'Ride the High Country,' 1962

When you see a great Peckinpah film like his second feature, "Ride the High Country" (1962), you feel that the director has found a way to tell a story that lays his own soul across the screen. This movie celebrates a hero of self-control. But each frame is energized with a sense of what that self-control has cost the man in love, friendship and glory. Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) is one of Peckinpah's gallant Westerners: an ex-lawman trying to regain his professional integrity after years of work in pickup jobs like bartender or bouncer. He enlists his former deputy, Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott), to help him transport bullion from a High Country mining camp to a bank in the town below. Westrum has become a scam artist in a traveling Wild West show; Judd doesn't realize that his old friend, with the help of a new partner, Heck Longtree (Ron Starr), intends to steal the gold. The movie is principally about Westrum and Longtree's redemption through their love for this modest, righteous man. When they and Judd take Elsa (Mariette Hartley), the daughter of a puritanical father, to her miner fiance, Billy Hammond (James Drury), she brings home the director's aversion to white hat/black hat melodrama. "My father says there's only right and wrong, good and evil. It isn't that simple, is it?" asks Elsa. "No," Judd replies, "It should be, but it isn't." Elsa doesn't know that she's marrying into a bestial family -- and the director's sympathy for her belies his reputation for misogyny. Peckinpah films Elsa's marriage in a cat-house largely from her point of view, and the result is comparable in tragicomic force to the humiliations of the prostitute heroine in Fellini's "Nights of Cabiria." McCrea gives Judd a ruefulness that makes it all the more inspiring when he and Westrum confront the Hammonds, square their shoulders and march to their fate without flinching. When the just and unpretentious Judd "goes it alone" and dies, he turns his massive frame for one last look at the high country -- then plummets to the bottom of the movie frame. You feel close enough to hear his heart stop. Pictured: Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea
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