"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Big Sky (RKO, 1952)


OK if you like long black & white movies about trappers

Set too early to be a true Western (in the 1830s), this is more of a historical yarn about trappers and pioneers. At 122 minutes, it is long (the original cut came in at a hefty 140 minutes) and Howard Hawks's lethargic direction makes the black & white movie ponderous.

Still, Kirk Douglas is quite fun as Jim Deakins, the hero, doing that cheery-chappy act he patented, and Arthur Hunnicutt, especially, is great in support as Zeb Calloway, the narrator (he was nominated for an Academy award for it). Jim Davis also does a good job as the badmen's leader Streak. Kirk's eye falls on an Indian maid, Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt - her only film) but Kirk's pal and Zeb's nephew, Boone (Dewey Martin, rather good) does too and strains develop... Standard stuff, really, but done with gusto.

The photography and Grand Tetons locations are sometimes fine (though there is a lot of studio work too): Russell Harlan was behind the lens (as he was for Red River).

The screenplay is by Dudley Nichols (again, from an AB Guthrie Jr. novel) and the story carries us along fine. The music by Dimitri Tiomkin is suitably grandiose.

So there is much that is enjoyable and high-quality about this movie. It was Howard Hawks's fault and that of his editor Christian Nyby that it wasn't better than it turned out to be. It needed sharper direction and cutting.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

Red River (United Artists, 1948)


Hawks's masterwork

Red River, Howard Hawks’s masterwork, was the only Western in which he matched the work of John Ford. It is a mighty film. One thinks of Ford while watching it not only because Hawks elicited a stunning performance from John Wayne as the Bligh-like Dunson (only in Ford’s The Searchers did Wayne equal it) but also because of the epic grandeur of the movie, the noble themes and the fact that each shot is framed as a work of art.


It made Wayne a major star. The Big Trail (1930) and Stagecoach (1939) had both turned out to be false starts as far as ‘A’ Westerns were concerned. It was really Hawks who made John Wayne into the cowboy megastar he became. Red River was filmed in 1946, i.e. well before the Cavalry trilogy of John Ford, 1948 – 50, though did not come out until 1948 for financial and legal reasons.

His first Western (ish)

Wayne must have hesitated. To play a much older man (he was 39 then) losing his grip, with no female partner (Joanne Dru was destined for Matt) wasn’t an obvious step for him. But it was a great part and he carried it off supremely well.

Hawks seems to have borrowed a good number of other Ford stock company as well  because Walter Brennan, Harry Carey Sr. and Jr., Paul Fix, Hank Worden and others are all on the drive as they make their weary way through fine Western terrain (Arizona, mostly) to the studio sound stage where they camp each night.

Early in the story, Groot, Dunson, Garth

Brennan as Wayne’s sidekick and crusty cook, Noah Beery Jr. as a decent cowhand and John Ireland as the leering gunman rival to Montgomery Clift are all particularly good. Joanne Dru (Mrs. Ireland) is pretty but you get the impression that her part has been artificially grafted onto the story for some love interest. That kind of happened with Hawks (and Ford). Monty Clift is excellent as the adopted son of Dunson who finally rebels, Fletcher Christian-like, takes over the herd and sets Dunson adrift. He is small and sinewy, not at all like the beefy Wayne (how to make the final fistfight convincing was a real problem for Hawks, who evened the odds by having the gunman Cherry wound Dunson just before the fisticuffs), yet he conveys power and even a growing authority.

The tension builds and builds towards the final reckoning that we know must come.

The story came from The Chisholm Trail, a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase, though Hawks made many changes, often while shooting.

