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The Ballad of Cable Hogue

The Ballad of Cable Hogue(1970)

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When we think of the late Sam Peckinpah, we automatically remember extreme, violent movies like The Wild Bunch or Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Often overlooked are his tender, low-key early-1970s movies Junior Bonner and The Ballad of Cable Hogue. The second just debuted on DVD, individually and as part of the Sam Peckinpah's Legendary Westerns Collection boxed set, and it's among the best of the director's many odes to misfits.

It's certainly the most light-hearted. It rides a roguish performance by Jason Robards as the title character, a failed prospector who's left for dead in the Arizona desert by his two cohorts (Dub Taylor, L.Q. Jones), but who discovers an oasis that literally and then financially saves him. Cable digs out the mudhole he finds into a well, makes a deal with the local stagecoach line to operate a station in what he christens Cable Springs and picks up the friendship of two other misfits along the way: Hildy (Stella Stevens), a shapely prostitute he falls for after sighting her when filing his land claim in the nearest town, and Josh Sloan (David Warner), a self-proclaimed preacher whose appetite for sin usually trumps his pleas for salvation.

The love between Cable and Hildy is central to the story. Peckinpah, working from a script by John Crawford and Edmund Penney (neither of whom have any substantial credits beyond this), leaves little doubt what Cable sees in Hildy, repeatedly inserting a shot of her cleavage into their first meeting to comic effect. It's crass, but it captures smitten Cable's lust, and after a while Hildy is charmed by Cable's cranky individualism. The romance here is unusually mature, with both Cable and Hildy aware of each other's flaws and willing to accept them (the pair is in sharp conquest to a stuffy "proper" husband and wife Cable encounters early in the action). Their relationship is also good and bawdy, with Stevens, who's never looked more delectable, oozing sensuality and physical confidence. But she also makes Hildy a warm, wise person who isn't going to give up her dream of striking it rich in a big city in order to indefinitely hang out in the desert with Cable. The combination of Stevens' body, brains, comic timing and emotions makes Hildy the Nutty Professor actress' best role. She and Robards even sing a song together, one of several on the soundtrack. The songs and the occasionally speeded-up scenes of slapstick are hardly highlights of the movie, but they are part and parcel of its loose atmosphere.

Despite the differences in tone from his more violent films, the movie is unmistakably Peckinpah's, and not just in Cable's cockeyed idealism and vengeful streak or the fact that the movie, like its title character, is lovably ramshackle. Like Peckinpah's Ride the High Country and The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue is set at the turn of the 20th century and, like the protagonists of those movies, Cable becomes an oddball symbol for the passing of the Wild West. The appearance of the automobile, a measure of change common to all three movies, becomes centrally important to The Ballad of Cable Hogue, with the sad climax of the comedy becoming unexpectedly poignant in its eulogy of the end of an era.

Like the other DVD releases of Peckinpah movies, the disc of The Ballad of Cable Hogue includes another audio commentary by Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, Peckinpah biographers who mull the contexts and influences for the movie with little of the stuffiness "film scholar" audio commentaries usually have. Redman also contributes "The Ladiest Damn'd Lady," a welcome but flawed half-hour interview with Stevens named for Hildy's line about what she aims to become in San Francisco. This is a problematically shapeless featurette, as it omits the interviewer's questions. Consequently, shifts in subjects can be jarring, as Stevens segues from talking about how much she liked Hildy to how difficult Peckinpah was ("he only thought about himself") to the most intriguing tidbit supplied—that, for cutting her asking price and deciding to work with Peckinpah, Stevens' deal with the director to appear in The Ballad of Cable Hogue not only included the promise that Hildy would return to the desert in the script's third act, but that Stevens also would star in another of his movies. She was supposed to get the female lead in his 1972 adaptation of Jim Thompson's The Getaway, but star Steve McQueen nixed that, a disappoint Stevens saw coming the first time she and McQueen met.

For more information about The Ballad of Cable Hogue, visit Warner Video.

by Paul Sherman