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Ballad of Cable Hogue, The (Blu-ray Review)

19 Jun, 2017 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’
Stars Jason Robards, Stella Stevens, David Warner, Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, Slim Pickens.

Take your trumpets out of their cases: With Warner Archive’s Ride the High Country and a Criterion upgrade of Straw Dogs recently on the Blu-ray market, 2017 is looking like a tough-to-top Sam Peckinpah year (and talk about two movies that show opposite sides of a director’s personality). And this is so even before we get to Kino’s news of an overdue Junior Bonner Blu-ray release for sometime this later summer atop Shout Factory’s March or so “stealth” DVD of NBC-TV’s cult Brian Keith starrer “The Westerner” from 1960 (all 13 episodes). The last was initially a Walmart exclusive but is now more widely available for those who prefer not to give the Walton clan an extra sawbuck and change (though they do sell a brand of sardines that I like).    

As it turns out, you probably have to go all the way back to the more whimsical moments of “The Westerner” for another Peckinpah work that’s as wink-ish as The Ballad of Cable Hogue — though on the wink-o-meter there’s no really comparison. Though the filmmaker referred to Ballad as his personal favorite in later years (something I learned from this Blu-ray’s expert-heavy voiceover commentary), audiences of the day further ignored what was already a tough sell when it turned out to be nothing like The Wild Bunch, which had just come out nine months earlier. And this was true despite both films sharing the same studio, producer (Phil Feldman), cinematographer (Lucien Ballard, whose work is showcased to the utmost in this gorgeous transfer) and a pair of key casting principals in Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones. At least in one scene here, the two actors get to dress a little better than they did in the earlier film, which is admittedly a low bar of comparison.

More than anything else, Ballad is a love story between a left-for-dead desert drifter (Jason Robards) and a frontier prostitute (Stella Stevens) notably dishier than the more realistic and perhaps dentally challenged ones we see in High Country. And befitting its title, the movie really does play like the parable set to music that it sometimes literally is, further enriching itself from the religious subtext that undoubtedly came courtesy of Peckinpah’s upbringing, of which Scriptures were a part (and, presumably to him, mixed blessing). Ironically, this romance is made possible only because associates Martin and Jones decide there’s not water enough for three — leading to Cable’s nearly impossible discovery of some good old Staff of Life on the only smidgen of dusty land where any can be found in the middle of an Arizona nowhere. After convincing at least one town banker that he’s not as crazy as he sometimes seems, illiterate Cable is staked to launch the area’s only stagecoach watering hole, where he also serves the upchucking clientele well-heeled enough to pay for passage the latest in improvisational rattlesnake delicacies. His occasional partner in this, who’s actually more of an agreeable leech, is a preacher (David Warner) whose libido anticipates Jimmy Swaggart’s.   

One component of Ballad that never gets enough credit is the consistently rich script by onetime ‘B’-movie actor John Carpenter (not the younger John-ny of TV’s “The Rifleman”) and Edmund Penney. Per IMDb.com, this was the former’s only screenplay and the latter’s only major one, which means they were either dispirited by the film’s box office reception or a lot of suits in charge of hiring wordsmiths missed the boat. It’s funny throughout and artfully returns to themes set up earlier in the narrative, with a quality of writing that Peckinpah could have used amid some of the more half-baked projects of his later career. The same could be said of the lovely Richard Gillis tunes that supplement one of Jerry Goldsmith’s best scores, though this music seems to be part of the picture’s revisionist appeal — most of all, in the Butterfly Morning duet during the narrative’s second bathing scene between lovers. In my experience, I’ve always found Ballad to be one of the relatively few Peckinpah movies that women really like — if you can get them to see it.

I was so enraptured by the picture upon seeing it in the spring of 1970 that I wasn’t even aware that it died on the box office vine after going way over budget — a turn of events apparently due to competing forms of liquid (incessant rain on desert locations where this otherwise rarely happened and a Sam the Man bar tab that the rainy layoffs no doubt abetted). In a great, great movie year, I recall that Ballad made frequent Peckinpah naysayer Andrew Sarris’s 10-best list — and, if memory serves, I think Vincent Canby’s as well, so it wasn’t as if some major critics didn’t come through. There’s really no other Western quite like it that comes to my mind, though you’d have to be just off the boat not to recognize it as a Peckinpah movie from any arbitrarily chosen two minutes. Though I love her “presence” in The Nutty Professor just as much, Stevens did the best work of her career here and knows it — though her animus toward Peckinpah’s on-set treatment of her seems to have increased over the years. Included on this release is director Nick Redman’s frank featurette interview with her from the earlier DVD release, and she’s nobody’s fool.

This is a tip-off that the commentary is going to be by Redman and his longtime gallery of fellow Peckinpah historians (Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle), and here they’re basically cackling on the soundtrack at some of the many loopy touches. I was floored to hear one of them say that certain viewers in their history have knocked the bit where, with an animated assist, the face on some paper currency winks at Robards (that word again) as he decides whether or not to visit Stevens’ Hildy character in her at least marginally elegant “efficiency” bordello (a least for a dust town). I don’t know what to say to this, other than the fact that for 47 years, it has been one of my favorite throwaway gags in all of cinema. And that I, like everyone else, have known people like this since the third grade or earlier, and they were noodges even then.

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