Control Nathan Rabin 4.0 #49: Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970)
When you’ve made your best, most important film, your magnum opus, your masterpiece, then there is, by definition, nowhere but go but down. Anything you do afterwards, no matter how good, no matter how beloved, no matter how influential, will not be as good as your best film.
There is something consequently a little melancholy, as well as incredibly daunting, about having to follow upa a film as revolutionary and revered as 1968’s The Wild Bunch. Sam Peckinpah directed great films before The Wild Bunch. He would go on to direct them afterward. But if people know Bloody Sam for one movie it is of course going to be The Wild Bunch.
The bittersweet aspect of having to follow up something that cannot be improved upon is compounded by Peckinpah’s career being one of those cautionary warnings of the danger of ego and excess, brutality and epic self-destruction. Peckinpah had all the talent in the world yet ended his career being too drunk to direct a movie based on a novelty trucking song, feuding with Julian Lennon on the set of the music videos they made together and closing out his career with the poorly received Robert Ludlum adaptation The Osterman Weekend.
A triumph like The Wild Bunch is a curse as well as a blessing for a filmmaker like Peckinpah because it creates expectations that would be difficult, if not impossible, for even the most disciplined, focussed filmmaker to meet. Peckinpah followed up The Wild Bunch with the beautiful, curious 1970 western Ballad of Cable Hogue which, true to form for the notorious filmmaker, went wildly over-budget and over-schedule, with no less than 36 crew people getting fired during filming despite being relatively modest in scope, a humble character study following an epic statement.
Ballad of Cable Hogue opens with its title character (the great Jason Robards, who seems to have been born a middle-aged man) in a state of profound desolation. Cable Hogue, a filthy migrant just barely holding onto life, has been betrayed and left for dead by former partners Taggart (Peckinpah repertory player L.Q Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin).
Stumbling through the desert on the verge of dying of thirst, Hogue engages in an animated, if one-sided conversation with a seemingly cruel or at least apathetic God in which the heat-sick drifter implores the higher spirit to bless him with the water that will keep him from dying with increasing urgency.
God decides to answer the desperate man’s prayers when he stumbles upon a spring in a seemingly barren desert. This discovery not only saves Cable from an ugly and lonely and agonizingly dry death, it turns him into an entrepreneur eager to claim his stake all legal-like so that he can operate an oasis of civilization in a harsh realm where weary travelers might stop for a drink of water or desert stew (composed of only the most disgusting varmints) and be gouged by the opportunistic small businessman for the pleasure.
Water brings civilization. Water is elemental. Water is necessary to sustain life. In Ballad of Cable Hogue, the fortuitous discovery of water leads to the civilization of its semi-literate title character, a stubborn man of guile decidedly lacking in book smarts.
Cable spies something worth being civilized for when he goes to the town of Dead Dog and stumbles upon the cleavage of Hildy (Stella Stevens), a prostitute whose breasts the master filmmaker continually zooms in on in a manner that silently but unmistakably conveys the message, “Get a load of them titties! A-ooga! A-ooga!”
You might think I’m being excessively coarse in that description but considering how often Peckinpah cuts away to a close-up of Hildy’s breasts, I think I’m actually erring on the side of restraint and good taste. Astonishingly, these incredibly distracting perv shots of Hildy’s cleavage aren’t the most Benny Hill-like aspect of this ultimately sad and moving character study.
No, Peckinpah’s most Benny Hill-like stylistic device is not the zoom-ins on boobs in a low cut dress but rather the film’s extensive use of sped-up film to empathize haste and urgency in a broad comic fashion. Seriously! The Ballad of Cable Hogue is ninety percent funny, sad, moving portrayal of a fascinatingly ordinary man and his changing times and ten percent wacky sex romp full of boob shots, gratuitous nudity and enough ass shots to satisfy even the horniest admirer of the female posterior.
