Sorry for the hiatus, 32 regular readers. I’ve been busy with the World Cup/ shenanigans.
The film’s focus is on maintaining order. John T. Chance (John Wayne) is middle management, the Sheriff of Presidio County, Texas. He arrests a murder suspect and does his best to keep the latter in a jail cell for six days when the Marhsall comes and takes the prisoner into a larger penitentiary. To have a John Wayne character have so much trust on slow government bureaucracy is a rare thing to watch. You’d just expect him to shoot the guy. But then again, he tries to convince the town that he can run the town by himself, so tough guy’s still there.
As Hawksian film go, the supporting characters do not believe that Chance can do it by himself. In an inspired human resources strategy, Chance reluctantly hires Dude (Dean Martin), a junior driven to alcoholism by a girl, Colorado Ryan, a young buck out to avenge his old master’s assassination and, unofficially, a histrionic ex-stripper named Feathers (Angie Dickinson). One of the main plots concern Chance’s relationship with Dude, the former not deriding the latter but actually hopes that Dude goes back to his old form. During the screening, I saw this team as the manifestation of old values, that it was easier to get a job or a second chance those days even for a drunk. Now I also realize that most of Chance’s associates asserted and fought for a place in his circle, definitely a capitalist move for those characters.
There’s a slight presence of music felt in “Rio Bravo” as in some classic Westerns. The characters in the sheriff’s office can hear the trumpets blaring the same tune played by the Mexicans who invaded the Alamo. Also and most importantly is Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson’s musical number. There are many readings of music sequences like this. To relieve tension before the final showdown. To show how civilized the sheriff/hero is. To show a growing culture in the early days of America. All of those apply to “Rio Bravo.”
This film might also be the gayest John Wayne will ever be in front of the camera. Howard Hawks is all about the bromance, after all, and John Wayne has that sense of humour about himself that nobody expects. Almost trying on red pantyhose while Feathers walks in. Kissing his crippled jail guard in the forehead. Dude being jealous, thinking Chance has replaced him with a younger gun. Making the most beautiful woman in the world wait for Chance while he’s ‘stuck at work.’ Gay. In a more serious note, Chance is a character with a homosocial bond with his fragile deputy, treating the latter like a son, which is exactly what both need and they won’t shy away from that.
There’s also Feathers as a character, who is superficially more of a whore than a mother, but she’s more complex than that. For contrast, a man in “Rio Bravo” are carte blanche. One man is wronged by a woman while another is somebody’s son, but there’s no real history of the man beyond that. They might as well be born in and by the desert. Feathers, on the other hand has traversed from city to city, from being a gambling accomplice to singing songs in her stockings. She came from somewhere, has a deeper past, the bearer and mother of old America’s past sins. Yet she came to Presidio to eventually settle down and fortunately found a man willing to overlook her past. She’s shocked and even mad at him for overlooking the fact that she’s ‘that kind of woman.’ He likes you for who you are, girl, just take him. And yes, the age difference is kinda unrealistically creepy, but they eventually find a compromise.
Rio Bravo is showing on AMC at July 1 and 2, but don’t worry, I’ll remind you again.
Remember when John Wayne was hot?
With him is a prostitute, an alcoholic doctor, a whiskey peddler, a soldier’s wife, a Confederate gambler, and a banker. That’s pretty much a capsule representing The West, all of whom are stuck with each other in the titular “Stagecoach.”
I wanna focus on the female characters in this movie. There’s Mrs. Mallory, a woman who I decided to like because of her complexity, but boy was it hard to like her. Her determination is admirable as she goes on a suicide mission to see her husband deep in the West where the Americans and the Apache are in war. Also, the film shows her worry about her husband while upping the bitchy treatment towards Dallas the prostitute (Claire Trevor). Some of us may excuse her condescending attitude to Southern breeding, but she already decided to ride the coach with Dallas. Would it hurt if she was two places away from her on the dining table? Besides, I’ve always preferred the whore over the virgin because the former juggles love, compulsion and loyalty while the latter is disgruntled like Mallory is sometimes. What made me turn around to liking her is seeing these two separate emotions and states of mind switch within seconds and still the same person, a woman having to deal with a volatile environment while learning more about herself.
Dallas is a more straightforward character, deeply affected by societal rejection. Besides, if the Ringo kid (John Wayne) likes her we must follow suit. The film also drops the bomb that she’s an orphan, something that she and Ringo have in common. Like Mallory, she gets a little bitchy towards Ringo because she doesn’t deserve him, she’ll just end up breaking her own heart.
I don’t even know why I’m questioning if they’re great characters or not, since they both have one problem atop another and both use meanness as a crutch. Maybe having those problems are a surefire way for us to like them despite their flaws. Or perhaps we get to know their past as a way of compression and to balance out the growing up that they have to do in a short time. Does having one problem after another equal nuance? Sure. Happens to male characters all the time. They’re the best written women in the John Ford movies or even better than half of the female characters written then and now.
I also wanna talk about how the movie looks. It’s visually uneventful and even badly acted in the beginning, and the burned stagecoach stop could have had more gravitas, but we get a zoom towards Ringo and it’s one good shot and moment after another. Documentary-like shots of the horses dipping across a river, Hatfield the Southerner (John Carradine) pointing the gun at Mallory’s head in slow motion, the light on Ringo and Dallas capturing the romance and the fear. Orson Welles apparently said that all he needed to follow the shot schemes at “Stagecoach” for “Citizen Kane,” but I saw the John Ford film as a precedent for “Touch of Evil,” the chiaroscuro and speed in both films capturing the chaos and violence of the time.
I love watching people in movies who are past their prime. Not like Meryl who gets offered roles like she’s still in her thirties, not that there’s anything wrong with that. The characters I am talking about are old and will not shut up about it. “I’m John Wayne, I’m old and I have cancer, make sex with me!” Lauren Bacall, who pretty much takes Wayne in as her second movie-husband, ain’t having none of it.
Surprisingly John Wayne comes off as a benevolent figure in “The Shootist,” when he retreats to Carson City and wants to go out without an elegy. He’s a cowboy with the same practiced drawl, and we can’t take that away from him. He can go from hot to realist to sensitive father to psycho to now this, a man who wants to be left alone without being misanthropic.
Since other amateur shootists will not leave him alone, he decides to leave the world with a five man seppuku. SPOILER, he invites three other shootists to a saloon, a less claustrophobic version of the run down taverns in the Old West. This rub out is happening in 1901 after all, not 1871. We might think that he wants to test the three at who is deserving to take out the big man himself. But none of these guys fit the bill, he eventually outlives these guys by a few seconds. He’s gonna die and take four with him (three a bartender who, by traditionalist creeds, is a bad agent in society). His purgation of the bad elements in the burgeoning Carson City is his dying wish and gift to his Christian landlady, Bond (Lauren Bacall).