Wednesday, May 29, 2013


"A game-legged old man and a drunk.
That's all you got?" "That's what I got."

NOTE: Ranked No. 91 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of The Howard Hawks Blogathon occurring through May at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover

By Edward Copeland
After the opening credits end, Howard Hawks begins Rio Bravo with a sequence somewhat unusual for a Western, or, for that matter, any film made in 1959. On the other hand, beneath the surface of Rio Bravo you'll find many more layers than your typical Western. The scene almost plays as if it hails from the silent era as a haggard-looking Dean Martin tentatively enters a large establishment providing libations, meals and even barber services. Martin's character's face tells you that he wants to resist liquor's siren call, but he's weak and he struggles. A man at the bar (Claude Akins) spots him after purchasing his own drink. He flashes Martin a smile, gestures at his glass and asks with his eyes whether Martin desires one. Aside from the film score and the ambient noise of the establishment's environs, no dialogue emanates from any of the characters that Hawks' camera focuses upon in this scene that's practically choreographed in mime. Martin's character replies with an eager but wordless "yes" and Akins tosses a coin — into a spittoon — laughing with his buddies (the closest thing to a human voice heard in this building) as Martin's character's desperation outweighs his pride and he gets down on his hands and knees, prepared to retrieve the money from the spit-out tobacco. Before he can, a foot kicks the spittoon out of the way and he looks up to see John Wayne towering above him in a great low-angle shot looking up at The Duke and giving him one of his many great screen entrances. His character's arrival also sets several of the story's strands into motion. You see, the man (Akins) taunting Dude (Martin) happens to be Joe Burdette, the blackest sheep of a powerful clan that gets away with practically anything it wants to do. Joe oversteps this time though as he continues to tease Dude after a brawl that includes the man who kicked over the spittoon, Sheriff John T. Chance (Wayne), Dude's boss when he's sober enough to carry out duties as deputy. Joe and his buddies keep harassing Dude when a sympathetic patron (Bing Russell) steps in, urging Joe to cut it out — still through gestures, not words. Joe Burdette doesn't take criticism well and shoots the unarmed man to death and exits the building to stagger to another saloon. Chance soon enters behind and speaks the film's first line, "Joe, you're under arrest."

Burdette and his buddies don't take the sheriff seriously and seem intent to mow the lawman down when a still-shaky Dude arrives as backup, having composed himself enough to shoot the guns out of a couple of bad guys' hands. Seems Dude might have a drinking problem, but he's also Chance's deputy, and the lawmen take Joe into custody where the movie's waiting game begins. Can Chance, Duke (always battling the battle) and Chance's other deputy, Stumpy (Walter Brennan), aging and falling apart physically, keep Joe locked up until the U.S. marshal's arrival several days later to take Joe into custody for trial before Burdette's clan tries to free him In a few short minutes of screentime, the main story that drives most of Rio Bravo's 2 hours and 20 minutes has been set. Sideplots await, but all basically will converge in the main thread. Though nearly 2½ hours long, Hawks doesn't rush his film along, yet somehow he still keeps it moving and it holds its length incredibly well.

I'm not reporting earth-shattering news when I inform readers that Howard Hawks belongs to that select group of directors who excelled in every genre he attempted. One thing that sets Rio Bravo apart from Hawks' other works is that, while it resides in the Western genre, it snatches from many others — romantic comedies, war tales, detective stories, social dramas, even musicals. As film critic Richard Schickel says on a commentary track for Rio Bravo, Hawks liked saying that he loved to steal from himself. He'd do it again by practically remaking Rio Bravo as El Dorado eight years later, once again starring Wayne but with Robert Mitchum in the Dean Martin role. The plots diverge enough, as do the characters, (Mitchum plays a drunken sheriff as opposed to deputy while Wayne took on the role of gunfighter for hire helping a rancher's family get even with the rival rancher who killed their patriarch) to prevent it from being an exact facsimile. (Another shared aspect between the two films: screenwriter Leigh Brackett, who co-wrote Rio Bravo with Jules Furthman and wrote El Dorado by herself.) In the case of Rio Bravo, dialogue in the romantic sparring between Chance (Wayne) and possibly shady lady Feathers (Angie Dickinson) sounds lifted directly from To Have and Have Not, which Furthman co-wrote with William Faulkner. The relationship between Chance and Stumpy seems like a continuation of the one Wayne's Dunson and Brennan's Groot had in Red River, only minus Dunson's darkness. Part of Howard Hawks' greatness grew from his gift of swiping things from his previous films while changing the recipe just enough to make it fresh — a skill other self-plagiarists such as John Hughes never pulled off since they lacked Hawks' inherent talent, skill and imagination.

