Tuesday, May 30, 2017

RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY: Blu-ray (MGM 1962) Warner Archive

A sad-eyed/clear-eyed and unabashedly sentimental elegy for the Hollywood western of old, foreshadowing of things yet to come, Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country (1962) teems with the sort of tropes, trials and tribulations of male/female courtship and that buddy/buddy male chest-thumping camaraderie that bodes well for this classic tale of right and wrong. Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, partisans of the genre, ride like the wind, roll with the thunder and deliver the penultimate message no lover of this golden epoch really wants to hear; that its age of chivalry, where men of honor came to know themselves by the lessers faced down at the point of a rifle, as well as an entire way of depicting such daring exploits on celluloid has rather unexpectedly come to an abrupt finale. Scott gets some of the drollest dialogue ever conceived and has just enough craggy lines etched into his impossibly handsome matinee idol good looks to bring careworn cache to this weather-beaten saga, depicting man against man, man alone, man against nature, his best friend, and his sworn enemy. 
As much beloved for its revisionist trappings as it has since garnered the respect and admiration of generations taken their cue from Peckinpah’s nostalgic valediction; Ride the High Country proves likewise a very classy parting glass to Randolph Scott and, for some years thereafter, Joel McCrea (who would only appear twice more in front of the camera).  In hindsight, it’s interesting to reflect upon Ride the High Country as Scott’s grand finale; begun as a bit player in 1928 and steadily moving through the ranks into ‘A’ list pictures, although curiously, never as ‘the star’. Scott certainly had the charisma and rugged masculinity (impossibly chiseled from horn to hoof) of an amiable leading man. But he steadily found himself bringing up the rear, a popular player in the Zane Grey cycle of westerns; also shadowing the likes of Fred Astaire (who became one of his best friends in life) and Cary Grant (with whom he shared a swingin’ bachelor pad from 1932 to 1944). Scott’s retirement from pictures was likely predicated on the fact he no longer had to work, having managed shrewd investments in real estate, gas, oil wells and other securities, totaling a cool $100 million. Perhaps the most fascinating part about Scott’s movie career is how he possessed a disturbing liquidity to effortlessly assuage between playing heroes and villains; a duality impeccably crafted in Ride the High Country.
Scott is Gil Westrum; a charlatan, peddling crooked carnival games at the local county fair (a shooting gallery where all the guns are filled with blanks). Gil is stunned by the return of Steve Judd (McCrea); a man of integrity he once knew well, but from whom he has long since drifted away. As corruptible as Gil has become, time has not managed to wither Steve’s granite-like veracity for truth or justice. Since their time together, Gil has taken on an impressionable sidekick, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr); a young buck, naïve in his passions. Starr’s performance is likely the weakest in the picture, though not entirely without its merits or moments. Starr’s ephemeral legacy (he appeared in only three features and a handful of television shows, in supporting roles) is another oddity about Ride the High Country; Heck’s flip-flopping loyalties, unsuccessful at straddling the screenplay’s preoccupation with the emotionality of men. Although Heck likely has two of the greatest mentors to finesse his gracelessness into typified manhood, he is seemingly too wet behind the ears, and too unwilling to ever truly assimilate into this aged brotherhood of real men. It is, in fact, a little hard to take Heck’s burgeoning interests in Elsa Knudsen (Mariette Hartley) seriously; Elsa, the forthright, strong-willed, but as independently stubborn and silly daughter of a religious zealot/rancher, Joshua (R.G. Armstrong) who looks upon her un-tethered beauty as a curse rather than a virtue.
