OK, so I’ve taken a break from this thing for a while now. I’ve generally found that I need to take a step back from time to time and allow myself a chance to recharge the batteries before starting anew. My last post was on a western, and my latest one is also another oater – for the sake of continuity if nothing else. Yellow Sky (1948) is a typically stylish William Wellman movie that trades on those perennial themes of greed and honor.
The film opens with a bank raid in a small town and concludes, with a quirky twist, in that same town. However, the robbery plays only a small part in the story; it’s the events that it leads to that form the core of the movie. Stretch Dawson (Gregory Peck) is the laconic leader of a band of outlaws who think they’ve just made an easy killing. While their initial getaway appears to have been clean there is a troop of soldiers on their trail, and the outlaw gang find themselves forced onto a barren and punishing expanse of salt flats in an effort to elude capture. From this early stage the first cracks appear in the group. Stretch is the acknowledged boss but his authority begins to be challenged by Lengthy (John Russell) and especially by Dude (Richard Widmark). As these men haul themselves painfully across the hellish landscape they are driven to the very limits of human endurance. Just as they are about to succumb to the effects of exhaustion and dehydration they stumble into the abandoned former mining town of Yellow Sky, and this is the point at which the story becomes most interesting. The old ghost town is not all it seems – for one thing it’s not strictly a ghost town at all. There are two inhabitants, an old half-crazed prospector and his daughter ‘Mike’ (Anne Baxter). Even in their weakened state the outlaws are not so dumb as to believe these two are living there for the good of their health. Putting two and two together, they decide that there’s only one reason anyone would choose to live in a dead town – gold. What remains to be seen is how far each individual is prepared to go in order to satisfy his craving for riches, and whether or not the notion of honour among thieves has any basis in truth. Like all the best westerns, it raises questions about one’s word of honour and, in this case, if that has any value for those who live outside the law.
William Wellman’s direction offers a lesson in style, utilizing close-ups, long shots, deep focus, shadows and high contrast. There’s also an especially notable shot down the smoothly rifled barrel of a gun (see pic. above) which foreshadows the famous 007 pre-credits sequences. I’d also like to mention the climactic shootout between Peck, Widmark and Russell that takes place in the gloomy ruins of the town saloon – all the gunplay is unseen by the audience with only the bloody aftermath revealed. The location photography is another positive feature, with the inhospitable Death Valley occupying the first half before the action moves to Lone Pine for the scenes around the titular town. When looking at the characters, the first thing that jumps out is that every single one is known only by a nickname from beginning to end – the sole exceptions being Peck and Baxter, whose full names are revealed to the viewer. Peck handled his leading role competently as the reluctant hero who eventually finds a kind of redemption. John Russell and Richard Widmark make for a worthy couple of adversaries, the former consumed by pure animal lust and the latter with a hunger for wealth and the power to visit retribution on those he feels have slighted him in the past. Widmark in particular is the epitome of villainy, still at that stage in his career when he tended to get typecast as nasty pieces of work for the hero to vanquish. Anne Baxter’s role called for her to be a kind of self-sufficient tomboy who still remains sexually provocative. To her credit, she managed this balancing act and emerged as a fully rounded character that you can believe in. Throughout the film she proves herself the equal of the male cast members and her only concession to the traditional image of femininity comes at the very end when she dons a frivolous little hat that Stretch has brought her as a gift.
The R1 DVD from Fox presents Yellow Sky in a handsome full frame transfer that’s clean and sharp for the most part. Extras on the disc consist of galleries of advertising material and a selection of trailers. The film itself is absorbing and well paced and it was only at the end that I realized how little violence is present, and how even that takes place off screen. This is one of those late-40s westerns that helped usher in the more complex works that dominated the following decade. Recommended.
10 thoughts on “Yellow Sky”
Continuing to catch up with the Wellmans I hadn’t seen yet, I’ve just watched this one and admired it very much, though the ending does seem a slightly startling change of pace. Very interesting about all the characters being known by nicknames, and it hadn’t struck me until rereading your review that Anne Baxter as “Mike” (a male nickname) finally takes on a more feminine role at the end by wearing the hat Stretch bought her. Anyway, I hope to write about this one before too long but just wanted to reread your review and say I’d finally seen it!
