Thursday, June 7, 2018

Neglected Gem: The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)

Stella Stevens and Jason Robards in Peckinpah's The Ballad of Cable Hogue. (Photo: Getty)

In a brilliant essay for Critics at Large on women in Sam Peckinpah’s movies, Amanda Shubert wrote that The Ballad of Cable Hogue “distills the romantic spirit at the core of Peckinpah’s sensibility: love without possession.” In the romance between Cable (Jason Robards), who finds water in the middle of the Arizona desert and turns it into a watering hole called Cable Springs for stagecoach passengers, and Hildy (Stella Stevens), a prostitute whom the citizens of nearby Dead Dog run out of town, love without ownership is merely an extension of the transitoriness to which they are philosophically dedicated because they recognize it as the state of things. In the movie’s opening episode, Cable is robbed by his partners, Taggart (L.Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin) – playing a variation on the bounty hunter roles they created in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch the previous year – and left for dead without water in the desert. He survives four dry days through sheer orneriness while, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, he keeps up a running monologue to God, assuming that his maker has no intention of letting him die of thirst. He finds water just as he’s about to give up, but the sign of God’s grace at the eleventh hour and the sudden twist in his fortune impart an indelible awareness of morality and the fact that we don’t own time, or our own lives. For Hildy, Dead Dog – a town that deserves its name – where she ekes out a ramshackle existence, seeing customers in a room above the saloon, is merely a way station for her; her destination is San Francisco, and being forced to leave brings it that much closer. She stops by Cable Springs and lives with Hogue for a few blissful weeks – what the characters played by George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight would call a “time out” from their lives. She wants him to come with her to San Francisco, but he’s stubborn about waiting for Taggart and Bowen to swing through the desert again so he can get his long-awaited revenge. So she goes on without him. She returns for him three years later, this time to invite him to New Orleans, after he’s had that revenge, or something like it; by now he’s ready to run away with her. But fate has other plans, and Hildy is its unwitting envoy: the chauffeur-driven automobile that brings her slides down a hill, Cable steps in, instinctively, to save Bowen, and he ends up getting run over. Hildy keeps him company during his last days, and leaves after his funeral.

When Hogue spends his last dollar and change to buy a couple of acres from the Dead Dog land office and charms the local banker to advance him a hundred bucks to open Cable Springs, you think that the movie is going to be a satire of capitalism. It is, but only peripherally. (Cable Hogue is one of the only two comedies Peckinpah ever made; the other, the 1978 Convoy, is a wonderful self-parody with truckers standing in for his trademark cowboy loners and a vindictive sheriff, played by Ernest Borgnine, for his trademark establishment representatives.) Partly it’s a revenge story about a man who waits patiently for the men who wronged him to come around, certain that he can trap them with their own greed, but unlike Point Blank and the later revenge movies that might come to mind, most of them influenced by Point Blank, it isn’t grim or sour or single-minded; it isn’t even very violent. (It’s one of the least violent westerns ever made, by Peckinpah or anybody else.) You could say that it’s a cautionary fable about the folly of choosing vengeance over love: if Cable had chosen to run off with Hildy rather than stay in the desert waiting for Taggart and Bowen, his life might have been happy beyond measure, and they might have grown old together. And it’s possible that’s what the screenwriters, John Crawford and Edward Penney, had in mind, but it’s not what you come away with from the movie Peckinpah made of their script. This sweetly lopsided, pearly movie, with its gorgeous Arizona skies that seem to go on forever and its magical evening light (Peckinpah’s favorite cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, shot it), doesn’t have a regretful tone; it’s not about the time we waste but about being grateful for the time we’ve been given. Cable and Hildy find each other by chance in Dead Dog, and their courtship is catch-as-catch-can and unpredictable, even when it evokes a western classic: Hildy’s ejection at the hands of “the good people of Dead Dog” replays that of the whore Dallas (Claire Trevor) from Tonto in John Ford’s Stagecoach. But Hildy’s not a redeemed tragic figure like Dallas; she’s a wild seed, a floater on the breeze. When she lights down in Cable Springs, she stands in the golden sundown light in his doorway in her white woolen nightgown and he marvels, “Now, that’s a picture.” “You’ve seen it before,” she reminds him, but he insists, “Lady, nobody’s ever seen you before.” He knows how goddamn lucky he is – and that’s the tone of their romantic idyll, which includes an unexpected duet (“Butterfly Mornin’s”), an offering of a freshly picked flower and a sunny, sexy scene where he bathes her, a reversal on their first coupling, in town, where she washed the desert grime off him before letting him into her bed.

