Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Rio Bravo (1959) - Directed by Howard Hawks

There’s something so effortless about Hawks’ Rio Bravo….something so utterly smooth about it. Watching it is like being caressed and hugged by something resembling a big warm “western blanket”. When you turn it on, there's this soothing cinematic romanticism, coupled with a professional suave that is irresistible. But there’s also Hawks and his wonderful sense of camaraderie and determination that he puts on display. You want to spend time with these people….Dean Martin, John Wayne, Angie Dickinson, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan because they are good people and there’s a dignity about them. Throughout the film's entire running time, one is treated to near perfect cinema with a cast of memorable characters and a script that has you grinning often. It’s got a bit of everything: great action, romance, comedy, pathos, fine could go on.

John Wayne plays Sheriff Chance, who along with his other deputies, Dude, the recovering alcoholic (Dean Martin), and Stumpy, the crippled old man (a hilarious Walter Brennan) have captured the murderous Joe Burdette (Claude Akins), who is brother to a nearby ranch owner. Chance and his deputies must patrol the town and keep order until they can get Joe out of town to meet his justice. They spend several days warding off various ranchers and hired guns who have an eye to get Joe out of jail. In a charming subplot, a woman named Feathers (Angie Dickinson) has arrived in town off the stage and begins to woo Chance with come-hither looks and a no-nonsense attitude, turning Chance into something resembling pudding. It’s a cute subplot that could only work in a Howard Hawks film because he gives the people enough of a dignity to actually make us care whether Chance and Feathers get together. Their wonderful interplay more than justifies the inclusion of this plot element. Just to make things a bit more well rounded, a young gunslinger named Colorado (Ricky Nelson) has come to town and although initially shy of helping out Chance, soon comes around to helping him keep the peace. It seems all rather straightforward, but the execution is simply perfection.

So we have this really nice cross-section of individuals coming together to support each other in a cause. We have young and old, male and female, able bodied and not so able bodied. Because of their determination and hard work together, they’re able to pull through in the end. This sense of determination and camaraderie is so elemental to Hawks and his films. Think of Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday, Only Angels Have Wings and one can find this same sense of purposeful determination. John Wayne gives one of his smoothest and most charming performances as Chance. He underplays so nicely that sometimes you’re surprised at how genteel he is. Martin captures a dark, self-destructive streak, and although I never found him to be a great actor, he does well enough to make you believe he was a hot-shot deputy several years before. Angie Dickinson gives a fun and well-timed performance, standing up to Wayne nicely and not letting him overshadow their scenes together. Her talkative and aggressive flirting is infectious. My favorite performance in the film would be from Walter Brennan though. He’s so funny and crotchety and whiny with that domed hat and teeth missing. Half the time you don’t realize what he’s said until he’s done saying it and moved on to the next thing already. I love the moment where after throwing a stick of dynamite at the bad guys he says, “How do you like THEM apples?!”

Rio Bravo is a film that basically all occurs within a short section of town, as the plot hops back and forth between the sheriff’s office and the saloon/hotel. It’s kind of odd, but the way that we become familiar with the surroundings and with the sets begins to feel somewhat comforting after awhile, even though you hardly ever move on from the sets. Another interesting element is the long running time. At 141 minutes, the film doesn’t feel so much epic, as it does lived-in. With the long running time, Hawks is able to develop the dialogue, rhythm and interactive dynamics that are so emblematic of his work. This simply requires time and space and it can’t be rushed or earned any other way. I can’t imagine the film without the breathing spaces, the off-handed comedic moments, and the seemingly innocuous moments that add up to something greater than their parts. The sum of these parts is clearly one of the greatest westerns of all time.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Jubal (1956) - Directed by Delmer Daves

Dripping with Technicolor, CinemaScope panoramas, full blooded acting, and sex, Jubal is just about the most melodramatic western this side of Johnny Guitar. Based on Othello, this re-telling of the Bard’s tale out west fares remarkably well, and it has a good deal to do with the magnificent cinematography and to several wonderful performances from the remarkable cast. But there’s also a lurid and knowing way with sex here, as sexual innuendos and a flirtatious sense of danger is present throughout, transplanting what is more typical of penthouses than outhouses. It’s a refreshing and arresting type of film that surely ranks as one of the underrated gems of the western genre and is one of the main pieces of evidence to suggest that Delmer Daves is one of the greatest directors of western cinema.

