Superb Western noir
Last time on Jeff Arnold’s West we reviewed the first great picture of 1948, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (click the link for that). We discussed the year’s other two truly fine Westerns, John Ford’s Fort Apache, released in March, and Howard Hawks’s Red River, which came out in September (though shot back in the fall of ’46) relatively recently, so click the links to read those.
These three films alone would have marked ’48 out as an amazing year for the genre. But there were some other really fine ones too.
And today we’re going to look at the Western which in fact sold better that year than either Sierra Madre or Fort Apache, and was beaten at the box-office only by Red River. Released on Christmas Eve, it grossed $5.6m and sold 14m tickets. It too was directed by a true artist.
In a long Hollywood career William A Wellman won a Best Director Oscar and was nominated for two more, though none of these was for a Western, sigh. He was a great talent. His first three oaters were silent pictures with Dustin Farnum and Buck Jones back in the 1920s, so he certainly had the experience. In the 1940s before Yellow Sky he helmed the dark, somber and truly fine The Ox-Bow Incident with Henry Fonda in 1943, a picture which has something in common with Yellow Sky, and then the perhaps slightly underwhelming biopic (aka whitewash) Buffalo Bill with Joel McCrea in the title role. In my view Wellman’s finest Western achievement would come in 1951 when he directed Westward the Women, one of the best Westerns of a great decade.
The project Yellow Sky dated from November 1947 when Fox purchased the rights to an unpublished novel, later published as Stretch Dawson, by William Riley Burnett, for $35,000. WR Burnett (1899 – 1982) was probably best known for Little Caesar (novel 1929, film 1931) but he figured large in the world of the Western: his 1930 yarn Saint Johnson became the 1932 picture Law and Order, an early ‘Wyatt Earp’ tale, with Walter Huston in the title role, and later writing became the movies Dark Command, Colorado Territory, The Badlanders and Arrowhead, among others. Stretch Dawson and thus Yellow Sky are said to have been influenced by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, as the ‘shipwrecked’ outlaws arrive at a strange isolated place inhabited by an old-timer Prospero and a beautiful Miranda – though sadly no Western Ariel or Caliban. However, Wellman said in the book The Men Who Made the Movies that he had no idea of the connection when making the movie.
Darryl F Zanuck got Lamar Trotti to adapt the novel into a screenplay. Trotti was a journalist who moved to Hollywood in 1932 and spent virtually his entire career at 20th Century Fox as writer/producer until his early death in 1952. He wrote four pictures for John Ford, including Drums Along the Mohawk, and three for Wellman, including Ox-Bow and Yellow Sky. Other Westerns included Brigham Young (1940) and Belle Starr (1941). His script for Yellow Sky garnered the WGA Screen Award for Best Written Western Film (they probably meant Best-Written Western Film).
In a memo from Zanuck, now held at UCLA, Walter Huston was suggested for the role of Grandpa (that would have been good) and Fred Clark for Lengthy. Paulette Goddard was originally cast as Mike. Lauren Bacall was also considered but Warners wouldn’t loan her out. Jay Silverheels was to have been ‘Indian’ in a biggish part. In the event James Barton (small-to-middling parts in six feature Westerns) became the old guy (though he was still in his fifties) and Anne Baxter his granddaughter, with the excellent John Russell as gang member Lengthy, and Jay was finally reduced to an uncredited bit part.
Gregory Peck was cast in the lead as gang leader ‘Stretch’ Dawson. It was only his second Western (if you discount the family film The Yearling) after Zanuck’s Duel in the Sun in 1946. He is said to have hesitated over taking the role in Yellow Sky, feeling he was miscast as outlaw. Not sure why: he was pretty much a swine in Duel. It would be a splendid career in the saddle; Peck was probably at his very best in Henry King’s noir The Gunfighter in 1950, then William Wyler’s The Big Country and another Henry King Western, The Bravados, both in 1958. In Yellow Sky he starts, unshaven, as a pretty tough hombre, leader of a band of bank robbers, but as the movie progresses, he ‘softens’ – or at least his hard-bitten cynicism is eroded – under the ministrations of the fair Baxter until in the last reel he rides back to town and returns the stolen loot to an astonished bank manager. This ‘badman redeemed by the love of a good woman’ plot went right back, of course. William S Hart did hardly anything else.
