Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Rio Bravo by Hawks, Schickel and Carpenter

I don't know if Rio Bravo is Howard Hawks’ best film or if I would call it the best film ever made - even though it deserves to be up there with Citizen Kane and Vertigo - but it's great and it deserves close analysis, and for this, the Warner Home Video – Ultimate Collector’s Edition of Rio Bravo is a great resource: it comes in a nice two-disc cardboard box set that includes in two separate sleeves eight vintage-style lobby cards, a reproduction of the Rio Bravo comic book (Dell Comics), and a pamphlet with vintage Rio Bravo posters as well as exploitation tips. The special features on the DVDs include a commentary by Richard Schickel and John Carpenter, movie trailers for several John Wayne pictures, and the documentaries The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks, Commemoration: Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo and Old Tucson: Where the Legends Walked.

Schickel’s documentary The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks is a good introduction to Hawks' career and it includes rare footage of Hawks late in his life, where he's still looking as cool as ever, with a cowboy hat and glasses, as he joins his teenage grandson to watch him motor race.

“The French have been very kind to me,” says Hawks, “they attribute a lot of things to me, that I have no thought about.” He chuckles, “I don’t do the analysis that you guys do” (cf. Comolli on Sergeant York, Rohmer on The Big Sky). Hawks instead opts for straightforwardness to discuss his career and brings up the transition to sound at the dawn of the talkies, early special effects, the cross-talk of overlapping dialogue, fostering a creative atmosphere on his sets, and that “you don’t have to be too logical, you just have to make five to six good scenes.”

It's a shame that the earliest film discussed is The Dawn Patrol ('38) because this omits Hawks’ great silent films like Fig Leaves, Paid to Love and A Girl in Every Port (cf. Langlois on Hawks). But instead it focuses more on Hawks' middle to later career as it situates the films in an adventure (Scarface) and comedy (Twentieth Century) dichotomy. The documentary is full of interesting remarks like how Red River is said to be his John Ford film (which recalls the Hawks' quote, "I learned right in the beginning from Jack Ford, and I learned what not to do by watching Cecil DeMille.") and Hawks speaks about why he made Rio Bravo, “I didn’t like High Noon. It's ridiculous, the man is not a professional.”

Joseph McBride, in Hawks on Hawks, would write about the Hawksian professional,
“Hawks’s films almost always deal with a tightly knit group of professionals trying to perform a difficult task together while upholding their own rigorously defined code of conduct. Whether they are gunfighters, aviators, hunters, detectives, newspapermen, or scientists, Hawks’s people function in a self-enclosed society in which the standards of personal conduct are professional skill, group loyalty, and self-respect. The highest accolade one Hawks character can pay to another is “You did a good job,” and the worst thing one can say of another is “He just wasn’t good enough.”"
Even though some film critics claim that Hawks' films Only Angels Have Wings, To Have and Have Not and Rio Bravo form a "clear trilogy" on the basis that they have a similar structure and share the same screenwriter Jules Furthman; I'm skeptical of this because many of Hawks' other films share this structure as they are routinely about a small group of ordinary men who perform actions of bravery under the extraordinary circumstance of being threatened by external forces. There is the crew in the outpost in The Thing, the writers that are held hostage in Balls of Fire, the aviation plane in Air Force, the boat in The Big Sky, and the racing club in Red Line 7000 to only name a few examples.
The filmmaker John Carpenter elaborates about the motif of the contingent group under siege in the films of Hawks,
"It's endlessly fascinating. I mean, that's life. It's amazing to watch how people interact with each other under stress and in joy. So it's endlessly fascinating and endless in the number of stories, it seems to me, about people and how they respond to the environment they're in; whether they're in love or whether they're in hate, or whether they're in trouble, or whatever.
Carpenter also elaborates on his admiration for Hawks, from the same interview in The Cinema of John Carpenter: The Technique of Terror,
"Howard Hawks to me personally was the greatest director because he made a great movie in every genre. He did musicals, he did gangster movies, he did westerns, he did comedies. He moved with ease through these different genres. But what he brings to it is his own personal vision of the world, his own personal concerns with people, with actors. He's a very deeply personal filmmaker who worked with genres. That's what inspires me about him"
For a long time Carpenter was a Cahiers du Cinéma favorite (along with Romero, Cronenberg, and Argento) and their affinity towards him culminated in a lengthy interview with Nicolas Saada about his entire career, but which continued onward with Stéphane Delorme who wrote a rave review of Ghost of Mars ('01). But since Ghost of Mars, there was nine years that passed before his next film, The Ward ('10), which was received with ambivalent to poor responses.

