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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Yellow Sky
Yellow Sky
Fox // Unrated // May 23, 2006
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Phil Bacharach | posted May 14, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

As titles of westerns go, Yellow Sky has the ring of a horse opera under majestic, wide-open skies. Instead, this lean 1948 western feels more akin to another movie that came out that year, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. While Yellow Sky isn't in the same league as the John Huston classic, both works explore the darker recesses of humanity, specifically lust for gold and how that greed can turn people against one another.

Set in the Wild West following the Civil War, the picture stars Gregory Peck as Stretch, otherwise known as James Dawson, the leader of a gang of outlaws who must beat a hasty retreat after robbing a small-town bank. After one of the group is shot and killed by pursuing lawmen, Stretch directs his remaining five men to pass through California's Death Valley. It is a brutal trek, to be sure, so much so that one of the men regrets his having filled his canteen with whiskey instead of water. Then the men -- battered by the unsparing sun and nearly dying of thirst -- finally come to a ghost town at the edge of the desert.

The town has two inhabitants: a tomboyish young woman who goes by the nickname "Mike" (Anne Baxter) and her grandfather (James Barton). The bandits discover that he old man is a prospector, and that he is holding on to a fortune in gold in hopes of someday reviving the town and providing a future for his granddaughter.

The thieves plan to rob the old man. Dude (Richard Widmark) is particularly hungry for the gold, and he bristles when Stretch suggests that the men only steal a portion of the loot. Stretch, you see, is more interested in other booty, having fallen for feisty Mike.

Perhaps Stretch and Mike are attracted to one another's wooden performances. Both Peck and Baxter boast palpable screen presence, but let's be honest; neither one was ever much of an actor. At any rate, Stretch is an outlaw with a curious streak of integrity -- but with Gregory Peck, what else would you expect?

Neither Peck nor Baxter diminishes the power of this dark, atmospheric and consistently compelling picture. Based on a novel by W.R. Burnett (whose other books included such gangster sagas as Little Caesar and The Asphalt Jungle), Yellow Sky is essentially a film noir on horseback.

Replace the ten-gallon hats with fedoras and this tale of crime and redemption would play out roughly the same way. In a memorable scene, Mike implores the bad guys to spare her grandfather because of his dreams to revive the town and transform it into something dynamic, beautiful and full of life. The grandfather scans the faces of the outlaws; their faces are hard, uncomprehending of anything other than their desire to steal his gold and have their way with Mike. The old man sweetly bids Mike to stop. "They don't even know what you're talking about," he tells her.

Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald, who produced similarly wonderful work in My Darling Clementine and Panic in the Streets, practically caresses the evocative landscapes of Death Valley. Captured in exquisite black and white, the region looks like a flat expanse of sheets of ice. The movie employs a visual style more reminiscent of film noir than other westerns, reveling in angular shadows and stark contrasts between light and darkness. No wonder much of its story takes place in that eerily sedate time of twilight.

Director William A. Wellman ratchets up the tension in long stretches with little dialogue, particularly in the gang's long hard slog through the desert. Alfred Newman's music score is fine, but Wellman smartly lets most of this bare-boned story unfold without music. With the sole exception of a goofy coda that ends the film -- undoubtedly a concession to the moguls of 20th Century Fox at the time -- Yellow Sky hits all the right notes.

The DVD

The Video:

In its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Yellow Sky is preserved beautifully. Despite an occasional spec of dirt in two or three scenes, there is little to detract from MacDonald's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography.

The Audio:

The standard 2.0 Stereo is obviously without bells and whistles, but none are needed. As long as you can easily make out the dialogue and the gallop of horses, you're OK.

Extras:

The bonus features are throwaways, unfortunately: A Poster and One Sheet Gallery, Production Stills Gallery and Behind the Scenes Gallery. None of the photographs are particularly remarkable.

In addition to the film's theatrical trailer, the disc features trailers for other Fox westerns: The Tall Men, Two Flags West and These Thousand Hills.

Final Thoughts:

Westerns and film noir might be the two most quintessentially American movie genres. In that respect, Yellow Sky might just be quintessentially American. I dunno. Whatever it is, it's a damn fine yarn.

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