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Archive for the ‘Arthur Hunnicutt’ Category

Distant Drums

23 Jun

Distant Drums – directed by Raoul Walsh. Historical Adventure. A lone settler heads a raid on a Florida fort, then leads his men back to safety. 101 minutes Color 1951.

★★★★

How did Max Steiner get a symphony orchestra into the Everglades! Oh, those Seminoles, they sure take a beating from him, as do we watching this very watchable, if over-scored, Raoul Walsh action/adventure story. Actually it’s incorrect to call Walsh’s films action/adventure, when many of them are, and when he is at his best, are tales of a journey. Up into the high Sierras in High Sierra. Through the Burmese jungle in Objective Burma. Across the Oregon wilderness in what to my mind is the greatest Western ever made, The Big Trail. For some years his films were being scored by Max Steiner and filmed by Sid Hickox, and, I always feel that both of them diminish them through overloading the color. But it is also true that Walsh by now took less trouble with the scripts; the stories and dialogue tend to the banal, and Hickox and Steiner may have just been trying to jack them up. Walsh always tells a story superbly; that’s not the question; the question is how good is the story? And then thee is Gary Cooper. I don’t like Gary Cooper. There is something phony about him. He is an actor incapable of an emphasis. I almost asked Patrician Neal once, “How could you fall in love with such a bad actor?” but at the time the lady was smitten, and that counts for a lot that doesn’t count. I watch Cooper to see if I believe him. And in this film I pretty much do. I believe he has an ear cocked for those sly Seminoles, although the costumer has them tricked up in such gaudy war paint and deer skin, you could hardly miss them. I believe his thought processes. I believe there is an inherent morality playing in him. I believe in his stalwartness, his pertinacity. I don’t believe the faces he makes, that curling down of his lower lip and that balance of his voice with his lines, which I also believe coming from him, which, considering their utilitarian nature, do demand no more than the slightest life lest they be betrayed as having so little. And this he has to give: he is an actor without temperament, of course. I believe in his masculinity. I believe in his slightly bow-legged stride. I believe in his command – which the other characters have to believe in too in order to follow him with the gaitors and cotton-mouths slithering after them. I believe in the role he plays, but not the character. He is the sort of actor males in the audience would like to be one day, and wake up when old to realize they have failed to become. Perhaps. What we know of Cooper is that he was a consummate lothario, was vain, and never would play a character who died at the end. I do not believe what others believe about him, but I can understand why others do. In real life a voluble talker, in film, though,laconic and quiet, to me he is so soft spoken he is odd. Here he is not young but he still has his fine slim figure, and he is photographed so the bags under his eyes don’t show. He is a great star because males and females equally want to carry his arms or be in his arms. He looks good, but he is good looking in a way that does not interest me. And he is American in a way that does not interest me. That is to say aloof. Even disdainful. A loner it is called. Someone who never asks for directions. He never played a part opposite a character more noble than himself. And he very often wastes the other actors’ time and cues by hemming and hawing and making cute. However, in this film, despite that you know he going to survive (for he always does), you do believe in his sense of peril, the fear and necessity that motivate him, his urgency of the story – which Walsh tells with unerring economy as usual – and right in the Everglades itself, at Silver Springs, and into the astonishing ruins of Castillo San Marcos. The qualities that define a star shine on a list that is never complete, but one thing all of them have, which is that they all belong up there in those huge moving photographs of them. Like him or not, Cooper belonged there.

 

Rio Lobo

29 Oct

Rio Lobo — Directed by Howard Hawks. Western. In tracking down a Civil War traitor, a man rescues the water rights from an evil land baron. 114 minutes Color 1970.

