Jason Robards finds water and life where there wasn’t any.
Welcome once again to It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, a series in which two blogger friends (Me and Mike’s Take on the Movies) pick movies for the other to watch & review once a month, hopefully expanding each others’ viewing horizons.
So out of a handful of movies Mike gave me to pick from for this month, I went straight for this one because Sam Peckinpah. Well, I got nothing like whatever movie I was expecting, started by wondering where the heck this could possibly go in the next 2 hours, and ended up thoroughly enjoying it. Jason Robards plays Cable Hogue (don’t ask him how to spell that), who’s been abandoned by some fellow lowlifes in the desert with no water or any hope of survival. Seemingly through sheer prayer and willpower, he finds a mudhole, sucks a few drops of water out of it and proceeds to build an empire on the spot. Along with the the spring he finds love and friendship with some eccentric characters and years pass with many rewards, personal improvement and happiness as Robards builds a popular water stop and (I hesitate to call it a) restaurant. Then one day his traitorous former partners Strother Martin and L. Q. Jones step off that stagecoach and are shocked to learn how wealthy he is.
By that description it might sound like your typical western, but it’s not. It’s a funny, silly fable, an allegory with some very unusual moments, the type of movie with extremely high potential for being a stupid and ridiculous mess, but it’s not. What it is, is great acting and directing, and I’ll try to describe the rest of it. Robards is really a joy to watch in every single moment he’s on screen, in a measured and careful yet highly entertaining performance. He’s slow and humble but also proud and calculating, driven by lust but also very romantic, flinty and stingy without being unpleasant and overly abrasive. His determination and realism is downright inspirational; he just resolves to make things work and that’s that. He’s a fast learner; just watch as he goes from investor to bank and picks up from one how to spell his name to the other (he spells the wrong name, but still). When he sees the first car sputtering along the dusty roads, he instantly realizes that no horses means less demand for water and right then resolves to sell the business and move on. Little does he know just how much a car will change his life for good and for bad.
Among the many laugh out loud/ shake your head moments: the face engraved on the money egging Robards on to visit Stella Stevens, the prostitute who will become the love of his life, and this is after her most prominent body parts have been echoing in his vision for the last few minutes. “She’s the Ladiest Lady you ever saw.” How about his eatery’s plates being nailed down to the table, washed off by splash bucket, until Stevens’ touch makes the place more homey. Then there’s everybody having the exact same hilarious jaw dropping reaction to seeing their first car. In a class by himself is David Warner, so slimy and fantastic (reminded me a lot of Donald Sutherland) as the charlatan “preacher” who invents his own faith as he goes, and mainly uses it to take advantage of innocent ladies. Warner wanders into Robards’ life out of nowhere and turns out to be a halfway decent and reliable friend, helping build the little fiefdom, helping sell the rattlesnake and rodent dinner as “coq au vin,” until he has to hightail it out on account of Gene Evans looking to kill him for fooling around with his wife.
For all the comical, slapstick, satirical, risque, raunchy elements, the overwhelming feel of this movie is sentimental and melancholy. Robards has a common sense earthy view of the world that you can hardly argue with. When the banker asks him for collateral he replies “ain’t I worth something?” Reverend: “Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord./ Cable: Well, that’s fair enough with me just as long as he don’t take too long and I can watch.” Religious themes are plenty, from punishment, hypocrisy and atonement, to finding your way and keeping to new values after a long period of wandering. Robards makes a deal with God to help him survive the desert, when he gets that prayer answered he seems to accept everything that comes after as gravy, never once whining about not getting still more out of life. But he’d shoot you dead for not paying the 10 cents for your drink from his well (“kowz” can drink for two bits). He takes everything as it comes. Just like he found the mud where there was none, and made the most of it, he finds the best, the human, in the crazy people around him, sees value where there seems to be none, and somehow squeezes out meaning enough to share and improve everyone’s lives.