The Ballad of Cable Hogue Review

The Ballad Of Cable Hogue is a somewhat schizophrenic film, reflecting the fractured personality of its director to a degree which is fascinating, and a little disturbing, to watch. It’s often described as one of Sam Peckinpah’s most light-hearted movies but I wonder whether the people who describe it as such have watched it carefully enough. On the surface, it’s certainly a tremendously comic movie which is in an obviously different register from The Wild Bunch. But scratch that surface and you find a complicated, deeply sad film about changing times, the decline of the individual and the endless complications of male/female relationships. In other words, Cable Hogue is a film which reaches deep into Peckinpah’s heart and, as such, remains a vitally important document for anyone who wants to try to understand this most complicated of men.

Cable Hogue (Robards) is first seen wandering through the desert, pursued by his former business partners Bowen (Martin) and Fairchild (Jones), who eventually leave him for dead without water. But fate takes a hand and he discovers a water hole in the middle of the wilderness. Gradually, with the assistance of a wandering preacher called Reverend Joshua Douglas Sloan (Warner), Cable builds up a successful business but he’s continually drawn to the small town of Dead Dog where he has fallen in love with a prostitute named Hildy (Stevens). Spurred on by love and the hope of revenge on his former comrades, Cable seems to find a successful pioneer life but this is 1908 and things are about to take a completely unexpected turn.

It’s not too much of a stretch to see Cable as a self-portrait by Peckinpah. If so, it’s not an especially complimentary one. Cable Hogue is a tough bastard with a mile-wide streak of bitterness and a penchant for sentimentality, much like Sam himself who in later photographs looks like a wild-eyed Old Testament prophet. His determination to be the last pioneer in the west, the ‘last of the independents’ if you like, mirrors Peckinpah’s attitude to both life and filmmaking. It’s possible to see the film as a parable about the director’s own career – left in the wilderness by producers who had used him up and hung him out to dry, he eventually got back and rebuilt his life and reputation. The revenge sequence, when Cable forces his tormentors to strip down to their underwear, could be interpreted as Peckinpah’s fantasy retribution on the likes of Jerry Bressler and Charles Fitzsimons. The final moments, drenched in irony, might just be Peckinpah’s own sardonic foreshadowing of his own ultimate fate. None of this is too big a stretch – you can see similar connections in later films such as The Killer Elite and particularly Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia - and Peckinpah was the kind of filmmaker whose personality was so strong that he couldn’t help including something of himself in everything he made. What’s particularly pleasant however, is that this film captures the gentle, reflective side of Peckinpah so well, something which tended to get lost in his violent reputation – a reputation, incidentally, he did everything possible to perpetuate even while he decried it.

Where Peckinpah reveals himself most deeply is in the central relationship between Cable and Hildy. As even the most cursory biography will tell you, Peckinpah’s relationships with women give a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘fucked-up’ and there’s a lot of his contradictory attitudes in this love affair which begins with comically violent confrontation and ends with a gentle sadness. Hogue takes Hildy for granted and uses her but she still regards him as the one man who has ever treated her kindly. Yet she needs her independence – conditioned by ill-treatment to believe she has to keep moving on – and he constantly ends up alone, incapable of holding on to the one woman who ever meant anything to him. The Reverend Joshua sums it up - “Doesn’t matter how many women you’ve known, how many you’ve been with. Every so often, one cuts right through, straight into you.” – and Cable’s face at that moment is more eloquent than any monologue he could have been given. Even at the end, when she returns and happiness seems assured, fate is destined to take a hand and leave Cable forever walking in the wilderness. Hildy is surprisingly complicated character, much more so than most commentators on the film have acknowledged, and Stella Stevens plays her to perfection. She is introduced without subtlety, the camera lingering on her cleavage for a few too many seconds, but that can perhaps be ascribed to the scene coming from Cable’s sex-staved point of view. But Stevens combines a fragile beauty with an intelligent self-awareness and it’s this which makes Hildy more than simply a blonde cipher.

More than any other woman in Peckinpah’s work, she represents the director’s confused attitude towards the fairer sex. He loved them passionately but didn’t understand them and Hildy’s ethereal delicacy and remarkable strength of purpose are a paradox which he can’t explain but simply presents. He also frequently considered them as sex objects and you don’t have to be a psychologist to see the thrill which Peckinpah is getting from the sight of Stella Stevens in her lingerie.

