Posted by Greg Ferrara on December 9, 2012
Many filmmakers have several movies in their filmography before they hit it big. Howard Hawks had been directing for years before taking up the helm for The Dawn Patrol and even a couple more before Scarface put him into the stratosphere. Martin Scorsese had a couple of films (Who’s that Knocking at My Door, Boxcar Bertha) before Mean Streets put him in the big time and Francis Ford Coppola had several films under his belt, even some high profile ones like Finian’s Rainbow and another well-received one, The Rain People, before hitting the biggest of the big time with The Godfather. Other directors, most notably Orson Welles, hit the ground running with their big one (Citizen Kane) or perhaps after only one other theatrical release (Spielberg had a lot of tv experience but only one theatrical film before Jaws). And perhaps because that first big one is so big, I’ve always been more interested in what they decided to do as a follow-up than in the big one itself. Case in point: Sam Peckinpah. He’d already had a long career in television and even some success theatrically (Ride the High Country, Major Dundee) before The Wild Bunch made him into the director that everyone now thinks of when they hear the name Sam Peckinpah. It was the big one and he followed it up with a movie that went against the expectations of audiences expecting more of that Wild Bunch magic. It was The Ballad of Cable Hogue and it may not be The Wild Bunch but it’s definitely an important film in the Peckinpah canon.
If only because it stars Jason Robards, The Ballad of Cable Hogue should be better known. I’m of the mind that there are certain actors who make everything better and are always watchable no matter what the quality of the movie in question. Jason Robards is one of them. Just watching and listening to him is enough to make any movie bearable but The Ballad of Cable Hogue has the added bonus of actually being a fine film on its own.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue begins in the desert with Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) face to face with his dinner to be, a gila monster staring him down. Before he can stab it, the lizard is split in two by a gunshot blast from one of Cable’s two partner’s (Taggart, played by L.Q. Jones and Bowen, played by Strother Martin) who approach afterwards and take Cable’s water. They’d been scouting for water in the desert but found none, just as no one else in that area ever has. They leave Cable to die as they head out with the only water available.
Cable wanders through the desert for four days without water until finally, near death, he stumbles to the ground and notices that his boots are muddy. Looking around for the mud he stepped in he quickly finds a patch of wet ground and digging down about a foot comes upon a natural spring in the desert. He digs it out some more and drinks its bounty before death has a chance to take him.
The next day, as Cable wanders back to civilization a stagecoach passes which he flags down. He’s told that he’s twenty miles from one town in one direction and twenty miles from another town in the other. The stagecoach has to get a move on because there is no water in between and the passengers are thirsty. That’s when Cable realizes the spring he stumbled upon might be a spring of wealth if marketed properly. He goes back, digs it out and charges a dime a drink. His first customer refuses to pay and becomes a corpse instead after he tries to shoot Cable. That’s when Cable befriends a wandering preacher named Joshua (David Warner) who puts the idea in Cable’s head to get a proper deed and license set up before someone else takes the initiative.
Now all of that happens in the first reel of the movie but the real story begins when Cable goes to town to get the deed and meets a prostitute named Hildy, played quite well by Stella Stevens. From this point on, the movie becomes a relationship movie with Cable, Hildy and Joshua sharing digs and building up the business. It’s not until they separate that the story of Cable’s revenge takes over, in which he waits for the day he finds Bowen and Taggart again and can make them suffer as he did.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue is the kind of follow-up that no one was expecting from the man who set the western world ablaze with The Wild Bunch. First of all, it’s a comedy more than drama and second of all, there is little to no violence. Does it succeed? Yes but not completely.
Sam Peckinpah’s strength wasn’t comedy and as a result the comedy in Cable Hogue is very mild and understated, mainly arising out of character situations. Where it goes astray is when the comedy gets broad, which mainly entails Joshua, Hildy and Cable running at double-speed, like a shot from The Benny Hill Show. Characters running at double-speed is such a slapstick staple that it feels out of place in a film that clearly isn’t slapstick.
The story takes place in the familiar setting of a western frontier on the verge of civilization hanging on as the modern world renders it irrelevant. The underlying story, the one between the lines, of the obsolete man replaced by technology, is so well constructed that one wishes Peckinpah had done more with it. Cable famously “finds water where it wasn’t” and water is exactly what horses on stagecoaches need when they’re passing through. It’s the gasoline of the stagecoaches but by the end of the film, motorcars and motorcycles are passing through, and by, Cable Springs without so much as a second glance. They run on gas, not water, so who needs to stop? When a car does stop it holds the old love of Cable, come back for one last visit until that modern technology of hers becomes his undoing in ways more than one.
This technology replacing man aspect as well as the relationship/revenge threads (this comprises every element of the movie) are all handled well enough but with such a light passing glance that the movie never feels as strong as it could be. The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a very good movie but its failures come in small degrees and there are just enough of them to make one wish for more than what one gets. Not because the movie fails but because it just barely succeeds instead of succeeding grandly. In the same year, another semi-comical look at the old west, Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, did succeed grandly and I think that, in part, is responsible for Hogue’s lack of outright success.
Still, it took a great amount of artistic courage to move so boldly against the tide with something like this right after the amazing success of the great The Wild Bunch. To make such a gentle, unbecoming serio-comic tale about the western frontier was a way of Peckinpah saying, “The audience won’t dictate what I do next.” And thanks to a stellar lead performance by Jason Robards and excellent support from Warner and Stevens, the audience got a film filled with enough great acting and good story-telling that it allowed Peckinpah to continue to make movies the way he wanted to, without compromise. It may not be the follow-up anyone expected but it works and provided a nice tonic to the violence that Peckinpah would return to soon enough.
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