On The Changing Face of Heroism

I’ve been dealing with some un-fun aspects of Life’s Rich Pageant lately. That means that in a duel between Watching Movies To Relieve Stress & Also Believe Once Again Life Is Capable Of Good Things, or Writing Something Worth Reading About Those Movies, stress relief won. I don’t think you’d blame me for that.

So let’s get started.

Rio_Lobo_1970Rio Lobo (1970) is not regarded as a very good movie, and sadly, it really isn’t. The final film of the legendary Howard Hawks, it’s yet another retread of 1959’s Rio Bravo (one of the best westerns ever made), the other being 1966’s El Dorado (which is, I will admit, another of my favorites). El Dorado, at least, had script problems and Hawks elected, mid-production, to pirate from himself, to good result. I’m not sure of the reasons for returning to that particular trough four years later, but reportedly John Wayne asked, “Do I get to play the drunk this time?”

No, this time Wayne will be playing Cord McNally, a Union colonel still seeking the traitors who sold the secret schedules of trains carrying Union payrolls. McNally pursued the Confederate squad responsible for the robberies, and was even their prisoner for a time, but he turned the tables on them and captured their leaders, Cardona (Jorge Rivero) and Tuscarora (Christopher Mitchum). The three actually wind up respecting each other, and Cord buys the rebels a drink when they’re released after the War ends a few months later. They tell Cord what they know about the traitor and his men, and promise to get in touch if they find out anything else.

4370_5As luck would have it, the traitor and his men, under new names, have taken over the Texas town of Rio Lobo, where Tuscarora’s father Phillips (Jack Elam) has a horse ranch. Phillips is one of the few landowners resisting the new robber baron, and Cordona has journeyed to Texas to help his old friend – when he sees a familiar face, and telegraphs Cord. Mayhem will ensue. G-rated mayhem.

For all the bobbles, this is still identifiably a Howard Hawks movie, mainly for the rapid-fire, witty banter. There are some trademark Hawks women, too, though Shasta (Jennifer O’Neill) isn’t given much to do outside of using a derringer that’s apparently loaded with elephant rounds, and to be a somewhat reluctant love interest for Cardona. Really, the ballsiest female character is a Latina named Amelita (Sherry Lansing), who Cordona surprises while she’s changing (in a G-rated movie, remember. 1970 was amazingly open about such things), and manages to help our heroes on a couple more occasions. Why the hell Cardona is gaga over the rather more vanilla Shasta is puzzling to me.


Cardona, you idiot.

(Then again, I was puzzled by her in more ways than one, as I was going “Sherry Lansing, Sherry Lansing, why do I know that name? Not much of a filmography, but I’m sure…

(Oh yeah. She gave up on acting, then ran Columbia, then 20th Century Fox, then Paramount in the period from 1977-2005. Cardona, you idiot. Also, she’s married to William Friedkin, who knows talent when he sees it.)

Eventually we get to the mandatory siege-in-the-jailhouse, but that’s rather short-lived as Cord is outmaneuvered by the bad guys, and we head to the other standard that El Dorado managed to forego, a big shootout, this time with the townsmen helping to repel their oppressors. Jack Elam enters the picture at roughly the two-thirds mark, and proceeds to steal the movie right out from underneath its star. Wayne didn’t much care for that, and never worked with him again.

elamRio Lobo did pretty dismal box office, and Hawks felt it was largely due to Wayne’s age – 63, at the time. Rio Bravo had been the first movie to really deal with an aging Duke, and this is the movie where Shasta cuddles up to him for warmth in the desert night because he’s “more comfortable” than the hot-blooded Cardona. This leads to Cord bitching about being “comfortable” for the rest of the movie. Wayne wasn’t doing well health-wise during filming, and apparently had some difficulty getting on and off his horse due to some torn ligaments.



But there is one moment when the Wayne of old shines through. The crooked Sheriff and his deputies accuse Tuscarora of horse stealing, beat him up and slap his girlfriend across the street when she tries to intervene. As they prepare to take Tuscarora to the jailhouse, the Sheriff (being evil) says, “Bring the girl, too.” And Cord McNally, standing tall over the sobbing girl, says one word, loudly: “Why?” It is the single most righteous moment in the movie, Cord willing to throw away his entire mission and possibly his life to protect one person, and it is everything such a moment in a movie should be.

