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The Ballad of Cable Hogue is buried treasure - an outstanding film by a legendary director with brilliant performances that is still little known and rarely seen. Sam Peckinpah made it just months after his groundbreaking film, The Wild Bunch, and both films deal with the same topic - the end of the western frontier, although in radically different ways. While The Wild Bunch is a violently realistic film about a breed of western gunmen who had outlived their day, The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a stylized fable, by turn tender, dark, comic, and tragic that depicts the last days of another sort of western archetypal man. It may be that the film's resistance to easy categorization (is it a comedy? a tragic love story? a morality tale of revenge? a musical?) is responsible for its continued obscurity, but I find it an element of its greatness, and concur with Peckinpah, who characterized the film as part Keystone Cops, part Sartre's The Fly, and considered it his favorite of all his movies.
There are many reasons to love this film, including its stunning scenery of awesome, big sky desert landscapes, and a unique, lilting soundtrack with songs that become mysteriously etched in your mind. Yet its foremost strength is its brilliant performances from an impressive cast. Jason Robards plays the title role, brilliantly rendering the tough as boot leather yet vulnerable Hogue as charming and totally unforgettable. Stella Stevens delivers the crowning performance of her career as Hildy, a prostitute who aspires to go to San Francisco to become the "ladiest damn'd lady", yet unaccountably falls in love with the desert rat Hogue. Stevens and Robards together create an utterly believable screen romance that not only crackles with passion, but conveys real depths of caring and emotion. David Warner adds color and comic relief to the story as Josh, a lascivious traveling preacher who becomes side-kick, foil, and nemesis to the no nonsense Hogue. Several great character actors all at the top of their form, including Strother Martin, Slim Pickens, and L.Q. Jones, round out this first rate cast.
This DVD release includes several excellent special features. There is a mini feature called The Ladiest Damn'd Lady: An Afternoon With Actress Stella Stevens, in which Stevens talks about her career, Director Sam Peckinpah (she didn't much like him), and her experiences working on The Ballad of Cable Hogue. Also included are trailer galleries from five Peckinpah movies - Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, The Ballad of Cable Hogue, The Getaway, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Most importantly, however, is an outstanding commentary track featuring four Peckinpah scholars. Their commentary covers the symbolism and philosophy of the movie, Peckinpah's filming technique, and the movie's relationship to Peckinpah's larger body of work. Unlike many commentary tracks that seem to add little value, this excellent track is both entertaining and useful, and leaves you wanting to watch the movie yet again with the new perspectives you have gained from it.
The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a film that will stick with you, and one you will want to revisit frequently. It is not only my favorite Sam Peckinpah film, it is one of my top five all time favorite Westerns. If your Western collection lacks this quirky gem, it is not yet complete, so go discover it for yourself.