A Month of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, part two

As a tribute to the late Roger Ebert, some members of the Letterboxd community are spending May visiting films in his Great Movies series. Since this dovetails with my personal project of filling shameful voids in my film education, I decided to commit myself, once more, to a regimented schedule for which I don’t really have time, but hey, you know. Movies.

Rio Bravo (1959)

Poster - Rio Bravo_01Earlier this year, in the course of another challenge, I said that The Searchers is likely the Ultimate Western. That’s the sort of generalization that gives you pause, once you’ve made it, over and over again, as you think of other movies that might fit that position just as well. Its scope is not as broad, but that’s also a strength for Rio Bravo, the Other Ultimate Western.

This was director Howard Hawks’ first movie after a four-year hiatus following the critical and box office failure of Land of the Pharaohs. He had some things to prove to a lot of people, not least of all himself, and the result is a movie that is so darned good he took some its best parts and re-used them again seven years later in El Dorado.

Sheriff John T. Chance (John Wayne) locks up Joe Burdette (an astonishingly young – and thin – Claude Akins), the younger brother of the local ruthless cattle baron, for murder. This prompts big brother to seal up the town and start importing gunslingers to free Joe before the federal Marshall arrives in six days. Chance recruits his former deputy, Dude (Dean Martin) an alcoholic struggling to regain his sobriety and self-respect, and eventually Colorado (Ricky Nelson), a preternaturally calm and competent young gun. He’s already got cantankerous cripple Stumpy (Walter Brennan, sans teeth) overseeing the jail with a shotgun and an unending stream of invective.

rio_bravoInto this siege situation Hawks also drops Feathers (Angie Dickinson), a peripatetic gambler who chooses to settle in Rio Bravo when she takes a shine to the Sheriff. Dickinson here is lucky to get the role of a typical Hawks woman, preferring the company of men to her own sex, easily the equal of any of them. Wayne the actor seems honestly uncomfortable with the idea of a love affair with a woman who is almost literally half his age, and that somehow makes The Duke adorable. But this movie also marks an important turning point in his career – Wayne is obviously no longer a young man, and here begins the line of movies dealing with that fact, through the 60s and eventually into True Grit and Rooster Cogburn.

Martin and Nelson seem like stunt casting, and that may be true in Nelson’s case, at the height of his popularity in the TV series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, but Martin definitely worked hard for the role. It benefited his acting chops considerably when Hawks wouldn’t let him get away with his usual nightclub drunk schtick – Martin sinks his teeth into the uglier, pathetic parts of drying out, and when he finally gets his mojo back, it is a triumphant, memorable moment.

It’s easy to fantasize that you can pick and choose between the casts of this and El Dorado and swap out Robert Mitchum for Dean Martin, James Caan for Ricky Nelson… but truthfully, both movies are just fine the way they are.

The Big Sleep (1946)

el_sueno_eterno_1946_2It’s really ideal when you can follow a Hawks movie with a Hawks movie.

Humphrey by-God Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, prototypical private eye. He’s hired by the aging and slowly dying General Sternwood (Charles Waldron in his final role) to clear up the matter of some gambling debts and possible blackmail against one or both of his wild daughters (the elder of whom is Lauren Bacall). Of course, since this is from a Raymond Chandler novel, nothing is as simple as it first seems.

Rather famously, The Big Sleep was held over from its original release date to A) clear out Warner Brothers’ inventory of war movies when World War II ended earlier than Warner had scheduled; and B) to punch up Lauren Bacall’s character, reshooting several scenes and adding others a year after the original shooting had wrapped.  1944’s To Have and Have Not was a tremendous hit thanks in large part to the Hawksian chemistry between Bacall and Bogart (and obvious sexual heat, needless to say).

But you don’t monkey with the structure of a complex plot like Chandler’s without paying a price, and The Big Sleep‘s gets pretty muddled to accommodate the new dynamics. I was thankful I’d gone out of my way to see the more linear 1978 version with Robert Mitchum a couple of years back, it helped anchor me through the turmoil.

Still, it’s a good ride. Past the banter betwixt its two stars, you could spot this as a Hawks movie by the incidental characters: Marlowe keeps running into charming, attractive women doing their jobs – in one case, a normally male job like a cabbie – doing them well, and with enough smarts and sass to impress Marlowe. probably past their time in the story (were it not for Bacall, if you catch my drift). Lucky goddamn Marlowe.

Beat the Devil (1953)

large_tmtx7hDqcZGYyQ8H76I7ZKOumgmI didn’t have another Hawks movie on tap, so instead I went for more Bogart.

Beat the Devil is an odd bird, and most people don’t seem to know what to make of it. You have a collection of four rogues headed by Robert Morley and Peter Lorre, and they’ve thrown in with Bogart to purchase some land in Africa that they suspect is rich in Uranium. This setup is complicated by the fact that they are marooned in Italy while their steamer is repaired or the captain sobers up – “More than a day, less than a fortnight.” Also complicating matters is a British couple, the Chelms: the stuffy husband and the brilliant but talkative wife (Jennifer Jones), who has an overactive imagination that leads the rogues down all sorts of false assumptive trails.

