(director: William Wellman; screenwriters: Lamar Trotti/from the story by W.R. Burnett; cinematographer: Joe MacDonald; editor: Harmon Jones; music: Alfred Newman; cast: Gregory Peck (Stretch), Anne Baxter (Mike), Richard Widmark (Dude), James Barton (Grandpa), Robert Arthur (Bull Run), John Russell (Lengthy), Harry Morgan (Half Pint), Charles Kemper (Walrus), Robert Adler (Jed); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Lamar Trotti; 20th Century Fox; 1948)
“This superior western is marked by an outstanding performance by Gregory Peck.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Probably the best film that William Wellman (“The Public Enemy”/”A Star is Born”) ever directed. It’s set in the Wild West during 1867, just after the Civil War. The plot is similar to Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The crisp script was shaped by LaMar Trotti based on a story by W.R. Burnett. Joe MacDonald’s mercilessly atmospheric black and white photography makes the desert locale unforgettable (it was filmed at Death Valley). Yellow Sky, like Greed and The Treasure of Sierra Madre, is about lusting after gold. It also has the same stylish bleak tone as Wellman and Trotti’s 1943 The Ox-Bow Incident.
Stretch (Gregory Peck) leads his seven-man gang into a sleepy frontier western town and easily robs a bank. They are pursued by the cavalry and one of their gang, Jed, gets killed, while they escape across the desert salt flats. Almost overcome from thirst, they discover a ghost town called Yellow Sky. It was once a boomtown where gold was found. Living there are only an ornery prospector in his seventies called Grandpa (James Barton) and his young tomboy granddaughter Mike (Anne Baxter). They have found $50,000 worth of gold dust and the gang wants to steal it. While they haggle over the gold, Stretch pursues Mike as she makes him remember he was a decent guy from a church-going farm family before Quantrill’s Raiders invaded his Midwest home. Stretch’s play for Mike gets her attention and after they get off to a bad start she is slowly reminded that besides packing a mean wallop and being handy with a rifle, there’s womanly desires stirring under her rough exterior.
Gang member Dude (Richard Widmark) wants only the gold and is willing to double-cross everyone to get everything. Lengthy (John Russell) not only wants his share of the gold, but wants Mike and is willing to take her by force if she resists his advances. Half Pint, Walrus, and Bull Run are not hardened criminals but have been drifting too long to find again the right path, though they are not driven only with greed and lust like Dude and Lengthy. Adding to the mix are a drunken band of Apaches who suddenly show up to pow-wow with Grandpa over their crisis in the reservation, as they befriended him and respect his counsel.
The deal between Grandpa and Stretch goes bad and it leads to a violent conclusion, as Stretch gave his word to Grandpa that they wouldn’t take all the gold but split it fifty-fifty. But Dude and the others don’t go along with that arrangement, so Stretch joind forces with Mike and Grandpa and there’s a final shootout among Stretch, Dude, and Lengthy.
It was remade in 1967 as The Jackals.
REVIEWED ON 2/24/2004 GRADE: B+ https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/