In spots, Ride the High Country is as dynamic and flamboyant as the adventurous spirit of the American west; herein, laced by screenwriter, N.B. Stone Jr. (with un-credited assists from William Roberts and Peckinpah) with a weather vein of crisis of conscience. Steve Judd is an honorable man, plunked in the middle of a wilderness that no longer supports his cause or his archetype; God’s lonely man in pursuit of the ephemeral American dream – the tinny echo of ‘go west young man’ trampled underfoot in this muddy, stark and unforgiving terrain. The dream is already dead and Steve knows it. Indeed, virtually all the individuals we encounter in Ride the High Country – from Joshua to Jenie Jackson’s piggish and rosy-cheeked whorehouse madam, Kate (with the most scandalous set of projectile milk glands ever glimpsed in a major motion picture), to the Hammond clan, headlined by the slovenly, off kilter, violent and thoroughly possessive, Billy (James Drury) suggest a frontier milieu already having gone horribly to seed; attractive only to, and regrettably, made unattractive by these dregs, departed from more polite societies elsewhere; come to carouse, defile and otherwise tainted these virgin territories with their lowest common denominator of humanity. Gil is uniquely situated within this infestation of sin; not quite sold out to its debased primitiveness, though nevertheless not above applying its precepts to escape incarceration. Foretelling of where Peckinpah would take the western in just a few short years, Gil outlasts Steve (virtue, decidedly not its own reward on this outing, nor even likely to be preserved in the end).
Ride the High Country opens in the early dawn of the twentieth century – the end of that daydreamer’s promise to ‘civilize’ the untamed frontier. The goal now is merely to populate and survive it. Weather-beaten yet stoic ex-lawman, Steve Judd has come to town, entering into an agreement with bankers, Luther (Percy Helton) and Abner Sampson (Byron Foulger) to escort their shipment of gold from the Californian backwater of Hornitos. The last six miners who tried as much were murdered along the lonesome trail in the Sierra Nevada. The Sampson brothers are far from legit. And Steve is far removed from his own reputation as a once-respected defender of the right, skulking off to the latrine to read over his contract, requiring the use of spectacles. Whatever his physical failings, Steve is still a man of his word. Time has not eroded his sense of duty, morality or fair play. His paths cross with a former colleague, Gil Westrum, sporting a very Custard-esque moustache and goatee, passing himself off as The Oregon Kid: a fictionally celebrated sharpshooter.  Gil’s young protégé, Heck Longtree is a follower, as yet unaccustomed to the social graces of squiring, but as naïve in believing he is the cock of the walk where the ladies are concerned when, in reality, he is little more than the boy, ever trying to impress with his misguided notions of the truer stature of a real man. Gil doesn’t mind Heck’s naiveté. In fact, it makes him more pliable to his mentoring.
Yet, even as Gil agrees to help Steve escort the gold down the mountain he has far less altruistic motives; assuming he can sway his old friend into absconding with the loot (incorrectly estimated as ten times its actual worth at the start of their journey); then, plotting to do away with Steve when he absolutely refuses to partake of this scheme. But Gil has underestimated Steve; also, Heck, who slowly comes around to seeing there is the nobility of the man to reconsider, respect and admire. Heck’s reasons for converting to the side of righteousness have a lot more to do with the trio’s chance encounter with rancher, Joshua Knudsen and his comely daughter, Elsa. Saddened by the loss of his wife, yet warped in his adherences to the Christian principle, Joshua strikes Elsa with the back of his hand, presumably to tame her burgeoning femininity (she’s tired of being a tomboy, though equally as unaware how being a woman in the wilderness could have its drawbacks), Joshua is adverse to Heck’s flirtatiousness. Elsa is grotesquely green; welcoming Heck’s advances to a point, but then utterly startled when he attempts to take their fractured courtship to the next level. In reply, she runs off after the departing trio to defy her father, determined she should be escorted with or without their help to Hornitos where her beloved, Billy Hammond awaits.