Hawks was perhaps attracted to it because of the male triangle at its heart. Garry Wills, in his biography of Duke, John Wayne, The Politics of Celebrity (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1997), makes the point that all Hawks’s Westerns had this trio. In The Outlaw, Doc Holliday (Walter Huston) and Pat Garrett (Thomas Mitchell) were rivals for the affections of Billy the Kid (Jack Buetel). In Rio Bravo you have John Wayne as the Sheriff, Dean Martin as the drunk Deputy and Ricky Nelson as the pretty-boy gunman Colorado (place names for Western characters were traditionally a female preserve). In El Dorado, Robert Mitchum takes the drunk lawman part while James Caan becomes the younger man, Mississippi (though hardly a gunman in this case). The male trio is usually complemented and hovered over by a cranky old mother-hen figure: Walter Brennan in Red River and Rio Bravo, Arthur Hunnicutt in The Big Sky and El Dorado. In Red River, of course, you have Dunson, Matt and Cherry (Wayne, Clift, Ireland) with Brennan as the mother-hen.

On the cattle drive, Dunson, Garth, Groot: the dynamic changes

You don’t have to have read much Freud to smile at the scene in which Cherry Valance and Matt Garth exchange guns and have a shooting match.

Sigmund would have explained it

Cherry: That’s a good-looking gun you were about to use back there. Can I see it? (They swap guns) Maybe you’d like to see mine. (Cherry examines Matt’s pistol). Nice, awful nice. You know there are only two things more beautiful than a good gun. A Swiss watch or a woman from anywhere. You ever had a good Swiss watch?

Only the showdown at the end comes over as a compromise. It’s marvelous as Wayne walks, blazing with anger, through the cattle and disposes of the top gun with a dismissive shot. Here comes the clash with Clift! But in no time at all Dru, in a rather silly speech, has Dunson and Clift making up and it all peters out. Dunson has been so driven, so indomitable, that almost no ending would have worked, except perhaps his death. The same is true of The Searchers when Wayne’s film-long fury dissipates in a short scene and he takes Debbie ‘home’. He should really have died, as in the book. It is said that Hawks himself scripted Dru's speech, in a fit of pique against John Ireland. Clift's character was to have shot Dunson, then faced a showdown with the gunman played by Ireland. Dramatically, that was necessary as the two young guns had been locking horns, more or less playfully, throughout the story. But it was not to be.

The fistfight

In a way, the male triangle resolves itself at the end, with Cherry out of the way, into a familial/generational one, with grandfather Brennan, father Wayne and son Clift. Garry Wills even talks about them as Laertes/Odysseus/Telemachus but I think we’re getting a bit hi-falutin’ here.

Red River is an unusually long film for the time (125 minutes) and throughout it is dusty and smells of cattle. It’s a huge picture with thousands of head of steers and a $3.2 million budget in 1948. Scenes like the beeves going down the main street of ‘Abilene’ are still impressive today. See it on the wide screen if possible.


The music (Dimitri Tiomkin) is powerful and memorable. Western buffs will sing “My rifle, pony and me” to the tune because they will be Rio Bravo fans – the tune was used by Hawks again there. Not that other Hawks Westerns, Rio this or Rio that, were a patch on this great work.

The greatness of the film is also largely down to Russell Harlan because the black & white photography is simply stunning – not only the famous 360° shot at the start but throughout.

After seeing the movie John Ford is supposed to have made the famous remark of Wayne: “I never knew the big son of a bitch could act.” But when you think that Red River, Fort Apache, She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande, some of the best Westerns ever made (and all 5-revolver pictures in this blog), were all produced in the space of three years (1948 - 50) and Wayne was superb in all of them, you realize that Ford soon learned.


The importance of Red River as a Western can be judged by the number of times it is mentioned in reviews of other films and used as a comparison. It is a touchstone.

It’s curious in a way that Hawks made it at all. It was his attempt, a risky one, to become an independent producer but why choose a Western? He was much better known for slick, urbane movies with clever dialogue, or aviation films. It was his first ‘proper’ Western (he had done a couple of semi-Westerns back in the 30s, Viva Villa! and Barbary Coast, and he had contributed to the dreadful The Outlaw earlier in the decade but was uncredited).

Hawks never again did anything as good, certainly not a Western anyway. His four later efforts (three with Wayne) were commercial ‘bankers’ without artistic merit. Red River remains one of the top ten best Westerns in the history of the genre, one of Wayne’s very greatest portrayals and it is unchallenged as the finest cattle-drive movie ever. Pure gold.