The start of the movie echoes the Wellman/Trotti opening of Ox-Bow as the drifters go into a saloon in a sleepy one-horse town and gaze at a painting above the bar. A local drunk follows them into the saloon trying to bum a drink.
They rob the bank, quite easily, but are pursued. One of the gang is killed – they had been the right and proper number of seven – and the six survivors decide to risk their lives by crossing salt flats to escape. In extremis, they arrive at the ghost town of Yellow Sky, inhabited only by a grizzled old prospector (Barton) and his feisty tomboy granddaughter (Baxter). The rest of the plot concerns the gold that the old man has accumulated and the outlaws’ desire to get their hands on it. Gold lust was all the rage as a theme in ’48, as viewers of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre were well aware. Lust for gold mirrors lust for the girl. A band of Apaches add unpredictability and danger.
Trotti and Wellman did a fine job of building tension. It’s not a fast-paced movie – in fact at times it’s quite slow – but it’s one of those Westerns in which the pressure grows inexorably. They also managed to delineate and develop character really well. The gang members emerge as distinct and even interesting people.
Most prominent after Peck is Richard Widmark, absolutely superb as the tubercular gambler Dude who can always throw a seven with his dice. Widmark had made it big the year before as the sinister and reptilian Tommy Udo in Henry Hathaway’s Kiss of Death, but this was his first Western of what would be, like Peck’s, a great career in the saddle. He brings some of Tommy Udo to Yellow Sky. He is like a rattlesnake, as dangerous as he is without scruple. Of course tubercular gamblers were a Western type and he is a shade Doc Hollidayish as the frock-coated killer. Widmark would do something similar in a future very good Western about gang members after loot in a ghost town, as Robert Taylor’s antagonist Clint Hollister in John Sturges’s The Law and Jake Wade.
Fourth-billed was Robert Arthur as Bull Run, the ‘kid’ figure (there has to be a kid). Arthur only did four Westerns, though would finally lead in one, Fox’s The Desperados are in Town in 1956. John Russell was very good as Lengthy; probably best known to Westernistas now as Marshal Dan Troop in Lawman on TV, he was memorable in a number of big-screen Westerns, especially, for me, his Nathan Burdette in Rio Bravo, his Bloody Bill Anderson in The Outlaw Josey Wales and, best of all, his deadly Marshal Stockburn in Pale Rider. In Yellow Sky he has designs on Anne Baxter, so that will bring him into conflict with his boss Stretch.
I always like Harry Morgan. Although he’s probably best known for non-Westerns such as MASH and Dragnet, he did 24 feature oaters, from Ox-Bow, his first, in the early 1940s to The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again in 1979. He had a huge gift for comedy, as Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter showed, and even in serious Westerns there was always a slight tinge of humor in his roles. In Yellow Sky he plays Half-Pint (his lack of stature contrasting with Lengthy’s) and, though outlaw, is more than half decent. He will be one of the few survivors. At the end he dudes up – though he can only throw a two with Widmark’s dice.
Lastly, we have Charles Kemper as Walrus. Kemper was unforgettable as Uncle Shiloh Clegg in John Ford’s Wagonmaster, but he also did a dozen or so other Westerns, including three with Randolph Scott. Like Half-Pint and Bull Run, he is not all bad, and he provides the fat man character. So the gang members range from the utterly poisonous (Dude) and violent (Lengthy) to the almost goody (Half-Pint – and of course, in the end, Stretch himself).
These were all good actors. Peck acts the socks off them all, though. He’s almost Gary Cooper-good. His character is the most nuanced and the most complex, and Peck handled it brilliantly.
Anne Baxter, Oscar winner two years before, was fine too, as the rambunctious gal very handy with a handgun (and a rifle). She’s pretty good with a fist, too. She knocks Peck down with a punch. Peck compliments her on it, saying it will “come in mighty handy when you get married.” Baxter was one of my favorite Western actors. She did nine, topping the billing in the 1952 version of The Outcasts of Poker Flat and the 1955 version of The Spoilers, as well as being especially good in the comic vein as the lady marshal in A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950). In Yellow Sky she is called Mike. There’s quite a tradition in Westerns of the girl being called Mike, as Jane Russell in Son of Paleface, Ms Learned (who really was Michael) in Gunsmoke: The Last Apache and Claire Trevor as the rancher’s daughter in Texas all attest.
