#6 in my ranking of Sam Peckinpah’s filmography.
Watching Sam Peckinpah’s episodes of The Westerner was a really good idea before jumping into his feature films because it gave me a fuller view of the kinds of stories that Peckinpah wanted to tell. Sitting in my media room in the 2020s, decades removed from his death, it’s easy to think that he was a violence maestro from The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs and nothing else, but three of his five The Westerner episodes were comedic in tone. They were light affairs dealing with small things like the title character losing his dog after getting too drunk one night. The Ballad of Cable Hogue really fits in with those films, which is a marked contrast from The Wild Bunch. It seems obvious to me that this was the kind of story that Peckinpah was most attracted to telling: sad and funny stories of men facing moral questions.
The titular Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is left for dead without water by his two companions Bowen (Strother Martin) and Taggart (L.Q. Jones) in the desert, and he walks for four days without food or water until he decides to lay down and die. Before he closes his eyes, though, he discovers mud on his boot, which leads him to the discover of a hidden source of water just under the surface of the sand and a few dozen feet from a stagecoach trail headed into the town of Dead Dog. When told by a stagecoach driver, Ben (Slim Pickens), that a source of water around those parts would be more valuable than gold, Cable decides to lay his claim on the land and hold up until Bowen and Taggart come along again in order to exact his vengeance.
After coming across his first two customers, the first he kills when the man refuses to pay and tries to kill Cable and the second being a wayward preacher, Joshua (David Warner), who speaks eloquently about the Lord but is obviously just using the mantle of a preacher to prey on women, Cable goes to Dead Dog to secure the actual rights from the federal government where he encounters Hildy (Stella Stevens), a prostitute. Securing a hundred dollars to build on the spot, he spends a bit to spend some time with Hildy. That relationship becomes the emotional cornerstone of the film. Peckinpah really had a thing for prostitutes, it seems.
The bulk of the film is Cable and Hildy at the watering hole after Hildy gets kicked out of town, and it’s surprisingly sweet. There’s a musical element to it as well where characters sing to each other, and it’s really effective at showing the real affection the two characters have for each other. And this is all done with the knowledge that Hildy will move on to try and get to San Francisco and build a new, better life. Their time is limited, much like the use of a literal watering hole on a desert road when stagecoach travel is nearing an end point, but Cable has his mission, and his mission is vengeance. What’s interesting is that the mission quite literally gets forgotten for long stretches, and it’s on purpose. People simply don’t bring it up for thirty minutes of screentime at a time, and in that time, Cable is pulling himself up by his own bootstraps and falling in love.
Things fall apart when Joshua reappears several weeks later, pawing Hildy and getting Cable to blurt out his view of the relationship that cuts Hildy deeply in ways that Cable doesn’t really realize would hurt. Then we get to the film’s final act, three-and-a-half years later.
Now, to just delve into the spoilers would be unfair, but Cable gets his chance at revenge, and he’s surprisingly sanguine about the whole thing. I thought Peckinpah was going to go in a very different direction for the rest of the film, but he only goes so far with it. There is violence to be had, but it’s not a gleeful recreation of mass murder like in The Wild Bunch. It’s smaller and more personal, and it also doesn’t go as far. It almost feels like Cable wouldn’t do it at all if he doesn’t get pushed into it in a certain way, that he’d just let it go. I loved this stuff.
And then the movie decides to import all of the subplots, reminding me of the end of The Deadly Companions. The worst part is that there’s this bright, happy look to it all that feels like everything is going to be just hunky-dory for our hero. My heart sank steadily for about ten straight minutes as this played out, until the whole tone, maintained through the soundtrack in the form of the music and some voiceover by Joshua, was completely undercut by a change in the visuals as a final turn in the plot played out. It takes the happy-go-lucky feel of the end of the film and turns it much sadder, appropriately so, I think. I also think that the extended nature of the happy-go-lucky element goes on for too long and should have been cut down, though I am open to the idea that most of it was actually a vision Cable had instead of strict reality.
This was something of a surprise after The Wild Bunch, and I think I liked it more. I shouldn’t have been surprised by it, though. Peckinpah was a mean drunk (and he was drunk a lot), but he obviously had a very melancholic element to his thought processes that he wanted to explore. Time was passing the world that Peckinpah loved by, and he wrote characters to experience that. That could manifest in explosions of blood and bullets, or it could manifest in one man finding a watering hole in the desert and falling in love with a woman who wanted to move to the city.
The whole film is really anchored by Robards as Cable Hogue. Having worked with Peckinpah on “Noon Wine”, it’s obvious that the two communicated well when it came to the kind of characters Robards was playing for Peckinpah. Echoing the final moments of Robards’ character in Leone‘s Once Upon a Time in the West, Cable Hogue is a man who can clearly see the end by the time his opportunity for vengeance comes up again, and Robards helps give those moments a quiet soulfulness that really sells it. Stella Stevens is very pretty and fiery as Hildy, offering up the prostitute with a heart of gold in a purely Peckinpah way that fits well with Robards’ Cable. David Warner is really fun as Joshua, getting himself into and out of trouble by the skin of his teeth.
It’s unfortunate that Warner Brothers had no idea how to market this movie. I mean, look at that poster I chose. It tells you nothing except that Stella Stevens gets to take a bath. It was left to die in the theaters, and Peckinpah had to find funding in England to make his next film. Peckinpah was so much more than just violence, and The Ballad of Cable Hogue is proof of that. Surprisingly gentle and quiet, it paints the portrait of a man who has to learn to let go, even if the ending doesn’t quite live up to the rest (with a last-minute save up its sleeve).
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