A desperate man and virginal lass – always good for box office, though particularly affecting in William A. Wellman’s Yellow Sky (1949), an all but forgotten slice of western Americana with some great performances from Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter and Richard Widmark. Wellman’s yen for screen realism is working overtime here; Lamar Trotti’s screenplay (based on a story by W.R. Burnett) parceling off some high stakes tension, evenly – if slowly – paced and interpolated with a burgeoning – if tempestuous – romance, capped off by the proverbial Hollywood happy ending. Ah me, what one good woman can do. It is sincerely refreshing to see Anne Baxter play empathy for a change; her iconic role as the viper in All About Eve (1950), and deliciously deceptive princess, in The Ten Commandments (1956) somewhat tainting her screen persona for the ages as the proverbial bitch in sheep’s clothing. Herein, she is Constance Mae – nicknamed ‘Mike’; a sturdy and determined, but otherwise un-jaded girl surviving the dry wrought and tumbleweed, living remotely in a cabin not far from the bygone town of Yellow Sky. This ought to have been a boom town, except the gold rush went bust, leaving the devastating wreckage and debris of a ghost town behind, spookily lit by cinematographer, Joseph MacDonald. Gone are the craggy mesas and sprawling vistas a la John Ford, replaced by Wellman’s stark, vacant and vast expanses, and, a rather apocalyptic view of Fox’s western back lot, hopelessly gone to seed.
Yellow Sky is engaging melodrama, methodically paced and expertly acted. Photographed near Lone Pine, California, at the Fox ranch, and, the Salt Flats in Death Valley, the movie plays to the anticipated strengths of the western tradition without becoming slavishly devoted to them. And it has the majesty of A-list star power to catapult its rather pedestrian trappings well beyond the convention for sheer entertainment value. If the picture lacks anything, it is the gritty resolve to buy into Gregory Peck as our cruel and calculating manipulator. Indeed, after viewing the daily rushes, Wellman added several sequences to illustrate the ruthlessness of Peck’s bad boy; striking a fellow cohort in the head with a rock and nearly drowning another, merely to prove a point. Yet, even with the unkempt and matted scruff he sports during the first third of the movie, his eyes occasionally hidden by the shadow of his wide-brimmed cowboy hat, Peck cannot help but exude that spirit of masculine integrity we all know and have come to respect. Significantly, producer David O. Selznick had tried to go against this grain in Peck’s veracity in Duel in the Sun (1946); Peck’s performance as the untrustworthy bastard, Lewt McCanles, the least convincing character study in that film’s formidable stable of stars.
It is much easier to find Peck recast as the hero during the latter half of Yellow Sky, as James ‘Stretch’ Dawson; leader of a band of desperadoes who have just made off with a king’s ransom from a stick-up that affords everyone no pleasure. Dawson lacks the innate hardheartedness two of his men, Dude (Richard Widmark) and Lengthy (John Russell) possess in spades. Neither is tough enough to stand up to Dawson – at least, to his face, as he uses superior intellect to talk his way down from several tense situations scattered throughout our story. On the fence are the remaining members of the gang; Walrus (Charles Kemper), Half Pint (Henry Morgan), their lookout, Jed (Robert Adler) and Luke, aka - Bull Run (Robert Arthur); the young novice, who looks up to Dawson as the sort of slightly tainted, highly romanticized father figure he never had. Yellow Sky avoids practically every major cliché one might expect from this sort of straight-forward setup. The villains are not one-dimensionally ‘mean’ but conflicted – lost to their own impatience and frustrations as they are unable to instantly coax the whereabouts of a hidden treasure from Constance and her grandpa (played with irrepressible charm by James Barton). Those familiar with Wellman’s supreme achievement in the western genre; The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) may be startled to discover Yellow Sky begins in precisely the same way; the men riding into the dusty outpost of Rameyville and entering the exact same bar; the bartender, still played by a crotchety Victor Killian; the portrait hanging over the bar only slightly altered to depict a scantily clad woman attempting to ride a temperamental stallion. In The Ox-Bow Incident, the portrait over the bar depicted a young, scantily clad woman lying in repose on a divan with a middle-aged suitor leering from behind a parted curtain.
Dawson and his men are up to no good; dousing a few stiff drinks to build up their resolve before casually strolling into the local bank for a stickup. The initial heist goes off without a hitch. But soon the cavalrymen are alerted, making chase across the barren landscape until they reach an unforgiving stretch of desert – the sun’s anvil. Jed is shot dead. But Bull Run naively believes the cavalry has given up on their pursuit. However, Dude wisely deduces their stalemate is the result of good sense. Without food or water and under these stifling conditions they are just as good as hanged; God’s wrath and a cruel sun sure to bake them all into the blistering dust. Divvying up the cash between them, Dude suggests everyone go their separate ways. Dawson, however, proves a unifying force the others cannot argue with, and so, across the desert they continue as one; a hellish odyssey that breeds dissention and animosity. Lengthy shoots a lizard merely to satisfy an itch; an act that causes Half Pint some consternation. Harder lines are drawn in the sand; Dawson gaining the respect of Half Pint and Bull Run, while Lengthy and Dude begin to form a more insidious front built on their mutual contempt of Dawson’s ability to command without ever reaching for his gun.
