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Yellow Sky
(William A. Wellman, 1948)


The first half of Yellow Sky is compelling, atypical and psychologically rich. A bank robbery occurs and a chase ensues, horses racing at breakneck speed across the visually-striking salt flats, the pounding of their hooves in sync with the pounding of viewers' hearts. Tense, exciting, edge-of-your-saddle stuff. This thrilling introduction soon transitions into a tale of survival: parched cowboys sweating interpersonal conflicts under the scorching desert sun. Canteen whiskey, diminishing water, no refuge in sight. A cast of black hats, their pouches stuffed with meaningless wealth: who lives, who dies? I would've been happy if the entire film had orbited this dilemma; but lo and behold: on the horizon -- a town! Death is delayed. Thirsts are quenched. An abandoned town provides respite. The only inhabitants here are ghosts, tumbleweeds . . . and an old prospector and his feisty granddaughter. Lust bubbles to the surface over swaying hips. Testosterone-fueled tensions threaten to tear apart the outlaw gang. It seems that viewers are in store for a dynamic, unpredictable game of sexual politics among morally bankrupt bank robbers . . . only for the film to shift in yet another direction. Now we're in well-trodden territory about greed and hidden gold. The rest of Yellow Sky plays out like a disappointing, inferior version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (coincidentally released the same year).

Throughout most of his career, Gregory Peck was the on-screen personification of dignified virtue, so it's no surprise who among this cast of thieves is the first to find a conscience (which was apparently hiding beneath Peck's beard, as his character's shift toward righteousness occurs shortly after a shave). Though a bit miscast, he's fine in the lead role, especially in moments that require his trademark stoicism. Richard Widmark seems more at home in the alleyways of noir than on horseback, but he puts his weaselly smirk to good use, even if his talent is underutilized by the script. The supporting cast do well with their eccentricities --- John Russell, in particular, who seems the horniest of the bunch, staring longingly and lustfully at the painting of a woman in a bar during an early scene that exemplifies his lecherous nature. Anne Baxter is possibly the standout as a strong-willed woman uncharacteristic of the genre. Plant one on her lips, she'll sock you in the jaw. Too bad that by the end "love" has eroded much of what made her character interesting. The prolific William A. Wellman, known for his no-frills approach to direction, proves equally adept at subtle sexuality as he does with shoot-outs. The lack of a musical score is likely meant to mirror the barren desert landscape, but I could've used a lonesome harmonica or a few acoustic plucks to complement the on-screen emotions.

As the saying goes, it's not how you start a race, but how you finish. Yellow Sky should have heeded that advice. Despite coming out of the gates hot, the film unravels as it goes along, eventually limping to the closing credits. What starts as a fresh, unique take on the western with numerous interesting avenues to explore, disappointingly settles for the most predictable path already well-worn by previous films. Don't get me wrong: Yellow Sky is a good movie and it's certainly worthwhile for fans of the genre; but fair or not, last impressions are strongest impressions. To that end, Yellow Sky underwhelms. I rode away from this ghost town feeling that it was a missed opportunity at something special.