Hawks originally intended the action and imagery that runs beneath the opening credits to be its own sequence in the film, but later decided just to use it to accompany the list of cast and crew to a quieter piece of Dimitri Tiomkin's score before the set piece in the bar officially launches Rio Bravo. He films the footage of a wagon train caravan at such a distance that you can't readily identify its contents or characters, but a careful viewer connects it later as being the approach of the wagon train of Pat Wheeler (Ward Bond), who turns up shortly after the opening incident. At first, the audience can't be certain how to take the arrival of this man and his large crew, which includes a young gunman named Colorado (played by Ricky Nelson, teen idol and sitcom star at the time, who turns in a solid performance). For all the audience knows, these could be people sent to break Joe Burdette out of the jail where Stumpy handles most of his supervision. Dude, by then sobered up and handling more of his duties as deputy to Chance's Presidio County Texas sheriff, stops the wagon train in the middle of the town's main thoroughfare and insists that Wheeler and all of his men remove their weapons and hang them on a fence. They'll be free to collect the firearms when they depart the town again. (Wouldn't you love to watch Rio Bravo with the National Rifle Association's head flunky Wayne LaPierre and see how he reacts to law enforcement working for John Wayne in a Western that enforcing those rules?) Wheeler and those in his employ grumble at first, but soon comply. When Chance shows up, we realize he and Wheeler go way back on friendly terms, though Wheeler advises the sheriff they need to be careful where they store their cargo — it contains a large amount of dynamite. (Paging Chekhov if you don't think that's going to pay off somewhere down the road.)


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"My Rifle, My Pony and Me" (Rio Bravo tribute, Part II)


While Sheriff Chance took on a major task by arresting Joe Burdette and incarcerating him in his small Presidio County jail, with Stumpy left to guard the bad guy most of the time, he still bears the responsibility for maintaining the law elsewhere in his town, something he accomplishes through street patrols and his nights staying at The Hotel Alamo (of all the names to pick) run by Carlos Robante (Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez) and his wife Consuela (Estelita Rodriguez). One night, a poker game piques his interest as two of the players (Angie Dickinson, Walter Barnes) fit the profile of two hustlers warned about on handbills. After a cursory investigation, Chance arrests the woman, who goes by the name Feathers. She declares her innocence and Chance fails to find the crooked cards on her after she's left the table following a huge winning streak. When he returns though, he does find the stacked deck on the man, who has raked it in since her departure and tells him to return his ill-gotten gains and be on the morning stagecoach. He suggests that Feathers do the same, but she decides to stick around.

That next day, the Burdettes arrive as expected, led by Joe's smooth brother Nathan (John Russell, the gaunt, veteran actor of mostly Westerns where he usually played the villain. His second-to-last film was as the cold-blooded killer in Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider). He asks Chance why the streets appear so full of people. Chance offers no explanation, but suggests that perhaps gawkers came to town, drawn to the possibility that the Burdettes planned to put on a show.

