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Ride the High Country is the one Sam Peckinpah movie about which there has never been controversy–save at MGM in 1962, when a new studio regime opted to dump this beautiful, heartbreakingly elegiac Western into the bottom half of a double-bill. Westerns rarely even got reviewed back then, so it’s wellnigh miraculous that critics discovered the movie and raved about it. Newsweek called it the best American picture of the year.
Veteran cowboy stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea portray aging gunslingers in the twilight of the Old West. McCrea’s character, Steve Judd, signs on to transport a shipment of gold from a remote mining camp. Gil Westrum (Scott), an old crony now trick-shooting in a carnival, agrees to help but really aims to seduce Judd into stealing the treasure. The slow-building tension between longtime friends–one still true to the code he’s lived by, the other having drifted away from it–anticipates the tortuous personal dilemmas played out to the death by Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, and Benny and Elita in Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.
The action scenes are powerful, if only beginning to suggest the radical technique with which Peckinpah would astonish audiences in just a few years. But his feeling for flavorsome dialogue, Rabelaisian humor, and full-blooded character acting is already unmistakable. Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, and John Davis Chandler are among the “redneck peckerwoods” complicating the journey, and Mariette Hartley is fresh and saucy in her big-screen debut. As for McCrea and Scott, they are simply superb. The two proposed that they swap roles before filming got underway, and the question of who got first billing was settled by flipping a coin. Both men retired once the film was in the can. They knew they’d never top it. –Richard T. Jameson
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