A fine movie, isn’t it Judy. I look forward to reading your more detailed thoughts on it when you get round to it. And it just so happens I’ll be putting up a review of another Wellman movie, Track of the Cat, during the week. I’m just in the process of finishing it off.
Several years before his death, Greg Peck was in Calgary giving his one man show, “My life in Films” or something along that line. My date and i took in the show and loved it. The first 30-40 mins or so he showed clips from various films etc and talked about the people he worked with. The last 20-25 mins he took questions from the 1200 or so people their. I was lucky enough to be one of these people. I asked what it was like to work with Wellman on Yellow Sky. He smiled and said it was great and that he was surprised anyone had even heard of the film. Great show and I sure miss the man. The next year I got to see the great Peter Ustinov and his one man show.
By the way I love the film that works for me on every level. Nice bit, Colin.
I wasn’t familiar with the film till it was released on DVD but it really impressed me and I’m still of the same mind. I’m quite envious of the fact you got to attend that show with Peck – sounds like a terrific evening.
Pingback: Happy Birthday You Ol’ Westerner: Gregory Peck | It Rains… You Get Wet
Nice write-up of a very, very good Western. Did you ever notice that Wellman uses the same town, the same saloon, same bartender (Victor Kilian), and the same town drunk (Paul Hurst) that he used in the “Ox-Bow Incident”? The cast in “Yellow Sky is outstanding. I agree with you that Ann Baxter and Widmark excel in their respective roles. And I’m partial to Charles Kemper because I always loved his portrayal of Uncle Shilo Clegg in “Wagonmaster”. Unfortunately, he died in 1950, a year in which he appeared in seven movies (another, “On Dangerous Ground”) was released in 1951.) Besides “Yellow Sky”, I admire “the Ox-Bow Incident”, “Westward the Women” and the butchered “Across the Wide Missouri”. Whatever “Across the Wide Missouri” could have been, I still think that what remains is excellent.
The next once in a decade BFI / Sight & Sound poll is scheduled for 2022. I don’t know how one gets invited to fill out his list of the Greatest Films of All Time, but I think that you would be more than a worthy respondent (as would Blake Lucas). You certainly have the expertise as well as the published credentials to back it up. I hope you would consider it. I know polls bug a lot of people (including me) but I think this one really has some heft to it.
LikeLiked by 1 person
I hadn’t noticed those common features with The Ox-Bow Incident and haven’t watched either film for some time now. That’s an interesting and amusing bit of trivia though.
I’m incredibly flattered to be thought of as someone worth consulting on a poll like that, and indeed to be mentioned in the same breath as Blake in that regard. However, and without any fake modesty or humility here, I honestly don’t think I’m in the class to be asked to participate in such polls.
One other similarity between the two films that I left out in the previous post was a large painting of an enticing woman above the bar. Coming in from wintering in the country, Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan stare at it in wonder and then make comments about the woman. When Peck’s crew steps up at the bar they are similarly mesmerized by a painting of a partially nude woman and then offer their remarks. Again, in both movies, the trail weary men are followed into the saloon by the same mooching town drunk (Paul Hurst) and are served by the same bartender (Victor Kilian). There is an interchange between the bartender and his customers about the paintings in both movies. I have never read anything about these similarities but just picked them up on my own. I don’t think Wellman was paying homage to himself. He could have just been having fun. Or maybe he just simply thought that this opening would fit perfectly in “Yellow Sky”. Whatever his motive, I enjoy his reusing this scene in “Yellow Sky”.
The soundtrack over the opening credits is the same one that is used in both ‘Brigham Young” and in “Rawhide”. I can’t recall the films right now, but Fox reused the soundtrack for credits in other movies as well.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Fox had a habit of reusing certain themes. The one that springs most readily to mind, for me anyway, is Alfred Newman’s instantly recognizable Street Scene, which appeared in Cry of the City, The Dark Corner, I Wake Up Screaming and I don’t know how many others.
Pingback: Ten of the Best – Western Stars | Riding the High Country