Chance makes his nightly trek to the Hotel Alamo. When he gets there, Spencer pulls him over for a drink. The wagon master has heard of the trouble Chance faces. "A game-legged old man and a drunk. That's all you got?" Spencer asks in disbelief. "That's what I got," Chance responds. Spencer offers himself and his men as help against the Burdettes, but the sheriff expresses reluctance to take responsibility for others. He does ask about the confident young gunman Colorado that Spencer has hired. If he is as good as he thinks he is and lacks the family ties of the older men, Chance would be willing to take him on if Colorado agrees. Spencer calls Colorado over, but the young man politely declines, earning Chance's respect for being smart enough to know when to sit out a fight. Not long afterward, while Feathers flirts again and Chance urges her to get on the morning stage, shots ring out on the street and Spencer falls dead. Later, Nathan Burdette makes his first visit to see his brother Joe, despite Stumpy's withering verbal assaults, at the jail. First, Nathan wants the sheriff to explain why his brother looks so beat up. "He didn't take too kindly to being arrested for murder," Chance tells Nathan while Joe denies the shooting was murder. Nathan asks how Chance can be so certain or, at the very least, why Joe isn't being tried where the alleged murder occurred. Chance nixes that idea, content to let the U.S. marshal handle Joe Burdette and try him elsewhere. Nathan silkily makes no overt threats, but certainly implies that Joe might not remain in the Presidio County jail by the time that marshal shows up, especially if the sheriff relies on a drunk and an old man as his backup. Chance isn't in a mood to hide his cards. "You're a rich man, Burdette. Big ranch, pay a lot of people to do what you want 'em to do. And you got a brother. He's no good but he's your brother. He committed 20 murders you'd try and see he didn't hang for 'em," the sheriff spits out. "I don't like that kinda talk. Now you're practically accusing me," Nathan Burdette says, but Chance continues. "Let's get this straight. You don't like? I don't like a lot of things. I don't like your men sittin' on the road bottling up this town. I don't like your men watching us, trying to catch us with our backs turned. And I don't like it when a friend of mine offers to help and 20 minutes later he's dead! And i don't like you, Burdette, because you set it up." If war wasn't brewing before, it was now.

The murder of Spencer fully incorporates the last two major characters more fully into the film and the action. With his boss dead, Colorado at first finds himself content to take his pay from the slain wagon master's possessions and remains determined to mind his own business. Once he witnesses some more of the Burdette brutality, Colorado decides to join up and Chance deputizes him. Colorado becomes part of the team and helps Chance escape an ambush, an ambush for which the sheriff seems prepared to occur, quickly pumping off rounds from his rifle. "You always leave the carbine cocked?" Colorado asks. "Only when I carry it," Chance replies. Originally, Hawks opposed casting Ricky Nelson, though the director admits he probably boosted box office. He had sought someone popular with young viewers, but felt Nelson — who turned 18 during filming — lacked age and experience for the part. Hawks had chased Elvis Presley for the role, but as often was the case, Col. Tom Parker demanded too much money for his client and the Rio Bravo production had to take a pass. The pseudo love affair between Feathers and Chance also heats up, though Wayne's discomfort with the romantic scenes with Dickinson is readily apparent. Wayne felt uneasy about the 25-year age gap between him and Dickinson. On top of that, nervous studio bosses wanted no implication made that Chance and Feathers ever sleep together. Double entendres and innuendos abound, but truthfully more sparks fly in brief scenes between Martin and Dickinson and Nelson and Dickinson than ever produce friction in the Wayne-Dickinson scenes. What becomes most interesting about the relationship between Feathers and Chance is Feathers' transformation into the sheriff's protector, keeping watch over him as he sleeps to make sure that no Burdette makes a move on him.

You don't need to know how the rest of Rio Bravo unfolds. Besides, part of what makes the film so fascinating and more than your ordinary Western comes from the multiple tones Hawks balances. A viewer seeing Rio Bravo for the first time couldn't positively predict what mood shall prevail by the final reel: light-hearted, tragic, heroic, romantic, some combination of those elements. At any given moment, you might change your mind. Most of this uncertainty reflects the nature of the character Dude. With the possible exception of Feathers, almost every other character in the film stays on a static path. Dude captures our attention the most because of the dynamics within him. Will he maintain the upper hand in his battle with booze or will he fall off the wagon again and if he does, what consequences does that have for the others? Even sober, he's prone to depression, low self-esteem and self-pity. Still, he can croon a song or be a crack shot. A part this multifaceted requires a talented actor and back when Rio Bravo was made, Dean Martin wouldn't be one of the first names to jump to your mind. However, in the years 1958 and 1959, soon after the end of his partnership with Jerry Lewis, Martin turned in two impressive performances (perhaps three, but I haven't seen 1958's The Young Lions). In 1958, he gave a great turn as a professional gambler Bama Dillert in Vincente Minnelli's adaptation of the James Jones novel Some Came Running starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine. He followed that with his astoundingly good work in Rio Bravo. While Martin continue to make entertaining films, for some reason those two years stand out as an aberration and he never got roles as good as Bama Dillert or Dude again.

