Rio Bravo (1959)

When it’s on: Saturday, 26 August (3.10 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

I suppose there’s a sense of inevitability that at some point I would cover Rio Bravo on this site. It features in the schedules fairly regularly, always brushed over by me because I’m a bit nervous about discussing it. My worry is that I don’t like it as much as I ought to. The film’s seen as a classic of the Western genre, one of its finest entries in fact, and the first time I saw it I just wasn’t overwhelmed. Sure, it was a fine piece of work, technically very good and featuring some classic genre actors doing exactly what they were paid to do and doing it well. But around my initial viewing of this one, I was exploring many Westerns, often for the first time, and whilst I was really gripped by the likes of The Ox Bow Incident, 3:10 to Yuma and Shane, this one just felt like a good old-fashioned Oater. Nothing special.

The one Rio Bravo is most often compared with is Fred Zinneman’s High Noon, something I guess we should get out of the way early. As my comments on the earlier picture show, I love it to the extent that I think it’s about as good as cinematic entertainment tends to get. So no pressure on any challenger, then. I should add that what I like most about High Noon isn’t the political subtext at all, rather it’s the way Zinneman uses all elements of his craft to increase the story’s suspense. It’s a sublime exercise in mounting tension, one of the very finest for me, and entertainment doesn’t get much better than that. The socio-political climate in which it was made adds a neat contemporary spice to the mix, but if that’s all there was to it then High Noon would have little relevance to a viewer from the twenty first century, and I think it effortlessly transcends all that. It gets mentioned here because Rio Bravo was made in part as a riposte to its success. Director Howard Hawks and actor John Wayne were unhappy that High Noon’s hero was abandoned by all his friends and left to face destiny alone (the word ‘phony’ was dropped in there somewhere), and wanted to tell a similar story in which the villains are faced by people who happily band together to overcome them, in other words emphasising the qualities of comradeship and brotherhood.

It’s a nice message, and Rio Bravo focuses on the strength of the sum rather than the parts of its heroes by carefully showing how they are better together than apart. Alone, Dean Martin’s character is a pathetic drunk, a hollow shell of the man he once was, but it’s the stolid friendship of Wayne and Walter Brennan’s cackling Stumpy that gives him purpose. The alcoholic spiral of self-destruction into which he enters gifts Sheriff Chance (Wayne) with a cause, one he never shirks from. The relationship between the two is brilliantly played and shows what a generous performer Wayne was. In the scenes together, your eyes are drawn to Duke (Martin), who sweats, shakes and remonstrates, almost jumping across the screen as a consequence of being in deep with his personal demons. But watch Wayne. He stands and looks on, never judging, only getting involved when something’s to be done. The message should be clear enough – for Duke, he’s the rock, the one steady thing left in his life. Greater poignancy is lent when Duke realises that the guns and clothing he’s hawked years before for booze have all been bought by Chance and stored, ready and waiting for him to slip them back on.

Rio Bravo’s plot is simple enough. A man shoots someone in cold blood during the first act and is incarcerated by Chance, ready for the Marshal to deal with when he arrives in several days’ time. The prisoner happens to be the brother of Nathan Burdette (John Russell), the town’s Mr Big, who spends the rest of the film trying to get him out. Only Chance, Stumpy and Duke stand in his way, and they know it, facing Burdette’s legions of gunslingers in a small community that suddenly feels small and claustrophobic. There are people watching them on every corner, just waiting for the moment when they drop their guard. And so they don’t.

It’s the sort of story that underpins a thousand Westerns, and it’s perhaps this that made me under-value the film that first time. What I didn’t appreciate back then is that Rio Bravo is probably the quintessential classic Western, the culmination of talents pulling together for one great, last epic showpiece. Hawks directing. Dimitri Tiomkin’s thrilling score. Wayne and Brennan teaming up for the umpteenth time and bringing their A-Game, genuine affection between the pair punctuating their interactions and good natured barbs. Russell on reliable form as the baddie. Ward Bond putting in his customary support appearance, one year before he died from a heart attack, aged 57 and with nearly 300 screen credits to his name (god knows how many he’d have put in otherwise).