That isn’t complicated enough? Bogart and Jones fall in love, and oh, didn’t I mention Bogart is married to Gina Lollobrigida? Gina is an ardent Anglophile who falls for Mr. Chelm.

It gets even more complicated than that, but this is another movie that depends on the joy of discovery, so let me just leave it at that. This is a stellar spoof of adventure movies with foreign no-goodniks in pursuit of atomic gold, and honestly, the only thing missing is Sydney Greenstreet, who had retired in 1949, suffering from diabetes and Bright’s Disease (which had plagued him through most of his movie career). Robert Morley rises suitably to the occasion, however.

Matters weren’t helped by the movie posters proclaiming “The Bold Adventure That Beats them All!” “Adventure At Its Boldest! Bogart At His Best!” Nobody went into Beat The Devil expecting an hour and a half of banter so dry you could make a martini with it (Truman Capote is a credited writer). Everybody plays it deadly serious, making it even more hilarious. Bogart is smart enough to just lean back and let chaos reign around him. And did I mention the director was John Huston? Yeah, this nestles between Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick.

Beat the Devil is definitely an odd creature. Enjoyable, as long as you know what sort of movie you’re going to get. Have a nice three-minute clip from early on…

Stagecoach (1939)

Poster - Stagecoach (1939)_03Out of Hawks and Bogey, I might as well bookend this with more John Wayne, right?

Stagecoach marks a number of notable firsts. It’s John Ford’s first movie shot in Monument Valley, and the first of a long line of collaborations with John Wayne. Wayne had, by this time, made a slew of B-Westerns. That worked against him in the casting process, but when Gary Cooper wanted too much money, Ford finally got Wayne.

Stagecoach takes a basic dramatic premise and plays it for all its worth: Throw a bunch of disparate characters in an enclosed space, put that space in danger, and let events play out. The title coach is making a regularly scheduled run, complicated by the presence of Geronimo on the warpath. The cast includes an alcoholic doctor (Thomas Mitchell) being  exiled from the town, and ditto a “fallen woman”, Dallas (Claire Trevor), whose crimes are never elaborated upon, since it’s still 1939. There is also a woman trying desperately to meet up with her Cavalry officer husband, a roguish gambler who takes her under protective wing (John Carradine, superb as ever), a banker running away with a mining company’s payroll (it’s also still the Great Depression, so boo hiss at the Banker), and a whiskey salesman whose sample case is going to be decimated by the doctor. And then they pick up the Ringo Kid (Wayne) on the way. He’s escaped prison to avenge the murder of his family by the Plummer Brothers, and unfortunately for him, the Sheriff is riding shotgun on the coach.

That’s quite a cast, and I didn’t even mention Andy Devine as the stagecoach driver. At this far remove, it is interesting to note that of this solid, often powerhouse group, Claire Trevor was at the time the box office draw.

stagemovieThe group dynamics shift throughout the journey, especially when the promised cavalry escorts keep getting called away to chase Geronimo. The scalawag Banker and the Officer’s Wife (and therefore The Gambler) want to keep pushing on, despite the danger – though the group is forced to shelter in place when the sickly wife is found to be pregnant and the doctor has to go into hyper-sober-up to get her through a difficult delivery, aided by the prostitute. During all this, the guileless and somewhat naive Ringo Kid falls for Dallas, thinking her just another lady; when they eventually arrive at their destination he’ll find out different, and it won’t matter.

That brief paragraph doesn’t begin to even outline the complexities of character and plot breezed through by Stagecoach in a mere 96 minutes. Viewing an extra on the Criterion DVD, a video essay by Ted Gallagher about Ford’s visual style, you find out how Ford threw exposition and character development simply by where he chose to point the camera in any given scene, and you realize that you are dealing with a director working several degrees above most of us. Tremendously humbling.

There are many, many reasons to watch Stagecoach, but I’m going to instead leave you with another first: the hat John Wayne wears as the Ringo Kid, he would wear in many another Western; its final appearance is as the beat-to-shit hat Chance wears in Rio Bravo, after the which the Duke finally retired it and kept it under glass in his house.

I love it when we can circle back like that.

2 Comments

  1. What a fabulous night at the movies. One of my legitimate all-time-favorites (The Big Sleep), movies I loved the one time I saw them (Stagecoach and Beat the Devil) and a movie everyone else (dons top hat, monocle, cape) considers a classic. I don’t know if it’s because I saw El Dorado first or because the singing interludes didn’t do much for me, or because I can almost hear Hawks fuming about High Noon over the sound of the movie, but I just didn’t get into Rio Bravo the time I watched it. Maybe I’m due for another attempt.

  2. […] the post-War Ford spinning his wheels a bit, though; the scene is directly lifted from his earlier Stagecoach, right down to the drunken doctor calling upon nearly forgotten skills for emergency surgery, […]


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