Hawks' behind-the-scenes collaborators provided as much of the magic of Rio Bravo as its cast. From Russell Harlan's crisp and lush cinematography to Tiomkin's score that complements Hawks' leisurely pacing well. Tiomkin also teamed with lyricist Paul Francis West for the film's songs — "Cindy" and "My Rifle, My Pony and Me" in the extended musical interlude by Dude, Stumpy and Colorado as well as the title song. Reportedly, Wayne joined the singing at one point until they decided it inappropriate for the sheriff to take part (and also because the Duke allegedly could not carry a tune). In another instance of borrowing from past work, at Wayne's suggestion, Tiomkin actually reworked the theme to Red River into the song "My Rifle, My Pony and Me." Tiomkin also composed "Degüello," aka "The Cutthroat Song," which the Burdettes play to psych out the good guys guarding Joe. The film claims the music comes from Mexico where Santa Anna's soldiers played it continuously to unnerve those holed up inside the Alamo. Wayne loved the music and the story so much, even though the tale wasn't true, he used it in his film The Alamo the following year. His screenwriting team of Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett both had worked with Hawks as a team and separately before and after Rio Bravo. Previously, Furthman and Brackett co-wrote Hawks' classic 1946 take on The Big Sleep. Furthman also co-wrote Come and Get It and To Have and Have Not and did a solo turn on Only Angels Have Wings. The legendary Brackett, despite her extensive screenwriting work, made a name for herself as a novelist, largely in the male-dominated field of science fiction. In Schickel's commentary, he refers to Brackett as an example of a real life Hawksian woman. In fact, before her death, the last screenplay she co-wrote was The Empire Strikes Back. In another non-Hawks project, she returned to Philip Marlowe when she wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye. In addition to the Hawks titles already mentioned for Brackett, she also wrote the screenplay for 1962's Hatari! and co-wrote 1970's Rio Lobo. The DVD commentary also includes director John Carpenter, who names Hawks as his favorite director, and paid tribute to Leigh Brackett by naming the sheriff in the original Halloween after her.

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Monday, May 20, 2013


Prison of My Dreams

By Edward Copeland
As I snap the cuffs on Will Smith's wrists, I try to look stern and sympathetic simultaneously. "I take no pleasure in having to do this, Mr. Smith, but it's for your own good as well as the good of the public. Hopefully, your stay will be a short one." I'm taking Smith to serve his sentence in the Copeland Penitentiary for Bad Film Ideas. The actor received a summary conviction with the recent announcement of his interest of remaking Sam Peckinpah's classic Western The Wild Bunch. We had no choice. Trying to do a new version of such a revered film would be bad enough, but when you read the details that explain it would be a modern version involving the DEA and drug cartels, it sounds as if it's only stealing the title. We couldn't risk this debacle-in-development from getting to pre-production. Smith needed to be jailed until he regained his senses.

Now, if Smith breaks quickly, his sentence should be short since this idea didn't originate with him. Warner Bros. has toyed with the idea of a remake for more than a decade with various names such as the late director Tony Scott and stars such as Tom Cruise mentioned. If it were possible to put an entire studio into permanent solitary confinement, I would do it. Johnny Depp, pictured above being taken the prison to serve his time, had a longer time behind bars when he announced his intention to make a new version of The Thin Man and to take on William Powell's trademark role of Nick Charles. Thankfully, that talk disappeared once we locked up Depp for awhile and he hasn't mentioned it since. It's great that Depp loves The Thin Man — but the original remains and people should watch it. (If only the prison existed before Gus Van Sant got his cuckoo idea of doing a shot-by-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho in color.)