Anyone familiar with the story of Othello will see the outlines take shape as Jubal unfolds. Jubal (Glenn Ford) is a runaway ranch hand who is rescued from the high mountain passes by a passing rancher named Shep Horgan, (played with typical bravado by Ernest Borgnine) who brings Jubal back to his ranch. Jubal rests for a few days and plans to move on, but is lured to stay by the prospect of work, and also by the alluring presence of Shep’s sexy wife, Mae (Valerie French), who has her eyes on Jubal’s goods from the get-go. Of course, Pinky (Rod Steiger), stands as the ranch bully, with his eyes on staying as top ranch hand and having his way with Mae while Shep is out, and his presence gives us our “Iago”, filled with lies and jealousy, goading and prodding Shep into thinking that Jubal and Mae are rolling in the hay. A side plot involving Jubal’s interest in a “wagon train girl” named Naomi, (played by a Delmer Daves favorite - Felicia Farr) who is on her way through the territory as part of a religious group seeking refuge, allows for Jubal to view two sides of his future. On one path is the true-blue blonde….spiritual and graceful. On the other path is the dangerous brunette……lusty and wild. It’s all terrific western fun.

Shot in the valleys and mountains near the Teton Range, the look of the film is simply breathtaking, especially on the new Criterion disc. Huge expanses of range and mountains are seen in much of the film and the wide expanses give the film a distinctive Hollywood embellishment that elevates the heightened emotional proceedings and dwarfs us with melodramatic and scenic rapture. It’s a bit like porn for scenery lovers. Highlights are not just limited to the external shots, but the darkly lit interior sets are loaded with shadows amidst the widescreen framing and these subtle textures provide a backbone for sexual cheating and maneuvering. Of particular note are scenes between Mae and Jubal, where Valerie French and Glenn Ford have terrific sexual chemistry together. Additionally Ernest Borgnine gives one of his best performances as a na├»ve and trusting kingpin who’s clearly married above himself, but is completely blind to Mae’s needs. Rod Steiger is in full-on STEIGER mode, prowling, snarling, and basically chewing up the scenery in one of his best early roles. He’s actually somewhat terrifying and toward the end of the film has a quick and nasty closed-fist fight with Mae that takes his menacing Pinky from brutish, to memorably evil in a quick second.

Ultimately, the film’s emphasis on emotion and scenery while grounding us in earthy performances is what makes the film memorable. True, it maintains a bit of a campy atmosphere, with the sexual innuendos, and with Valerie French seeming to wear that bright red smock all the time...... in fact it has a tendency to seem overstated and a bit thick-headed. But there’s something really fun and vital here, reminding us that Sex and Gunplay are equally exciting and in the hands of Delmer Daves, the combination results in a fiery brand of western. I think the only western film that comes close to this sort of melodramatic over-the-top-ness, is Nick Ray’s Johnny Guitar. But Daves is less interested in the outsider and the non-conformist. His concern is the upholding of a man’s duty. Jubal is about facing down one’s temptations and choosing to take the high road..... choosing duty over pleasure. It smacks as very similar to another Daves masterpiece, 3:10 to Yuma, where the easy way out is directly in front of our hero, but he takes the hard way instead and finds redemption through the testing ground. Daves may in fact be Western Cinema’s greatest moralist, featuring such upstanding characters who rarely back down in the face of odds, (like Richard Widmark in The Last Wagon) or who stick to unpopular decisions when they know they've done right (like Gary Cooper in The Hanging Tree). These characters somehow have a supernatural ability to resist temptation. Even though Daves has been called a western documentarian of sorts, I tend to see his films as Biblical fantasies if you will…..Good men tempted with riches or sex who resist temptation and who are rewarded in the end for doing the right thing. I’m not so sure life really works that way, but it certainly makes for entertaining and riveting cinema. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hell's Hinges (1916) - Directed by Zwicker/Hart/Smith