Elsa has horrendously misjudged Billy. For although he wants to, and proceeds to make Elsa his bride, the ceremony officiated by the drunken, Judge Tolliver (Edgar Buchanan) transforms sainted wedlock – particularly the honeymoon (hosted inside Katie’s brothel) into a grotesque bacchanal of disillusionment; Elsa’s marital rape at the hands of her inebriated hubby inside one of Kate’s upstairs bedrooms narrowly averted when Heck valiantly comes to her rescue. Surrounded by his brethren, Elder (John Anderson), Sylvus (L.Q. Jones), Henry (Warren Oates) and Jimmy (John Davis Chandler), Billy is nevertheless outnumbered by the impromptu prowess of Heck, and a show of steel from Steve and Gil who take the newlywed Elsa into their custody. Forcing Tolliver to sign an affidavit attesting to the fact his minister’s license is not valid in the state of California, thereby rendering Elsa’s marriage to Billy null and void, Gil, Steve, Heck and Elsa proceed on their return journey down the mountain with the Sampson’s gold.
Henceforth, Ride the High Country enters its most prophetic forecasting about the future of the Hollywood western; Gil’s needling attempts to feel out the depth of Steve’s loyalties. At every subtle inference Gil makes about possibly looking out for themselves, Steve quietly reiterates the virtues of right over wrong. “That’s just something you know,” he explains. We learn how Steve’s bravura and misguided notions of what being a ‘real’ man meant in his youth cost him the best woman he ever knew. This sacrifice, and all of the ‘lost years’ that followed it have matured Steve’s outlook, and in the interim he has valiantly struggled to regain his self-respect; a commodity he now defiantly intends to hang on to “with the help of you and that boy back there.” When Gil inquires if this is all he desires, Steve quietly forewarns, “All I want is to enter my house justified.” Recognizing the futility in trying to convince Steve to part with the gold as their spoils, Gil now plots to seize the first opportunity to claim it all for himself. He is ambushed in this initiative; first, by Steve, not nearly so blind in reading Gil’s truer intentions; second, by Heck, having come around to Steve’s honorable way of looking at the world, in part because of his genuine affections for Elsa.
Steve places Gil and Heck under arrest; binding their hands so they cannot escape. Regrettably, the Hammonds have pursued them on horseback, hell-bent on reclaiming Elsa. Forced to free Gil and Heck to aid in their own defense, Steve takes cover behind a row of boulders. Heck climbs high into the mountains, taking dead aim and killing Sylvus with his rifle. Jimmy also takes a fatal bullet; Billy, Elder and Henry retreating to relative safety further down the mountainside. Steve agrees to leave Gil and Heck to their own accord for the time being. But he has no intension of letting them go free once they make it back into town. Heck has come to terms with the likelihood he will have to go to prison for several years. But Elsa confides she will wait for him. Alas, in the dead of night Gil makes a daring escape. Steve, Heck and Elsa return to Elsa’s homestead by late the next afternoon, Elsa taking notice of her father praying over the makeshift grave of her mother; quite unusual, since this ritual is usually a part of Joshua’s morning routine.
Suspecting the worst, Steve orders everyone to take cover. Indeed, his instincts prove sound; the remaining Hammond brothers opening fire from the farmhouse, revealing to all they have already murdered Joshua and staged his body as a lure. Both Steve and Heck take a bullet during the resulting ambush. But Gil resurfaces, charging into the fray with guns blazing. In the hailstorm of bullets that immediately follows the Hammonds are wiped out, but not before Gil is wounded and Steve, riddled in buckshot. As he lay dying near the paddock, Steve quietly surmises, “I don't want them to see this. I want to go it alone,” Gil pledges to carry on as he would have, and Steve, adding, “Hell, I know that. I always did. You just forgot it for a while, that's all.” Steve quietly expires, his head tilted back towards the high country; the camera’s pan and tilt into the mountains and blue sky.  
It is impossible not to take this penultimate sendoff with the proverbial lump in the throat. For Steve’s demise is not only the death knell for the big-budgeted western but by extension, a farewell to the way movies in general used to be made in Hollywood, with a plotted blend of star power, investment in a good story, a modicum of ingenuity conceived and carried out by a stock company of veterans in their respective crafts and finally, with the finesse of a master showman/storyteller at the helm. Peckinpah’s direction here is a little more slick and studio-polished than in his later movies. There’s more glamor than grit on display; a few of the scenes too cordial and clean to be believed. In fact, Ride the High Country has the look of a fifties Cinemascope adventure (despite being shot in Panavision). At moments, the picture aspires to keep its audience innocent of the derailment of these solitary he-men that are, by the end of this movie, an all but vanquished breed.
