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Ride the High Country

Ride the High Country(1962)

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Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott get a fitting fade-out in Ride the High Country. Sam Peckinpah's 1962 western is Scott's last movie and McCrea's last significant movie (he appeared in four small westerns over the following 15 years), and it gives them the chance to play characters that draw upon the audience's familiarity with their onscreen personas as western heroes.

Steve Judd (McCrea) and Gil Westrum (Scott) are two ex-lawmen whose best days are behind them. Judd, the more principled of the two, has hung on by taking what we nowadays would call rent-a-cop jobs, like the one he accepts at the start of the movie. A bank fed up with recurrent robberies of gold claims headed their way from a nearby mining camp hires Judd to go to the camp as its representative, collect claims and bring them back to town, safe and sound. Although the bankers are shocked that Judd is no longer the virile hotshot that made him a famous marshal, he's still imposing enough to keep the meek bankers from backing out of the deal. Meanwhile, Westrum has traded on his heroic background by running a carnival booth in which customers try to outshoot him. When Judd runs into Westrum on his way to the bank, the reunion of these two pals who, as the dialogue tells us, each deputied for the other at one time, takes shape.

But Westrum has more than camaraderie on his mind. Having labored as a low-paying lawman for decades, with little to show for it now in money or respect, doesn't sit with him as well as it does with more philosophical Judd. Westrum and his cocky young sidekick Heck (Ronald Starr) offer to be the armed assistants Judd seeks for his new assignment, lured by the prospect of $250,000 in gold that the bankers have told Judd awaits in the mining camp, Coarse Gold. Westrum thinks stealing the gold and splitting it with Heck will leave him with a deserved pension. The movie's tension comes from Judd's ignorance of Westrum's intentions, our anticipation of a doublecross and the possibility that Westrum's reacquaintance with Judd will make him back off from his plan.

Certainly, the subplot involving Elsa (Mariette Hartley) uneasily bonds the former friends again. She's the cloistered daughter of a harshly religious dad (Peckinpah regular R.G. Armstrong) who escapes her abusive life on her father's ranch and rides with Westrum, Judd and Heck to Coarse Gold, where her fiancé, Billy Hammond (James Drury), is. But she runs from one bad situation into another. Billy is one of five hillbilly brothers who, we soon learn, think they, too, get sexual access to their new relative. (The actors playing the brothers include Warren Oates and L.Q. Jones, two more Peckinpah regulars.) As Judd, Westrum and Heck wrangle to first get shellshocked Elsa out of harm's way after the wedding and to then get the marriage nullified, we gain respect for Westrum. His creative bending of the law gets Elsa out of a jam that Judd is ready to leave her in, because he believes the law says she's married.

Ride the High Country gains power as it progresses. Peckinpah was coming off of his TV series The Westerner, and Ride the High Country sometimes suffers from a TV-western cheesiness, particularly during an early scrape that is very conventional barroom-brawl material (taking place in a restaurant). Ron Starr, whose career never amounted to much after the substantial role, is also a bland performer who seems out of his league here. Peckinpah can't be entirely blamed for the movie's occasional garish moments, though. After a change in regimes at MGM, he was kicked off the movie and not involved in the scoring process. Such flaws do, however, prevent Ride the High Country from reaching the dramatic and emotional heights of the series of leaner, more unconventional westerns Scott made before it with Budd Boetticher, including Seven Men from Now and The Tall T. The movie simply doesn't cut as deeply as those pictures.

Any blatant missteps in Ride the High Country are in its first half. By the time Westrum and Heck make their move on Judd and the gold, it's hit its stride. From there, Ride the High Country includes well-staged showdowns with the Hammond brothers and shifting dynamics in the relationship of Judd and Westrum, as well as a very moving resolution.

Ride the High Country arrives as part of the Sam Peckinpah's Legendary Westerns Collection boxed set (it's also available individually). Like the other movies in the set, this features an audio commentary by Peckinpah biographers Nick Redman, Paul Seydor, Garner Simmons and David Weddle. These guys have teamed up on, it seems, all the Peckinpah DVDs released, starting with last year's Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, and they do a fine job. Instead of trying to one-up each other, they really work well together. Also here is the 23-minute featurette A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and the High Country, which interviews Peckinpah's sister, Fern Lea Peter. Much of the focus of the commentary and the featurette involves the ways Ride the High Country reflects Sam's youth in the mountains of California (not too far from the real Coarse Gold) and the way his principled lawyer dad, who had recently died, shaped the role of Steve Judd.

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by Paul Sherman