So in this recent period Carpenter has been neglected and his films from the past have also been unfairly neglected. But luckily there has been more talk about Carpenter recently, most notably from the Vulgar Auteurist, but also in Jason Zinoman's book about American Seventies horror films Shock Value, and The Seventh Art recently blogged about the documentary John Carpenter: Fear Is Just The Beginning... ('04).
In the introduction to The Technique of Terror, Ian Conrich and David Woods situate Carpenter,
"Moreover, he is part of the group of filmmakers who emerged in the early to mid-1970s, the new wave of Hollywood renaissance of post-classical directors who were both self-taught and film-school educated. Crucially, such filmmakers were familiar with the work of their peers and of the saturated style of Hollywood's system of genre production. Working within a deregulated American movie industry, filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas have exploited the medium's commercial opportunities to make productions that have defined contemporary film and marked key transitions in American mainstream and art-house cinema. Others such as John Cassavetes, John Sayles and Robert Altman have been celebrated for their independence and heightened storytelling abilities. Carpenter, like Brian de Palma, is different; both being noted for their stylish re-interpretations of, and open homages to, directors of classical Hollywood (primarily Hawks and Hitchcock) as well as for their reliance on genre patterns of filmmaking. Both filmmakers have crafted astonishingly creative films, but in an age in which studios are increasingly driven towards high concept productions, there appears less of a desire for companies to accommodate the idiosyncratic nature of an independent director."
It is this connection between Carpenter and Hawks that I would like to further highlight.

Carpenter made several note-worthy student films at USC that led him to get funding to make his hippie science-fiction film Dark Star whose success let him go on to make one of his best films, Assault on Precinct 13, which is about a group of policemen that are under siege by local thugs in an abandoned Los Angeles precinct. Like many of Carpenter subsequent films, Assault asks questions about the role of violence in society and ways that it is expressed and controlled.

This structure of a group under siege, which is an ode to Rio Bravo, would be used by Carpenter in many of his other films. There are the Snake Plissken films starring Kurt Russell (Escape from New York & L.A.) as well as Ghost of Mars and Prince of Darkness. These latter films are already taking the fright of violence and pushing it towards the supernatural horror, which achieves an aesthetic climax for Carpenter with The Fog and Village of the Damned, but which is already there in The Thing, whose direct inspiration is Hawks' The Thing (a film that Carpenter speaks very highly of, which he discovered as a child). There are also some similarities between Vampires and Hatari! as they are both about the hunt for a rare and dangerous target.

Regarding Carpenter's comments about people and groups under siege, what actually interests him about the setting is the people, their character, and their inter-relational dynamics. It is not the face of evil that interest Carpenter but regular peoples responding to it, how they deal with this threat, and how they stand up for themselves. The bonds of friendship that are so important for Carpenter is what really connects him to Hawks and not so much the surface similarities that the two share. When Natasha Henstridge and Ice Cube reunite at the end of Ghost of Mars it is the celebration of the platonic friendship that is on display, which recalls Hawks' remarks about A Girl in Every Port, "This was the beginning of a relationship I have used in a number of picture. It's really a love story between two men." But for Carpenter by having the women as the character in power he's reacting to the male-centrism of Hawks (and of some of his own films), critiquing it, and offering a solution, which he would push further in The Ward.
It is these kind of connections that would have been great to hear about from Carpenter and Schickel on the lengthy Rio Bravo audio commentary instead of only casual observations mixed with immediate responses. The commentaries shift from Carpenter to Schickel, which make it hard to distinguish who exactly is talking, and even though it's never addressed if they recorded the commentary together, one gets a sense of two Hawksian friends bonding over a subject of mutual interest. As it progresses they talk less, and there are several extended quiet passages, which allow for the watching of the scene in full, and that are sometimes intercut with brief laughter.

