January 2, 2012

15 Yellow Sky (1948)

Country: US
Director: William Wellman

One of the great pleasures of my last few years of film viewing has been the rediscovery of the Western, a genre that once had little appeal for me apart from the classics like Stagecoach and High Noon. Reduced to their essential elements of character, uncomplicated conflict, and the starkly atmospheric landscapes of the American West, how satisfying and unpretentious the Westerns made between the end of World War II and the early 1960s seem to me now. Every once in a while I come across one of these pictures that delivers the expected delights of the genre and more. One film that fits this description is William Wellman's Yellow Sky (1948).

In this movie a group of outlaws rob a bank in a small town and then, pursued by a posse, find no means of escape except by crossing a vast dry salt lake, an undertaking that looks certain to end in death for the outlaws. Their leader is the rather coarse Stretch (Gregory Peck), and his main rival for leadership is the dandyish Dude (Richard Widmark). Predictably, under the pressure of blasting heat, no supplies, and only one canteen of water apiece, conflict within the group builds. Just when it seems as though the men aren't going to make it across the desert, they stumble upon a derelict mining town called Yellow Sky inhabited only by a grizzled old man and his tomboyish granddaughter (Anne Baxter). The power struggle between Peck and Widmark is now further intensified by rivalry for the young woman and also by the discovery that she and her grandfather are hoarding a fortune in gold.

I've always had mixed feelings about Wellman. He seemed drawn to powerful subjects, but aside from A Star Is Born (1937), his movies often strike me as rather perfunctory efforts that fall short of their potential. Even so, one thing Wellman was very good at was bringing out the best in his actors. James Cagney in Public Enemy, Loretta Young in Midnight Mary, Richard Barthelmess in Heroes for Sale, Carole Lombard in Nothing Sacred, Henry Fonda in The Ox-Bow Incident—these seem to me brilliant performances that outshine the movies they're found in. In Yellow Sky Wellman gets excellent performances not only from actors we expect to be good—people like Widmark, here playing another of the menacing characters he specialized in early in his career, and in a supporting role Henry (Harry) Morgan—but also from actors who are less consistent but given the right role and director can be quite good, in this case Peck and Baxter.

Another of Wellman's traits as a director is his ability to keep the picture moving swiftly. While this haste to get on with the action can lead to an impression of superficiality in some of his films, it is actually an advantage in a Western, where maintaining a brisk pace is especially important. Working from a story by W. R. Burnett (he wrote the novels that Little Caesar, High Sierra, and The Ashpalt Jungle are based on, so you know this film's plot is well engineered and dynamic), in Yellow Sky Wellman is well served by his talent for vigorous storytelling.

But the thing that for me really distinguishes this movie is the brilliant photography of Joe MacDonald. For years MacDonald worked for Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio that produced Yellow Sky. He was a gifted cinematographer who seemed to have the ability to provide the exact look appropriate to the project, whether it was the Technicolor CinemaScope of slick entertainment like How to Marry a Millionaire (the first picture shot in CinemaScope at Fox), the high-contrast black-and-white of noirish pictures like The Dark Corner or Pickup on South Street, with their urban setting, or the spacious landscapes of Westerns like John Ford's My Darling Clementine. MacDonald might not have had a distinctive style like that of Gregg Toland or John Alton, but surely such adaptability is a virtue that makes him worthy of greater recognition than he has received.

MacDonald's location shooting in Death Valley and on Owens Lake, a huge salt flat in the Sierra Nevada, adds tremendous atmosphere and authenticity to the bleak narrative of Yellow Sky. He really gives us a strong sense of the roughness of the characters and the harshness of their environment. He was a master of nuanced lighting, and isn't that what black-and-white cinematography is all about? That talent is on full display here, making the limpid desert light and searing heat almost palpable.

