Sunday, March 31, 2013

Ride the High Country (1962)

Director: Sam Peckinpah                            Writer: N.B. Stone Jr.
Film Score: George Bassman                     Cinematography: Lucien Ballard
Starring: Joel McCrea, Randolph Scott, Mariette Hartley and Warren Oates

Though capable of playing a variety of roles, Randolph Scott became one of Hollywood’s most durable western stars. Ride the High Country is his last film, before retiring on his investments and turning his back on the movies. The film is also notable for being the feature film debut of the great Sam Peckinpah. In addition, we have one of Joel McCrea’s final roles, as well as the first role for Mariette Hartley. So, it’s a film with distinction and one that delivers for a bunch of reasons.

McCrea plays an over the hill former law man who takes a job transporting gold from a mining camp in the mountains of California down to the bank. While in town he meets an old friend in the form of Scott, who is dressed up as Buffalo Bill Cody and running a carnival shooting gallery. When McCrea tells him he needs a couple of extra hands for the job, Scott volunteers along with youngster Ron Starr. Unknown to McCrea, however, Scott and Starr intend to steal the gold with the hopes that McCrea will go along with them and split the money.

It’s fascinating to see Scott as the antagonist . . . though he's not really that. One of the things that makes the film so great is the script by Norris B. Stone, who wrote primarily for television westerns during his career. At one point Hartley tells McCrea, “My father says there’s only right and wrong, good and evil,” and that’s one of the things Stone does so well with Scott’s character. He really isn’t the protagonist at all, but he does occupy one of those gray areas that Stone writes about in his screenplay. Like so many westerns from the fifties on, it challenges conventions and because of that it has earned the status of a classic.

This is early Peckinpah. Prior to this he had been directing TV westerns, most notably Gunsmoke and The Rifleman, so there’s not a lot here that points to his later work. The one exception would be the wedding scene. He does a nice job of shooting the scene so that we experience things from Hartley’s point of view, distorting, disorienting shots that begin like a funhouse mirror and quickly turn into a chamber of horrors as Hartley is passed around to her newlywed husband’s brothers and father. The other notable thing about the film is the underlying theme of the old gunhands on their last run, which would be repeated later in films like John Wayne’s The Shootist all the way up to Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. It’s not a brilliant western, but Ride the High Country is certainly satisfying and has a lot to offer fans of the genre.

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