Sunday, January 09, 2011

Underrated Movie #103: The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Title: The Ballad of Cable Hogue
Year: 1970
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writers: John Crawford and Edmund Penney
Stars: Jason Robards, Stella Stevens, David Warner, Strother Martin, Slim Pickins, L. Q. Jones

The Story: A laid-back outlaw is abandoned by his no-good buddies in the middle of the desert. Wandering until he’s on the verge of death, he finally finds water, right where the stagecoach companies happen to need a watering hole. Teaming up with a randy preacher and big-hearted hooker, he follows an arc that mirrors the rise and fall of American capitalism, (all while pursuing the world’s laziest quest for revenge.)
How it Came to be Underrated: Fans and critics who were blown away by Peckinpah’s previous movie The Wild Bunch didn’t know what to make of this scruffy, sweet little follow-up. Unfortunately, Peckinpah listened to their complaints and quickly descended into self-parody, endlessly trying to re-create the previous movie’s ultra-violent appeal in his later efforts. This gem, meanwhile, quickly became forgotten.

Why It’s Great:
  1. In his rare chances like A Thousand Clowns and this, Robards proved himself to be a great leading man, but Hollywood only caught up to his kind of characters when he was already getting a little old. If America had embraced his brand of shambling cynicism ten years earlier, he would have been one of our biggest stars. He’s absolutely magnetic here.
  2. After finding water on public land, Robards buys it cheap and then shoots dead anyone who won’t give him ten cents to drink it. Business is usually portrayed as a malevolent evil or an abstract good, but this movie shows it to be no different from any other institution: something we create to serve us until we wind up serving it. As Thoreau said “We do not ride on the railroad, it rides upon us,” a truth that Robards finally realizes a little too late. His ambition drives his society forward until he slows down just enough for it to run him over.
  3. Even in the “free love” early ‘70s, there was a stark divide between the actresses who engaged in naked shenanigans and those who got taken seriously. Stevens was a former playboy bunny who got lots of “go-go girl” roles but didn’t get anything serious until Peckinpah saw something great in her. The worst crime of this movie’s lack of success was that not enough people saw what should have been a breakthrough performance. This is one of the sweetest on-screen love stories you’ll ever see.
  4. Like Blast of Silence and Brother From Another Planet, this is another modestly-budgeted movie that isn’t ashamed to extrapolate one small journey into a grander parable about the stages of man. It’s surprising to see something this funny and laid back quietly accrue so much meaning. It sneaks up on you.
If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Other comedic westerns from the time like Cat Ballou or Support Your Local Sherriff are well worth watching.

How Available Is It?: It’s on DVD and Watch Instantly

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: I’ll offer this money to a pretty girl tonight in the park!


Anonymous said...

Was there ever a more poignant eulogy than the words spoken over Cable while he is still alive (at his insistence, so he can hear what's being said and respond to it)? The gist of it, if I remember correctly is something like: "He was not the best man and not the worst man, but Lord he was a _man_."

You could say the same thing about the film's director.

I love this film and am so glad to see you stumping for it. Peckinpah insisted that this was his favorite of all his films. He'd always bring it to show when he was invited to colleges or film festivals. This was also the one he wanted most to make after the huge unexpected success of THE WILD BUNCH allowed him to do anything.

David Warner is one of the stand-outs of the cast for me. He's so good that Peckinpah rescheduled the entire shoot for him, as he was afraid to fly and had to come from England by boat.

No offense to the those other comedy Westerns you mention, but HOGUE is in a class by itself. Well, almost. The two other comedy Westerns with the existential heft and narrative breadth to stand alongside it are probably LITTLE BIG MAN and THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN. All three movies start out being about one character's life and end up being about Life.

Matt Bird said...

Well said! Glad you love it like I do.

This is the second time this week I've heard a passionate endorsement of Judge Roy Bean, which I've never seen. (The other one was from the Coen Brothers.) Guess I should see it!

Unknown said...

I just watched this movie and oh dear really enjoyed it. Had a sweet blend of comedy and romance with the ol western saga. I didn't expect him to die tho but it was cool the way it panned out with the eulogy

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Unknown said...

Whatever happened to all the money he had buried in the desert