The denouement of the movie at first seemed to me just a bit pat, a little incongruously upbeat given the grim nature of much of what has come before. On reflection, however, I wonder if perhaps the name of the town is an allusion to "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky"—a short story by Stephen Crane set in the Old West in which a misfit's anti-social behavior is curbed by the positive influence of a woman—and if the outcome of the movie is perhaps modeled on the similar outcome of that story. Like Crane's story, this movie has a somber tone with the mounting tension suddenly relieved at the end by an almost whimsical conclusion. The abrupt shift in tone at the end of the picture did initially startle me, but after I accepted it I found Yellow Sky an excellent film, notable especially for its strong character and pictorial values.

Yellow Sky was recently released on Blu-ray by the German company Koch Media.


  1. I don't recall having seen this, but it sounds familiar, so may be I have. LOL! Anyway, I enjoyed reading your review. Oh, and I think you're right about the unevenness of Wellman's films but his ability to bring out good performances.

  2. Kim, thanks for your comment (and also for the one you left for me at REEL LIFE). I know that many knowledgeable film lovers and critics like Wellman--Richard Schickel devoted a whole episode of his "The Men Who Made the Movies" to him--but I usually find his films have a haphazard quality to them. I do find many things to like in his work and have unreserved admiration for his 1937 version of "A Star Is Born." His Depression-themed films of the early 30s seem to have held up well too. Then there's "The Next Voice You Hear"!

  3. Have not seen this R.D. but I will set the DVR. Generally, westerns bring you back to a simpler time and place of good and bad and each was easily distinguishable. Joe MacDonald was a great craftsman, as you write he has "the ability to provide the exact look appropriate to the project." I agree with you on Wellman, his films generally feel like they should better than what they are. You are always left a little unsatisfied when they are over. For me, Wellman's best film is THE OX_BOW INCIDENT.

  4. John, sure hope you enjoy this. I know exactly what you mean when you say you feel a little unsatisfied after watching a Wellman movie. They too often feel like they're a bit less than the sum of their parts. I thought this one was one of the exceptions. I have mixed feelings about Peck and Baxter too, but I liked them here. I've read that Peck didn't feel he was right for the leader of the outlaw gang. I usually do get the feeling that his heart isn't totally in the character when he plays a scoundrel, but he did a good job in this one, maybe because he knew he would reform at the end.

  5. R.D. I think I like Wellman more than you do. Anyone who has "Beau Geste" (1939) on his resume is OK in my book. Another good Wellman western is "Westward the Women" (1951) with Robert Taylor leading a pack of mail order brides through hostile territory. It also has some of the "Yellow Sky" grittiness that you so memorably describe.

    I like this film a lot too, with one caveat. The main title music, by Alfred Newman, was originally composed for "Brigham Young, Frontiersman" (1940). Used in countless Fox westerns, it's triumphant, march-like quality seems ill-suited to the story that follows in "Yellow Sky."

  6. I haven't seen YELLOW SKY and have been "off Westerns" (other than great classics such as you mention) for a long while. But I'll record and watch this one on your recommendation. By the way, HEROES FOR SALE, another Wellman film mentioned here, is scheduled this month on TCM. I've not seen it before but have lately been interested in catching up on the work of Richard Barthelmess.

    Your focus on cinematographer Joe MacDonald got my attention. I'm not familiar with him, really, but each film of his that you referenced is a favorite of mine. I had no idea that the same man who photographed PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET could possibly have shot HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE.

  7. Kevin, I haven't seen "Beau Geste" but I have seen "Westward the Women" and found it excellent--it and "Yellow Sky" are my favorite later Wellman movies--and its take on the Western a refreshingly unusual one. The typical Western has one or at most two important female characters, and it reverses this by having only one important male character.

    Eve, I like the topical Wellman films of the early 30s like "Heroes for Sale." Also "Wild Boys of the Road" and "Midnight Mary." They're not without their flaws, but they do deal unflinchingly with powerful themes the way the best pre-Code pictures do. Those themes are still relevant enough that they keep the films from dating the way many films of the time seem to me to have done. Whenever I watch a movie made by Fox, it nearly always seems to have been photographed by MacDonald or Leon Shamroy. That studio sure kept those guys busy. To work that much and on so many different kinds of films is a sign of incredible professional skill.