Obviously, the movie returns to Peckinpah’s favourite themes – the value of the independent spirit in a time of increasing corporate anonymity, the end of the Old West at the beginning of the 20th Century, the clash between town and country, the inevitability of change – but it does so with a tender sorrow that is quite unusual in the director’s work. There are scenes of immense poignancy in a film such as The Wild Bunch but the exhilaration and excitement take them over in the end. The Ballad of Cable Hogue places the reflective emotions right upfront and does so with an edge of humour but an even sharper edge of elegy. Sometimes, it’s simply in the faces of the characters, so much more meaningful than what they say, and sometimes it’s in the images. It’s in the final scenes where modern technology really does prove to be the undoing of the spirit of the West in the person of Cable, and in the Reverend’s funny, touching lament - “Now he is gone into the whole torrent of the years where the souls that pass, never stop… right or wrong, I feel he is worth consideration.” Most of all, it’s there in the other irony of the ending; that Cable loses his life right at the point when he was willing to give up everything for the sake of love. This film begins with a wild man wandering through the desert and ends with a beautiful woman being driven away in a limousine while a coyote picks away at the abandoned waterhole – this narrative progression culminating in things having inexorably moved on but, at the same time, got nowhere is deeply satisfying.

Yet running through this sad, plaintive film is a deep vein of comedy which keeps it from becoming too self-consciously melancholic. Much of this comes from the cast. There are lovely little bits of business from the great Slim Pickens, another fine contribution from L.Q.Jones and Strother Martin – playing a slightly more refined version of their partnership from The Wild Bunch - and, most of all, David Warner and Jason Robards. There’s no obvious reason why these two actors would make such a delightful comic double-act but they are, quite simply, very funny together.

Robards is a great comedian, capable of the driest of dry inflections, but Warner’s comedy talents have been under-exploited during his later career and it’s a pleasure to see him at his best here, relishing lines like “My only aim in life is to help the downtrodden, the misbegotten and the members of my own parish.” There’s a scene where they are forced to sleep outside together and sitting there, in matching long-johns, they have the irresistibly antic appearance of a great comic duo.

On a technical level, the film is first-rate and quite the equal of The Wild Bunch - somewhat belying the chaotic production which was marred by Peckinpah’s drinking going off the rails. Lucien Ballard’s cinematography is lush, vibrant and richly coloured while the editing is razor-sharp while being less stylised than in the earlier film. Jerry Goldsmith’s score has lots of spirit and is occasionally lulled into string-laden beauty. I’m not entirely sure about the songs by Richard Gillis but there’s a delightful sequence where Robards and Stevens duet on “Butterfly Mornings”. The script, by John Crawford and Edmund Penney, has a clever structure and some very funny dialogue. But the film is so much an expression of Peckinpah’s personality that it’s impossible to consider it separately from its director. The pessimism of the film is, in retrospect, almost overpowering despite being somewhat ameliorated by the pride that Cable Hogue takes in his individualism and the love that brings Hildy back to Cable in the end. But the impression of chances just missed by a whisker, of realisations coming too late, is what stays with you at the end and it perhaps represents Peckinpah’s admission of the flaws in his own personality which ultimately destroyed his career and killed him. Yet the beauty of the film is that it acknowledges that the sadness of life is balanced by love, laughter and the satisfaction that the individual can take in their own ability to rise above whatever life throws at them.

The Disc

Available both on its own and as part of the Sam Peckinpah Legendary Westerns Collection, The Ballad of Cable Hogue looks pretty good on DVD.

The anamorphic 1.85:1 transfer is generally very impressive with excellent colours and plenty of fine detail. The colours are probably the best of all the films in the box set. Occasional artifacting is visible but it’s not a major problem. Overall, I thought this looked very pleasing. The mono soundtrack is generally excellent with clear dialogue and an expansive music track.

The main extras are a commentary and a new interview with Stella Stevens. The commentary track, by the usual Peckinpah posse, is as competent as you would expect and they have a lot of useful observations to make – many of which, including the biblical references, are beyond the scope of this review. If I don’t sound more enthusiastic, it’s because I’ve heard so many commentaries by these people that I’m beginning to find them a bit predictable. But I can’t argue with what they have to say. I can, however, argue with the interview featurette which is called “The Ladiest Damn’d Lady”. Not with the comments from Ms. Stevens herself, which are delightful and generous, but with the obnoxious over-stylisation of the filming which is sometimes out-of-focus, sometimes excessively dark and occasionally offers us unwanted views of the filmmakers engaged in their work. Nick Redman is an Oscar-nominated documentarians so I can’t imagine what he thought he was doing with this wretched piece of work. The contributions of Stella Stevens save it from the dumpster but it’s a close shave.

Also included on the disc are the same trailers as on the other Peckinpah discs and a James Dean trailer – which has the incidental benefit of demonstrating how horrible Scope films look when they are cropped to fullscreen. Incidentally, the vintage featurette advertised on the rear of the sleeve is, regrettably, not present on the disc.

The film is divided into 29 chapter stops and has optional subtitles. The extras, however, do not.

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Last updated: 03/05/2018 15:01:43

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