The following is a paraphrasing and quotations of the highlights from the Carpenter and Schickel audio commentary:

Rio Bravo is “one of Hawk’s last great films,” posits Schickel, and he would go on to explain why, “It’s about more than just a western.” Hawks was a film industry veteran by the time he made it and he knew what worked. Its leisurely pace was a response to the fast pace of the television sitcoms of the period. This is why in Rio Bravo there are a lot of scenes of people just standing around and talking, these scenes are also used as bridges between the action scenes. The musical interlude was another standard of the movies of the period. As Schickel succinctly puts it, Hawks is a minimalist anecdotalist. 

There is a lot to say about Wayne in the film: he plays a heightened version of himself in an acting style that would only be appreciated after the fact. He knew his limits and the responses people had towards his anger (“The silence of the patriarch is always a good weapon in the hands of John Wayne”) but he had a good sense of humor about it. Wayne’s cowboy hat is the same one that he has been wearing in the movies since Stagecoach and he is wearing a Red River brand belt. There is real chemistry between Wayne and Angie Dickinson, and the scene where he carries her upstairs after he finds her sleeping on a chair, says all there needs to be said about his feelings towards her. Dickinson would make her mark with this picture with her great performance as a Hawksian woman, which are famous for setting their own moral standard. Dean Martin just got off from working with Jerry Lewis and did some serious work in a few films like Rio Bravo and Some Came Running. Walter Brennen, a long time Hawks collaborator (Come and Get It), who plays stumpy is like the bickering wife figure that was so prominent in the television sitcoms of the time. Ricky Nelson, who at the time had a big teen following, gives a nice cool performance and it was Nelson’s father who was Hawks’ friend that got him the job. The character actor Pedro Gonzales Gonzales's “painful ethnic humor" is a little patronizing but "is a stereotypical western character of the time."

Carpenter begins on a high note: Rio Bravo “is one of my favorite movies of all time” and Hawks “is my favorite director.” Hawks is a director whose camera is always at the right place at the right time and he always knows where to set the camera, and there is a moral quality to its gaze. Regarding the filmmaking: “One of the strangest opening sequences” as it is all silent and it can be seen as a return to the silent cinema that started Hawks' career. Carpenter speaks eloquently about the lateral tracking shot of Wayne and Martin walking down the street with the tumble weed going past them connecting them together. Carpenter also wonders if there was an influence by some Japanesse films like Yojimbo.

Rio Bravo is an adventure film about characters who define themselves by their professions and the depth of it comes from how these actions have emotional consequence. The love between men is a major theme that runs through Hawks' films. But Rio Bravo is also a romantic comedy but that proceeds through anti-romantic scenes of the two principals fighting together. In a Hawks movie, the male is always befuddled by the female. He compliments Wayne as the sheriff, “not Shakespearian, but who can spin like that,” and talks about the simplicity of Chance’s philosophy.

“Nobody does it like Hawks, Nobody does it today like Hawks, I don’t think that they can.”  Hawks was a “straight-forward director, unlike Ford, who was more poetic.” He was more like an engineer who is clear, simple, direct and thoughtful. Regarding the Nathan Burdette subplot "it is a little perfunctory" as the story is "more about what's going on between the lines." Rio Bravo concludes with Wayne finally getting together with Dickinson while the two other sheriffs Martin and Brennen are walking on the street happily bickering, which they will continue to do for a long time afterwards.

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