It's not hard figuring out what went wrong at the box office with Sam Peckinpah's follow-up to "The Wild Bunch". Not many who thrilled to the bloody end of Pike and Dutch were ready for an amiable rom-com, even one that starts out with an exploding lizard. Jason Robards finding love and God in the desert? Doesn't sound too promising, does it?
The wonder of "The Ballad Of Cable Hogue", or rather the first of many wonders, is how well it plays. This is Peckinpah's finest moment, one that stands alongside the greatest westerns of all time. It's a lot of fun, and at the same time, incredibly deep, its joys falling effortlessly into tragedy and back into joy like a desert bloom.
Robards plays Hogue, left in the desert to die by two faithless companions, Taggart (L.Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin in his best film performance). Instead, Hogue finds water, the only water along a stage road connecting the towns of Gila and Deaddog, water enough to make him rich. He also finds wayward preacher Joshua (David Warner) and ravishing prostitute Hildy (Stella Stevens), who puts aside her Frisco dreams to shack up with Cable. But can Cable put aside his dream of revenge against Taggart and Bowen?
You really don't need to know any more about "Cable Hogue" than that going in. You probably shouldn't know any more, because Peckinpah's film is all the better for the way it catches you by surprise. It's a stunningly different and more positive film from the director of the nihilistic "Wild Bunch". At the same time, it works as a reverse examination of that earlier film's major themes. If "Bunch" is about damnation, "Cable Hogue" is about salvation, and redemption, in a way that probably didn't help the film hit with audiences of the time but makes it timeless today.
Robards' performance is the center and the key of "Cable Hogue", the way he plays the character with equal parts ruthlessness and comic grace. Cable is at heart a good man, irreverent but a man of faith. His shy yet penetrating gaze breaks your heart in scenes like the one where he asks a banker for a grubstake and offers himself sheepishly as collateral: "Well, I'm worth something, ain't I?" Yet he is locked into himself and his demons so deeply that he can't recognize Hildy for the saving grace she represents. Sam working from his inner demons, no doubt, but coming up with deeper and better answers than he usually did.
The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, led by Stevens in a performance that plays up her sex appeal without shortchanging her inner vibrancy. Warner's preacher character is essential also; he's a lustful hypocrite but a genuine man of God in his cockeyed way. Sure, his idea of spiritual consolation to young women involves much groping – but he also speaks truly about what drives Hogue in the wrong direction.
"What do you call that passion that gnaws at the walls of your soul?" he asks Hogue. "That's the very passion that will nurture the dandelions above your grave."
We of course would rather see Cable have his confrontation with Taggart and Bowen, something which arrives in such a backasswards way it only adds to "Cable's" unique genius.
Peckinpah was not a natural comedic director, and there are bits of goofy awkwardness here and there. But even when it's more Benny Hill than Boot Hill, the prevailing anything-goes mood wins you over. Everywhere in this film, Peckinpah takes chances with what he can get across and what the audience will accept. This makes "Cable Hogue" a lot bolder than the standard bloodbath.
Watching "Cable Hogue" offers a lot of iconoclastic fun, yet not without pushing you in uncomfortable directions. Whether or not you wind up happy with it, you will remember the ride, and I hope, find it as worthwhile as I did.
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