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Now on DVD: "Ride the High Country" (Sam Peckinpah, 1962)

Sam Peckinpah gives the Western a funeral.
John Ford mourns the Western as a spectral soundstage (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), Sam Peckinpah goes outside to revive it, or at least give it a decent Viking funeral. The geriatric lawman (Joel McCrea) rides into town only to discover he’s holding up a dromedary race, moments later he’s nearly run over by an automobile. The Old West is pure simulacra, a carnival—“Wichita” and “Dodge City” are just names on the fairgrounds wheel, the carny-sharpshooter spinning it is the rider’s old colleague (Randolph Scott), done up in Buffalo Bill whiskers. “The days of the steady businessman” have arrived, how do you hang on to values, or to a friend? “The Lord’s bounty may not be for sale, but the Devil’s is, if you can pay the price.” McCrea and Scott aren’t so much gallant geezers as they are genre totems carrying their iconography on their shoulders; the shotgun ride to Coarse Gold, a snowy mining tent-town later recalled by Altman, celebrates their Tourneur-Boetticher filmographies while cracking open the Western’s original Manicheanism. The pious farmer (R.G. Armstrong) is actually a tyrant unconsciously lusting for his daughter (Mariette Hartley), the only other family is a bunch of happy-go-rapist brothers (Warren Oates among them) out of Faulkner, or perhaps Wagon Master. The “simple glory” of marriage described by the sodden judge (Edgar Buchanan) is viewed through the bride’s increasingly agitated eyes as she realizes that the church is a brothel and that her in-laws expect to share her. Nothing aches like a modernist’s eulogy to classicism, purity doesn’t exist so only the notion of it can be resurrected. (Peckinpah yearns to believe, the way the atheist Pasolini felt “nostalgia for faith.”) Two moments: L.Q. Jones is shot during a skirmish, exchanges a silent look with the brother who’s collecting his rifle, and tumbles into a ditch; McCrea and Scott talk by the bend of a river, get on their horses and ride into the woods, the camera cranes upwards to reveal tiny figures in an autumn-yellow landscape.

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