Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Film Farewell to Two Old Pros

"The Lord's bounty may not be for sale, but the Devil's is — if you can pay the price."

Gil (Randolph Scott)

Mariette Hartley is mostly known for her work on television programs — except for a time in the late '70s and early '80s when she was so convincing in her Polaroid commercial work with James Garner that many people apparently believed they really were married.

Consequently it is easy to overlook her movie career, but the fact is she did have a movie career, and it started with Sam Peckinpah's "Ride the High Country," which premiered on this day in 1962.

The stars of the show were Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, two old pros nearing the ends of their careers. It was to be Scott's final film appearance. McCrea would make a few more, but it would be his last significant role.

McCrea played an aging lawman who was hired to escort a shipment of gold through dangerous territory. In hindsight, he kind of resembled Gus and Woodrow in 1989's Lonesome Dove — he had been tough and respected in his prime, but he was way past his prime, and this represented his last opportunity to have an adventure. But he knew he couldn't do it alone. To help him with his task McCrea hired an old friend (played by Scott) who made a living as a sharpshooter named The Oregon Kid.

Scott had more on his mind than making a few dollars a day to guard someone else's money. He was bringing along a young protege and they intended to persuade McCrea to steal the gold rather than protect it. Well, they planned to steal the gold, anyway, whether McCrea went along with them or not. It would be a lot easier on everybody if he went along — but his cooperation was neither expected nor necessary.

On the way, with this as a backdrop, the men spent a night on a religious fanatic's farm where they encountered Hartley, who played his daughter. She wanted to escape her father and planned to elope with her boyfriend.

To that end, she insisted on joining up with McCrea and Scott the next day, leading to several complications and setting up an eventual reconciliation between McCrea and Scott, who had grown apart in some ways over the years, as even the best of friends can do.

As was so frequently the case, Peckinpah's film dealt largely with the human conflict between values and ideals. It wasn't as violent as his later efforts, most notably "The Wild Bunch," but it was more cerebral; thus it can be recommended to movie fans who do not ordinarily like to watch westerns. It didn't feature as much violence as "The Wild Bunch," but that doesn't mean violence was missing entirely. It simply means it wasn't as brutal as it came to be in later Peckinpah movies.

Violence was always an element — at least — of a Peckinpah movie. But "Ride the High Country" was about more than that. It was about right and wrong; even the naive character Hartley played could see that, but she could also see that it was more complicated than that implies.

"It isn't that simple, is it?" she asked McCrea at one point.

"No, it isn't" McCrea, the virtuous man in this western morality play, answered. "It ought to be, but it isn't."

Right vs. wrong was just one of many themes that were explored in "Ride the High Country." Others were: age vs. youth, chastity vs. debauchery, strictness vs. wickedness. It didn't stop there. "Ride the High Country" was loaded with conflicts.

I know people who only like westerns if they have a lot of shooting, and such people won't be disappointed with "Ride the High Country." But I have always felt that one of the main attractions of a western is the sweeping panoramic views of western landscapes. Much of the modern West is still frontier, even with modern highways running through it; still there are more and bigger cities in the western half of the U.S. than there were a century ago.

In another century it may be as congested as the eastern half of the country — which is why I am all in favor of preserving images of it while we still can.

"Ride the High Country" had some gorgeous cinematography (even though much of it was filmed in the Los Angeles area), but it received no Oscar nominations, not even for its cinematography.

In hindsight that seems odd, given how its following has grown over the years. In fact, many people will say "Ride the High Country" was Peckinpah's finest movie.

If you have seen "The Wild Bunch," you know that is high praise indeed.

And if that is true, much of the credit goes to Scott and McCrea. Not only did they give riveting performances. They were originally cast in opposite parts — and, quite quickly, came to the conclusion individually that they should swap roles — which they did, and it made all the difference.

A coin flip at the Brown Derby determined whether Scott or McCrea would get top billing in the credits. Scott won, but it could just as easily have been McCrea; their contributions to the movie's success were equal.