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: ****

The Far Country (1955)

The Far Country

When it’s on: Sunday, 20 January (12.30 pm)
Channel: ITV4
IMDb Link

Today’s screening of The Far Country reflects the fact it’s last of the five Anthony Mann-James Stewart collaborative Westerns that I’ve seen. Before moving onto the specific title, I thought I may take some time to discuss the partnership in general terms, particularly considering it produced such rich viewing.

I’m reasonably new to the Western. For years, it seemed to me a genre that ‘your Grandad watched’, but it never felt like it would mean anything to me. It’s an established assumption that the Western had its Golden Age in the 1950s, many years after it had first appeared in American cinemas and ebbed and flowed in popularity since the earliest days of the form. But the fifites were a long time ago, even when I was a child, and the Western has muddled along ever since, relegated to niche or novelty projects while other subjects have long since taken over domination of our screens. In short, it felt old hat.

But times and attitudes change, and I don’t know if it was a viewing of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly that did it, but there was a certain point when I realised I’d missed something pretty damn good and started to catch up with Westerns. Over the last few years, I know I’ve watched more films set in the Old West than any other; not just that, but the DVDs have dominated my shopping basket as my tastes have reverted with increasing frequency to classic cinema, indeed my Christmas list (we still write them in my house – get over it) was a series of titles almost wholly from the 1940s and 1950s, along with The Artist, which itself is a hark back to simpler times. It’s fortunate that some very fine bloggers are also big Western fans. Their recommendations and sheer enthusiasm have helped to guide me, though it’s been just as much fun to stumble across something like The Last Train to Gun Hill (because it was available on LoveFILM Instant) and lose myself to its virtuosity.

Randolph Scott in Badman's Territory

I’ve watched an awful lot of Westerns over the last few years, making a point of catching the titles that routinely make up the ‘Best of’ lists but delving deeper still, realising of course that the genre was as capable as any other of churning out generic offerings (‘oaters’, I suppose) yet throwing up the odd nice surprise at the same time. An instance of the latter came with Badman’s Territory, screened by the BBC over the holiday and, in retrospect, doing little more than providing a footnote in Randolph Scott’s development as the tall, dark, handsome, and often barely speaking, hero of the frontier. In reality, it’s matinee fluff, condescending its audience with some blarney about a lawless oblong of pre-Oklahoma land that served as an excuse to shoehorn together a number of real-life Western legends who could never have actually rubbed shoulders. But there came a point that I started to really enjoy it, in particular Scott’s sheer presence commanding the screen as the plot unfolds.

Badman’s Territory is no one’s idea of an essential title, though I’m glad I watched it. There’s no comparison with the best of John Ford, though one man’s work in the genre that stands up to scrutiny is that of Anthony Mann, especially the films he made with James Stewart in a starring role. I think one of the things I like best about the Mann-Stewart pentology (sorry) is its brevity. Without checking this for accuracy, I don’t remember any of their movies running far past the 90-minute mark, and under someone else’s guidance it probably would have been a different story. Had, say, Bend of the River been a John Ford film, I might have expected an extra thirty minutes, allowing for further ‘sprawl’ and the development of certain sub-plots. Hey, it might have worked just as well, having more to say about American values as supporting characters are teased into metaphors for moral codes or contemporary attitudes. Yet Mann’s approach allows instead for really tight plotting, a gift to viewers as his films are often packed with lots happening and consequently I finish them almost out of breath, barely able to believe so much was covered in an hour and a half. Credit here goes to Borden Chase, the former gangster’s chauffeur who made the unlikely step from driving Frankie Yale around to writing the marvelous scripts of three Mann-Stewart Westerns and stuffing them with dense plotting, focusing on the ratcheted-up tension of human drama borne out of difficult situations. Yet it couldn’t have worked without good direction, and happily these films were knocked up by one of the best, albeit one of the most underrated, in the business.

Perhaps it’s Mann’s love of silent cinema that made the difference. Whilst his films contain a regular amount of dialogue, the director captured the language of bodies, facial expressions, interior sets and locations. The latter makes for some incredible viewing, barren landscapes that continually mirror the often brutal action and tension taking place among the characters. Make no mistake, his films seem to say, this is a harsh, dog eat dog world where no one can be trusted and each time you rely on another person remains a considerable gamble. The success of his work depended on good acting talent, and it’s our good fortune as viewers that he struck up a fruitful working partnership with James Stewart.

