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Stark Reviews: Yellow Sky (1948)

Yellow Sky

Stark says: “We sure gonna be mighty rich corpses.”

Yellow Sky is one of those films that I’ve been meaning to watch for ages; mostly because a) it has a female co-lead and b) it’s often referred to as a precursor to that most idiosyncratic of western sub-genres, the Acid Western.

Acids, if you haven’t come across them before, are known, and named, for their counterculture tendencies; the desire to kick the western away from the glowy sunset of manifest destiny and into the dark corners of the soul. Made right on the cusp of the 1950s – the decade of the Western Epic – Yellow Sky is a surprisingly off-beat film. Adapted from a novel by W.R. Burnett, who flitted with ease between Westerns and gangster noir, and directed by ex-World-War-One fighter pilot and all round hell-raiser, William A. Wellman, it’s easy to see how Yellow Sky had the potential to stand out as an unusual Western from the start.

Gregory Peck plays Stretch, the leader of a gang of bank robbers and ruffians, who, after looting a small-town bank, are pursued onto seventy miles of deadly alkaline salt flats. With no choice but to cross, they find themselves dying of thirst in the isolated ghost town of Yellow Sky, inhabited only by an old prospector (James Barton) and his granddaughter (Anne Baxter). Apparently loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, what follows is a clashing of morals, loyalties and greed set within a claustrophobic, visually compelling pressure-cooker.

The Good

Without a doubt, the setting is the real star of this film. Yellow Sky looks great, almost alarmingly so compared to other Westerns of the same era, which were often forced to make do with B-movie budgets and materials. Even the quality of the film stock is a surprise, incredibly crisp and clear for something shot almost seventy years ago. Working in black and white, MacDonald makes full use of the Death Valley location with its the arid, inhospitable, terrain; boulder fields in the sun are exploited for chiaroscuro effect, pale dust clouds are kicked into dark angles of shade, silhouettes and shadows abound. Perhaps most memorable in this respect is the final duel between Lengthy, Dude and Stretch; rather than showing the shoot-out itself, we’re presented with the outside wall of the saloon, with its broken window, where the silhouettes of two horses rear in fright.

It all adds to the general feel that the town of Yellow Sky is a no-place, like Hellman’s desert in The Shooting or the snow-locked wastes of Day of the Outlaw. A setting that both highlights and reflects the stark, brutal and often arbitrary nature of humanity; how a person might behave when denuded of society and civilisation.

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But what of the actors? Oh yes, them. Gregory Peck is a decent lead, playing a former hard-hearted bandit who finds his moral compass swinging towards honesty. However, Richard Widmark (who you might recognise as the lead from Jules Dassin’s wonderful 1950 noir, Night and the City) steals the show as Dude, Stretch’s treacherous second-in-command. Neatly dressed in a white shirt and tie where the others are scruffy, Widmark is a wonderful foil. He plays Dude with a casual viciousness tempered only by a lust for gold.

Yellow Sky is a bit of a smorgasbord of Western character actors. John Russell – star of Lawman and, many years later, crooked Marshal Stockburn in Pale Rider – gives a good turn as brooding lout Lengthy, while Harry Morgan, (aka Col. Sherman T. Potter in M*A*S*H) does a decent job with not many lines as turncoat-turned-ally Half Pint.

Anne Baxter (who was, incidentally, the granddaughter of Frank Lloyd Wright!) does a great job here as the trouser-wearing, shotgun-toting Mike. When Stretch attempts to bully her into giving them food, she threatens him with her gun. He swipes it off her, only to get socked in the face. This being 1948, there are plenty more opportunities for Harassment of The Female Character (more on this later), but not without Mike rather skilfully shooting off some of Stretch’s scalp the next time he tries anything. All in all, Baxter is a compelling lead; she plays Mike as tough, resilient and hot-headed, without being too clichéd. HOWEVER:

The Bad

As we might suspect from the grabby-grabby poster, there’s a lot of that ol’ Hollywood favourite: kiss-first-don’t-ask-later. Wellman’s guilty of exploiting this, leaning rather heavily on sexual threats to create tension. The film opens with a scene of the gang leering at a painting of a woman on horseback, commenting: “I sure would like to know what she plans to do after she gets done riding that horse”. The subsequent introduction of Mike, a young woman alone in an isolated town with only her grandfather for back-up, has a predictable effect on the gang. She is mocked by Walrus, quietly idolized by youngster Bull Run, and harassed by Lengthy, subjected to constant not-so idle threats.