If the film has false notes, it’s in two further appearances. Ricky Nelson plays a young gunslinger, Colorado, who joins Chance’s team, and while there’s nothing especially wrong with him he strikes a callow note within a production of sure hands that plays very comfortably together. He was in the film to encourage teenage ticket sales, already gaining number one status in the American Billboard charts, and in a celebrated scene that actually strikes me as a little cloying he leads the gang in a sing along, watched over by a smiling, fatherly Wayne. The other problem arrives in the comely shape of Angie Dickinson, in her mid-twenties and in the script to provide a love interest for romantic lead Wayne. The trouble is that Dickinson’s a bit too good for the role, injecting real character and interest in her thinly drawn part, and distracting from the main plot. Leigh Brackett was a regular screenwriter for Hawks and added sizzling lines to Dickinson’s good time girl. She comes to dominate her scenes with Wayne, whilst as with his moments alongside Martin the Duke has little to do, perhaps another instance of him yielding the stage to his fellow actor.

The action scenes in Rio Bravo are few, but they’re good. In one of the best, Chance and Duke hit a saloon that’s filled with hostile Burdette men. They’re there to chase down a shootist who’s hiding there after he killed a man, and Chance lets his deputy take the lead, despite the worries that persist over his alcoholism. But this is the start of Duke’s redemptive arc. Eschewing the offer of a drink that comes several times, the effort of the villains to nullify him, refusing to remove the coin from the spittoon that he’s clearly done many times before to his own humiliation and everyone else’s ridicule, Duke instead learns the location of the shooter from a glass on the bar counter slowly filling with blood. He takes the guy out with a single shot. Wayne shows off his action chops also, pirouetting to club a man to the ground, good light footwork from the big man.

Perhaps my favourite bit arises from a piece of music. The 1950s was a great decade for the Western, the home of many classic entries before the genre started slowly waning. 1959’s Rio Bravo marks a late high point, but there’s an emphasis on the ‘late’ with the likes of Wayne clearly ageing. Holed up in the jailhouse with his friends, he hears a haunting instrumental drift across the town, Degeullo, also known as The Cutthroat song, a sign that no mercy will be given when Burdette – who’s ordered its playing – and his men come to get his brother back. The tune is very different tonally from Tiomkin’s orchestral overture and, with its heavy horn section, sounds more like something from a Spaghetti Western featuring the stylings of Ennio Morricone. In hindsight, it’s a little like the baton being passed, a sign of the things that would follow for the Western feature film.

Rio Bravo: ****

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The Thing from Another World (1951)

When it’s on: Monday, 8 June (9.30 am)
Channel: Movies4Men
IMDb Link

‘Watch the skies, everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!’

BBC2 has a lot to answer for when it comes to my love of classic science fiction. Back in 1983, when I was eleven years old and a mere cineasteling, the channel screened a series of flicks over thirteen weeks in its early evening slot. I was hooked, my family no doubt grateful as hell for my insistence that the household’s single television set was taken over by paranoia-fuelled thrills from years ago. Alongside newer entries like Silent Running and the rarely scheduled The Forbin Project (the latter’s a really interesting story about two supercomputers, one American and the other Soviet, which insist on being linked and then together take charge of the world), the bulk of the schedule was 1950s Sci-Fi. It was a golden age for the genre, these films playing on the public’s real life fears of invasion from a largely unknown enemy by replacing the forces of the USSR with alien attackers. From those set on the straight destruction of humanity (The War of the Worlds), to invasion by more insidious means (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and those that were more interested in teaching us a lesson about our troublesome ways than killing us (The Day the Earth Stood Still), these films were a brilliant formative experience, and I try to cover them here whenever they put in a reappearance.

I’m entirely unapologetic about the pleasure I receive from watching these movies. They’re real documents of the contemporary mood, and very entertaining to boot. I should add that feelings weren’t so very different in the 1980s, as Reagan’s USA administration jacked up the level of antagonism against the Russians, albeit artificially as all the intelligence was suggesting that the superpower behind its iron curtain was by now crumbling. That didn’t stop a new slew of entertainments from chilling us all over again, though the focus then was more on the terrors of a nuclear strike, as seen in such films as When the Wind Blows and the terrifying TV movie, Threads. Both are recommended, especially the animated former, with its lovely old couple voiced by John Mills and Peggy Ashcroft, trying to prepare themselves against the horrors of the bomb. Great title track also by David Bowie.

