) tosses him out, disbelieving his claim of water. Later, it's not hard to feel satisfaction when the owner and his employees turn up next door to Cable's watering hole, fruitlessly digging for their own spring. Looks like the dirty desert rat wasn't so crazy after all.

The film is beautifully shot, Jerry Goldsmith contributes a wonderfully folksy musical score, and it all leads to an ending that marks the passing of the Old West as modernity arrives in the form of those newfangled automobiles. Even blood feuds and old vendettas seem out of place in this brave new world.

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