Yellow Sky (1948)
Director: William Wellman - Cast: Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, Richard Widmark, John Russel, Harry Morgan, Robert Arthur, James Barton, Charles Kemper
An often overlooked movie from the director of the better remembered The Ox-Bow Incident. Gregory Peck is "Stretch" Dawson, a gang leader who leads his men into a wasteland of salt flats when they're persecuted by the army after a bank robbery. Almost dying of thirst, they arrive in a mysterious ghost town, only inhabited by an old man and his granddaughter, an tomboy who handles a gun and a rifle as good as any man. One of the gang members, the well-dressed but sneaky gambler Dude (Widmark) reckons there must be a reason for the old man and the girl to stay in the deserted mining town: they must have found gold in one of the old mine-shafts. Gold and a girl: that’s all it takes to drive already riotous men crazy. After a violent incident the old prospector confesses he has found gold and offers the men a fifty-fifty deal. They accept, but once the gold is extracted from the mine, they decide to claim it all.
Beautifully shot, in a stark black and white, Yellow Sky is one of the best looking and most atmospheric westerns of the forties. It was based on a story by W.H. Burnett, an author of noir thrillers, best known for his novel High Sierra, filmed twice by Raoul Walsh (1). The story of Yellow Sky is a reworking of the familiar gangster saga of an innocent family held hostage by a gang of hardened criminals. But in those stories it usually is the family father who redeems himself by confronting those who threaten his family, here it’s the leader of the criminals who proves he is a righteous and courageous man. Before changing sides he confesses to the prospector and the girl that he was brought up with the bible and that it was the Civil War that made him go astray.
The dreamlike atmosphere almost made me believe the ghost town was a fata morgana, with the Peck character dreaming the events happening in it. The desert setting underlines the outlandish nature of the narrative, vaguely echoing some of those Biblical tales of temptation, traditionally set in the desert. Several critics have emphasized the – rather obvious - similarities to Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the old man and the granddaughter unmistakably modeled after Prospero and Miranda. What seems a tight and straightforward movie at first sight, soon turns out to be a multi-layered, highly symbolic tale, populated with characters that are all but one-dimensional. Even Widmark’s gambler is a tormented bloke, who likes to share his existential doubts with others at the camp fire.
After the spectacular opening and the escape to the salt flats, the action is confined to a handful of locations in and around this ghost town, which leads to a certain lack of momentum in the movie's second half. It's one of the few (minor) flaws of an otherwise very fine movie; another one is a tagged-on happy ending with Peck riding into town and returning the money he stole in the beginning of the movie. It seems completely wrong and above all redundant: the film already had a perfect ending, with a cleverly ‘disguised’ shootout and Baxter finding Peck on the floor of the dilapidated saloon. It's a marvelous scene, grim and spooky, perfectly capturing the nightmarish mood of the entire picture: we only see Peck entering the saloon, but then remain with Baxter, who's anxiously waiting outside and only enters the saloon after the shots have died away. It seems to have inspired Sergio Leone to the opening scene of The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, in which the camera does not follow the three hired killers looking for Tuco inside the building (2).
Performances are uniformly excellent: Peck is ideally cast as the seemingly mean gang leader who isn't a bad guy after all. The crucial scene in which he reveals that he's a man from a good family and could read the Bible at the age of seven, seems a bit of an afterthought, as if Peck’s redemption needed an explanatory note, but Peck is one of those actors who manage to make such a scene work by playing it with the right combination of assurance and reserve. Widmark is at his very best here, as the deceitful gambler who still carries a bullet in his chest from a man he cheated, and Baxter is a delight as the tomboy, wild as a bobcat, seductive as a siren. Among the supporting actors are Charles Kemper, who plays a character knicknamed Walrus (!) and John Russel, who had a fine career as a supporting actor in westerns: most people will know him as Stockburn from Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider.
* (1) Walsh first filmed it as a noir thriller, under the original title High Sierra, then turned it into a (superior) western called Colorado Territory.
* (2) This opening scene is of course also set in a ghost town, but the town in Yellow Sky reminded me more of the ghost town in Robert Hossein's Cemetery without Crosses (Une Corde, un Colt); Leone and Hossein were friends, the film might have been a favorite of both men.