William A. Wellman’s films are characterized by their stark formalism, but Yellow Sky is as dry as the arid flatland and sun-baked rocks that make up its settings. It begins with a gang of bank robbers led by the laconic, dictatorial Stretch (Gregory Peck) emerging seemingly out of thin air—a reverse mirage of flesh appearing to an empty expanse. Sneaking into a nearby town, they come across the stripped remains of an unfortunate prospector, finding his bleached skull pierced by an arrow. In town, the gang quickly hits the local bank and rides back into the wilderness, pursued by garrison soldiers who break off the chase when they realize that the robbers are riding straight into a stretch of mercilessly hot terrain. “Let ’em go,” orders the commanding officer. “Saves us the trouble of hanging them.”
The officer’s decision to let nature sort out the crooks quickly proves sound as the gang trudges through open plains of desert. Joseph Macdonald’s high-contrast cinematography renders the sand around the men so white it resembles a salt flat, and heat burns into every frame. Long shots dominate this stretch of the film, reducing the men to silent sufferers set against an expanse that offers no quarter for their sunstroke and thirst. At last, they finally stumble across a town, but in a cruel joke, it’s long abandoned, save for a woman named Mike (Anne Baxter), who greets the nearly dead men with the business end of a rifle and instructions to leave.
From there, the film shifts from a spare, oppressively lit western to an equally spartan but considerably darker noir. The dessicated remains of the town of Yellow Sky literalize the urban decay explored in noir, replacing moral rot for genuine collapse. Broken buildings throw up jagged shadows, which become perilously dark at night as the gang roams the area like the scavengers who picked the place clean long before they arrived. Only Mike and her prospector grandfather (James Barton), whose genteel nature masks the same grit that Mike wears on her sleeve, can get by in the town, and Mike in particular seems to be at one with its bare, inhospitable climate. As the gang members make bullish passes at her and go searching for her grandfather’s gold, she consistently exploits her complete knowledge of the environment to thwart their efforts, using the shadows and hiding places to keep tabs on the men and emerging with gun drawn when they step over a line.
As a director, Wellman had the versatility, if not the distinctiveness, of Howard Hawks, traversing nearly every genre and producing solid work in each of them. Yet few of his films more clearly demonstrate his skills than Yellow Sky, which exhibits the virtue of his surface-oriented style. The film’s conflicts are primarily internal, but Wellman eschews psychology for primal struggles over hunger, thirst, lust and greed, filming the men’s madness matter-of-factly. Far from simplifying the drama, however, the film obtains a tactile, immediate quality that makes the infighting all the more vicious. Only a coda in which both Stretch and Mike turn into goody-two-shoes lovebirds detracts from the animalistic nature of the picture, a commercial concession in what is otherwise one of the nastier westerns of the genre’s classic era.
The sharply distinct blacks and whites of Joseph Macdonald’s cinematography look especially crisp on Kino’s Blu-ray. A lack of restoration leaves scratches and spots in place, but for the most part, the image is clear and boasts excellent texture. The modest audio track wants for dynamic range, but the sound is consistent and only occasionally betrays any tinniness.
Besides some theatrical trailers for related films in Kino’s catalogue, the only real extra is a commentary from William Wellman Jr., the director’s son. The track is a bit dry, with Wellman clearly reading from prepared remarks, but he nonetheless covers the basic aspects of the production and relates his father’s feelings about working on it.
William Wellman’s stark, elemental western is a quintessential display of the director’s direct but punchy style, and Kino’s solid Blu-ray is an appropriately no-frills package for its simple pleasures.