Look at the case of something that happened before the Copeland Penitentiary opened when Russell Brand remade Arthur with Brand in the Dudley Moore role and Helen Mirren taking over for John Gielgud. It sounded like a bad idea on paper, looked more horrendous when commercials and trailers appeared and received mostly bad reviews. (I did enjoy that the original in 1981 grossed more than the remake's budget which flopped badly.) What disturbed me was that the original Arthur never received a DVD release in the proper ratio and when the remake came out, they released a Blu-ray that forced you to get it with its awful sequel Arthur 2: On the Rocks.

Therein lies the dangers of remakes of great films. With technology constantly changing and money always an issue, at some point they'll start leaving us with the fresher versions, assuming that younger audiences won't know or care to see the classics. I'd try to talk them into how much money they'd save if they just re-released older films to theaters without having to spend all that money on new movies, but they won't go for it. Besides, making movies cost WAY too much to make and see today and the best stuff gets made on television anyway.

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Friday, May 17, 2013


Enough beef for hungry cinephiles

NOTE: Ranked No. 36 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared Sept. 30, 2008. I'm re-posting it as part of The Howard Hawks Blogathon occurring through May 31 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover

By Edward Copeland
Has any filmmaker shown mastery in more genres than Howard Hawks? Sixty years ago today, Hawks released one of his best Westerns (not a motel) in Red River, which also gave John Wayne one of his best roles and Montgomery Clift a notable early screen appearance.

Hawks made other great Westerns (most notably Rio Bravo, which also featured Wayne and Walter Brennan), but Red River, despite its abrupt climax, remains my favorite with its tale of a long cattle drive, surrogate father-son conflict and unmistakable gay subtext. Wayne admittedly was a limited actor, but he always was at his best when he played a character steeped in darkness and obsession such as Thomas Dunson here or Ethan Edwards in John Ford's The Searchers. He's helped immeasurably by getting to act opposite the young Clift, the antithesis of acting style when compared to Wayne. Hawks' direction of the film itself truly amazes, especially in the many scenes of the huge numbers of cattle, all done in the days without the easy out of CGI (A scene of the drive even earned a shoutout in Peter Bogdanovich's great 1971 film The Last Picture Show). He also manages to include plenty of his trademark humor, mostly through the ensemble of supporting character actors led by Brennan (whose character loses his false teeth in a poker game) and including Hank Worden (the decrepit waiter in Twin Peaks for those unfamiliar with the name) who gets plenty of throwaway lines such as how he doesn't like when things go good or bad, he just wants them to go in between.

Hawks even manages to toss in what may be an example of the ultimate Hawksian woman with Joanne Dru as Tess Millay, who doesn't let a little thing such as an arrow stop her from nagging a man with questions. Hawks astounds viewers to this day with his versatility among genres: Westerns, screwball comedies, musicals, war films, noirs, sci-fi — pick a genre and Hawks probably took it on and scored. It's a mystery to me why his name isn't brought up more by people other than the most obsessive film buffs. Red River isn't my favorite Hawks, but it's one of his many great ones and continues to entertain after 60 years.

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Thursday, May 16, 2013


Leave the rooster story alone. That's human interest.

NOTE: Ranked No. 16 on my all-time top 100 of 2012

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post originally appeared Jan. 18, 2010. I'm re-posting it as part of The Howard Hawks Blogathon occurring through May 31 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover

By Edward Copeland
The list of remakes that exceed the original is a short one, especially when the original was a good one, but there never has been a better remake than Howard Hawks' His Girl Friday, which took the brilliance of The Front Page and turned it to genius by making its high-energy farce of an editor determined by hook or by crook to hang on to his star reporter by turning the roles of the two men into ex-spouses. Icing this delicious cake, which marks its 70th anniversary today, comes from casting Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as the leads.

