This story is mostly focused on the persistent Cable Hogue, played by Jason Robards, who is partners with Bowen (Strother) and Taggart (Jones) in some undisclosed enterprise that has left them in the desert without enough water in the canteen for the three of them. Basically, the other two get the drop on Hogue and abandon him in the desert, taking their mule and water and leaving him to die.
All of this takes place before the titles, and it starts Robards on his path, to success, love, and vengeance. The two antagonists do not return to the story until late in the last act. In the meanwhile, Jason Robards Title character carries on a one sided conversation with God, until he accidentally discovers a water hole in the wasteland, near enough to a stagecoach trail, to be of great value. The story then shows him becoming tentative friends with an itinerant preacher named Sloan, who is played by David Warner. Strother and Warner will be featured a decade later in the nature gone wild horror film “Nightwing”. Warner has an impressive list of credits and he continues to work, I last saw him in the sequel to Mary Poppins, but he did voicework in a Teen Titans cartoon recently.
I have actually written about this film before in a post on this blog, which was part of a Blogathon that I participated in. The subject of that post was actually Slim Pickens, who is billed immediately after Strother. While I do discuss Jay in that post, the focus was on Pickens, so the character of Bowen is mentioned mostly in passing. The really nice set off of Bowen’s character in the pre-title moments was the mocking song that the character sings as he and Taggart wander away from the abandoned Hogue. Much like the tune he sings off key in Butch and Sundance, Jay manages to bring an authenticity to a cowboy singing, that you will not find in a Roy Rogers or Gene Autrey film.
The second act of the film is mostly taken up by the romance between Cable Hogue and a local working girl named Hildy, played by the delicious Stella Stevens. Miss Stevens had a long early career as the sex appeal in a lot of films. TV movies and series, she was also a Playboy Centerfold. (I also just discovered she was in a long term relationship with the late Bob Kulick, who I met at the Kiss KruiseFest in October of 2019). Hogue, Sloan and Hildy have a variety of adventures and incidents in the middle of the film as the story meanders around the path that Hogue is following. It is enjoyable stuff but it is not what I wish to focus on right now.
Let’s get back to our subject for the day, “Bowen” the more feeble of the two backstabbers from the opening scene. You knew it was inevitable that these two would come back into Cable Hogue’s world, and they do so in a pretty funny way. They get off the stagecoach when it arrives at the way station and are surprised to discover that it is a thriving enterprise run by their old partner.
While they seem to have prospered in their time apart, it is clear that it is not a result of being on the straight and narrow. Slim Picken’s stagecoach driver regales them with the financial success that Hogue has enjoyed as a result of the waterhole. Hogue plays is cool and smiles as he thanks them for helping him find his way to riches. Of course he is laying a trap for them when he mentions that he doesn’t trust banks to keep his money and that his riches are in his possession at the station.
The two of them return on horseback, determined to rob Hogue and convinced by their previous encounter that they can get the best of him. Hogue suckers them into digging a deep hole in pursuit of his buried treasure, leaving inconsequential amounts of copper and silver coins as breadcrumbs to convince them to keep digging, when what they are actually doing is digging their own graves.
Cable gets the drop on them and drives them out of the pit with a few well chosen rattlesnakes lobbed into the hole with them. We then get a restaging of the opening sequence when Cable did have the upper hand but lost it, this time, will the result be different? It’s not to hard to imagine that it will be.
Cable wants to force them into the desert like they did to him, but complications do ensue and soon we get the chance to marvel at Strother and his incredible whining. Bowen reveals himself to be a craven coward and is hardly humiliated at acknowledging the fact. He whimpers like a whipped animal and crys up a flood in pleading with Hogue not to fulfill his plan for him. This is a strong sequence for Jay as he gets to play to his strengths, which were usually playing weakness. The prairie scum he so often portrayed, are almost pitiful wnen he turns on his voice and scrunches his face into desperate contortions.
It is not entirely surprising what happens next, because we have established that Cable, while not a Saint, is also not a wicked man. He gets an opportunity to punish his enemy in a passive aggressive manner by giving him responsibilities that he can probably never live up to, but for which he will spend the rest of his life trying to do.
All in all, “The Ballad of Cable Hogue” is a great showcase for Strother Martin. He plays vile in the opening, and pitiful at the end. While his screen time is limited, like all great character actors, he brings his A game and makes the most out of the role, and adds to the picture in just the way the director wanted him to.