And just how many more times can the sky be described by tastes, smells or colors? Well, in Judge Ryan Keefer's world, there are marshmallow clouds in his sky.
They're searching for salvation in an abandoned corner of hell.
Wow, the thought of Gregory Peck playing a tough guy in a Western was a little bit surprising at first, and at second glance, the young actor who had appeared in Hitchcock's Spellbound playing a bad guy seems to be a little bit contrary to the grain of Peck's filmography. So how does he fare here?
Facts of the Case
Stretch (Peck) is the head of a crew that robs banks. He robs a bank with the crew and flees, and decides to go across the desert. The main conflicting force in the group is Dude (Richard Widmark, Kiss of Death), who thinks that the gang should do different things than Stretch does. There's also Bull Run (Robert Arthur, Mother Wore Tights), Lengthy (John Russell, Pale Rider), Walrus (Charles Kemper, On Dangerous Ground) and Half Pint (Harry Morgan, M*A*S*H*, Dragnet). They are almost close to death when they finally encounter the town of Yellow Sky. At a distance, it appears to be a thriving town, but the gang runs into a woman holding a rifle named Constance Mae (Anne Baxter, The Magnificent Ambersons). She leads them to some water which is near their house and they also find Constance's (a.k.a. Mike's) Grandpa named Grandpa (James Barton, The Time of Your Life). While staying near the house, they find a secret that changes their plans.
In this film, which is based on the novel by W.R. Burnett (Ice Station Zebra) and directed by William A. Wellman (The High and the Mighty), Stretch is someone that is clearly a quiet leader of the gang. Dude tries to fracture the group and has dreams of doing far more than robbing banks, and there is a scene early on in the film that defines the gang's places, when the decision is made to cross the desert. You see how each person makes his choice, some more in line with others. And you also see the dynamics of all the characters too, along with their strengths and weaknesses.
Once they get to Yellow Sky, all seems forgotten, especially after the gang hydrates and meets Mike, who is the apple of the eyes of a few people in the gang, including Stretch. Mike is fiercely protective of her immediate environment which is Grandpa and the house they share. She's rarely seen in the film without a rifle, and she's quite a good shot whenever she has to be. In the words of your typical male cowboy actor in any western of the time, she is a "feisty filly." In Grandpa, we find someone who is a straight shooter no matter who he deals with, and even a small appearance by "drunken Apaches" which at first glance would appear to be rather unnecessary, helps to reinforce that.
The main problem with the film is that it lives and dies with the story, and its story is rather flimsy. When the group starts to battle each other for Mike's attention, Stretch decides to inject himself into part of this competition, and of course because his name is at the top of the marquee, it's almost a foregone conclusion that he gets the girl. Besides, who's she going to go for? Bull Run? Lengthy? Certainly not Half Pint, that's for sure.
Wellman's direction is admirable and certainly does show the viewer the unbearable nature of the desert, but Peck (who was in other Westerns like Duel in the Sun and The Gunfighter in between Yellow Sky) certainly didn't have a stride to speak of in this film. And in a trend that I've noticed in other Western films, the bad guy (or at least, the bad guy's understudy) seems to have a little more fun than the protagonist does. As the Dude (not that one), Widmark performs with a level of sleaze and greed that for its time is somewhat appealing, but other actors in later movies had met and surpassed that level.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For the times, the concept behind the film is quite unique, but if you've seen something like it, it tends to be a little bit tired. And besides, getting over the concept of Peck being a bad ass takes a lot of willpower and acceptance.
The film's novelty value of seeing Peck in this role and seeing Morgan as a bit of a Western heavy is kind of nice, but the film gets a little bit predictable in the last act and falls a bit flat.
The court finds the film guilty and sentences the filmmakers to time served.
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