We also get Hank Worden and Chief Yowlachie in bit parts. Jock Mahoney stunt-doubled Peck (and got to roll in the hay with Baxter when Gregory broke an ankle). So the cast is pretty damn good.
The story’s set in 1867 and the tale of post-war dislocated young men would have resonated with many in the audience. As the old-timer says in the script, “I guess the war’s upset a lot of those boys. Set ’em off on the wrong foot.”
The picture had a substantial budget for a non-color Fox Western. The ghost town was especially constructed (on the site of one for a 1923 Tom Mix Western). In temperatures topping 120°, with gila monsters and scorpions everywhere, it wasn’t a comfortable set for the actors. Wellman seemed impervious to it all and seemed to think he was back on the Fox lot in LA.
The climactic three-way gunfight in the ruined saloon at the end is very well done – a bit like The Shootist in a ghost town. Of course it’s night. The saloon floor is littered with what one character describes as “mighty rich corpses.”
As for the music, although there’s an oddly chirpy intro with happy music by Alfred Newman (reprised from Brigham Young: Frontiersman), and a similar lightness at the end as Peck unrobs the bank, this is about all there is. The middle part of the film is done without background music, only the wind blowing through the ruined town breaking the ghostly silence and heightening the bleakness. It’s actually very effective and every now and then a picture can actually be improved without music.
One of the strongest aspects of the film is the visual. Shot by the great Joseph MacDonald in black & white, in pitiless Death Valley locations, the picture positively glows. The lighting and composition are remarkable. There are several night-time scenes. As Dennis Schwartz has said, “Joe MacDonald’s mercilessly atmospheric black and white photography makes the desert locale unforgettable.” MacDonald and Wellman do quite a lot of close-up work, noir style. There’s a camera view taken down the rifled barrel of a gun which must have inspired the people who did the credits for the James Bond movies.
MacDonald is very well-known for photographing films noirs; he did such pictures as The Dark Corner for Henry Hathaway and Panic in the Streets for Elia Kazan. He most definitely brought noir to this picture too. Noir had come to the Western in 1947, with the Raoul Walsh-directed Pursued, with Robert Mitchum, and in 1948, as well as Yellow Sky, we got such Westerns as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Coroner Creek and Blood on the Moon, the latter also with Mitchum. Read more about the Western noir in our essay, by clicking the link.
Reviews of Yellow Sky at the time were very good. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times said, “For seventy-odd minutes, in this scorcher from Twentieth Century-Fox, the guns blaze, fists fly and passions tangle in the best realistic Western style.” Crowther added, “Lamar Trotti has rigged up a tempestuous tale of lust and greed and moral redemption” and “William A. Wellman has directed for steel-spring tension from beginning to end.” Variety said that “the outdoor locations have been magnificently lensed as a telling backdrop for the dramatics. Lamar Trotti has put together an ace screenplay from a story by W. R. Burnett, given it dialog that rings true, and then proceeded with showmanly production guidance to make Sky a winner. The direction by William A. Wellman is vigorous, potently emphasizing every element of suspense and action, and displaying the cast to the utmost advantage. There’s never a faltering scene as sequence after sequence is unfolded at a swift pace.”
Later critics have also been overwhelmingly positive. Brian Garfield called it “an excellent, grim little movie, very taut and involving and suspenseful.” Dennis Schwartz went so far as to call Yellow Sky “Probably the best film that William Wellman ever directed.” I’m not sure I’d quite agree with that but it was certainly a superior Western. It isn’t as bleak as The Ox-Bow Incident or as inspiring as Westward the Women, and it isn’t as great as those two as a film. As James Naremore says, “Its ironies aren’t as bitter, and its honesty isn’t as brutal.” But it is a really crafted and very well-acted movie with stunning visuals and script, which tolerates repeated viewings.
The notion of a ‘yellow sky’, rather odd for a black & white film, had antecedents, notably an 1898 short story by Stephen Crane, which itself was filmed as a Western by RKO in 1952 as The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky.
The Fox version was remade in 1967 as The Jackals, with an entertaining Vincent Price topping the bill in the Barton old-timer prospector part, but the remake was pretty weak.