Monday, April 25, 2011

In a black and white movie, the sky is always gray

Tomorrow at noon, the Fox Movie Channel is showing the enjoyable western Yellow Sky.

Gregory Peck stars as Stretch, the leader of a gang of bank robbers out in the old west. Their latest robbery doesn't go quite right, and the gang winds up with the sheriff and a posse chasing after them, guns blazing. The only way to escape is across 70 miles of salt flats, and needless to say, the rest of the gang thinks that's not such a good idea: surely nobody can make it across such a barren expanse. Now, Yellow Sky could be an interesting movie if all it were about were people trying to make it across those salt flats and inevitably failing (the Production Code wouldn't let bank robbers succeed, of course, if it meant they escaped the law). Watching the movie, in fact, the salt flats sequences only take up a portion of the movie, but are harrowing enough if you look at what happens to the poor horses, never mind what happens to the one robber who had decided to fill has canteen with whiskey instead of water. However, the movie is about something different, and our robbers eventually do make it through the salt flats, winding up at a watering hole just outside the ghost town of Yellow Sky.

Only, it's not quite a ghost town. It turns out that there's an elderly man (James Barton) and his granddaughter Constance (Anne Baxter), nicknamed "Mike", living there. Stretch realizes that they're there for a reason, as do the rest of the gang. Here, we really start getting into conflict. There's the natural conflict between the gang and the two prospectors. But there's also a growing conflict among the robbers. Second-in-command Dude (Richard Widmark) wasn't thrilled with the idea of going across the salt flats, and now he's even less pleased with Stretch's plans for dealing with the old man and his granddaughter. Dude figures they're hiding gold someplace, and wants the gold now. Stretch, on the other hand, is more concerned with safety, and realizes the old man has to be on good terms with the local Indian tribe, which is probably not so likely to care for the robbers. Further, there's the beginnings of a romantic conflict, as several members of the gang find "Mike" quite attractive.

There's nothing particularly groundbreaking here, as we know the movie is going to wind up with the obligatory shootout, with the bad guys getting their due, and the good guys.... Well, the writers had to satisfy the constraints of the Production Code, so the ending is a bit contrived, which doesn't really work to the movie's benefit. That having been said, this is more one to watch for the acting. Peck is quite good in the morally ambiguous role, while Widmark is just as good a gangster in a western as he was in the more modern gangster movies like Kiss of Death. Baxter is both suitably good to look at, and effective as a would-be tough woman who doesn't have the experience that her grandfather does. Watch for Harry Morgan later of M*A*S*H as the gangster "Half Pint"; he's credited here as "Henry Morgan" as he often was in movies of the 1940s. Direction is handled well by William Wellman. All in all, Yellow Sky isn't quite great, but it's more than good enough.

Yellow Sky has also been released to DVD, so you don't necessarily have to wait for the FMC showings.

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