It’s an entertaining enough movie, but light. It’s not going to knock anything else off your playlist when you suddenly remember you have a copy of it, but it’s a harmless way to spend a couple of hours. It mainly looms large in my legend because George Plimpton has a bit part in it, and the resulting TV special held thirteen year-old me rapt:

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I tried to relate that fading 50s-60s concept of heroism to my next couple of movies, which were Kingsman: The Secret Service and Deadpool. Good luck to that, though, since Deadpool is satire, and Kingsman is satire that wants to subvert its subject while still glorying in it.

posterWhen you play the “#NowWatching” hashtag game on Twitter, you find out pretty damned fast what movies people downright hate, and Kingsman fits that bill. It’s the story of a super secret organization of highly-trained troubleshooters with fancy gizmos; they’re all basically 007 without the government oversight.

This seems to be the prime area of peoples’ ire: it is a lovely copy of a fun spy flick from the 60s up to a point. Most people who hate Kingsman weren’t properly prepared by being aware that it is based on a comic written by Mark Millar, and I think Millar’s middle name may be “Piss-taking”. Using the major plot’s opening gambit – as sure a parody of a James Bond opener that ever was – of killing who we think the hero is going to be, and the resulting drive to find his replacement from a hand-picked group of young people, Millar gets to deconstruct the spy novel the same way he deconstructed superheroes in Kickass.

The Kickass movie was quite successful, and after its director, Matthew Vaughn, helmed the pleasantly surprising X-Men: First Class, he dedicated himself to taming another Millar book. I’ll be honest with you: I didn’t bother with the Kickass movie because I despised the book, but seeing how Vaughn has rearranged this particular graphic novel for the better, I’m thinking it’s time to get over myself and watch it.

Firth. Colin FirthThe Kingsman we’re most concerned with here is code-named Galahad, played by Colin Firth – and who knew Mr. Firth had such a butt-kicker hiding inside? Galahad recruits the son of another trainee who died years earlier protecting Galahad and two other Kingsmen. The kid is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), who has potential, but much of it has been short-circuited by a bad home life scarred by his father’s death. Much of the movie is spent turning a chav into a gentleman, and Eggsy proves he has the right stuff, up to a point: in his final exam he refuses to kill a dog (the dog is a pug, so good on you, Eggsy). Still, everything goes pear-shaped and Eggsy is going to wind up in a tailored suit in the bad guy’s secret lair, hoping to stop doomsday.

Kingsman-ValentineThe bad guy is another of the facets of Kingsman that draws ire. He’s Valentine, a billionaire tech wizard played by Samuel L. Jackson, and, like most twisted geniuses, he wants to save the world by killing four-fifths of the world’s population. He will do this by first providing everyone with free cell phones, then broadcasting a low-frequency wave that turns everyone in the vicinity of a cell phone into a homicidal maniac. He tests it out in a Mississippi church full of a hate group meeting – and, not very coincidentally, Galahad in a field investigation. The ensuing bloodbath in the church is another thing that I recall people not liking, because it was too shocking. People need to watch more kung fu movies.

"It's a bulldog, right? It'll get bigger, right?"

“It’s a bulldog, right? It’ll get bigger, right?”

What bugs people about Valentine is that Jackson chose to play him with a lisp. Matthew Vaughn, in the disc’s bonus features, talks about Jackson bringing this up, and saying that he thought this would be a prime motivation in Valentine’s actions, and Vaughn basically said, “What the hell, you’re Samuel L. Jackson, let’s do it.” It was another absurd thing in a movie full of absurd things, and I didn’t mind it. There was something about that year… I think a bunch of actors got together and said, “This year, let’s do all our funny voices. That’ll mess with them.” So you’ve got Jackson in this, Jeff Bridges in Seventh Son and RIPD

It’s a romp. Not sure why people hate it so.

Buy Kingsman: The Secret Service on Amazon

But going from John Wayne standing in a sun-baked Texas street saying “Why?” to Colin Firth being so well-trained he can be the sole survivor of a room packed with 200 maniacs is saying a very ugly thing about what our heroes have become, and moreover, what have we become. In the current world of blockbuster entertainment, heroism tends to be measured by who can punch who through the tallest building, or who has access to the most endless supply of ammunition.