Yellowsky3

Again, after seeing that poster, we also shouldn’t be surprised to discover that one of the worst physical offenders is the upstanding Stretch himself. After sternly forbidding his men to bother Mike, he can’t help but break his own rule, firstly by insulting her: “You know if you was prettied up a bit you’d look almost like a female,” and secondly by dive-tackling her to the ground to assault her, just to prove that he can. Although she wins both rounds, shooting him in the head and insulting him right back "You smell. Didn't anyone ever tell you before that you smell bad?" eventually forcing him to – literally – clean up his act, it’s still frustrating stuff. But then, this is 1948. Although she rides off at the end in the company of Stretch, wearing a flowery hat,  I suppose the fact she does it as part of a gang, on her own horse, wearing her usual shirt, trousers and gun-belt is some sort of minor victory.

The Ugly

One thing: don’t let the opening of the film fool you. In the first frame we’re told that this is THE WEST, 1867 while an instrumental version of Oh! Susanna plays. Ignore that. Things are about to get better. Also ignore the first line of the film: “Hey! Look at that!” followed by someone pointing to a skull with an arrow through it. IT GETS BETTER. I PROMISE. Of course, we encounter the usual Native American stereotypes and racial slurs, in this case focused on Apaches. Grandpa does comment that Mike was “raised by Apaches… fine people if you can understand them”, and although there’s some standard nonsense whooping and shooting, it’s mostly offscreen, thankfully.

All in all, Yellow Sky is a mixed bag; a Western of its time that makes a decent attempt to side-step the usual tropes, a visually compelling piece that uses the landscape to reflect its overall themes, and a film that has more than a few hidden currents beneath its surface… As Grandpa says: "Guess the war upset a lot of those boys. Got them off on the wrong foot.” What was true of 1867 could be as true of 1948: yet another group of young men, spat out by war, suddenly adrift in a world that has made its moral fragility abundantly clear. A precursor to the Acid Western indeed.


Haddon Hall: When David Invented Bowie

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It was the end of the swinging sixties. 
That day, like so many others, the London sky was sad like a cold cup of tea.
The nasty rain rattled tediously at my windowpane.
I was waiting for my new tenants to show up and inhabit me.

Haddon Hall was the Gothic Victorian mansion in Beckenham where Bowie and his first wife Angie lived from 1969 to 1972. Accompanying them at various times were a random crew of musicians: people who moved in and out of their lives. Bowie, of course, was the most significant resident of Haddon Hall - even at that point - although he was still working out who he would be.

David and Angie rented the ground floor flat, which had (according to Angie, in later interviews) been previously home to some professors and their 27 cats. It was in Haddon Hall that Bowie crossed over into Ziggy Stardust territory, finally embracing his weird; accepting that he was more than just the guy who played at the local pub three times a week.

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Getting Familiar With Zombies - Afterlife With Archie

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There are certain genres with which audiences are so familiar that it seems impossible to create something really new. It’s rare to find a romance, for instance, that doesn’t follow the familiar pattern of boy-meets-girl, boy and girl get together, something comes between boy and girl before a final reconciliation.

Teen movies ending in the big game or big dance has become so formulaic that teen movie parodies are now almost a bigger genre than the original source. Classic monster horror, bound by such narrow constraints, is a genre in which things grow increasingly stale. This is perhaps particularly true of zombies whose specific conventions prevent much experimentation; 28 Days Later and World War Z may have been refreshingly new, but they also bent convention so far as to be dismissed by purists. How then, does one take two stale genres in this case zombies and teen-romance (look how that worked out!) and create something with impact and excitement?

