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July 08, 2016

Yellow Sky

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William Wellman - 1948
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

My favorite single image from Yellow Sky is of Anne Baxter standing on a large rock, with a rifle. The camera is tilted upwards toward her. It's the kind of shot that William Wellman will use on his heroic characters in some of his other films. It is also the only shot of its kind in Yellow Sky.

The young woman played by Baxter is known by the nickname of Mike. No explanation is given. Baxter wears jeans through the entire film except at the very end when given a woman's hat by Gregory Peck. In his discussion of Baxter's performance in Yellow Sky, William Wellman, Jr. mentions the "Wellmanian woman". Wellman, Jr. describes this woman as being the equal to the male characters in terms of being people of action. Wellman, Jr. mentions a couple of actresses that fit this description, placing Baxter alongside Carole Lombard and Barbara Stanwyck. For those of us who have been reading discussions about the "Hawksian woman", a term bandied about for at least forty years, I have to wonder if maybe a new kind of shorthand term needs to be invented, as the woman of action as described here is not exclusive to either Wellman or Howard Hawks. The terms "phallic woman" or "phallus girl" might be accurate to a point, but also suggest a kind of psychological weight unintended by the filmmakers.

Wellman, Jr. also mentions that Paulette Goddard had originally been considered for the role of Mike. Baxter was Wellman's choice. Jean Peters was considered too young by Wellman, although I think she could have been as good as Baxter. Peters in the lead role in Anne of the Indies gave her the chance to play an action heroine.

One other shot that I really liked here takes place before the final shoot out between Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark and John Russell. The three were part of Peck's gang of outlaws until a dispute came regarding division of a hidden fortune of gold dust. The camera travels on the floor inside a saloon, curving around the bar, finding Widmark hiding in the back. What is surprising is that the shot is not from the point of view of Peck, or any other character. Another reason why William Wellman is in need of greater reconsideration is that during several moments in Yellow Sky, he makes unexpected visual choices. One of the more significant choices is to not show the action, making use of sound and the imagination of the audience, as in the final gunfight, as well as the scene with Anne Baxter fighting off Gregory Peck, the two rolling and tumbling into a barn, heard but not seen, until the roll back out in front of the camera.

Wellman, Jr. points out that his father was unfamiliar with any similarities to Shakespeare's The Tempest, which might be found in the basic premise of Mike and her grandfather alone in the remote ghost town of Yellow Sky. I would assume the liberties with Shakespeare originated with author W. R. Burnett, and that producer-screenwriter Lamar Trotti may have been aware of the inspiration here. Shakespeare aside, one might argue that Yellow Sky, taking place just a couple of years after the American Civil War, in Arizona, is hardly a western. Setting aside the genre markers is a film about sexual tension, of a group of men literally hungering for female companionship, and a young woman who can not articulate her own sexual needs or identity. Although lighter in comparison to Duel in the Sun, with an even less gentlemanly Gregory Peck, or Pursued, Yellow Sky might be considered as part of the evolution toward the psychological westerns of the Fifties that would eventually include William Wellman's version of Track of the Cat.

While I disagree with his assessment of Yellow Sky, I recommend this essay on Wellman by French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier.

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Posted by peter at July 8, 2016 05:12 PM