If you will forgive my saying so, that is a very jock-centric way of looking at things.

So I, ladies and gentlemen, am now going to head into the nerd direction.

interstellarLet’s start with Interstellar.

Christopher Nolan likes to be all mysterious in the run-up to his movies’ releases, and Interstellar was not an exception; all we knew was that it was about corn and rocketships and Matthew McConaughey. And it turns out, that is it: in a near-future America, climate change is slowly shutting down farms. McConaughey is Cooper, a former astronaut turned farmer. We find that current textbooks claim that the Moon landings were faked to bankrupt the Soviet Union, so now we need to concentrate all our attention on Earth – not that it’s doing much good. This is all propaganda, as mysterious messages left by a “ghost” haunting his daughter lead him to a secret facility, run not by a shadowy secret cabal, but what is left of NASA (being run by Michael Caine, of course), operating in secret, trying to save the human race.

There is a wormhole near the orbit of Saturn that leads to another part of the galaxy (if not another galaxy altogether). Three expeditions have gone through this anomaly to find other planets suitable for us to move to, because the current one is dying. NASA wants Cooper to fly a new mission, the Endurance, to confirm the prior expeditions’ findings, and hopefully by the time a new planet is found, Caine will have solved “the riddle of gravity” and we can all play Oklahoma Land Rush on another world.

Here’s the problem: physics and relativity is a tricky thing, and Cooper will be leaving his son and daughter for years. There seems little choice, though, and Cooper agrees.

interstellar-movie-still-20The desire to stay consistent with current science runs throughout Interstellar, with helpful bursts of information along the way. Accompanied by Caine’s daughter, Dr. Brand (Anne Hathaway) and two others (David Gyasi and Wes Bentley), they first must take two years to get to Saturn, then have to deal with the hazards of alien planets and a black hole. This is scary, frontier stuff – the crew is on their own, and when bad choices are made, somebody can and will die. Even the sole survivor of one of the prior expeditions, Dr. Mann (Matt Damon) presents unfortunate complications of his own.

"We've made this spacecraft out of TARDISes - that may help."

“We’ve made this spacecraft out of TARDISes – that may help.”

Dealing with time dilation as a plot device hasn’t been used much in cinema; the only one I can really think of is the anime Gunbuster. I’m sure there’s more, but it’s a difficult concept to visualize in a way that doesn’t confuse or make viewers turn away in annoyance. Cooper watching archived video messages from his children, growing older without him, is very affecting.

Articulated machine to the rescue!

Articulated machine to the rescue!

You may ask, yes, but it’s science fiction, are there robots? Um, not really, what there is is two “articulated machines”, CASE and TARS, which have a fair range of artificial intelligence. They look like slabs of metal with a TV screen inserted, but can unfold in a variety of utilitarian forms. I was ready to hate them but quickly warmed to the concept. The fact that puppeteer Bill Irwin is behind them, doing his damndest to make simple geometric forms personable, probably helped.

interstellar-film-cooper-station-cylindrical-spinning-space-colonyThen the moment you’ve all been waiting for: to make it to the third planet, the damaged Endurance has to slingshot around that black hole, and Cooper sacrifices himself so Brand and the cargo of seed and frozen embryos can make it, and we finally come to our IMAX-mastered “trip” portion of Interstellar. Now, I know that this is Nolan doing Kubrick, and I was expecting to have my mind blown – and then it was blown in an entirely unexpected direction. I wasn’t entirely satisfied, but it did wrap up everything much more neatly than the climax of 2001 so there’s that.

Buy Interstellar on Amazon

martian posterThen I guess we have to forgive Matt Damon for all the trouble he caused in Interstellar so we can root for him in The Martian. This time around, he’s Mark Watney, an astronaut on a manned mission to Mars. A habitat has been set up, experiments are being conducted, when bad luck rears its ugly head: a freak windstorm far beyond the safety protocols aborts the mission and the astronauts struggle through a hurricane made of dirt clods and rocks to get to their launch vehicle. Watney is hit by debris from a communications tower, skewering him and his biometer. Receiving no life readings, he is presumed dead and left behind. The launch vehicle nearly doesn’t make it as it is.

