Thursday, May 13, 2010
Peckinpah's wistful look at the dying of the West
By John Dacapias
When one thinks of famed director Sam Peckinpah, the mind immediately leaps to bodies flaying to and fro in slow motion, as bullets cut through their dying corpses, not the comically elegiac Ballad of Cable Hogue.
Released 40 years ago today, one year after the masterful The Wild Bunch, Cable Hogue centers on the soulful performance of Jason Robards in the title role. Robards plays a grizzled prospector left to die in the middle of a nondescript Arizona desert c. 1908 by his equally grungy and loquacious former partners, Bowen and Taggart (played respectively by Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones).
In what amounts to a more than four minute monologue, we hear Hogue cursing God in a seemingly empty universe. Out of nowhere, God grants Hogue his wish by directing him to a muddied waterhole, which he fashions into Cable Springs, a rest stop for stagecoaches.
In all due candor, I have to admit that when I first saw Cable Hogue as a skinny 14-year-old, I had images of hard bitten men living up to an unwritten macho code, then dying violently but gallantly because of said code. Yes, it was 1980, I had fallen in love with the Western, and I have just finished watching The Wild Bunch. Next stop on my journey through Peckinpah-land: Cable Springs!
Little did I know that Peckinpah loved to play against expectations. Those expecting a brutal glimpse into the disappearing West, look elsewhere. In fact, the only violent moment I can remember in Cable Hogue occurs in the pre-credit scene where a lizard is blasted apart by Hogue’s erstwhile partners.
Each subsidiary character is introduced in an appropriately unflattering light. When we think of Westerns, we usually think of characters like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, striding into the foreground with an Ennio Morricone score literally backing up his mythic stature. In Cable Hogue though, we see grizzled drivers pissing off of stagecoaches and characters moving in fast motion, like a slapstick comedy. We even have “Butterfly Mornings,” a sensuous but peaceful musical duet, surprisingly well sung by both Stella Stevens and Robards.
This droll fashion of introducing each character is shown to its fullest with Hildy, a luscious Stevens playing the proverbial hooker with a heart of gold, the self-described “ladiest damn'd lady of them all.” Peckinpah, along with the fabled cinematographer Lucien Ballard, takes every opportunity to exploit Hildy’s rear end and ample chest. However, Stevens is able to fashion a three dimensional performance, both sexy yet humane, despite the leering camerawork.
Thinking back on my teenage years and raging hormones, I first fell in lust with Ms. Stevens when she graced the Playboy centerfold in 1960. Watching the actress craft and transcend a sexist stereotype into an earthy Women’s Libber from the Old West made my second viewing of Cable Hogue much more rewarding.
We can sense what James Coburn once said to be true, that Peckinpah “...was Cable.” Indeed, Sam Peckinpah often refers to The Ballad of Cable Hogue as being his personal favorite film. The wayward desert fox we see during the closing credits becomes a true symbol of Hogue, a grungy old coot clawing his way clear to his own corner of the world.
One also thinks of the journey of Cable Hogue from initial bitterness over his dire fate to finally finding forgiveness in his heart and soul to his lot in life. Instead of killing Joshua, like Hogue’s first “customer,” the wayward, womanizing preacher as played by David Warner (Straw Dogs and Time After Time) becomes Hogue’s ostensible right-hand man, helping him in constructing Cable Springs. Even Bowen, who left Hogue to die in the desert at the beginning of the film, becomes the new owner of Cable Springs at the end of the film.
Overall, we should enjoy The Ballad of Cable Hogue for what it is, not for what we expect it to be in light of its placement in the director’s chronology. It is a dirty but sweet look into the end of the West, slowly but surely encroached by the coming of technology. It is telling that Cable Hogue is run down by the new-fangled horseless carriage that bring Hildy back to Hogue, a symbolic death, if ever there were one.
If you stop and think about it, isn’t that all we ask of ourselves, to find acceptance for who we are in this world? Don’t we all want to be cast off with an appropriate sermon? This is what Joshua ultimately did for the ill-tempered but lovable Cable Hogue. He returned his body to a deep dark hole in the desert earth from whence it came: “He wasn’t strictly a good man, but Lord — he was a man.”