  8. R.D., as a fan of Wellman I have seen 40-plus of his films to date, but must admit this is one of those I haven't had an opportunity to see as yet. However, I was given the DVD for Christmas, along with a couple more of his that have eluded me so far, so will soon be putting that right, and will return to read your excellent review again in the next few days! It sounds from your thoughts on this film as though I have a treat in store! I've also been watching quite a lot of Westerns lately, and getting into John Ford in particular.

    On Wellman, although of course we can't all have the same tastes, I'm slightly saddened to hear that you think his films fall short of their potential - I tend to feel the opposite, especially with his pre-Code work, where it seems as if he took whatever the studio threw at him and put his own stamp on it. (I think things started to go wrong in some of his films later, because of studio interference in some cases, and some of them don't have such a strong personality running through them.) I do agree, though, that he tends to put the focus on the main actor and get a very strong performance from them. Anyway, for me, his silent films 'Wings' and 'Beggars of Life' are both masterpieces, along with 'The Public Enemy', 'Safe In Hell', 'Wild Boys of the Road', 'Heroes For Sale', 'A Star Is Born', 'Beau Geste' and 'The Ox-Bow Incident'... and I have quite a number still to see, especially from his later work.

  9. Judy, I know what a fan of Wellman you are (you're certainly far from alone in this) and how extensively you've written on him at your own site. As you say, we can't all have the same tastes, but there are several Wellman films I do like quite a bit and more that I've never seen. One I'd really like to see is "The Light That Failed," but I can't locate it on DVD. I'm glad you and Kevin mentioned "Beau Geste" because I have found it and should be able to watch it soon.

  10. Thanks, R.D. I hope you like 'Beau Geste' - I feel sure you will. I have seen 'The Light That Failed', sadly in a dodgy grey-market copy where you can hardly hear a word anyone is saying, and it is one I keep meaning to write about but really need to watch again first, with my ear glued to the speaker. I don't really know why it hasn't had a DVD release - Ronald Colman and Ida Lupino both give great performances. Maybe Warner Archive will take pity on this title some time - I also think it may sometimes be shown on TCM in the US. Hope you do get to see it, anyway!

  11. Just returning to say that I've now seen and much admired this movie. I do agree with you that the upbeat ending is rather startling, coming straight after a grim scene that is far more the ending which might have been expected to this tense drama - I wondered if it was an afterthought, or maybe even an order from the studio. However, the Stephen Crane connection you've made suggests I may be barking up the wrong tree! Anyway I hope to write about this one on my own site soon so will not ramble on for too long, but just say again that I liked your review a lot.

  12. Thank you, Judy. Another later Wellman movie I like a lot and haven't thought to mention is "The Story of G.I. Joe" with Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum. It's entirely possible that the ending was an afterthought--this was so common in the studio days because their main concern was giving people something they would pay money to see, and this didn't ordinarily include a downbeat ending (unless it was punishment for something). I'll be looking for your own thoughts on the film at Movie Classics.

  13. As it happens, I was also given 'The Story of G.I. Joe' on DVD for Christmas, but I haven't watched that one yet. Looking forward to it, though. Thanks again, R.D.

  14. R.D. - I watched this last night and thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought Wellman's use of the camera was exceptional (the sequence crossing the desert, the gun battle at the end), as was Joe MacDonald's stark barren photography, perfect for both the desert scenes and the ghost town. Definitely, one of Peck's most interesting performances. He is an actor I generally find a bit stiff at times coming across as wanting to be liked too much. Widmark is always on target as the dependable creep gladly willing to stir the troublemaking pot.

    Thanks for writing about this film which I otherwise would not have sought out.


    1. John, I'm glad you enjoyed the film. When a Western makes such good use of its locations, it always gets my admiration. Your description of Peck as "a bit stiff at times" is right in line with my view of him, which is why I singled out his performance here for praise. I'm also with you on Widmark being reliably good, one of those wonderful actors who's just as convincing as a slimeball and as he is as a nice guy. I don't know why this film isn't better known. It seems to me to distinguish itself from the many good but not extraordinary Westerns being made at this time.