Eschewing convention, the west’s most ardent champion, the mythically pure lawman of folklore is sacrificed to these wide open spaces; truth and justice handed down to men of more questionable motives, and, the era from which such legends are etched gone forever. This solitary man will never again peaceably ride into the sunset; resourceful, rugged, asking nothing of the world except to be let alone in it, yet deprived even of this modest luxury. Ride the High Country may not be the best remembered of westerns – nor even the most deified of Peckinpah’s (we still give it to his revisionist opus magnum, The Wild Bunch, made just a scant seven years later). Nevertheless, the picture speaks to Peckinpah’s rather ironic and sad interpretation of the end; a pining for these caliber of men, farther reaching in their integrity than their ambitions.  
Based on N.B. Stone’s originally titled screenplay, ‘Guns in the Afternoon’; Ride the High Country was the brainchild of producer, Richard Lyons, a great admirer of Peckinpah's work on The Westerner TV series. After an extensive rewrite Peckinpah, basing Steve Judd on his own father, elected to weave an almost religious tragedy into the film’s subtext; Steve’s fate/Gil’s salvation. Alas, in a year dominated by such iconic and eclectic fare as the ebullient musical, The Music Man; political dramas - Advise and Consent, The Manchurian Candidate, shocker/thrillers like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and, Experiment in Terror; the first James Bond adventure, Dr. No,  and capped off by David Lean’s multi-Oscar-winning/thinking man’s epic, Lawrence of Arabia (to name but a handful of the diverse films on tap), Ride the High Country failed to make even a ripple at the box office. It quietly vanished in the U.S., despite high praise from Newsweek, but became something of a sleeper hit in Europe; beating out even Federico Fellini's for first prize at the Belgium Film Festival. Viewed today, Ride the High Country remains decidedly in a class apart.
Peckinpah’s personal touches have imbued the story-telling with a sort of rare and genuine introspection. The two more popular westerns of the year, at least with audiences; John Ford’s cheaply made, and perhaps as clear-eyed, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and MGM’s colossus of mega-watt star power run amuck in Cinerama – How the West Was Won have remained enjoyable to watch, though equally as dated; time capsules to that ‘other’ Hollywood, now truly dead and gone. By comparison, Ride the High Country has lingered with an invigorating freshness; its astute commentary about the folly and fate of inherently good men, ringing thus even more momentously authentic for those struggling to find or live up to their likes today. Like the movie itself, such paragons among us are oft later canonized, though rarely treasured in their own time.
The Warner Archive’s (WAC) Blu-ray is a vast improvement over the original DVD from 2004, though not entirely without its drawbacks. The overall palette here leans to a bluish tint; greens still somewhat muted and flesh tones infrequently piggy pinkish. While overall image clarity snaps together in 1080p, we don’t really get the anticipated razor-sharpness of a Panavision feature; instead, a residual softness creeping in around the peripheries of the frame.  Exteriors shot on location at Inyo National Forest and Malibu Creek State Park possess more overall clarity, sharpness and color consistency and saturation than their studio-bound interior set pieces; contrast waffling between solid to just mediocre. Overall, a valiant effort – if not quite a perfect one. 
Like the image, the DTS 2.0 audio is passable, if hardly extraordinary.  Like virtually all their Blu-rays, WAC has ported over the extras from their DVD release: a comprehensive commentary from Peckinpah documentarians, Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle, and the rather curiously brief featurette, A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the Hogue Country, in non-anamorphic 1.78:1. We also get a badly worn original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: recommended for content. The Blu-ray is above average at best, though frequently it hovers at just half as good as it might have been with a little bit more restoration work applied.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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