Sam Peckinpah’s “The Ballad of Cable Hogue,” (1970)
recently released on Blu-ray by the Warner Archive Collection, is a movie that
doesn’t fit neatly into any specific category. Peckinpah, more notable for his
violent action pictures about outlaws who’ve run out their string and go down
in a blaze of glory, maintained that “Hogue” is a comedy. But co-star Stella
Stevens, in an interview included on this Blu-Ray release, disagrees. She claims
it’s a love story—a tragic love story. The answer, in my opinion, is that it probably
falls somewhere in between.It’s both a
comedy and a love story, and as such, is probably the most honest film about
the human condition the hard-nosed Peckinpah ever made.
The story is a simple one. Jason Robards plays the
titular character, a man left to die in the Arizona desert by two disreputable
partners, Taggert (L. Q. Jones) and Bowen (Strother Martin). Hogue swears he’ll
survive somehow and someday get vengeance on the double crossers. He wanders in
the desert for 4 days without water, occasionally raising his eyes heavenward, to
address the Almighty.“Ain’t had no
water since yesterday, Lord,” he says at one point. “Gettin’ a little thirsty. Just thought I’d mention it. Amen” Just when
he’s about finished he discovers a spring, the only water for 50 miles either
way along a stagecoach road. He builds a house there and calls the place Cable
A wandering preacher by the name of the Rev. Joshua
Duncan Sloan (David Warner) rides in. The Reverend claims to be the head of a
church of his own revelation. As dubious as he appears he reminds Cable that he
had better file a claim on the land he’s on if he wants to keep it. Cable takes
the preacher’s horse and rides into the town of Dead Dog. One of the first
things he catches sight of is Hildy (Stella Stevens), the town prostitute.
After he files his claim and secures a loan from a bank, he pays a visit to
Hildy, who lives in a room on the second floor of the town saloon. He’s
immediately smitten with her but when he tries making love to her, the sound of
a preacher holding a Bible meeting next door reminds him of Rev. Sloan, who at
this very moment might be trying to jump his claim. He runs out on Hildy, promising
he’ll be back soon as he can.
The rest of the film is about the Cable/Hildy
relationship in which Peckinpah presents about as honest a portrayal of human
beings and their struggle to survive and find comfort in one another in a
brutal world as has ever been put on film. At one point Hildy asks Cable if her
being a prostitute bothered him.
“Hell no, it never bothered me,” he answers. “I enjoyed
it. Now what the hell are you? A human being? Trying the best you can. We all
got our own ways of living.”
“And loving?” Hildy asks.
“Gets mighty lonesome without it.”
Despite the hard-boiled attitude both characters profess
to adopt, after they’ve spent some time living together in his house, in one
brief moment it all comes down like a house of cards. They’re having dinner
with the Rev. Sloan and talk turns to Hogue’s penny pinching ways, charging
everyone for water and food when they stop at the Springs. The reverend says
he’s surprised Cable doesn’t charge Hildy for supper. “Why would I charge you?”
Cable tells her. “You never charge me.” And, because of that one thoughtless
sentence, suddenly you see a dream die on Hildy’s face. It’s the end of their
relationship. The scene -for all its subtlety - has a devastating emotional
There’s more to the story, including Hildy’s return after
living in San Francisco, and the long- awaited showdown between Cable and his erstwhile
partners, Taggert and Bowen. Strother Martin and L. Q. Jones, who were part of
Peckinpah’s informal stock company, having appeared in several of his films,
are perfect here. Nobody took a bullet and died on film better than L. Q.
The ending is not comedic at all. It is filled with a sad
irony that shows as simply and as understatedly as possible, what a puzzling
thing life really is.