The Thing from Another World wasn’t shown as part of the BBC series, but it might well have been, and by 1983 it had already been remade by John Carpenter. The updated version diversified from the original in a number of fascinating ways, indeed it’s probably in my personal list of top horror movies, but its basic premise remains the same. A group of people are stuck in a research base near the North Pole and find themselves coming into contact with an alien visitor that is far from friendly. It was made by Howard Hawks’s production company, Winchester Pictures, which added genuine credibility to the title as science fiction was seen by many at the time as a childish, derided genre, one not to be taken seriously. The Thing from Another World is an intelligent piece of work. Its focus is on air force crew and scientists collaborating (most of the time) against the threat; there’s humour, banter and good-natured teasing going on, but mostly practical discussion about the decisions they need to make in resolving the crisis they face.

The military is led by Captain Patrick Hendry (Kenneth Tobey), who’s dispatched from Anchorage to the Arctic in order to help uncover a mysterious crash landing in the ice. He’s joined by a news reporter, Scotty (Douglas Spencer), who’s there to cover the story. At the base, Hendry comes across Nikki (Margaret Sheridan), a former love interest who is on hand to assist the scientists, led by Arthur Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite). They arrive at the crash site and realise a saucer-shaped object is buried in the ice. Their efforts to blast it out result in the vessel being destroyed, but not its pilot (James Arness), an eight foot tall humanoid that is returned to the base trapped in ice. With communications with Anchorage disrupted, the idea is to keep the being contained until they can receive advice, but thanks to the ill-judged use of an electric blanket it’s thawed out, comes to life and begins making attacks against the people. Carrington, coming to the conclusion that the ‘Thing’ is an intelligent life form, indeed far cleverer than human beings, believes it can and must be reasoned with. Hendry sees it differently. As the assaults continue, the Thing apparently using its victims’ blood to create offspring, he decides that they must fight back, even though bullets appear to have little effect and fire causes no lasting damage. Then the Thing destroys the base’s generator, robbing it of heat, and the fight becomes a ‘do or die’ situation.

This being the 1950s, the Thing isn’t the shape shifting, obviously alien being that rampaged through the Carpenter remake, but rather a tall man wearing make-up that leaves him looking a bit like Frankenstein’s next monster. Arness, who played it, would go on to be better known as the strong-jawed hero in countless episodes of Gunsmoke, yet here he’s certainly imposing, very strong and undeniably dangerous. A good impression of its strength comes early, when an early tussle with the team of dogs leaves it with a severed arm, a grisly souvenir for the scientists to investigate. Not only does the arm grow back, but Carrington finds that the body part has no nerve endings, making it more like a plant sample than a humanoid appendage. At that point, a collective ‘what the hell?’ is the untold question on everyone in the room’s lips.

Despite the credited director being Christian Nyby, rumour had it that Hawks did a lot of the daily work himself and indeed the film bears many Hawks trademarks, notably the scenes with characters working under considerable pressure. There are things happening here that you don’t normally see in a film from 1951, mundane things like characters speaking over each other, the spark of chemistry between Hendry and Nikki that ensures the talk of their ‘previous’ makes sense. The tension, of which there is plenty, comes as this group of natural professionals begins to break down into sides, one led by Hendry, which is all for destruction, the other Carrington, who thinks the Thing can be reasoned with. No prizes for guessing which of the two factions is correct. Commendable is the systematic, trial and error method they have of working out how to kill it, after bullets, axes and fire don’t work. The solution is reached in a logical and intelligent way, and crucially at a point when all looks doomed. A word on the North Pole setting, which is great, RKO’s soundstage and Ranch with fake snow creating an authentic looking set. It’s very claustrophobic, this feeling of being cut off from the world, miles from anywhere and needing to work together in order to survive.