Monday, May 9, 2011

The Outlaw (UA, 1943)

Quite dreadful


The worst Billy the Kid movie, or at least the worst I have seen, was The Outlaw, produced and directed (according to the credits) by the eccentric Howard Hughes, made in 1941 and released, finally, without a certificate, in 1943.

Brace yourself

It is the worst not because it is one of the most outrageous travesties historically (many movies were as bad) but because of the desperately wooden Jules Furthman screenplay, delivered by the principal characters in an appropriately wooden way.

Sultry Buetel - pursued by Hughes?

The lead, Jack Buetel, an insurance clerk chosen presumably for his sultry looks, cannot act to save his life, though actually the real lead is Jane Russell, who is worse. Hughes, who designed a special cantilevered bra for her, said, referring to the effect, that there were two good reasons why every American male wanted to see the film. (In fact, Russell later said she hardly ever wore it as it was so uncomfortable but the myth dictates that she wore it in the film). The famous billboard poster for the film, designed by publicist Russell Birdwell, showed the scantily clad Russell provocatively lying in the straw and holding a gun, and didn’t even show Billy (the outlaw of the title) at all. Or the bra.

Russell Birdwell's master stroke

Of course, though it caused scandal at the time, and deliberately traded on that, it is so tame now that we can’t understand what the fuss was about. We never see Buetel and Russell in bed; it’s only hinted at. When the movie was re-released in 1976 it got a G rating, “suitable for general family audiences”.

As, er, counterweight to the two glamorous screen leads, Thomas Mitchell and Walter Huston were drafted in as proper actors, to play Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday. What’s Doc Holliday doing in a Billy the Kid film? Don’t ask. Huston as Holliday manages to do something with his script. Mitchell, a totally unconvincing Garrett, just can’t.

In fact, of course, the censor was so obsessed with Russell’s cleavage, or insisting that she be married in the story before she spent the night with Billy, that he (it was always a he) completely missed the true salacious content of the film, which is, amazingly, a sadomasochistic homosexual love triangle. Or at least it sounds like that as the two older men, Garrett and Holliday, jealously compete for the love of the pouty youth Billy, the real sex object of the movie, unnoticed by the Hays office.

Russell squeezed out of the male love triangle

Thomas Mitchell, as Garrett, has this speech, addressed to Huston as Holliday: “I might have known you’d do this to me … Ever since you met him [Billy], you’ve treated me like a dog … You stand there, side by side, with that little snip of a kid, against me, me, who’s always been the best friend you ever had. And I still would be if it wasn’t for him.”

A jilted Garrett, jealous of Doc. What crap.

This is the petulant foot-stamping of a jilted girl. It comes very strangely out of the mouth of Thomas Mitchell but there the dialogue is. It has been suggested (Garry Wills in his biography of John Wayne writes that Lucien Ballard said this) that Howard Hughes was sleeping with an unwilling Buetel, not with Russell at all, and the script was a sly dig at Hughes’s relationship. Hughes must have been pretty obtuse if so, letting that script pass.

Howard Hughes. As a producer of films he made a great aviator.

Later, Billy submits masochistically as his ‘lover’ shoots nicks out of his ears and creases his gun hand, in a really quite gruesome scene for then (or even now).

Doc and his love interest

But all this seems to have slipped by unnoticed, overshadowed (as it were) by Russell’s bosom.

Overall, though, the word I would use to describe this movie is plodding. It’s a dreary, rather washed-out black & white that just looks cheap - extraordinary when you consider Gregg Toland was the photographer, with Lucien Ballard as assistant (two of the greatest cinematographers ever). The vast majority was filmed on studio sets (no excuse for wartime austerity obliging the producers to do that; it was filmed before the US entered the war). Not a lot happens and what does happen is silly. There is a great deal of standing and talking. And there is an irritating muted trumpet that goes wa-wa-wa to simulate laughter every time something ‘comic’ happens (not).

