Yellow Sky (1948)

Directed by William A. Wellman
Written by Lamar Trotti

William A. Wellman was a prolific director in his time, with 82 IMDb credits to his name, but for the purposes of this westerns marathon, it comes down to four films, one of which I have already reviewed (and loved) in The Ox-Bow Incident, this film and two more down the trail. After loving his first film, I certainly looked forward to experiencing Yellow Sky, starring Gregory Peck. So much to my surprise that when I threw in the DVD and pressed play, I was treated with a mirror image opening scene from The Ox-Bow Incident, as Gregory Peck and his “gang waltz into a bar which looks like the exact same set from Incident, order some whiskey and longingly admire the painting over the back of the bar. The similarities mostly end there, however.

Stretch Dawson (Gregory Peck) is the leader of a gang of men who are setting out to rob a bank. They ride into town, hold up the bank, and head out, but the law is on their tail, forcing them into the harsh landscape of the salt flats. While the posse lets them go, assuming they’ll either die or have to head back, the gang pushes on and comes across a ghost town called Yellow Sky, but they soon discover that a spunky, gun-toting woman name Mike (Anne Baxter) and her grandfather are still living there. After discovering the old man has mined $50,000 worth of gold, the gang comes into conflict with each other over whether they’ll rob the pair blind, or share the wealth with him, as more than a few of the men have fallen for Mike.

Yellow Sky is a bit of mixed bag, it has its really strong points, and one or two really sour notes. To start, the film is gorgeously shot. I was endlessly amazed by the wonderful composition, lighting and camera movement throughout. And I know how I was just rejoicing the color photography of 3 Godfathers, but the black and white here is rather brilliant, and further proof that no matter the format, a film can be beautifully shot. Anne Baxter would get my next bit of praise here. Her performance as Mike is incredibly strong, especially given her petite stature, at least when standing next to the height of Peck (who was 6’3″). She is a force to be reckoned with.

The screenplay is rather strong here too, and I think Wellman does quite a bit with it in his direction. If there is one major point that bears mentioned against the film it would be how the outlaw gang treats Mike, and how Wellman seems to frame it as well. To say the least, this film feels rather rapey at times. Stretch and a few of the other gang members are leering toward Mike, and there are a few instances of forcing themselves upon her. I kept wondering to myself whether this was alright, at least if there were consequences for these actions. While there may be some short term consequences, overall the film seems to pass over this behavior, which is both disturbing and extremely disappointing. It’s such a brilliant work outside of this unfortunate stumble, and I would have easily rated the film higher if it weren’t for these sequences. I even considered rating it lower as a result, but found the strength of everything else too strong to deny.

Ultimately, I look forward to seeing more of Wellman’s work in the western genre. He is two for two in my book, even if Yellow Sky has some rather terrible things in it. From a filmmaking perspective, Yellow Sky is top notch. It’s an exciting tale, featuring a smaller cast set in an enclosed space which makes for some great characterization and dramatic interplay. I love that the characters are named Stretch, Lengthy, Walrus, Half Pint, Dude (who is played by a rather impressive Richard Widmark I might add), and especially Mike, whose real name is later revealed to be Constance Mae. I love the choreography of the gunfight which takes place among the boulders. I really want to love this movie, and yet I can’t. There is the matter of men forcing themselves upon a woman, which is met with very little serious consequence which holds this one back from being one of the best I’ve seen thus far. How unfortunate.

★★★ – Good

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