This motley crew trudges onward, eventually stumbling upon the abandon ruins of Yellow Sky. The situation is hopeless. Dawson and his men have reached the end of the line – or so it would appear. However, the troop is met at the point of a gun by Constance Mae. Is she real or just a mirage? Perhaps, a little of each; Constance, looking cool and determined as she stares down the men with her rifle poised. No monkey business here. Constance informs Dawson of a sump just beyond the rocks; welcomed news indeed for which the men are extremely grateful. In a short while, Constance and her grandfather confide about the gold in ‘them thar hills’; both Dawson and Dude immediately starry-eyed with dollar signs for the loot. Dawson arranges for a split of whatever they find in the abandoned mine not too far from the ole homestead. But this détente is almost immediately brought into question when Lengthy, Dude and Bull Run all take a sexual interest in Constance. Lengthy is the first to act on this masculine impulse; attempting to assault the girl as she has come to fetch water from the sump. Bull Run nobly intercedes and is nearly drowned by Lengthy for his naïve chivalry. Dawson gives Lengthy a taste of his own medicine; holding his head beneath the water for an excruciatingly long time before letting him up for a gasp of fresh air.
That evening Dawson decides he might have a better chance with Constance up at the house. He is mistaken, confronted at the point of her rifle again. Wrestling the gun away from Constance, Dawson now struggles to make her submit to his amorous will. Despite his obvious advantages in strength and size, Constance manages to wiggle free from his clutches and regain her gun, firing a warning shot so close to Dawson’s head it leaves him momentarily deaf and dizzy. Retreating to the sump to revive himself, Dawson is confronted by Dude, who recalls for him a story about a gal named Lucy he thoroughly dominated before she ran off with some other fellow who beat her senseless. The story ends with Dude’s inference Constance reminds him quite clearly of Lucy. The next afternoon, Dawson, his men and grandpa make their pilgrimage to the mine where they discover the sacks of gold. While Dawson is determined to remain true to their original agreement, Dude and Lengthy plot to squeeze out the old man and Constance…maybe even Dawson himself. But by now Constance has fallen hopelessly in love with Dawson and vice versa. A harrowing gunfight set against the rocky terrain is thwarted by the sudden arrival of a tribe of Apache. Grandpa makes the peace and enquires about their dispute on the reservation. Dawson is skeptical. Perhaps the old man sent for the Apache to finish them off.
Cooler heads prevail and Dawson takes Grandpa’s word. He is rewarded when an attempt on his life by Lengthy, at Dude’s behest, is foiled. Taking refuge inside Grandpa’s modest cabin, Dawson remains skeptical as Walrus informs everyone Bull Run has been badly hurt. Constance takes pity on the boy and allows Walrus to bring him up to the house for treatment. Tragically, it’s much too late for her healing; Bull Run dies on the cabin floor. Asked by Dude to confirm Dawson’s kill, Lengthy’s braggadocios is rewarded with a near fatal gunshot from Dude’s revolver before he flees into the night. Much to Lengthy’s dismay, he now realizes Dude never intended to split the gold with anyone – even him. Pursuing Dude back to the abandoned saloon in the heart of Yellow Sky, Lengthy is trailed by Dawson; all three meeting in a blaze of gunfire that ends with Dude and Lengthy shot dead and Dawson narrowly escaping a similar fate, discovered by Constance. Sometime later, Dawson returns to the bank he helped rob in Rameyville, at Constance’s behest, paying back every last penny of his ill-gotten gains to the bewildered banker (William Gould), who clearly remembers him from before. The ending to Yellow Sky is a tad optimistic; Dawson never charged with the initial crime, but instead allowed to roam free via his philanthropy, and reunited with Grandpa, Constance, Walrus and Half Pint; each, made wealthy by their gold rush discovery and, even more miraculously, now reformed of all their bad habits. It seems Constance and Dawson are well on their way to becoming man and wife – a match made in heaven…or some such ‘out of the way’ place on God’s sun-baked earth.
Yellow Sky is rumored to have been one of William Wellman’s favorite films. In a career spanning more than a hundred features, 32 Oscar-nominations, 7 wins and 37 westerns that is saying a great deal. One can sense two things from the picture: first, Wellman’s deep and abiding love for the land – a quality he shared with director, John Ford; and second, Wellman’s determinist spirit, leading to some wonderfully unvarnished nuggets of truth along the way. Reportedly, Wellman asked Gregory Peck to go easy on Anne Baxter during their romantic ‘brawl’ in the dust; then, turned around and instructed Baxter – without Peck’s knowledge – to literally go after her leading man hammer and tong. The proof is in the scene itself; Baxter, clawing, scratching, kicking and punching her way out of a very sticky situation. Wellman had by 1948 acquired a reputation for gritty realism, nicknamed ‘Wild Bill’ Wellman by his contemporaries. Toiling in 120 degree desert heat, with stifling wind storms, Wellman manages to capture all of the unpleasantness of this harsh location, and yet, equally imbue his narrative with a sense of compassion for the men and women who civilized the American west.