Well, to everyone’s surprise, the answer came from Archie Comics.

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A Closed and Common Orbit, Moonraker's Bride and The Season

Moonrakers BrideHappy almost Valentine's Day!

To celebrate, three very different romances: a contemporary space opera (kinda), a globe-trotting adventure (kinda), and a Regency romance (kinda). Love is in the air, and it is not so easily classified. 

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Madeline Brent's Moonraker's Bride (1973) is another of the award-winning novelist's semi-Gothic, globe-trotting, quasi-Victorian escapades. I'm slightly obsessed with Brent's books ever since discovering that 'she' is the pen name for Peter O'Donnell, who also wrote the action series Modesty Blaise. The obsession has now paid off with a handful of really delightful books, of which Moonraker's is one. 

Lucy Waring, our heroine, is born overseas, an orphan in a remote Himalayan village. This means she's got practical skills (including yak-herding!) and an adventurous spirit... but is completely on the back foot in British society. The combination means she can be shy, but courageous, and supremely competent... yet also in constant need of rescuing. This is the delicate balance that Brent creates in all 'her' books, and it might be at its most delicate in Moonraker's. Further familiar twists include the circumstantial-marriage-that-could-be-real-love, family secrets, and a lot of ponderously-delivered pop psychology.

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The Wizards and the Warriors & The Kings of the Wyld

Wizards and the WarriorHugh Cook's The Wizards and the Warriors (1987) has one of those timelessly awful late-1980s covers, and a generic cover quote - saying it'd be perfect for fans of David Eddings. In hindsight, someone in marketing really dropped the ball on this one. Maybe in the heady days of the 1980s, when Eddings was Martin, all you needed was a quest and a sword to earn that comparison. But for fantasy readers - or, hell, Eddings fans - buying the book on the strength of this platitude, Cook's debut must've come as one hell of a shock.

Wizards is, sort of, about a quest to stop an evil sorcerer. Kinda. We begin mid-journey, as three wizards have trekked halfway across the world in search of a fourth - a traitor that has unearthed an ancient artifact of doomslinging. Ostensibly linear, Wizards whirls about like the Tasmanian Devil. First, a pair of strapping mercenary warriors - in service to a corrupt local Prince - are recruited. But, well, not first, as they have their own problems to deal with before they can be convinced to join.

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Erin Lindsey's Bloodbound is back, still great

BloodboundErin Lindsey's Bloodbound was first published in 2014. The trilogy, continued with Bloodforged and concluded last year with Bloodsworn. The series is now - finally - out in the UK, which gives me an excuse to rave about it again. 

Here's how Bloodbound starts: a cavalry charge.

Alix Black, one of the scouts for the Kingdom of Alden, is watching a battle unfold. Her king is being overwhelmed by the invading forces of the Oridian empire, and, much to her horror, she can see that the King's brother is very much not executing his part of the plan. Treason is afoot, and both the King and the Kingdom are at risk.

In move that defines Alix - and to some degree, the entire series - Alix plunges recklessly into battle. There's only the slimmest chance of victory. Hell, there's only a fractional chance of survival, but Alix makes up her mind, trusts her gut and goes barrelling forward. 

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The Face in the Frost and The Obsessed

The Face in the Frost
The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs
(1969) is an oft-overlooked fantasy classic. Two elderly wizards - Prospero and Roger Bacon - meander across the North and South Kingdoms in search of a cure for some ill-defined metaphysical curse that's plaguing the land. The evil is deliberately vague, and all the more horrifying for it: an ancient tome is being read by a dark-hearted wizard, and badness is spilling forth. From damp moths to off-putting mists to an ominous sense of malaise, Bellairs excels at conveying an implicit wrongness that is more atmosphere than overt threat.

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