James Stewart in The Man from Laramie

There’s a clear line drawn between Stewart’s work before and after his war service. The idealistic, young man’s roles in which he excelled prior to his years in the US Air Force gave way to increasingly cynical and world weary character sketches, notably for Alfred Hitchcock but no less significantly in the Westerns he made with Mann. Taking advantage of his maturity (Stewart was in his forties during this period), the actor looked as though he’d barely been made up, appearing to have a good few years behind him, his face bearing the wrinkles and marks of a life that had been eventfully lived. Given that life expectancy on the frontier can’t have been at all high, the suggestion is of a man who’s seen and done a lot, and sure enough Stewart’s hallmark character arrives on the screen with a rounded back story. Often enough, his past has contained disreputable deeds, followed by a lengthy period of atonement that has left him older, wiser, skilled in gunmanship but most of all wishing to settle down for his waning years and appreciating similar desires in others. It’s a character trait that’s been copied often down the years, most successfully perhaps by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, and like Will Munny the men Stewart plays have killed just about everything that walks or crawls and want nothing more than to walk away from that kind of living. Of course, that just isn’t going to happen and naturally, his old skills will be called upon, usually to devastating effect. What boils to the surface here are Stewart’s skills as a physical performer. Often, he undergoes some sort of ordeal in the course of his films, or needs to express extreme anger or pain, and Mann captures superbly the reactions on his careworn face. There’s a moment in The Man from Laramie (probably my favourite of the series, but not by a long chalk) when his character, Will Lockhart, is held down and gets shot in his hand. You might expect the picture’s hero to take it with a steely grimace, but that doesn’t happen. Instead, Stewart whimpers, grimaces, clutches his mutilated hand, every nuance of the pain, the loss of dignity and power sprawled across his features. Or how about the explosion of rage when he overpowers a man in Winchester ’73? Or the look of naked hate he fixes on Arthur Kennedy’s traitor in Bend of the River as he tells him that ‘every time you bed down for the night, you’ll look back to the darkness and wonder if I’m there.’ It’s powerful stuff, explicitly laid bare by Stewart and loaded with significance by Mann’s direction. The effect overall is to establish Stewart as an outstanding contributor to the genre, and Mann as a director straight out of the top drawer. And it seemed to work best when the pair collaborated. Neither Night Passage, Stewart’s first Western after the partnership ended, nor The Tin Star, Mann’s following film with Henry Fonda taking the ‘Stewart’ role against an underpowered Anthony Perkins, were in the same league.

The eponymous far country in this, the fourth entry in the partnership, is the Yukon,  the scene of the Klondike Gold Rush that had would-be prospectors flooding into north-western Canada at the close of the nineteenth century. Stewart plays Jeff Webster, an opportunist who drives a herd of cattle from Wyoming to Dawson because he knows the mining community will pay through the nose for good beef. But it’s a perilous journey. The film opens with Webster making the boat trip from Seattle to Skagway, Alaska, the intention from here being to cross the difficult terrain into Canada and Dawson. But before he can take this step he’s apprehended in Skagway by the corrupt town boss, Gannon (John McIntire), who makes an attempt to confiscate his livestock unscrupulously. It turns out that Gannon exploits the window of opportunity opened by the gold rush far more ruthlessly than Webster. Whilst appearing more likeable and charismatic than the notably sullen hero, his aim is nothing less than to control all areas of potential profit within the region, hiring gangs to kill anyone who stands in his way.

Webster gets his chance to escape Gannon’s clutches when he agrees to accompany businesswoman Ronda Castle (Ruth Roman) and her supplies to Dawson, even managing to reclaim his cattle and eventually get his windfall. Yet once in Dawson, his conscience is increasingly pricked by the plight of the prospecting community, which is being decimated by Gannon’s greed, as the plot builds towards a climactic showdown between the pair.

Whilst Stewart specialised in playing morally complex characters for Mann, there are probably none more conflicted than Jeff Webster, who makes it clear from the outset that he isn’t interested in getting involved in anything more noble than making money and even rejects Dawson’s offer of the sheriff’s badge. He opts for the equally self-motivated Ronda over the romantic attentions of Renee Vallon (Corinne Calvet), the adorable french-Canadian girl who scratches a living from collecting gold dust in order to send her father to medical school in Vienna. He barely seems able to stand Ben Tatum (Walter Brennan), the ageing sidekick who never leaves his side despite Webster’s brusque attitude. There’s a well conceived contrast between Webster and Gannon, with the latter presented initially as the better guy and almost persuading viewers to like him more. And as usual, Webster emerges into The Far Country as a fully rounded character, complete with a murderous past and desire to earn just enough to buy his dream ranch. Over the course of the film, he’s continually forced to re-examine his self-interested motives, as the bodies of people who aren’t ‘owned’ by Gannon pile up and it’s the death of a close friend that ultimately places him in heroic opposition.

The complicated, sprawling plot, with its various characters and issues made explicit, still make for a film that clocks in beneath the 100-minute mark, with room allowed for Henry Mancini’s fine score and some stunning photography by cinematographer William Daniels. The Far Country was filmed in the Canadian Rockies, allowing for a string of picture postcard images, particularly of  Saskatchewan Glacier, which both emphasise the remoteness of the film’s happenings and reflect Webster’s own, loner’s sensibilities.

The Far Country: ****

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: ****