The Ballad of Cable Hogue
The kinder, more lyrical side of director Sam Peckinpah was on display in The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), a light-hearted comic turn that landed with a thud at the box office. Audiences, it turned out, wanted more of The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah's gritty, violent "New Western" that had turned the genre on its ear the year before. But while Hogue is a flawed film, it's also a seriously underrated one in the context of Peckinpah's obsession with the dying of the Old West as technology and civilization encroached on the open spaces of free-living men, the movie sits squarely in the same camp as The Wild Bunch, Ride the High Country, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Hogue (Jason Robards) is a grizzled prospector at the end of his rope when we first meet him stumbling across the desert. While searching for water in a vast landscape of rocks and scrub, he's robbed by his partners (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones) and left for dead. Wandering in the sun during the opening credits, he challenges God: "Yesterday I told you I was thirsty and I thought you might turn up some water. Now, if I've sinned, you just send me a drop or two and I won't do it no more. Whatever in the hell it was I did." On the fourth day, close to death, he steps in some mud and discovers a deep, generous water hole in the middle of nowhere. Immediately grasping the importance of his find, he sets himself up in business selling water the spot is exactly halfway between the two nearest towns 20 miles in either direction, and right next to the track taken by stagecoaches. On a trip into town to claim the land, Hogue meets a beautiful prostitute named Hildy (Stella Stevens) who's every bit a proud individualist as the filthy, rumpled prospector. He also befriends a freelance preacher named Joshua (David Warner), who's as much of a con man as he is a man of God. The Ballad of Cable Hogue is less a classic Western as it is a fable about survival, morality, and faith. Cable and Joshua both have deeply personal relationships (and conversations) with God and struggle over ethical dilemmas, and the film addresses morality from the standpoint of acceptance and humanity when Hildy asks Hogue if he's bothered by what she is, he responds, "Well, what the hell are you? A human being, trying the best you can. We all got our own ways of living." And while Hogue is disapproving and critical of Joshua's seduction of a married woman, he eventually comes around to the understanding that, perhaps, Joshua's "ministering" to a woman who's married to an abusive brute isn't something on which to pass judgment. Robards is superb as the misanthropic Hogue, and Stevens who'd carved out a career as a fluffy, comic sex kitten gives a complex, earthy performance as the woman who falls in love with the scruffy desert rat. It's a messy film, with comic elements that don't always work and an unsatisfying ending, but it's also the film that Peckinpah himself often called the favorite of his works a tender fantasy that shows a side to the director that was rarely seen on screen.
Warner's DVD release of The Ballad of Cable Hogue replaces an earlier version, offering a very bright, color-rich transfer that's been cleaned up, although it's also soft, very grainy, a bit unstable, and noticeably wobbly throughout. The monaural Dolby Digital audio (English or French, with optional English, French and Spanish subtitles) is good, if understandably flat. On board is a detailed commentary track by Peckinpah biographers Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons, and David Weddle, a new interview featurette, "The Ladiest Damn'd Lady," with a gracious, heavily soft-focused Stella Stevens discussing her career in films and her work with Robards and Peckinpah; trailers for other Peckinpah titles; and a trailer for DVD releases of James Dean films. Keep-case.
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