Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ride the High Country of 1962

Looking at Remington’s An Assault on His Dignity yesterday put in mind of one of my favorite Western films, Ride the High Country, directed by Sam Peckinpah in 1962.  Though hailed by many as Peckinpah’s first great film (a view with which I disagree – I think Ride the High Country is his only great film), High Country is, I believe, more significant as a ‘transitional’ Western, bridging the gap between the great Hollywood fantasies of the American West and the latter mud-and-muck ‘realistic’ aesthetic first championed by the Italian westerns of Sergio Leone.
High Country was written by N.B. Stone, Jr. and Robert Creighton Williams, and like many of the best westerns, focuses on the end of an era and the displacement of the men who defined it.  As a meditation on the end of the West, it is as memorable as Don Siegel’s The Shootist (1976) and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), and boasts two wonderful, career-defining performances by Joel McCrea (1905-1990) and Randolph Scott (1898-1987). 
McCrea and Scott play two lawmen who helped tamed the West.  Now past their prime, each are looking to hold onto as much dignity (and make as much money) as possible.  The film eloquently depicts their obsolescence in the opening sequence.  McCrea rides into town to find the citizens lined against the sides of the road.  He naturally thinks this is a demonstration of welcome, but a policeman (looking like a Keystone Cop of the ‘20s and not a Western law figure) brushes him aside – the town is out to watch a race between horses and a camel.  Almost immediately after dismounting, McCrea is nearly run down by an automobile and the policeman calls him “old timer.”
At a nearby carnival, he spots Scott, now trading on his own legend as a two-bit carny.  In ridiculous wig, mustache and beard, Scott is tarted up like the world’s oldest incarnation of Buffalo Bill Cody or Wild Bill Hickok, using buckshot to hit targets.  McCrea explains that he’s in town to win the commission on guarding a gold consignment through what’s left of the badlands, and the two old timers set off.
Complications, of course, follow.  Scott feels that he has spent his life taming the West and has gotten very little in return – he and his young pard plan to steal the gold en route.  The trio also picks up a runaway (Mariette Hartley), who is running away from a stifling, violent religious fanatic of a father.
The real joy of High Country is the continual interplay between McCrea and Scott.  Originally, the roles were to be reversed, with Scott playing the honest and honorable lawman, and McCrea the more cynical, out-for-what-he-can-get ex-lawman.  However, in the reading, both realized that switching parts would be more effective, and they were entirely correct.  McCrea’s flat, Midwestern delivery is perfect for the moral compass of the picture, and Scott, in the role of a lifetime, uses his rich, Virginian accent to great effect as he makes sardonic, pithy remarks throughout the film.  In fact, his running commentary is one of the most satisfying elements of the screenplay, and the timbre of his voice is essential.  What also adds to the overall effect of their performances is that High Country is also a comment on their careers – throughout the 1950s (and much of the 1940s), both men focused primarily on Western films.  They bring to their performances the full weight of their screen images, and audience expectations of who they were and what they will do.
Also effective is Hartley, in her first film role.  This is long before she perfected her slightly arch, comedic delivery, and it is almost as if we are witnessing a different actress entirely.  Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones round out the cast, and they make definite impressions.
I had written that I think High Country is a ‘transitional’ Western – this is mainly because there is a stunning interval that takes place at a mining camp.  The camp is not a Technicolor-kissed bit of Warner Brothers mythmaking, but a muddy, messy, barren backwater.  Hartley is about to be married into a family of miners – each of them seemingly more brutal, more demented, and more dedicated to rape and rapine than the other.  The wedding ceremony takes place in a brothel peopled by characters that would make Fellini blanche.  Hartley is almost brutalized there, until McCrea and company save the day, with Scott cynically arranging a ‘miner’s trial.’ 
This sequence is wonderful, but it is also … ugly.  It is an abrupt sea change in the aesthetic of the Western as movie-goers knew it in 1962.  Indeed, it is more than the 20-odd years from McCrea’s own Buffalo Bill (1944) or Scott’s Frontier Marshal (1939), it is an eternity.  And while I much prefer the Westerns of Hollywood’s Golden Age to the later films that followed in the tradition of Sergio Leone, I find it significant that two of the most cherished figures of one era helped usher in another – which, again, underscores their coming obsolescence.
(Just a side-note here on the mud-and-muck ‘realism’ of later Westerns: ‘realism’ is always a loaded word when dealing with Westerns.  As historical events unfolded, many of the most significant figures of the West understood the mythic quality inherent in the pageant of their lives, and worked with publishers and early-filmmakers to help define it.  The ‘realistic’ Western is really an affectation of sorts, supplanting one myth with another one, and questions of ‘realism’ are injudicious.  Indeed, many towns and the people in them were cleaner in the Old West than they are today.)
High Country was not an enormous hit in the United States when first released.  (Oddly enough, neither was The Shootist, John Wayne’s farewell Western and the coda to his career.)  European critics, however, were ecstatic, and High Country beat Fellini's 8 ½ for first prize at the Belgium Film Festival and won the Paris film critics award for best film.  Critics do not always get it right on the first pass, but many of them do. 
Ride the High Country is available on DVD, loaded with several extras and commentary of little-to-no value.  The movie, however, is magnificent and essential viewing.

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