Words open His Girl Friday declaring that it takes place in the dark ages of journalism when getting that story justified anything short of murder, but insists that it bears no resemblance to the press of its day, 1940 in this case. What saddens me today is, despite the ethical lapses and underhandedness and downright lies committed by the reporters in this version (and really all versions based on the original play The Front Page by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, themselves once Chicago journalists), their energetic devotion to capturing the story seems downright heroic compared to the herd mentality and lack of intellectual curiosity we see exhibited most of the time today by pack journalists such as the White House press corps. It's really why the first two film versions of the play are the only ones that work. The 1931 Lewis Milestone adaptation starring Adolphe Menjou definitely belonged to its time and Hawks' take with its inspired twist came along close enough to remain relevant. When Billy Wilder tried to remake the original in 1974 as a period piece with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, it fell flat because in the era of Vietnam and Watergate, journalists actually existed in a moment of heroism for their profession. The 1988 disaster Switching Channels returned to the His Girl Friday model with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner and tried to set it in the world of cable news but the only update they came up with was hiding the fugitive in a copy machine instead of a rolltop desk.

Each time I write one of these anniversary tributes, no matter how many times I've seen the film in question (and I can't count that high when we're discussing Friday, I try to watch the movie again, in a quest for fresh thoughts and reminders of lines that may have slipped my mind. In nearly every, case I notice something new (and with the rapid-fire pace of Friday's dialogue, remembering them all borders on impossible). What stood out as I started this salute wasn't just the work-a-day newshounds it depicts compared to the state of the industry today but the social subtext emerged more prominently this time. It's not that I've missed or ignored it before, but it's the light-speed comic hijinks that keeps me coming back. The story's main focus may concern Walter Burns (Grant), that sneaky editor of the Morning Post, trying to keep his ex-wife Hildy Johnson (Russell) from leaving the paper and his life to wed insurance agent Bruce Baldwin, who looks like that fellow in the movies, you know, Ralph Bellamy (who fortunately plays Bruce). However, the story Walter uses to keep his hooks into Hildy concerns that of Earl Williams (John Qualen), a man who killed a cop and received a ticket on a bullet train to the gallows by a politically hungry Republican mayor with an eye on unseating the Democratic, anti-death penalty governor, despite the fact the reporters and many others believe Earl's mental illness should stop his hanging. Qualen, a solid character actor in many films, and Mollie Malloy (Helen Mack), a woman who befriended Earl prior to the slaying and who the tabloids misrepresent as his lover and a prostitute, stand apart as the only characters in this screwball farce who play it completely straight. (In an all-time bit of miscasting, in the Wilder remake, Carol Burnett got the Mollie Malloy role. Of course, the nearly 50-year-old Jack Lemmon also was engaged to the 28-year-old Susan Sarandon in that film.) His Girl Friday requires neither Qualen nor Mack to garner laughs like every other character. As the courthouse reporters behave particularly cruelly to Mollie at one point, only Hildy comforts her. "They ain't human," Mollie cries. "I know," Hildy sympathizes. "They're newspapermen." Hildy realizes the jobless Earl spent too much time listening to socialist speeches in the park and his fascination with the concept of "production for use" led to his fatal error.

Social message aside, it's the earth-shattering cosmic comic chemistry of Grant and Russell, aided by Bellamy's perfect innocent foil and countless supporting vets. (One of them, Billy Gilbert, plays Mr. Pettibone (Roz holds his tie in the photo above) and I wish I could have found a good closeup photo of him because I think it's hysterical how much 9/11 mastermind/terrorist asshole Khalid Sheikh Mohammed resembles Gilbert in KSM's arrest mugshot.) The lines come fast and furious. While many do come from the original Hecht-MacArthur play, Hawks gets the credit for the film's amazing speed (though screenwriter Charles Lederer deserves more kudos). Still, in the end, Cary and Roz make the dialogue sizzle and Grant's physical touches serve as a master class in comic movement on film. Watch every little bounce he makes as Hildy kicks him beneath the table when he's trying to get things past poor Bruce and you'll crack up every time. Originally, I was writing down all my favorite lines, planning to try to work them all into this tribute, but then I thought: Maybe not everyone has seen His Girl Friday, even after 70 years, and I'm not going to spoil it for them.

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