Thursday 21 July 2022

Movie Review: Yellow Sky (1948)

A thoughtful western with eerie settings, Yellow Sky contemplates themes of honour, greed, and leadership.

In 1867, outlaw James "Stretch" Dawson (Gregory Peck) leads his gang into a town where they quietly rob the local bank without hurting anyone. The gang members include the cool and detached Dude (Richard Widmark), the ambitious but highly strung Lengthy (John Russell), the noisy Walrus (Charles Kemper), and the young Bull Run (Robert Arthur). Chased by a posse, they escape into a hostile desert.

Suffering dehydration and exhaustion, the gang arrives at the abandoned town of Yellow Sky. The only inhabitants are a young woman named Mike (Anne Baxter) and her Grandpa (James Barton), a prospector. Mike triggers sexual tension among the gang members, while Lengthy and Dude take turns challenging Stretch's leadership. When Dude learns that Grandpa has a stash of gold, Stretch negotiates a share agreement, but greed causes gang rivalries to explode into violence.

Directed by William A. Wellman, written by Lamar Trotti, and inspired by Shakespeare's The TempestYellow Sky enjoys unconventional twists. The absence of a natural protagonist is pleasantly disorienting. Stretch Dawson is an outlaw, and has to work hard to reveal the gradations of good separating him from the other gang members. The settings and terrain are also more mythical than traditional westerns, the narrative seeking mental and physical isolation as triggers for organizational breakdown. The desert crossing sequence is a brutal odyssey across unforgiving land, and at the end of it the ghost town of Yellow Sky is the antithesis of salvation.

A watering hole at the town's edge emerges as the one initially unifying source of life, until a woman, gold, and greed combine to bust up the gang. Mike's male name metaphorically signals she is unaware of her impact on men. Quickly a target of their lust, she also wields power beyond the rifle to influence outcomes. 

Some of the film's other elements are less refined. The large group of Apaches who ride into town are an unwieldy plot contrivance in the evolution of trust between Stretch and Grandpa. Wellman excels when the pacing is deliberate, but struggles when emotions run high, the scuffling and shootout scenes lacking polish. And the search for gold takes a detour into an unlikely and clumsy mine excavation.

But the aesthetics are always engaging and convey a slightly surreal trapped-in-a-nightmare mood, the black and white cinematography (courtesy of Joseph MacDonald) making excellent use of sparsity to surround Stretch and his men with ramshackle nothingness. And the narrative strengthens with the sturdy character arc navigated by Stretch, Trotti providing him with a background, a reason to reform, and an opportunity to stand by his word and seek redemption. In Yellow Sky, the pathway from money to wealth passes through an arid test of self-reckoning.

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