Yellow Sky (1949)

28 09 2008

No doubt about it – one of the best westerns ever and as a result, one of the best movies ever too. It really isolates everything that I love about the best works of Mann, Ford, and Boetticher, but also manages to eliminate all the minor problems I have with those films. Wellman’s The Ox-Bow Incident is just as strong, though that film itself becomes overshadowed by the story’s social conscious. Here, there is nothing remotely socially-driven, just a bare bones and beautifully photographed western. I’ve watched a lot of westerns lately, some good, others not so good, so it was smart on my part to see a film that reminded me why I fell in love with the genre in the first place.

If there is one small problem with this film, I’d say it is Gregory Peck as he is probably the only element that come close to being an exaggerated hero. No doubt, Henry Fonda would have been a better fit for such a role as his passiveness is much more realistic than Peck’s hamminess. Still, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Peck’s performance is particularly bad. It’s just not one of the brighter parts of the picture. In his defense, his slightly theatrical performance may just be a decision made by my subconscious portrayal of Peck based on his other performances. Really, he’s just about as great as Randolph Scott in Comanche Station or Kirk Douglas in Along the Great Divide.

The real star here, outside of the landscapes and pitch-perfect atmosphere, is definitely Richard Widmark who seriously makes every remotely “evil” character he’s ever portrayed a lot more charming. It’s this odd but extremely intriguing dynamic: he’s a sleazeball, but almost in a classy way. Sure, he’s doing the same character here as the one in Pickup on South Street but he’s has that persona down perfectly. He is, in all honesty, probably more “dramatic” of an actor than Peck, but both have charming tendencies that aren’t describable. Needless to say, they work really well together, despite the fact that they don’t even share that many “one-on-one” scenes, which is another element that reflects just how “contemplative” the film’s tone is.

As I mentioned before, the most important aspect is the surroundings of these characters. It’s not simply beautiful landscapes. That’s something one can find in pretty much any western ever, but it is how Wellman composes his images with this perfect mood. A big contributor to this mood is the music, or lack thereof. One of the most immediate and striking aspects of the film is the absence of transition music. Rather than anticipating the mood of the next scene, Wellman seems to have his characters passively float from one sequence to another. I know I equate a lot of westerns to Antonioni-esque action films, but it definitely applies here. In fact, I’d say this is just as legitimately arty as L’Eclisse, which is a mighty big claim for an American studio film from 1949. It’s a film that is cold and bitter at the surface, not unlike its characters, but is a warm and expressive cinematic achievement underneath.

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One response

11 07 2010
Kley

Good western!
9.00

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