Watney survives, though, and finds himself alone on Mars. After performing emergency surgery on himself, he sets to finding a way to survive. He does have the rations for a full six man crew, but that won’t last forever. Luckily, he’s a botanist, and he sets out to find a way to make potatoes grow in Martian soil.

damonnautSharp eyes on Earth eventually note that the Rover vehicle is moving about the surface of Mars on their satellite feeds, and various pieces of the survival story start arranging themselves; Watney’s potatoes start to grow. He finds ways to maximize the battery life on the Rover, and salvages a Pathfinder probe to set up communications with Earth. All the steps that are taken are so nerdy and so, as Watney puts it, “Sciencing the shit out of it,” that you cannot help but be swept along in the story, thrilled by the sheer ingenuity. The frantic work being done at NASA and the JPL, Watney’s own efforts, all these are beautiful examples of what heroism should be, along with the people who accidentally abandoned Watney, who have not been informed of his survival so as to keep their minds free from regret and second-guessing themselves on the trip back.

martian-gallery13-botanistA radical plan is hatched to rescue Watney, but it would mean that the returning astronauts would have to basically pull a U-turn around the Earth, capture a resupply vessel, and then head back to Mars, essentially spending another two years in space. And it is only with the slightest of hesitations that they agree.

Of course, nothing will go as planned, and some extreme measures have to be taken. This is probably why NASA couldn’t endorse The Martian, even though it is basically a love letter to the organization; there are too many bad ideas acted upon that put everybody in danger just to – once again – rescue Matt Damon.

the-martian-1024x1024-best-movies-of-2015-movie-matt-damon-6528I remember back during Blade Runner when director Ridley Scott said he wanted to become the John Ford of science fiction movies. What became of that, I wonder? Well, Prometheus aside – and I didn’t hate that quite as much as a lot of people did – it’s fine by me that he seems to be back on that track.

Having not read the source novel by Andy Weir, I can’t really say if the callbacks to earlier science fiction movies are actually there, or simple tricks of my nerd perception, even beyond the obvious comparisons with Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Watney manages to survive the breaching of his suit at the beginning by way of the very harshness of the environment, out of Journey to the Seventh Planet. Of course, his eventual escape vehicle must be lightened a la Destination Moon, and there is a bit of jiggery-pokery with improvised thrust in the vacuum of space also reminiscent of that old warhorse.  I was really beginning to expect It! The Terror from Beyond Space or at least a ratbatspider. But noooo, they had to keep on being realistic and rational.

Don’t care. Good movie. Hell of a cast. I understand people don’t like it. Don’t care. Go watch Expendables 19 or something. These guys – all of them, right here – these are my heroes. Simple solutions like guns and super punches are quick and satisfying, but largely inadequate for increasingly complicated problems in a world that is itself complexifying by the moment. We have more than enough heroes that can blow stuff up, we need to recognize the heroes we already have that can build and rebuild stuff, and do so, over and over.

We need heroes that can science the shit out of it.

Although, I will tell you one thing: if I am ever on a space mission with Matt Damon, I am not letting him anywhere near the airlocks.

Buy The Martian on Amazon

Extended Blurt

Sorry, everyone, but I am definitely still alive. A little more battered and beat up, but alive. This has to have been one of the most grueling Augusts ever, and I’m not just talking about the Texas heat. The frickin’ month isn’t over yet, but I do sense a light at the end of the tunnel. And then I take a moment to laugh at myself and my superstitious belief that bullshit will confine itself to an arbitrary chronological construct.

Let’s see, I think I told you I was working on two writing projects, one of which is actually paying me money at the moment, so that takes up a fair amount of my time. When I do get a couple of moments to rub together, I briefly contemplate whether to blog or watch a movie.

Hm. Blog entries take four hours or so. Let’s watch a movie instead!

Then the guilt sets in, and then I’m asked for another thousand words explaining what we’re doing in this project. Could we have that this evening, that would be good? And before you know it, another week has whizzed by.

My project’s not on the hotseat this week (so far). Football season started today, which means my wife is monopolizing the TV. So. Let’s reminisce.

devilbbCriterion recently released Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone and if there was ever a movie that deserved such treatment, boy, this is it. Rebounding from his studio manhandling with Mimic, del Toro’s third feature is a masterpiece of mature storytelling, ironically using children as his protagonists. If you’ve not yet seen it – and you should – it takes place in a boy’s orphanage during the Spanish Civil War, and its new arrival’s encounter with the ghost of a boy who supposedly ran away but was actually killed, his body hidden away in a forbidden part of the compound.