William S. Hart was once the biggest bankable star in movies. Starring in a series of 2 reelers at first, he gained fame as being the first great cowboy star, paving the way for the likes of untold actors throughout the decades who would attempt to continue on the tradition of the cowboy. Of course Hart took things to more levels than most of the big screen cowboys…..not only acting, but writing, directing and producing his films as well. Watching his films today provides insight for me into how the movie going public became to be attached to the concept of the western and what it meant back in the 1910’s to see these movies. Hart’s fantastic early cowboy masterpiece, Hell’s Hinges, just might be his greatest film and a great introduction to this era’s concept of the western.

Hell’s Hinges was apparently directed by Charles Zwicker, with uncredited directing credits going to Hart, and Clifford Smith. It’s about a minister named Rev. Bob Henley (Jack Standing) who moves out west to a lawless town with his sister Faith (Clara Williams) in order to help reform the town. In actuality, the Reverend has daydreams thinking about all the dance hall girls he’s going to meet. Once they get to town, the saloonkeeper hires a gunman named Blaze Tracy (Hart) to get rid of the minister. However, in a reversal of fortune, Blaze becomes reformed, as he falls in love with Faith and in turn finds salvation, while Rev. Henley becomes a heathen, falling prey to a local dancing girl, getting drunk, and generally losing all control of himself..... to the point he’s ready to burn down the church! Blaze must stand up for Faith and his newfound salvation by attempting to stave off complete disaster at the hands of the town rabble who are ravenous for sin and destruction.

Hart’s brand of western tends to be tinged heavily with moral implications and a general goodness of humanity on display from his character. Even though he plays a “bad guy” here, he’s clearly the good guy. This positioning can also be seen in The Bargain, another fantastic Hart western from this era. Even though his cowboy hat tends to look a bit like a park ranger hat, I forgive him because he’s got this amazing sequence near the end of Hell's Hinges as he stands in the midst of the church’s doorway, while the entire church behind him is engulfed in flames. It’s a flamboyant, movie star type moment, the hot flames burning all around him while he maintains his cool. It’s without a doubt one of the great bits of action sequence from this era. That’s not to mention the sequences around that moment involving the crowd that has gone out of the control. Recalling Griffith to a degree, the framing of the confusion and the collective insanity of the ravenous crowd is fantastic and remarkably well edited to allow for the action to unfold coherently and with continuity....which is more than I can say for many films released these days.

Hell’s Hinges balances on a precipice between extreme moralism and gleeful abandon and it succeeds for how well it blends the two. It’s remarkable how open the film is to portraying a ribald sense of humor, as we see the Reverend’s day dreams of dancing girls, how he relishes the idea of giving a sermon to these women once he gets the opportunity, and how he is so quickly charmed by a cute woman who throws him the classic line of “Can’t I see you alone sometime, so I can learn more about your work?” Additionally, the conflict between reform and gunfighting, and between religion and sin is played out as effective as in any film I've ever seen. But in Hart’s world, it’s the cowboy, the gunfighter amongst all the heathens and the destructive fire that ironically becomes the savior….while the reverend falls away at the slightest temptation. Though Hart would go on later to make what many consider is his masterpiece, Tumbleweeds (1925), there’s an economy of storyline, a quick wit, and sense for action that is really irresistible in Hell’s Hinges

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hombre (1967) - Directed by Martin Ritt

In this revisionist western, we have several key elements coming together. One, is that the film is based on an Elmore Leonard story, and as far as film adaptations of western short stories, you don’t get much better, as 3:10 to Yuma and The Tall T were based on short stories by Leonard as well. There’s also the terrific pairing of director Martin Ritt, with his star Paul Newman, who worked together 5 times in their career, making a few great films together, like The Long Hot Summer and Hud. And by 1967 we also had significant cultural upheaval in terms of civil rights and a shift in mindset on many things regarding equality and justice.....including our historical understanding of the conflict between Native Americans and White Settlers. If Hombre today comes across as a rather angry provocation of sorts, it’s no surprise because of the cultural upheaval in the 1960’s that was spilling over into the world of cinema.