Hawks: bizarrely claimed 'credit' for this film

Howard Hawks, uncredited, directed and even wrote large parts of this movie, before being fired by Hughes. He called Red River (1948) his first Western but he actually worked on The Outlaw a lot, including on the script, with Furthman. He once even said, “I wrote The Outlaw.” If true, he should be ashamed of himself.

It’s junk.



Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Howard Hawks

One of the few Western film directors who achieved a reputation (at least among cineastes) to rival that of John Ford was Howard Hawks (1896 – 1977).

Certainly non-Western motion pictures he directed like Scarface, Sergeant York, To Have and to Have Not or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes made him a stellar figure of Hollywood.

He had an attractively no-nonsense style. His own definition of what makes a good movie was, "Three great scenes, no bad ones." Hawks also defined a good director as "someone who doesn't annoy you.” This minimalist approach was sound and unpretentious. The Cahiers du CinĂ©ma enthusiasts in France intellectualized his films in a way which amused him greatly.

The Gray Fox, as he was called, only received one Oscar nomination (for Sergeant York in 1942) and an ‘honorary’ award in 1975. He probably deserved one for Red River.

As far as Westerns go, he was involved in 12 in one way or another, as director, producer, writer or in another capacity, which was only 7% of his output. And he only directed five big cowboy films. Or another way to look at it would be to say that he directed the splendid Red River, then the big but ordinary The Big Sky, and after that he made the same Western several times with ever-decreasing quality, the fun Rio Bravo, the mediocre El Dorado and the downright poor Rio Lobo.

For this reason, I wouldn’t put him right up there on the Mount Parnassus of Western directors (which is probably situated somewhere in the Rockies) with Ford, Anthony Mann or Sam Peckinpah but he could inhabit the lower slopes alongside John Sturges, say, or Budd Boetticher, maybe.

His early Western career started with The Heritage of the Desert (1924), which he edited, then North of 36 (1924), Code of the West (1925) and The Light of Western Stars (1925) on all of which he was the production manager. He directed and wrote parts of Viva Villa! (1934) – uncredited. His first credited Western as director was Barbary Coast (1935).

Then came The Outlaw (1943), which he directed and wrote large parts of, also uncredited. We’ll start with a review of that tomorrow, maybe.

Red River came out in 1948 (an excellent year) and we’ll then review The Big Sky and the Wayne vehicle Rio Bravo and its clones.

Then we can leave Mr. Hawks in peace.

You can get more, if you want it, at Wikipedia and at IMDb

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

My Name is Nobody (Titanus, 1973)

His name was Somebody


1973. Henry Fonda is 68. He accepts a part in what turns out to be his last Western.

But it was a tragedy that this should be so because he finished with the worst Western he had ever made, My Name is Nobody. It was by a long shot worse even than There Was A Crooked Man.

Much of the time this tiresome film is puerile. The rest of the time it is infantile.

It was directed by Tonino Valerii but has Sergio Leone stamped all over it, from the scenes that go on far too long, way after we have got the point, to the interminable close-ups of eyes and the use of Ennio Morricone’s irritating music. Why people think Morricone was good I will never know. The music is trite and wanders between the annoying woo-woo vocals and ‘comic’, chirpy interludes. In this film there are a hundred and fifty riders (known as The Wild Bunch) and whenever they appear Morricone puts his wretched stamp on the Valkyries music. As always, this ‘amusing’ idea is milked till we are heartily sick of it.

The main stars of this Italian-French-German co-production are a Venetian named Mario Girotti (who took the name Terence Hill) and Henry Fonda. It was most unfortunate that the great Fonda, one of the finest Western stars of all time, now nearly 70, should lend himself to this rubbish. He does occasionally seem in this movie to look bewildered, as if wondering what on earth he is doing there. Hill was enormously popular in Italy and perhaps his kind of ‘humor’ goes down well there. There is a lot of slapstick and speeded-up film. He makes faces. He is a buffoon, in fact, which is, of course an ancient Italian tradition but entirely unsuited for a Western ‘hero’.

