A smart director knows when he has pushed the limits far enough in one direction and needs to find a new approach and come at us with something altogether different and fresh. To be sure Sam Peckinpah did push the limits to the very outer edges and much more in terms of violence and bloodshed with his classic 1969 western masterpiece known as ‘The Wild Bunch’. So with that, in much the same way as the Coen brothers normally take a break to reboot after a big serious film like their classic ‘Fargo’ with a lighter themed (but equally classic) comedy like ‘the Big Lebowski’ or the mock spy drama ‘Burn After Reading’ following their other Oscar winner, the bleak epic ‘No Country For Old Men’ so Peckinpah here chose to make ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’, a light hearted comedic romp of a fable that is a western mostly by surroundings and characters alone, with an unusual plot with touches of real tenderness and emotion, that is the complete antithesis of everything ‘The Wild Bunch’ was, but still a quality outing from the sometimes infamously uneven outlaw director.
We start with a man wandering in the desert with no provisions, having a half mad dialogue with the Almighty begging (and in true ornery oddball fashion, even haggling) him for some simple water to quench his thirst. Now if this had been a typical western of the time and type normally made starring a tougher leading man such as Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood, this movie might very well have been only thirty seconds long. That is because the reason our hero, Cable Hogue, played here by one of my all time favorite and most underrated actors in Jason Robards, is in this predicament is that he allowed himself to be taken advantage of by his former prospecting partners Taggart (L. Q. Jones) and Bowen ( played here by the great western character actor, Strother Martin) who seeing that there is enough water amongst the three of them to support at best two people comfortably, thus decide to cut Cable out and leave him out in the desert to die of thirst. Cable does manage to get the drop on them while they are doing this though, having his rifle aimed at both of them, at which point, in the aforementioned Bronson or Eastwood flick, it would have been curtains for both the two desperate thieves and the movie itself. However, we will learn Cable Hogue is not the typical type of western hero, or anti-hero, who takes human life so for granted that he can just fan his hammer and dispatch with people with the same emotionless brutality as if he were stepping on a bug. It’s this basic humanity in him that allows Taggart and Bowen to get the drop on him once more and leave him wandering in the desert looking and hoping for perchance just enough water to get him through one more day.
As fate would have it he does indeed find that water, out in the middle of nowhere, and being so happy to have discovered this, he even refuses a lift back to the nearest town by a stage coach that stops for him, preferring instead to wait by the road where he hopes one day to run into his former partners one more time at his newly christened ‘Cable Springs’ for a chance at revenge. It turns out this spring he found is located right in the middle of a major road that connects the two nearest towns of “Lizard” and “Dead Dog” (Great names, by the way). A find like this is more precious than gold for Cable, as all the wagon trains and stage coaches will now finally have a place during their long journey to stop and refresh themselves and their animals and will be able to travel faster as a result. Things get off to a rocky start for Cable though.
After toiling in the desert for many grueling days setting up his station, he has to shoot his first would be customer who tries to do the same to him after refusing his steep fee of ten cents for a cup of water. His second customer almost meets the same fate as well when he sneaks up on Hogue in the midst of digging out his cistern. It is in that customer though that Cable finds one of his best friends in the movie, the fast talking old west Elmer Gentry kind of preacher named Joshua, and played with warmth and humor by David Warner. Joshua, when not being a general pretentious, self-righteous, and pious clown can often be found drinking heavily or cohabitating with other men’s wives in the name of his ‘duty’, but aside from those more obvious and offensive bits of stereotypical hypocrisy he is also good for dishing out some of the film’s most memorable lines, speeches, and monologues, such as the one he gives during the end of the movie that strikes the perfect note of sarcastic comedy and serious dramatic resonance.
After Joshua tells him that his find is of no value to him without a title deed, Cable goes to Dead Dog to get the necessary papers to ensure his rights as the property owner, and also to find someone who will be willing to believe him and invest in his project so he will have what he needs to make a proper rest station out in his new found oasis. In town he is mostly ignored and laughed at. He is thrown out of the stagecoach office after the proprietor humors his offer for a while. It perhaps does not help that Cable is covered in about a month’s worth of dust and dirt and that his behavior and attitude can be as thorny as a cactus, which is one of his more endearing charms in the movie. He does find a few allies in town, including an investor at the local bank, and his love interest for the movie, the beautiful Stella Stevens, who plays Hildy, the town prostitute. She is not your typical hooker with a heart of gold that you see in these movies, but a more fully fleshed out character with her own dreams and goals of going out further west to San Francisco where she intends to be “the ladiest damned lady you ever did see”… She does spend a considerable amount of time with Cable though, and it’s in these scenes that this movie’s most tender and enjoyable moments are to be found.
Jason Robards is flat out fantastic in this, and that really is the chief reason to see this movie. I have been a huge fan of his ever since first discovering him in another classic western (perhaps the greatest of all westerns, in my humble opinion) ‘Once Upon A Time in the West’ where he played third wheel to Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda’s epic revenge story. Robards has the old school candor and style of a silver screen legend from the 1940s and 50s, and in this movie even looks a lot like Humphrey Bogart did in ‘Treasure of the Sierra Madre’. Robards takes Cable Hogue, who could have easily been turned into a farce by a lesser actor, and breathes real life and guts into him. Whether he’s being an ornery old huckster, a mean S.O.B, a romantic cowboy, or a revenge obsessed mad man, Robards always finds the right note here and makes every second he is on screen seem interesting and intriguing
That said if I may be allowed to criticize one of the true masters without having rotten tomatoes flung at me, I was not a fan of some of the directing choices here. There were plenty of shots which I didn’t think aged all that well here. For one, there is the scene in town where Cable first meets Hildy, and naturally, having been alone in the desert for quite a spell, takes the opportunity to ogle her bosom. Now, I hate to be one to complain about repeated shots of breasts, especially nice ones, but the tactic of zooming in on Stella Steven’s chest, and then replaying that bit over and over again came off as rather tacky and degrading. Likewise the classic slapstick comedy staple of speeding up the camera to show people moving at a ridiculous speed is used repeatedly here and each time it annoyed me. I think such scenes and shots belonged in movies far below the quality level of this one, as if there is nothing funny going on, on screen, then the simple fact that you make what is happening happen at warp speed, will not make it any funnier. I get the effect they were going for but it just didn’t seem liked it fit in with the tone of the movie, which was, while humorous, not really suited to be a slapstick kind of humor, but a more intelligent and self aware kind of western, with true comedy occurring naturally instead of forced from time to time.
This movie fits in perfectly with Peckinpah’s repeated theme of setting his pictures in the dying days of the old west. He did so love the dichotomy of the classic loner of the old west coming face to face with the beginnings of modern society, in the form of automobiles and other encroaching curiosities of the time. The image fit him, as Peckinpah himself was a director that was at once, both ahead of his time, but still fundamentally outdated enough in other more human ways beyond the grizzly violence of some of his movies that differentiated him from both his contemporaries and future imitators alike. That is no where better shown than in the climax of this movie’s major revenge plot, where Peckinpah throws our expectations a curve-ball and, instead of having Cable collect his revenge in the way you’d expect, and caving in to his former partners cat calls calling him a ‘coward’ for not shooting them before when he had the chance he instead, looking at the grander picture, in which he sees that they are all just about at the end of their rope with the oncoming of new progress and society, decides, in the end anyway, to make the more brave and risky choice to attempt a form of forgiveness.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue gets a three out of five: GOOD.