Yellow Sky a Fine, Gritty, and Dare I Say Kinky Western
By Kristin Battestella
I’d thought I’d seen them all, but I was very pleasantly surprised to discover the 1948 western Yellow Sky late one night on cable. For those anti-western folks that think this genre is nothing but singing cowboys and warpath Indians, Yellow Sky proves them wrong with gritty suspense and desolate, desperate action.
After stealing away from their latest bank job, Stretch Dawson (Gregory Peck) takes his gang deep into the desert. Despite their lack of water and objections from Dude (Richard Widmark) and aging Walrus (Charles Kemper), the gang reaches the abandoned settlement of Yellow Sky. Only tough girl Constance ‘Mike’ Mae (Anne Baxter) and her Grandpa (James Barton) remain in the town, and soon Lengthy (John Russell) and
Bull Run (Robert Author) fight over each other’s intentions with Mike. Dude, however, has more on his mind-he suspects there’s gold in Yellow Sky and he intends to find it.
Yellow sky opens with a swift heist and director William A. Wellman (A Star is Born, The High and the Mighty, The Ox-Bow Incident) never slows down from there. The subsequent demons in the desert, mutinous gang members fighting over water, and the arduous salt plains slow things down to a torturous viewing, but we still can’t look away from the intensity. Bleak comparisons between the gang members and the harmless lizards in the desert add somber realizations and intelligent reflections, too. Yellow Sky is a great analysis of how easily we can be seduced and turned on each other for the right-or wrong- reasons. W.R. Burnett’s (Little Caesar, The Asphalt Jungle, The Great Escape) story and screenwriter Lamar Trotti’s (There’s No Business Like Show Business, Young Mr. Lincoln, Drums Along the Mohawk) examination of gold fever in the desert isolation is deep, complex, and great fun to watch. It’s the simplicity of man versus nature, man versus man, and man versus himself at its finest.
I just love Gregory Peck; he’s one of my classic leading men favorites-but he isn’t so wholesome this time around, is he? Peck totally assumes the part of whatever role he’s in-from Captain Horatio Hornblower to To Kill A Mockingbird and Moby Dick. He’s on his western form and looking great with a dirty five o’clock shadow here, but we can’t have our beloved Gregory Peck truly be a wholehearted villain, can we? Stretch is somewhat of a mystery-he has Apache issues, Civil War history, Biblical knowledge, and some bank robbing ambiguity. He threatens to get his way, but expects his men to behave at the same time. Stretch’s leadership-for good or ill- should be above question, but his alliance is uneasy, always on the verge of mutiny. Peck excels at the iffy circumstances while also keeping Stretch charming onscreen.
We know Anne Baxter (All About Eve, The Razor’s Edge, The Ten Commandments) can be a tough broad to match the boys, but she and her Mike are very young and innocent in Yellow Sky. Baxter’s tough and distinctive voice works with Mike’s attitude, but it’s odd to see such a beguiling classic dame in jeans with a holster. Mike’s rifle-though dangerous- doesn’t hold up against Stretch’s charms-but we can’t help but watch the coy cat and mouse games. Baxter’s eventual submissiveness and Peck’s forcefulness are a little reversed from the casting we’d expect, and this ups the tension ante in Yellow Sky. Likewise, Richard Widmark (The Alamo,
Autumn, Kiss of Death) keeps things pissy. Dude has a protest for Stretch’s every move-he thinks he has all the answers and calls out Stretch’s ‘nobility’. Dude keeps his ‘leader’ in line so he can be about his own nefarious business, and the internal odds are delightfully intelligent to watch. Though also much younger than modern, casual audiences are used to seeing him, Widmark owns Dude’s stylized black hat and pinstripe suit. He looks slick and menacing against Stretch’s scruffy style. It’s a stereotypical and simplistic trick, yes, but it’s also a fine subtlety to further wrench the ambiguity of our bad boys. Cheyenne
Though critical to Yellow Sky’s plot, the supporting players have some goofy names, and it’s tough to tell who is who on occasion. Thankfully, James Barton (The Shepherd of the Hills, The Misfits) is perfection as the mining-hardened Grandpa who still has enough wit and heart to defend his keep. Likewise, John Russell’s (
Rio Bravo, Lawman, The Outlaw Josey Wales) Lengthy is fairly kinky and juicy in his pursuit of Mike. However, Robert Arthur (Twelve O’clock High) and a very young Harry Morgan (Dragnet, M*A*S*H) are a little too similar as the young kid Bull Run and uh, young kid Half Pint. Though akin to better witty old men like Walter Brennan, Charles Kemper’s (The Shocking Miss Pilgrim) cranky Walrus adds just the right amount of snark when you need it.
Now, the titular color refers to the gold hunt at hand, but the black and white photography doesn’t do Yellow Sky justice. Not only does the name not make much sense if there’s no color, but also the lovely
Death Valley location shooting would have been better served by wonderfully lit and colored vistas. The desert sequences and abandoned ghost town facades are great, too, really showcasing the isolation and dangerous territory we’re in. The Civil War brevity and Apache talk is a little stereotypical, but if you tell a tale in ‘The West, 1867’ you can’t not touch upon such topics. Thankfully, Yellow Sky is also a very quiet film. There’s not a lot of overblown, melodramatic music-its all natural western sounds and harmonicas in the echoing desert. And of course, I should mention there is one great rifle barrel camera shot that beautifully predates the trademarked Bond element. That’s not bad for this seemingly unknown and unassuming little western!
I have to say, Yellow Sky is also a little kinky for its day. The natural use of now tame but then scandalous curses like jackass is surprising to hear in an older movie. The rapacious suggestions are also a topic not usually touched in Old Hollywood. Six men ogling one nearly solitary woman in the desert can’t be good-and then we get those same six frustrated me shirtless, sweaty, and digging for gold. Instead of stunt laden distant riding action and comically obvious raids, the individual, personal violence is also a step above in Yellow Sky. The men are brutal to each other, and the lengthy, shadowy kisses are just as rough. Yowza!
Fans of Gregory Peck, serious classics, and lovers of all things westerns will adore Yellow Sky. Some sensitive scenes with dehydrated horses might be difficult for younger viewers, as is some of the heavier innuendo; but the intelligent, gripping drama wins out. Students of critical film and old school fans should rediscover and dissect this DVD tonight. While Yellow Sky doesn’t have the all-star gold fever power of The Treasure of Sierra Madre, it’s gritty, entertaining, and intense. Yellow Sky will have you feeling the need to whet your own whistle!