There is naturally the old ‘nobody’ joke - which is at least as old as Odysseus - as in “Nobody was faster on the draw”. If you want to see that joke used well, watch Dead Man. Here, it is, like everything else, done to death.

There is lavatorial ‘humor’ and a silly (and far too long) scene in a house of mirrors, a cheap reworking of the moment in Lady from Shanghai.
There are really only two good things about this film (one of the worst Westerns ever): some of the photography is quite good, for example a bit where the riders gallop through the White Sands in New Mexico; and, of course, Fonda, who, despite the awful lines he has to deliver, shines through in his old age as the famous gunfighter at the end of his career. If it hadn’t been for these two points, the film would have rated no ‘revolvers’ at all in this review.

If you are a Western fan steer clear of it.

But we mustn't let this dreadful movie spoil our enjoyment of the career of Henry Fonda as a Western actor. He was great. He had weight and authority. He looked right. He exuded the taciturnity, grit and basic decency that are required for a true Western hero. So think of The Ox-Bow Incident, think of My Darling Clementine (which is actually on TV in France tonight). Don't think about My Name is Nobody. In fact, you would do better not to watch My Name is Nobody at all.


Monday, May 2, 2011

There Was A Crooked Man (Warner Bros, 1970)


Pretty awful

Well, next in Henry Fonda's Western career came How The West Was Won but I can't stand to talk about that appalling turkey any more so let's jump straight to his penultimate horse opera, There Was A Crooked Man.

Sadly, Fonda's last two Westerns were pretty awful and that was very unfortunate after such a fine career. 1970 was the year of some good Westerns: The Ballad of Cable Hogue, Little Big Man, Monte Walsh, to name a few. There Was A Crooked Man, however, wasn’t one of them.

If you are thinking that there wasn’t the film maker born who could make Fonda bad in a Western, well, producer/director Joseph L Mankiewicz is your man. He made every effort. He certainly also employed some dire writers, David Newman and Robert Benson. He couldn’t have made a film this lousy all alone. They went on to the even dizzier heights of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle and Kramer vs Kramer. But a lot of the 'credit' for this dreary tale must go to Mr. Mankiewicz.

The acting doesn’t help. There are some good names in the line-up but they all give of their worst, starting with Kirk Douglas, as chief jailbird, in eyeglasses and bright orange hair. Poor Fonda, in a beard, does his best but with this plot and these lines and that direction even he stood no chance. John Randolph and Hume Cronyn are an elderly male couple. Warren Oates is a dumb killer. Michael Blodgett is the pretty boy with virtually no lines. Burgess Meredith is the old lag ‘Missouri Kid’. None of them are any good. There are a few women but only for titillation purposes, to be shown without their clothes in various scenes. As most of the story takes part in a men’s prison in the middle of the desert, these scenes were bound to be a bit contrived.

The music (Charles Strouse) is tiresome, an insistent reworking of a grim title song warbled by Trini Lopez. The photography (Harry Stradling Jr.) is unremarkable. In fact it manages to make the Joshua Tree and La Joya, NM dull – quite an achievement.

The film went for the ‘bawdy-comic’ approach. It flopped dismally. The ending was supposed to be an O Henry-type twist. It’s awful. The prison brawl episodes are among the least convincing scenes in the movie, and that is saying a lot.

One has to search to find something good to say about this Western. The set was impressive, a huge 1880s territorial prison built specially and then demolished afterwards to leave the desert location unspoiled. Truckloads of rocks were brought in for the prisoners to break and then trucked out again. Will that do?

It got one or two surprisingly good reviews but the Christmas public was more discerning and stayed away in herds. They might have preferred the British comic Norman Wisdom vehicle of the same title of ten years previously. Brian Garfield, as so often, got it right in his Western Films: A Complete Guide: “It’s long, slow, overacted and monumentally distasteful – an idea gone awry. Neither funny nor illuminating, it is only pretentious trash. It commits the ultimate sin: it is boring.”