The story is told more or less from the perspective of journalist, Scotty, who is on hand to make a string of pithy remarks as the team go about their business. At the end of the film, contact with Anchorage is restored and Scotty takes to the mic in order to tell the world about the exploits he’s witnessed and increasingly become a part of, ending with the iconic lines that form the quote at the top of this piece.

The Thing from Another World is now very old and has been remade a couple of times (I’m yet to see the most recent version, from 2011). The 1982 update ramps up the paranoia as the largely co-operative team of people from the original film is overhauled with a dissolute group of selfish losers for the most part, ready to turn on each other at a moment’s notice regardless of the Thing’s presence among them. It’s uncomfortable to watch and very frightening, based more closely on the source material (John W Campbell’s short novel, Who Goes There?) by turning the Thing into a shape shifter that can blend in by taking on the identity of a dog or one of the people. But that isn’t to say this 1951 film isn’t worth it. At less than 90 minutes’ running time, the story moves fast and keeps piling on the tension, and its influence on later genre entries is transparent. It’s difficult to watch a modern classic like Alien and not see many shades from this film, particularly its emphasis on people in an isolated setting as they attempt to deal with a malevolent presence.

I like The Thing from Another World a great deal, mostly its optimistic message about humanity banding together when it needs to. Even Carrington – who almost dooms everyone due to his efforts to understand the Thing and ensure its survival – is cast ultimately not as a villain but as a valid scientific mind. He doesn’t get his comeuppance by paying for his errors with his life, neither is he derided as an idiot, which is a nice way of making sure that all opinions among the team matter. It’s a great film.

The Thing from Another World: ****

Red River (1948)

When it’s on: Sunday, 2 September (4.20 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Rightly lauded as one of those Westerns that routinely makes it into Top Ten lists, Red River is an absorbing and epic piece of work, a retelling of Mutiny on the Bounty in post-Civil War America, and milestones for both director Howard Hawks and John Wayne, who reached into his dark side to produce an endlessly compelling and complex performance.

Wayne isn’t even the best actor in Red River. That honour goes to Montgomery Clift, making his film debut As Wayne’s protege and ultimately filling the ‘Fletcher Christian’ role. Clift is just perfect. Annoyingly handsome and clashing with Wayne’s acting style with his own more natural method, the camera clearly loves him and tracks his Oedipal challenge on the older man hungrily. I read somewhere that there’s a gay subtext to Red River, which I didn’t get, but I thought the tragic dimensions of Wayne and Clift’s relationship were writ large.

The Duke plays Thomas Dunson, who at the beginning of Red River is in a wagon trail snaking through Native American country to California. Determined to leave the trail and set up his own ranch in Texas, Dunson takes only his dogsbody, Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), a fateful decision as, later, the wagons are ambushed by Indians and nearly everyone killed, including the woman he loves. The only survivor is young Matt (Mickey Kuhn as a boy; Clift later), a headstrong but loyal lad who joins Dunson’s fledgling cow-herding concern. The years pass. Whilst accumulating livestock and taking in a team of ranchers, Dunson realises there’s no money in Texas following the Civil War and decides to move his entire company north to Missouri. But it’s a trek plagued with perils. Hundreds of miles of hard journeying across unforgiving, harsh country, with the possibility of attack from nearby tribes and the sheer logistics of keeping the 10,000 strong herd moving. As the end remains a distant prospect and the men grow increasingly disconsolate, only Dunston’s stubborn determination keeps them going, yet as he drives them on he becomes an ever more alienated figure, especially with Matt.

Wayne prefigures his own revelatory turn in The Searchers as Dunson, and in certain ways is better because Ethan Edwards remains irredeemable and consistently rootless, whilst his character in Red River is an altogether more complicated prospect. In him is the raw determination to prevail in the developing and often hostile United States, mixed with the harsh treatment of his men, which overruns into outright bullying. The almost comic scenes where he reads the same oaths after burying someone again and again take on a far darker edge when he’s increasingly responsible for putting them there. It’s a real landmark for Wayne, playing against type and using his own inscrutability to make his character tougher and less malleable.