Like The Benny Hill Show, Ballad of Cable Hogue is horny as fuck, full of sped-up film, cleavage aplenty and dude’s eyes damn near bugging out of their skulls in salacious appreciation of the female form. Unlike The Benny Hill Show, it’s also a haunting, superbly written and acted elegy for a lost time from a master filmmaker.
So while The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a poignant and lovely revisionist western, it’s also shockingly, distractingly concerned with boobs and butts and pretty women who smell like perfume and sunshine and feel like heaven. The film doesn’t just objectify and sexualize Hildy in a manner that seems extreme and excessive for a western from one of the uncontested masters of the genre; it would seem extreme and excessive for a Playboy Playmate video.
Cable has to kill his first would-be customer when he sneers at paying ten cents for a life-saving gulp of water. In this Darwinian, barbaric realm you have to literally make a killing in order to have a shot at making one figuratively.
Our ornery hero’s second customer proves more congenial. He’s Joshua (David Warner), a roaringly charismatic, silver-tongued orator who travels Nevada and parts of Arizona spreading the Lord’s gospel by fleecing men, seducing vulnerable women and imbibing any liquor he can get his hands on.
Joshua is a preacher in a revisionist western. That means that he’s a sexually voracious charlatan whose “pious” words do little to mask his status as an unrepentant sinner. Warner is fantastic in the scene-stealing role of a fake man of faith perpetually on the make, pursuing his own ferocious, decidedly unGodly appetites and hungers while masquerading as the Lord’s vessel on our impure, corrupted planet.
These very different, but similarly enterprising men strike up a curious alliance of sorts despite Joshua being unable and unwilling to resist trying to have sex with Hildy, the love of Cable’s life, whenever he can. In Peckinpah’s world, you can’t be too particular with who you work with, because everyone’s a greedy, murderous bastard and possibly a sex criminal as well but there are also there are probably about a dozen people in a hundred mile radius, so it’s not like you have a lot of other choices.
Cable cleans up nicely. With Joshua’s help, he creates an oasis of semi-civilization out in the middle of nowhere, making a name (the spot is entitled Cable Springs) for himself in the process and using his newfound respectability, money and non-stinkiness, to woo the beautiful, ambitious Hildy, who has her heart set on marrying a rich, hopefully soon-to-perish man and spending the rest of her life with his money.
Beyond his business ambitions, Cable basically wants to do two things: get revenge on the low-down villains who left him for dead and get his grubby paws all over Hildy’s sweet, sweet breasts. Though Peckinpah is usually a cruel God to his characters he’s uncharacteristically gentle, even kind here.
Cable gets a chance to live out his dreams of both boob touching and vengeance but one of those endeavors proves emotionally hollow, even empty, incredibly disappointing and disillusioning. Here’s a hint: it’s not the boob touching. That seems to work out great for Cable, who is really into boobs, specifically Hildy’s.
As in The Wild Bunch, when early automobiles show up here it’s so jarring that it almost feels anachronistic, but it’s not. The Ballad of Cable Hogue takes place around 1910, so the world its protagonist embodied, a Wild West universe of shootouts and saloons, the Pony Express and stagecoaches was rapidly dying and a new world was roaring to life, full of fantastical-looking cars and planes and zeppelins and other miracles of twentieth century technology.
Like many of Peckinpah’s films, The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a mournful elegy for a dying west and the men who populated it, men of violence but also men of honor.
Cable is one such man and Cable is, in its own understated way, enormously powerful, particularly a film-ending eulogy from Joshua that illustrates that while he may be a sham reverend, his eloquence is very real.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue was Peckinpah’s favorite amongst his films. I’m guessing he’s relatively unusual in that respect but if The Ballad of Cable Hogue is not a clear favorite in Peckinpah’s filmography it’s easy to see why it’s important and special to its creator. After the big bang that was The Wild Bunch he chose to go small and intimate and tell a sad, funny and ultimately very human story about flawed, fascinating people caught up in the raging currents of an ever-changing world.
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