A quasi-comedic character study of a loner who builds a tiny empire in a barren stretch of Old West frontier, The Ballad of Cable Hogue would seem to be director Sam Peckinpah’s gentlest film. Yet beneath the amiable surface of the movie lurk some of the dark themes that permeate all of Peckinpah’s work. This may be a ballad, but it’s played in a minor key.
Jason Robards stars as Cable Hogue, a schemer who gets separated from his partners in crime while traversing a grim American desert. After wandering the wastelands for several days, Hogue stumbles across a tiny reservoir that marks an underground water source. Replenished, Hogue stakes a claim on the water, traveling into a nearby town to christen his finding Cable Springs—the only stop for refreshment between two remote wagon-trail posts. As the movie progresses, Hogue forms a bizarre surrogate family. Hogue’s first new friend is the Rev. Joshua Duncan Sloane (David Warner), a priest unaffiliated with any formal church and unencumbered by vows of celibacy; like Hogue, Sloane is a self-made maverick. Hogue also bonds with Hildy (Stella Stevens), a prostitute. Especially after she’s shunned by disapproving townsfolk and seeks refuge with Hogue, Hildy grows to love her ragged companion.
Much of the picture comprises cutesy domestic scenes of the couple playing house in the wilderness. These peculiar sequences mine unlikely (and sometimes ineffective) humor from the juxtaposition of scruffy Robards and sexy Stevens. And while Hildy may be one of the most deeply explored female characters in Peckinpah’s oeuvre, it’s hard to overlook the leering way the director films his leading lady—not only is Stevens repeatedly nude as she pops in and out of bathtubs, but Peckinpah pulls jackass moves like zooming into closeups of Stevens’ cleavage. Yes, the camerawork is meant to mimic Hogue’s male gaze, but restraint would have helped.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a strange movie, bouncing from slapstick to tragedy, and the talent differential between the leading actors results in herky-jerky storytelling. Every time Robards locks into a groove of poetic melancholy, Stevens intrudes with the numbing normalcy of her one-dimensional screen persona. Yet one could argue that Stevens’ limitations suit Peckinpah’s theme of Hogue being a soulful man for whom there’s no real place in the cruel world; perhaps Hildy’s vapid beauty is meant to represent the only type of happiness an eccentric like Hogue can reasonably expect. Warner’s elegant oddness—closer on the talent spectrum to Robards’ vibe than Stevens’—complicates the experience further.
Still, even if the middle of the movie is undisciplined, thanks to episodic storytelling and mismatched elements, The Ballad of Cable Hogue gets points for ending well, because Peckinpah eventually brings the narrative around to a favorite theme—the passing of the Old West upon the arrival of crass modernity. Therefore, if nothing else, The Ballad of Cable Hogue is an interesting example of an artist experimenting with new techniques. The picture may not work, per se, but it was a bold movie—and, of course, the fact that it actually got made demonstrates Peckinpah’s incredible tenacity.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue: GROOVY