Ride the High Country

Norman Mailer once said that Truman Capote was "the most perfect writer" of his generation. Sam Peckinpah combined the best of both of them and became the most perfect filmmaker of his generation. He had the irrepressible life force and expansive rhetoric of Mailer, and the love for misfits and for craft of Capote. And he had it all from the beginning of his movie-directing career. When you see a great Peckinpah film like his second feature, Ride the High Country (1962), you feel that the director has found a way to tell a story that lays his own soul across the screen. This movie celebrates a hero of self-control. But each frame is energized with a sense of what that self-control has cost the man in love, friendship, and glory.

Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is one of Peckinpah's gallant Westerners: an ex-lawman trying to regain his professional integrity after years of work in pickup jobs like bartender or bouncer. He enlists his former deputy, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), to help him transport bullion from a High Country mining camp to a bank in the town below. Westrum has become a scam artist in a traveling Wild West show; Judd doesn't realize that his old friend, with the help of a new partner, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), intends to steal the gold away.

Peckinpah sets us down in America's closing frontier land not as spectators but as Steve Judd's sidekicks. In the opening scene, Judd tips his hat to townsfolk who seem to be greeting his arrival. All that interests them, though, is the hyped-up spectacle of the camel-vs.-horse race that Heck runs for the Wild West show. From there on in, we, as well as Judd, take every glance or gesture as a comment on his relevance or worth. When he shakes hands with one of his banker-employers, Peckinpah cuts to his grip, as if the handshake is a test of strength. The banker is merely studying Judd's frayed shirt. Peckinpah could use details as small as an unraveling cuff to take the measure of one man's pettiness and another's pride.

The movie is principally about Westrum and Longtree's redemption through their love for this modest, righteous man. When they and Judd take Elsa (Mariette Hartley), the daughter of a puritanical father, to her miner fiancé, Billy Hammond (James Drury), she brings home the director's aversion to white hat/black hat melodrama. "My father says there's only right and wrong, good and evil. It isn't that simple, is it?" asks Elsa. "No," Judd replies, "It should be, but it isn't." Elsa doesn't know that she's marrying into a bestial family -- and the director's sympathy for her belies his reputation for misogyny. Peckinpah films Elsa's marriage in a cathouse largely from her point of view, and the result is comparable in tragicomic force to the humiliations of the prostitute heroine in Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. As the Hammond brothers lick their lips at the prospect of sharing Billy's bride, the sequence passes from pastoral charm to lyric grotesquerie to a nightmare bacchanal.

Peckinpah's passion for directing extends to the farthest corner of the screen and the smallest seam in the editing. He continuously enlarges the meaning and impact of the action with magical improvisations: In the prelude to the climactic shoot-out, the most feral Hammond (Warren Oates) vents his anger at Judd and Westrum by shooting at some chickens. Peckinpah worked with his lead actors to envelop their characters in a kind of kinetic compassion. Desperation breaks out vividly and pitiably beneath the calculating surface of Scott's Westrum. And McCrea gives Judd a ruefulness that makes it all the more inspiring when he and Westrum confront the Hammonds, square their shoulders, and march to their fate without flinching. When the just and unpretentious Judd "goes it alone" and dies, he turns his massive frame for one last look at the high country -- then plummets to the bottom of the movie frame. You feel close enough to hear his heart stop.

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