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Monday, 5 July 2021

Every Little Thing I Adore About 'Yellow Sky'...

This post was inspired by (and warmly stolen from) Alex Withrow at the wonderful ‘And So It Begins’. Check out his takes here.

Yellow Sky is a film I discovered, fell in love with, and was then quickly heartbroken by when I found out how few had also experienced its black-hearted treasures.

Director William A Wellman has slipped into the sand of time, with only the C-list ‘Classic’ status of his magnum opus, ‘The Ox-Bow Incident’, curling a finger from the dark- and anyone familiar with the bitterly iconoclastic gems lurking in the bleak corners of his oeuvre knows that simply will not do…

 

The way our first grand, sweeping vista is suffocated by clouds- and how the grade practically burns the characters black against the washed-out world around.

The first thing we meet is death- and from then on it lurks on every edge of every frame.

Wellman repeating his opening scene from The Ox-Bow Incident. No, really: A posse walk into a bar, get hostile with the patrons, trade lines about a prominent picture on the wall. For all we know every week a fistful of penniless fools ride into a god-fearing looking for trouble and end up finding it in their shadow for the rest of their short lives. Whether Wellman was taking a dig at the Hollywood machine churning out new, empty genre pictures matinee after matinee or aiming his sights on the lonely hellscape of the romanticised Old West- Yellow Sky spears both on its unwavering eye for lost souls just waiting in line to be the next guy filled with holes.

Wellman fought in the First World War and in his earliest classic, ‘Wings’ (which you may know as the first Best Picture winner, ever) was famous for its innovative camera techniques- particularly in its efforts to realistically detail aerial combat. It’s nice to see that spark of creativity rushing in the blood of Yellow Sky as he finds ways to frame this chase as dangerously as possible.

There’s something so eerily humbling about this scene where the group count out the money they just stole. There’s so little- and they’re already beyond saving.

The crushing, voidlike contrast of this day-for-night scene.

How regularly Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald dwarves the group- and how unadorned the sequence of them crossing the salt flats is. Nowadays there’s no way someone could get away with a ten-to-fifteen stretch of plotless moments but the character detail, atmosphere and theming are invaluable.

Richard Widmark as Dude (yes, really). One of my all-time favourite character actors whose frenzied, paranoid performance in ‘Night & The City’ is a thing of savage beauty.

Every member of the posse giving up and accepting death the second they discover their looming salvation was nothing but a ghost town. I think Wellman quite directly confronts the romance of Western fiction by implying everyone we’re watching in all these films is indeed dead. They’ve been dead for so long their bones have rotted away. In the same way as we saw them enter the cycle in that same old saloon, with that same old picture on the wall- here they pass into this skeleton of a town and accept their fate. From this point on we’re watching ghosts play with eachother in a desperate hope to pretend they’re still alive. I can’t help but believe this is what Wellman intended- and what a fucking move.

How muddy and dirty and dangerous Gregory Peck gets as the story goes on. As much as I like him I’ve always found him frustratingly stiff- and its great fun watching talented directors (Henry King in particular) drag him somewhere vulnerable.

How black and vile the water is- more like a tar pit than a lake. It’s worth noting that in a film he made a few years later, ‘Track of the Cat’ (another superb, disarmingly subtle Western gem)- Wellman shot in colour but instructed his Cinematographer to shoot as if it was Black and White. This tiny attention to aesthetic detail can add so much.

I’m sure you’ve already noticed- but this film sure has some gorgeous ensemble staging.

The sinister tension of the posse leering and sniggering over the last woman of the town. A lot of pictures of the time would treat this casual misogyny as a quick joke (and I will admit the sexual politics a little later on do get murkier) but here it’s almost like we’ve finally realised we’ve been watching the villains for the first half hour- and they’ve just bumbled into the heroes.

MacDonald’s netty, twisted Noir-influenced lighting.

The insidious angles Wellman and MacDonald choose to obscure faces during the assault- and Anne Baxter turning round into pitch darkness and pointing the gun right at the lens just after…

Widmark’s anecdote about having a bullet “floating around in me right here”. Dead men walking.

Having the patience to watch Peck think about his day, and finally decide to shave. One shot, one minute. You just don’t see it anymore.

This nightmarish angle.

Another inventive little idea for a shot which brutally foregrounds the idea that no-matter how much they pray for peace, each of these people will forever be living down the long barrel of a gun. I wonder if Terence Young saw this…

Peck’s wordless, almost lethal punishment for one of his underlings. You really have no idea how far he’s gonna go.

Yet more gorgeous Western-Noir imagery.

How comfortable the film is giving us little pockets of intimate alone time with these characters- and how desperately sincere they almost always feel. This moment, in particular, saves the scene that follows it from being just another vulgar, sexist stain on Old Hollywood. It’s played the exact same way as most contemporary Western romances- but the context finally shows us her side.

Grandpa’s reference to the Civil War almost makes me wonder if this whole story is just the miscarried dream of a few dead veterans playing at a life on the range they never got the chance to try.

The art department always taking an opportunity to adorn MacDonald’s photography with little flourishes that push the aesthetic of the desolate ghost town.

MacDonald using huge wide angles and seeping shadow to make this shootout in the rocks seem like ants scurrying through a quarry. Reminds me of the way Anthony Mann closed off Winchester ’73.

A final friendly reminder that this is one of the best shot genre pictures ever made.

The stunning closer that pits three gunfighters against eachother in an almost Third Man-esque episode where each frame is dipped in the void and every passing, towering shot tightens the vice around the lives about to be lost.

Dude’s gold slipping out of this sack like the last sands of his time.

And this, finally, is the shot I would have ended on. Yellow Sky wakes its hero up for a Hollywood ‘happy’ ending but even that sits in the shadow of what Wellman has built here: Something that strangles the Western pale, burns it cold under the scorching desert sun and then plays with the ashes. The crew here crafted a piece of art decades ahead of its time that somehow almost works even better coming out of Golden Age Hollywood because it feels so distant and alone. It guts story to make space for character, replaces melodramatic plot beats with dread-drenched atmospherics. It maroons a genre that was already capitulating into the same re-told stories out in the desert without a hope of survival and draws something achingly human out of those last, desperate gasps of air. A stygian, slumbering classic.

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