Clift and Wayne are supported by an excellent ensemble cast, including Harry Careys Snr and Jnr. There’s some really touching work put in by Brennan, who for the first half of the film is the comic relief, losing his false teeth in a poker game, but later emphasising Dunson’s loss of command when he finally stands up to him. If Red River has a downside, it’s in the lack of women. When they’re represented, in the feisty two minute cameo from Coleen Gray and Joanne Dru’s Tess, there’s either little to see or a sense, with the latter, of them being shoehorned in to provide a love interest that just isn’t necessary. Dru plays a pivotal role in the final clash between Matt and Dunson, one rewritten from Borden Chase’s original screenplay to give Red River a happy, redemptive ending, which is fine but isn’t the logical point to which the narrative has been driving.

Still, it’s a relatively minor quibble, particularly because one of Red River’s chief joys is the astounding cinematography. Much of the film tracks the mobile herd’s trek north, filling the screen with perfectly composed shot after shot of the thousands of cows, antlike herders and the big country. Russell Harlan often filmed from a low perspective, which helps to force home the sheer scale of Dunson’s journey. Imagining the effort that went into keeping all those actors and especially cattle in check seems almost impossible. Hawks was persuaded by Wayne to shoot in all weathers, leading to rewrites that accommodate rainy scenes and underlining the mens’ privations as they are forced to travel and sleep in all elements. The scene, not long before Matt mutinies, where Groot is serving mean gruel and weak coffee to herders who have to eat and drink in the driving rain, is one of the best, emphasised when Dunson drinks a cup of the awful brew to demonstrate its qualities and you sense the yawning lack of loyalty being shown towards him.

Red River: ****

El Dorado (1966)

When it’s on: Saturday, 2 June (6.30 pm)
Channel: 5USA
IMDb Link

No Bond today, ITV focusing instead on the French Open and and an England friendly match. With Euro 2012 starting on Friday, one wonders whether 007 will be kicked around the schedules for several weeks to come – heaven knows what Q Branch would make of that…

Still, there’s plenty within the schedule elsewhere to chew upon. 5USA – a channel that remains relatively virgin territory where this site is concerned – serves up El Dorado as its early evening offering. A film made in 1966 but held back for the best part of a year (unless you were lucky enough to live in Japan) to give Nevada Smith a clean tilt at the box office and again to accommodate The War Wagon, it now feels like something from the previous decade. By the time it was released to American audiences, Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars had been unleashed onto the States after a successful European run and the clash of styles was a jarring of old and new perspectives. Leone approached Fistful with a mind to deliver something fresh, vital, visceral and separate from the oft-stagnant production line of American Westerns. El Dorado remained true to its classical roots. The latter, while no slouch in terms of ticket sales, couldn’t compete culturally and has become a footnote in the careers of its stars (John Wayne, Robert Mitchum) and famed director Howard Hawks. The unavoidable impression that it’s a retread of Hawks’s own Rio Bravo didn’t help its critical summation as personifying a genre that had run out of gas.

In 2012, El Dorado can be enjoyed thoroughly on its own merits, of course, without needing to place it within the context of its initial release. And it is, at heart, a perfectly watchable picture that plays right into the affections of Wayne fans. The Duke plays Cole Thornton, a gunslinger for hire who rejects a contract with rancher Bart Jason (Edward Asner) when he realises it would pitch him against an old friend and the Sheriff of El Dorado, JP Harrah (Mitchum). The months pass. Thornton has teamed up with a young greenhorn named Mississippi (James Caan) and via him learns that a slick gunfighter has taken up Jason’s offer of work. Figuring the danger this spells for Harrah, he returns to El Dorado with Mississippi, who’s freshly armed with a fearsome shotgun, only to find JP in his cups and utterly unable to help himself, let alone anyone else, as the villains close in.

From here, El Dorado effectively becomes Rio Bravo, the three unlikely buddies holed up in the sheriff’s building alongside Harrah’s wisecracking deputy, Bull (Arthur Hunnicutt), and facing huge odds. As in Hawks’s previous film, it celebrates the diverse ‘family’ that’s been pitched together, and whilst it’s an idealised version of the Western it’s an altogether winning one. Wayne plays Wayne, naturally, but Mitchum is a more effective soak than Dean Martin and Caan wipes all memories of Ricky Nelson off the screen. Fortunately, the latter quotes Poe’s poetry rather than sing and is on hand largely for his comic asides. Apart from one utterly awful and dated gag (providing 5USA doesn’t cut it – which would be understandable – you really can’t miss it), he’s very good in the part.