Hombre stars Paul Newman as John Russell, a white man who was raised by Apaches since he was a little boy. There is no explanation how this happened, but we can use our imagination. We meet him as a grown man, living on a reservation and part of the Apache police force. In a bit of odd news, it turns out he has inherited a house from his dead father in a nearby town. He goes there and decides to sell it off, and this puts the single woman, named Jessie (Diane Cilento) who was tending to the estate. In his efforts to leave town via stagecoach, John ends up together with an odd bunch on the stage: the unemployed Jessie; a husband and wife named Dr. Alex and Audra Favor who are involved in reservation agency work; a young married couple, the Blakes, looking to get a new start; a mean spirited man named Cicero (a predatory Richard Boone) traveling alone with an agenda; and the driver, Henry Mendez (Martin Balsam) who is Mexican. During the conversations on the stagecoach, it becomes apparent to the passengers, that John Russell lived with Apaches, which riles up some racism, whereupon they request that he sits up with the driver. He complies to keep things from getting ugly. In the middle of the trip, the stagecoach is held up by a gang of which Cicero is also part of. It turns out that the money they’re after was embezzled from the funds for the Apache reservation by Dr. Favor. Cicero takes Audra Favor with him, but Russell shoots a few of the gang members as they are making off with the loot. Russell grabs the money and heads for the hills. The others, (save Audra who is stuck with the rest of the gang) in an ironic turn follow Russell up into the hills, following him as savior whom they previously shunned.

There is a keen sense of injustice on display from different angles in this film. Certainly the character of John Russell is a fascinating individual, identifying more with Native American culture even though he doesn't quite fit into either culture completely, Native American nor white. His hatred from such abuses as he has seen makes him extremely defensive and on edge, unafraid to speak his mind to the other passengers regarding social and racial injustices perpetrated upon the Native American people. His segregation onto the top of the stagecoach emphasizes the reference points here between Native American/White relations and Black/White relations coming into major focus in the 1950s-60s. Despite his position of social inferiority in the eyes of some whites, Russell is not completely positioned as angelic martyr. He’s a bit mean, and ornery, and has few considerations for people outside of himself and his nation. This gives the film a dark balance to it that keeps it from becoming too preachy and self-serving, allowing the audience time to question how we feel about John Russell. Ritt’s film is clearly grounded in a socially progressive consciousness that also incorporates a significant female perspective. Of particular note is the Jessie character, played wonderfully by Diane Cilento, who is her own provider and isn’t afraid to confront men when they’re being verbally rude and also calling them out when they’re acting weak.

In its own way, this film is a more progressive version of Ford’s Stagecoach. It looks at a cross section of life (albeit a more diverse one than in Stagecoach) and considers the different types of relationships and cultural divides that present themselves under those considerations.  Newman is his usual stone-cold self, mostly employing understatement and curt, mono-tonality in his fine performance. What elevates the film are the other parts: Cilento’s portrayal of the tough Jessie, Barbara Rush as the prim and proper Mrs. Favor, and of particular note, Richard Boone as the macho, misogynist Cicero. His role is what drives the conflict and he’s perfectly nasty here. Ritt’s assured pacing and James Wong Howe’s fantastic scoping and framing are also of particular note. Howe is able to consistently capture just about every single face in the frame at the same time. As a product of its time, Hombre still plays remarkably gritty and edgy today. There’s a surprising frankness here that is refreshing and goes a step further socially than films in the 1950’s did, like Broken Arrow. Despite the fact that the film centers on a white man, it is in fact Russell's whiteness that somehow highlights even more the incessant absurdity of racism. This is one of the great revisionist westerns of the era and is thoroughly entertaining and thought provoking.