David Warner as Joshua and Robards as Cable Hogue. (Photo: Getty)

The third major figure in The Ballad of Cable Hogue is Joshua (the English actor David Warner, whom Peckinpah used again the following year as Henry Niles in Straw Dogs), an itinerant preacher whose brand of Christianity is strictly his own invention. Joshua is a sensualist and a scamp who is as motivated by his erection as he is by good works. In fact, they’re indistinguishable: the mourners and down-on-their-luck types to whom he offers holy consolation are all pretty young women and the consolation is of the sexual variety. He may not be a character suitable for the #MeToo era, but he’s a good friend to Cable, and he’s not without insight – the one time Cable hurts Hildy’s feelings, Peckinpah cuts to Joshua’s face and we see that he’s registered Cable’s error. Like her, he floats in and out of the narrative, returning at the end just in time to write Cable’s eulogy – he’s still alive, but he knows he’s on his way out, and Hildy and Bowen (whom the movie, with great generosity, transforms from Hogue’s enemy to a kind of caregiver in his last days) have set up his bed outside so he can survey his short-lived estate. Typically Cable isn’t grouchy about dying; he takes it in stride, like everything else that’s happened to him in the course of the picture. But he wants to hear the words Joshua is going to speak over his grave while he’s still breathing. And so the movie ends with the eulogy, and it’s a beauty. By the time we hear the end (“Take him, Lord, but, knowing Cable, I suggest you do not take him lightly”), in a triumph of leaping continuity, Peckinpah has taken us to the actual funeral, with Joshua and Hildy standing over the grave.

The movie is sometimes a little clumsy, especially in the farce bits – the sped-up motion motif is a mistake, and the scene at the beginning of the courtship where Cable runs out on Hildy without paying her in the middle of lovemaking because he gets preoccupied with getting back to his desert stake goes on way too long, with too many shots of the banker, Cushing (Peter Whitney), laughing and laughing at Cable’s antics. (Peckinpah breaks a cardinal rule of comedy: if the characters on screen crack up, we generally don’t feel like doing the same.) There’s even a moment of sentimentality, uncharacteristic in a Peckinpah film, where the stagecoach driver, Ben Fairchild (Slim Pickens), brings him an American flag, and the movie pauses while he puts it up over the newly completed Cable Springs. But the movie’s flaws don’t matter very much, especially since nothing about it is conventional in any way. That includes the performances of the three leading actors, who bring entirely different qualities to the proceedings: poetic grandeur (Robards), English music-hall energy (Warner), and a bridge mixture of the sweet and the tart, along with raucousness and luminosity (Stevens).

When Hildy comes back from San Francisco, now a wealthy widow, and finds Cable willing to pick up stakes and hit the road with her, she tells him, “We got nothin’ but time, Hogue.” But time, it turns out, is what they don’t have. The theme of running out of time is also at the heart of Ride the High Country, The Wild BunchJunior Bonner, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and you could say that Cable is, like the protagonists of these other Peckinpah movies, a man whose era has passed. After all, he dies because an automobile crushes him. But I think that in this single case, Peckinpah is putting this idea at the service of a wider observation about the way all of us run out of time. Cable Hogue acknowledges this fact, and without bitterness. Perhaps what Joshua means when he advises God not to take Cable lightly is that he’s the rare man who understands how fleeting his life is and loves it all the more for that.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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