[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
When he was in Koln, Germany scouting locations for his 1972 film Dead Pigeon on Beethovenstrasse, lifelong newsman Samuel Fuller was invited by a local journal to review any recent picture that had caught his fancy. We are delighted to reprint the result of that invitation here, with the auteur’s permission.
“Water is where you find it, and you won’t find it there! ”
With that simple springboard, Sam Peckinpah’s superb film of man versus men (in this case the contradictory strands of weakness and determination within Cable Hogue) is a must-see movie from WB now playing at the EI Dorado, a new moviehouse in Koln named after Howard Hawks’ sagebrush success. Unlike the lusty Hawks film or any other Western, Peckinpah’s Ballad of Cable Hogue is a sensitive, emotional, surgical job on an American desert hermit without familiar sagebrush stuffing. At times Cable Hogue’s story gnaws at one’s memory from Von Stroheim’s Greed to Huston’s Treasure of Sierra Madre—but the gnawing is short-lived because of Peckinpah’s reconstruction of the West with fiendish authenticity.
Cable Hogue is a classic because in his passion for the counter-make-believe West, its humans and inhumans, Peckinpah never varies from his obsessive desire to show you how it really was and yet never lose that cinematic touch that makes a movie a really entertaining movie. The animal behavior of Cable Hogue, brought to primate heights by Jason Robards, is quiet claw and unbared teeth—a difficult role sensitively conquered by one of the finest actors around these days.
Hildy, the blonde plaintively brought to life by Stella Stevens, segues from independent whore to simpleminded sex thorn in Robards’ isolated desert bed. With authoritative and extravagant brush Peckinpah paints the comedic, fatal love story of Cable and Hildy, accentuated by Lucien Ballard’s always exciting photography. Peckinpah’s camera is spiced with Cable Hogue’s bizarre accomplishment of life and bizarre accomplishment of death.
The strange mournful sound of the changing West and of the lone desert rat’s fist of sand fighting against all odds, is mirrored in dry tears of humor: bearded, body broken but spirit still soaring, the bedridden Hogue under an open sky listening to his own funeral sermon coming from the cracked lips of gaunt Joshua, a scabrous, libertine preacher brilliantly played by David Warner. The character of this hypocritical preacher is right out of Moliere’s Tartuffe but Peckinpah evades the familiar and guides his preacher to originality. In one of the best and funniest scenes in the film, the preacher’s macabre gift of using God as a procurer to lure to bed the grief-stricken young lady explodes with captivating honesty. Peckinpah strikes home to the heart the falsity of God’s roving cactus messenger with reversible collar. In this scene the preacher’s determination to mount the girl, mournfully and gently played by Susan O’Connell, is as meaningful as Cable Hogue’s determination to make his watery El Dorado a grim reality.
The plot, on its barren face, is simple: Cable Hogue, abandoned in the desert by two friends because of lack of water, is plagued by an idea that is physically impossible and that is to operate a nonexistent waterhole as a stagecoach way station. His lunatic dream pays off, even to the extent that he kills a thirst-crazed man for refusing to pay ten cents for a drink of water … and with the payoff the ballad of Cable Hogue ends, for he was put on earth for the unchronicled fact of finding water “where it wasn’t.”
An eagerness for profit and love for the whore become his heroin, but when he discovers the emptiness of his accomplishment, it is too late and he is ungloriously run down by a four-footed spectre of the changing West—a damned automobile!
The El Dorado cinema promises more movies of the calibre of Cable Hogue.
A worthy thing to look forward to.
© 1972 Samuel Fuller, republished on Parallax View by permission of Christa Fuller.