There is always a strong undercurrent of melancholy running through del Toro’s best work, and this is the movie where it solidifies and informs all characters and events. Though the orphanage is secluded, far away from the War, its reality is never far away, not the least because an unexploded bomb in the courtyard that serves as a constant reminder. The ghost is at once eerie and heartbreaking, and del Toro’s slow unfolding of what actually happened to him is gripping.

This can remind one of Pan’s Labyrinth quite a bit (and an eventual Criterion release of that seems a foregone conclusion), but that movie got a pretty wide release. I’m happy Devil’s Backbone is now out  on the market again, for those who missed it the first time around.

Then there was a looooong period – almost two weeks!  – where I didn’t get to watch anything. And what do I use to break the drought but the movie that almost killed Howard Hawks’ career, Land of the Pharaohs, which Warner Archive recently put back out.

land of the pharaohs 320x240Historical Spectacle films were all the rage in the 50s, so its only natural that Hawks should make one; this one takes place during the reign of Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who is obsessed with dying with all the toys and taking them with him. In his conquests, he has pillaged many tombs, and he seeks to build a pyramid that will more adequately guard his treasure vault.  Since he came close to losing his last campaign because of some cleverly engineered booby traps, he blackmails their creator (James Robertson Justice) to design his pyramid, with the freedom of his captive people as a reward. All this is made much more complicated by the arrival of a scheming woman (Joan Collins, barely 22 years old!) who becomes Khufu’s second wife, and who is plotting to get all that treasure for herself.

Annex - Collins, Joan (Land of the Pharoahs)_04Land of the Pharaohs was a commercial flop, which prompted Hawks to take several years off to travel Europe, until he returned and made Rio Bravo. The reasons for Land‘s failure are not readily apparent. Its plot is no more ridiculous and turgid than any other Spectacle film(even with a writing credit for William Faulkner), and in fact it has some clever twists and nice court intrigue. The money is all there on the screen, and Hawks deals with his crowd scenes beautifully. The triumphant return of Khufu and his army at the beginning, and the scenes of hundreds of men building the pyramid are breathtaking, and must have been moreso on the big screen.

It’s not like the movie came late in the cycle; The Ten Commandments opened the next year, and it did gangbusters at the box office. It could be pointed out that Land has no Biblical material, and therefore didn’t have that built-in draw. It’s probably more telling, however, that Hawks has no big-name stars to drape his story around. Hawkins was a credible performer whose career went back to 1930, Justice has undeniable presence and likewise had a healthy career, but neither man had any marquee value. This is Joan Collins’ tenth credited role, but her fame was definitely ahead of her. Unusually, there are very few instances of what one could call “Hawks Scenes” in evidence, character scenes with rat-a-tat dialogue. Maybe it was felt those would be too modern in tone.

I caught the end of Land of the Pharaohs some twenty years ago on late night TV, and it stuck with me long enough to get the disc when Warner offered it. While not a hidden gem, it is an entertaining movie. I don’t know what 1955 was thinking.

Then one evening I was all alone in the house, There was a thunderstorm threatening outside (but never arriving). So it was obviously time to watch the new Evil Dead.

evil-dead-remakeFirst, let me say I didn’t hate it. I just didn’t love it, either. I really appreciate the set-up: That our characters are at the secluded cabin to help one of them go cold turkey off drugs. That’s a breath of fresh air right there, and perfect for the early stages of Things Going Wrong, when no one believes her that bad things are in the offing.

I must admit that yes, once things get going, they are suitably intense and unpleasant, but this is also definitely an Evil Dead for the Saw generation – almost all the horror is based on acts of self-mutilation. There are a number of things that peg the “oh-come-on” meter (like the most incredibly sharp electric carving knife in the history of the world), but I also appreciated the shout-outs to the original movie. Also, star Jane Levy is a definite keeper. She does all the heavy lifting, and then some; she goes for the gusto. Decent horror movie, but I can see why it’s been so divisive to the fandom.