While Wellman’s respect towards cast and crew was equally spread, he took a particular interest in John Russell, sharing in his experiences during WWII as a decorated ex-marine; a military record Wellman could relate to, having also served his country in WWI; two tough hombres now on their lark and spree in this land of make-believe. At the time Yellow Sky began filming, Wellman allowed his young son to quietly observe; Wellman Jr. recalling later how co-star, Richard Widmark took a special interest in him at an impressionable age, sneaking off after work to take the boy out for milkshakes; an act of kindness he reminded Widmark of many years later. “It’s been my experience some of the toughest guys on the screen also happen to be the nicest after the cameras stop rolling,” Wellman Jr. would later suggest. Indeed, of all the actors featured in Yellow Sky, Richard Widmark’s career is the most unique; begun by playing fascinating – if generally stock – villains who suffer from various strains of sadism and madness. Even so, Widmark departs from the usual clichés as the ‘very bad man’ and would eventually go on to eschew the persona altogether, becoming a leading man throughout the mid-fifties and onward. Instinctually, there is something marginally appealing about Widmark’s Dude in Yellow Sky, despite the character’s despicable streak of jealousy and treacheries designed to secure all of the gold exclusively.
Ironically, Yellow Sky is not all that well remembered today. Yet, even in an era where western dramas/actioners were a dime a dozen, flooding movie palaces with interminably familiar landscapes and plot lines, Yellow Sky distinguishes itself as a decided cut above the rest. Part of this tribute is owed its cast, particularly Anne Baxter – a delicious innocent with a fiery streak of rebellion brewing just beneath her mussed curls. We can sincerely feel for Baxter’s Constance Mae, returning from a thwarted flagrante delicto with Dawson in the barn, eyeing the magazine advertisement tacked to her bedroom wall, illustrating what all the well brought up young ladies of leisure are wearing this season – a complete disconnect from the careworn calico and dusty dungarees Constance sports throughout the picture. Baxter gives us something more and infinitely better than just the wounded ingénue with that proverbial heart of gold; an earthy, occasionally viperous, slightly insecure, but always determined little spitfire with enough guts to fill in the occasional blanks where a traditionalist’s view of a real woman’s heart ought to be. Constance Mae may not be soft to the touch, but Baxter’s performance crackles with the gutsy resolve equal to any man in her midst; not necessarily as a handful, but always as his contemporary – in short, exactly the sort of gal both Dawson and William Wellman could admire; drawn from life and not the cardboard cutouts of a Hollywoodized fiction about the lusty tarts of the ole west. In the final analysis, Yellow Sky is a western of considerable distinction. It deserves far more play time and an elevated spot on most critics’ top 100 lists.
I sincerely wish we could say the same about this Kino Lorber Blu-ray release. First up, it’s not all that bad and, on occasion, can appear quite good. I just wish the transfer Fox had provided this third party distributor had been paid marginally better attention to resolve frequent chroma issues; the grayscale here waffling between true B&W tonality and a hint of light purple tint. It’s less obvious on smaller displays, but glaringly present when the image is viewed on 65 inch or larger panels, and, to the point of distraction in projection. Fine detail is generally pleasing and contrast is solid enough to explore most of the deep focus and darkly lit cinematography to its utmost visual splendor. The source is mostly free of age-related artifacts, although not everything has been fixed; occasional white speckles, dirt and scratches all the more obvious because they are rare. I am also not a fan of the minor gate weave afflicting various portions of this transfer. Again, on smaller monitors it is barely noticeable. Alas, we are no longer living in an era where everyone is watching their daily diet of movie art on 24 inch tube monitors. The more progressive and bigger our modes of viewing become, equally the more unacceptable even the minutest imperfections are.
I know I am going to get slammed for saying as much – but with 4K mastering being pushed to the forefront of our home viewing experience, I really do not see much of a point embracing anything less than perfection any longer from our disc format entertainments. And just so we are clear – ‘perfection’ is a relative term, wholly dependent on original elements currently available. Yellow Sky’s are in fairly good condition but not perfect. With just a little more tweaking and attention paid to the last detail, this disc could have – and should have been reference quality. Presently, it is merely passable with a B+ effort. As for the 2.0 DTS audio…fairly impressive, with ambient chill in its SFX of a lonely wind blowing through town and Alfred Newman’s bombastic main and end titles book-ending an otherwise ‘score-less’ presentation. Kino Lorber has ported over an audio commentary from Bill Wellman Jr. that accompanied Fox’s DVD release, plus an original – and very badly worn – theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)