“Ride the High Country” (1962, Warner Archive Collection) A shipment of gold provides aging cowpokes Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott with more than just gainful employment: for McCrea, it will allow him to cap his life on a dignified note and “enter his house justified,” while for Scott, stealing the gold means a chance to escape obsolescence in his final years. Though a failure at the time of its release, this elegiac Western is widely regarded as the film that established director Sam Peckinpah as a force for change and innovation in that genre, and the launching point for the major themes – the vanishing Old West, code of honor vs. corruption and chaos – in many of his subsequent films (“The Wild Bunch”). McCrea and Scott, who made their names as Western stars in the ’40s and ’50s, get a stellar showcase in their final major film roles, and they’re well abetted by Mariette Hartley as a young woman who takes up with the pair after fleeing a Puritanical father (R.G. Armstrong), and a host of future Peckinpah regulars – among them Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones and John Davis Chandler – as depraved brothers with designs on Hartley. WAC’s MOD (Manufacture on Demand) Blu-ray includes excellent commentary by a quartet of Peckinpah scholars, including Nick Redman, Paul Seydor and David Weddle, all of whom also contributed to the making of “A Justified Life: Sam Peckinpah and ‘Ride the High Country'” (2006), a fine documentary about the director’s turbulent childhood in Fresno and its impact on both this film and his career as a whole.
“The Ballad of Cable Hogue” (1970, Warner Film Archives) Betrayed by his craven partners (L.Q. Jones again, and the great Strother Martin), prospector Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) undergoes a sort of Biblical transformation – wandering, close to death, through the desert – and upon bargaining with God, discovers a watering hole near a stagecoach route. With the help of cheery saloon gal Stella Stevens and predatory preacher David Warner, Hogue discovers self-reliance and forgiveness, though both come with a price. Completed while Peckinpah was finishing “The Wild Bunch,” this gentle, eccentric Western drama was met with disbelief by Warner execs, who expected another bloodbath; unceremoniously dumped into theaters – the same fate suffered by “Ride the High Country” – “Cable Hogue” took a page from its eponymous hero and not only survived its dismissal but thrived as one of the director’s most enjoyable films. Its leisurely pace and heavy thematic leanings (the destructive side of progress is most favored here) may try the patience of fans who appreciate Peckinpah’s gorier side, but the picture’s sweetly cracked perspective – punctuated by Jerry Goldsmith’s lovely score – and the fine turns by the three leads, may win over hard-bitten devotee and newcomers alike. WAC’s Blu-ray includes also commentary by Redman and his collaborators, as well as a new interview with Stevens.