This was about the mid-point of August. One of my stories at the Day Job bungled into an ongoing feud between two offices and I was really sick of the continuous bullshit engendered in what has come to be known as “The Neverending Story”; so I took a day off and went to my pal Dave’s to watch movies far from the madding crowd.

grabbers-movie-posterGrabbers is a fun flick from Ireland that, once more, I would not have known existed had it not been for Internet movie critic Scott Weinberg.  The main story itself is not so original: a meteorite brings with it a bunch of hungry tentacled monsters that start mistaking the populace of a coastal island for a buffet table. Now, I really love monster movies that take place in an isolated locale: Island of Terror, Tremors, Monolith Monsters, and now I can add Grabbers to that list.

Here’s what makes this one unique: alcohol is toxic to the monsters, so everybody on the island has to get really drunk really fast. And still have to deal with bloodsucking alien octopodes. As Dave points out, as bad as the aliens in Signs had it, being allergic to water and then invading a planet that was three-quarters covered by the stuff, these beasties have it even worse because they can’t stand booze and they landed in Ireland. We will also quickly note that Dave is quite proud of his Irish heritage and kept nodding throughout, going, oh yeah, that’s right. Old Irish drunks will feck ya right oop.

Best of all, unlike Attack the Block, I didn’t have to turn on the subtitles to understand anybody.

Dave had a disc from Netflix he’d been sitting on a while: Superbad. He had gotten it so he could finally understand all the inside jokes on Reddit. However, “There’s no way in hell I’m watching this alone,” so in it went.

I think it is safe to say that I am not the target audience for Superbad; on top of that, I’m not even sure who the target audience actually is. Then, I watch a hell of a lot of movies that fit that descriptor, so what the hell. I will say that I enjoyed the McLovin, arc, where an uber-weedy little nerd with a fake ID finds himself riding with a pair of unconventional cops (one played by co-writer Seth Rogen), and I found the movie’s final scene in a mall unexpectedly bittersweet. But the rest of the time, I was reading comics on my iPad.

europa-report-posterWe finished up with Europa Report, a science-fiction movie that had been getting good word, and found it deserves every bit of it.  It’s the story of a manned flight to Jupiter’s moon, Europa; there is a power surge several months into the trip that fries the communication array, cutting off all contact with Earth, and the crew decides to go ahead with the mission anyway. There are more problems, even a fatality, along the way, but once they land, they find the initial reports were correct, there is a significant amount of liquid water with unusual heat sources under the moon’s ice. What’s more, there may be something moving under there.

Europa Report is in the found footage format, and before you start moaning and groaning, it ain’t Apollo whateveritwas. Most of the footage is from the ships internal cameras, and, really, it all makes quite a lot of sense. The science is fabulously hard, probably the best we’ve had in a space movie in some time. There’s a bunch of familiar faces here, too, like Sharlto Copley, Michael Nyqvist, Embeth Davditz and Daniel Wu. Very good, serious movie. I also haven’t seen a space movie with this much heart since Moon. Highly recommended.

We’re in the home stretch now, hold on. Last week I managed to get in one movie, and it was The Four, Gordon Chan and Janet Chun’s movie version of Wen Ruian’s novel The Four Detective Guards, and supposedly the first of a trilogy.  This is basically X-Men in a wuxia setting, which is interesting because what attracted me to wuxia in the first place was that it presented the best expression of super-powered people in action until recently.

TheFourSomebody is counterfeiting coins and causing a panic, and an elite police unit known as Department 6 finds there is another police force also investigating, called The Divine Constabulary, under orders of the Emperor himself. Led by the ever-reliable Anthony Wong, it’s this group that has the super powers, with names like Iron Hands, Coldblood and Life Snatcher. Our Professor X character (not Wong, surprisingly) is a young lady called Emotionless, confined to a wheelchair, but a powerful telepath and telekinetic.

The story gets off to a rocky start but soon finds its feet. At about the halfway point we got zombies, and the last twenty minutes or so has the big action scenes the viewer has been desperately wanting for most of the movie. It’s a fine finish, certainly good enough for me to look forward to the next installment.

Looking at my clock – yep, it’s been four hours, more or less. Now for another hour for pictures and YouTube clips, another hour of rewrites, and then I can finally face tomorrow unafraid.

Oh, yeah, fat chance of that.

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.