The downside of the film is that it’s little more than comfort viewing. It says nothing new about the genre, simply retreading old ground and filling in the gaps with comedy (a fight between Wayne and a pissed Mitchum is played entirely for pratfalls). Most of the hard edges from Harry Brown’s source novel were smoothed out by Hawks and Leigh Brackett, only an early tragedy retained to showcase Wayne’s nobility and to remind us the Old West was a tough place. Not that there’s anything so wrong with its attempt to show us more of the same. Its ideals and values – really those of Rio Bravo – have been copied many times, showing there’s always life in this old dog. Speaking of which, Pauline Kael might have criticised Wayne and Mitchum for their ‘exhausted’, middle-aged performances, and she might even have had a point, but they seem entirely relaxed in their roles, at ease with the world their characters live in, which only adds to the film’s overall charm. And I think it’s with affection for Hawks’s old world vision that El Dorado should be viewed.

El Dorado: ***

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

When it’s on: Saturday, 5 May (2.50 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Years ago, Mrs Mike and I went on holiday to Luxor. She was five months’ pregnant (the perils of booking well in advance) so we didn’t get to hazard the peril-strewn train journey to Cairo and the pyramids, but I saw them anyway. 20,000+ feet in the air, flying over the endless Saharan desert with its thin strip of blue, and they were easily visible, amongst the few man-made objects I can imagine being able to recognise from that height. Without wanting to wax lyrical, even from such a distance they were still pretty awesome.

It’s that sense of awe that Howard Hawks attempted to capture in Land of the Pharaohs. The film was a flop, forcing Hawks into a self-imposed exile from film-making for several years, but it’s possible to see what he was trying to achieve. It’s a paean to the achievement of constructing something so monumentally vast and so ultimately futile. Hawks blew his budget on depicting the sheer scale of the pyramid building operation. Thousand of extras were hired to dress in contemporary garb, many wearing nothing more than loincloths. Shown working in the quarries, hauling enormous slabs of granite across the sand and toiling on the superstructure, no expense was spared in filming the massive labour that went into knocking up an ancient tomb.

Land of the Pharaohs clocks in at around half the time of most epics. The money clearly went on the extensive building scenes, Hawks filming in Cinemascope for the first time and filling the frame with hundreds and hundreds of bodies. It’s an impressive sight, as usual far more jaw-dropping than anything similar shown now because the camera’s picking up a real army of people, no matter how ant-like they appear on the screen (which presumably was the whole point); it’s the closest we will ever get to seeing how life really was around the time of the pyramid-building pharaohs. Hawks even tries to gauge the morale of the workers. At first, they’re happy to answer the call of their king, their god on earth with whom they have a living covenant. They sing while they work. But as the months turn into years and the pyramid refuses to near completion, the happy graft becomes hard toil. Singing gives way to drums and whips.

The entire effort of the film seems to go on this aspect, leaving the rest of the plot to be filled in around it. James Robertson Justice is the enslaved builder, Vashtar. His son, Senta, is played by Dewey Martin as a corn-fed American youth. Both work for Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who orders the building of the pyramid essentially because that’s what he does. Clearly having grown up in the traditions of the Pharaonic dynasty, it’s natural for him to expect this monument to his own glory. Unfortunately, Khufu’s prowess in battle is matched by his lust for women, a fatal flaw when he grows close to Joan Collins’s Princess Nellifer. ‘Nelly’ has ‘wrong ‘un’ written all over her and the young Collins is perfectly cast as a vain gold-digger.

Everything’s building up the the last scene, the sealing of the pyramid. As the pharaoh’s most loyal retainers wait inside the central tomb with their master, all around doors are sealed, slabs of stone slamming into place. For this sequence, Dimitr Tiomkin’s dramatic score is cut, leaving only the sound of enormous slabs sliding and shutting, heard by the people trapped within. It’s a moment of claustrophobic excellence, disturbing and frightening and quite out of kilter with everything that’s happened previously.

Land of the Pharaohs: ***