Friday, October 24, 2014

Movie Review: Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, and Richard Widmark in Yellow Sky (1948)

Spanish language poster for Yellow Sky, or Cielo Amarillo, 1948. The poster artist even got Richard Widmark's smirk right.

Gregory Peck in Yellow Sky, 1948. Still handsome, even with a scruffy beard.

Anne Baxter and Gregory Peck in Yellow Sky, 1948. He shaved his beard to impress her. He's really hoping she doesn't punch him in the face again.

Richard Widmark practicing his smirk. He's flanked by Harry Morgan on the left and Robert Arthur on the right.
Yellow Sky, released in 1948, is a fascinating and unusual western. Directed by William A. Wellman, Yellow Sky stars Gregory Peck, Anne Baxter, and Richard Widmark. Wellman directed many well-known movies, including the very first Oscar winner for Best Picture, Wings. Among Wellman’s other famous movies are The Public Enemy, with James Cagney, the original 1937 version of A Star is Born, the 1939 remake of Beau Geste, with Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, and a very young Robert Preston, and The High and the Mighty, with John Wayne. 

Peck stars as “Stretch,” the leader of a gang of outlaws. His gang includes Richard Widmark, John Russell, and a very young Harry Morgan. After robbing a bank, the gang crosses a large salt flat. Desperate for water, they come across an abandoned town whose only inhabitants are a young woman called Mike, (Anne Baxter) and her grandfather, played by James Barton. Mike is hostile to the gang and just wants them to leave. But members of the gang think that she and her grandfather are hiding a cache of gold. 

I’ll leave the plot summary there, so as not to reveal all of the twists and turns the movie takes. I had never heard of Yellow Sky until recently, when it came up as I was searching my DVR for movies starring Gregory Peck. I read the plot summary, which reads something like, “A gang of outlaws come upon a ghost town and its only inhabitant.” I said to myself, “That sounds so weird, I need to see this movie.” I’m very glad I did, as Yellow Sky is an excellent film. The cinematography is great, and there are a lot of very well-composed shots. Many of the camera angles and shadows make it feel a lot like a film noir. There’s even a moment when we see a POV shot through the barrel of Mike’s rifle, which looks just like the famous opening sequence from the James Bond movies, 14 years before there were any Bond movies. One of the coolest parts of Yellow Sky is that we don’t even get to see the climactic shoot-out. We just see the flashes of gunfire and have to wait until Mike runs in to see who, if anyone, is left standing.

The cast is superb, and the characters are well-drawn, as all of the members of the gang have distinct personalities. John Russell is very good as “Lengthy,” and he has an interesting moment at the beginning of the film as he stares at a drawing of a busty woman on a horse. You can tell from the snide comment he makes and his intense glare that he only thinks of women as objects, which becomes more clear when we see his interactions with Mike. With his long hair and mustache, Russell would have no trouble fitting in as a 2014 hipster. Anne Baxter, perhaps best known for playing Eve in All About Eve, is very well cast as the tough girl Mike. (Her real name is Constance Mae.) Although Baxter was slight in stature, she carries herself with the confidence and steely courage the character requires. She even decks Peck when he gets fresh with her. I haven’t seen Anne Baxter is very many movies, but she was stunningly beautiful in Yellow Sky. A really cool fact that I learned about Anne Baxter is that her grandfather was Frank Lloyd Wright. I wonder if she got a family discount on Wright-designed houses? I also learned that I’ve seen Anne Baxter’s grave, without knowing it. She’s buried in the small churchyard across the highway from Wright’s home and studio Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. Richard Widmark had made his movie debut just the year before in Kiss of Death, in which he played a maniacal bad guy, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Yellow Sky was just his fourth movie, and although he was getting typecast, it shows how good Widmark was at playing a jerk. His smirky grin lets you know that his character “Dude” is not to be trusted. Yellow Sky was a rare turn as a bad guy for Gregory Peck, although it quickly becomes clear that even though his character Stretch is an outlaw, there are other members of his gang who are worse people. (Like Dude.) Peck plays his part well as the confident leader of the gang. Which makes me wonder, did Gregory Peck ever play a self-doubting character? Greg Peck always knows what to do. He wouldn’t have made a very good Hamlet. Also, let me just say for the record, holy shit Gregory Peck was handsome. I mean, there’s handsome and then there’s Gregory Peck handsome, which is like the ne plus ultra of handsome. Richard Widmark looks like he could be someone you might know in real life. He looks like a normal guy. But you don’t know anyone in real life who looks like Gregory Peck. Gregory Peck looks like a movie star. 

If you’re looking for a western with interesting, well-drawn characters, go see Yellow Sky.

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