* * * * *

In Hollywood screenplays, big male movie stars never die. Instead they go on to make another film exactly like the one before, such as El Dorado and Rio Lobo – except there is a noticeable decline in the supporting players. Here we have an avenger quartet as before, except John Wayne no longer has Robert Mitchum or Dean Martin as his chums, nor does he have, as the boy, Ricky Nelson or James Caan. And once again Hawks has failed to manufacture an insolently sexy leading lady out of a newcomer. I guess there was to be only one Lauren Bacall. Here he breaks up that character into several parts and they all crumble. Ann Sheridan, Claire Trevor to the rescue! But no. Every piece of casting a subtraction, with the exception of Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brenan role, who is better than ever. The established lack of threat to these big male stars routinizes these films, and no matter how much sweat they break  you know there is no danger to them. So there is no real story tension, and there is no real tension in the playing either. John Wayne is a grand master actor at this point. At 64 he is playing the part of a 30 year old. He is so aged in the wood you have to set aside the tropes of the Western medium as a sort of high kabuki rigmarole, a ritual in itself designed not to induce terror or sympathy, but rather a formal gesture meant to reveal the style and the humor and the humanity and the wisdom of the grand master himself, and these three films surely do that. Whatever Wayne’s politics were at the time, they have detached from him, and he stands clear and plain now like a cowboy in a Remington, a work of art after all. With the voice of a corral gate opening, the slit eyes of country-man, a face like an old saddlebag, and the rueful humor of a hand who has survived age itself, Wayne stands forth as one of the great entertainers, closer in tone to Will Rogers than to Randolph Scott. In this film he lands all his wise cracks, and also each punch. Indeed, over and over again, it takes only one Wayne punch to the jaw of a villain to deconstruct him forever. Down they go never to rise. These triumphs are feasted with swigs of whisky, as the next plot – I won’t call it twist – but 45 degree angle arrives. Wayne’s audience at this stage of his career is seeing a nostalgia. Much like the raving middle-aged fans of a pop singer who is no longer exciting, they palimpsest the performance before them with the 23 year old in white deerskin in The Big Trail of 1931 and the Ringo Kid of Stagecoach of 1939. Those beautiful young men have never aged and neither therefore has the audience. Wayne’s performance here is relaxed to the point of irony, as he sees the joke in his doing all this one more time. Indeed, certain scenes of this film he himself directed, since Hawks himself lay back in his hammock. Wayne still drives every scene with stalwart magnificence, a feat he accomplishes it would seems without lifting a finger – and there are some good scenes here for him – the return of the young man’s body to his parents’ farm, for one.  But Hawks did not lay back in the direction of the extraordinary opening sequence of the picture, which involved the witty and complex and never-before seen robbery of a runaway caboose. If not a runaway one, Rio Lobo is itself a caboose, for it was the last film the famed director  – His Gal Friday, Bringing Up Baby, Red River, To Have and To Have Not, Twentieth Century, The Big Sleep – ever made.

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El Dorado

29 Oct

El Dorado – Directed and  Produced by Howard Hawks. Western. A quartet of gunfighters duels with the hired guns of a land baron out to rob a farmer’s water rights.  126 minutes Color 1967.

* * *

Hawks made four westerns with John Wayne, of which this is the third; it is also the next to last film Hawks made, and it copy-cats, embarrassingly, the two that surround it. The movie dawdles along rather existentially from episode to episode like a local that stops at every cow, but this provides part of its entertainment value. It might have been better directed by George Marshall (Destry Rides Again), but the real problem with the picture is in the casting. The film is a by-blow of Rio Bravo, the first film of the last three, and we have Arthur Hunnicutt in the Walter Brennan part and Robert Mitchum in the Dean Martin part. Hunnicutt does an honorable job but he cannot supply the deficiency of the brilliant Brennan, and Robert Mitchum as the drunken sheriff is a dead loss in the Martin role. Mitchum can’t act and never could, really. His self-possession is a pose. And he does not have a funny bone in his body, at least as an actor. Dean Martin was a warm and richly humorous man and along with Walter Brennan brought the natural humanity necessary to make Rio Bravo work to make it one of the classic maverick westerns. Here, however, we have the same set-up as Rio Bravo, with James Caan, a Hawks’ discovery, filling in the foursome for Ricky Nelson. Caan with his broad square shoulders looks terrific in his costumes, and you believe he can throw knives – thwack– like that – and handle cards at a gambler’s table. He’s just fine. He’s young and lush and virginal and a good mosquito to pester big man John Wayne. Wayne is just marvelous in the picture. He carefully listens to the other actors and his responses are always on the money. He has a habit of subtly shifting and swaying, which keeps him or a scene from going static. And he has a rich and humane humor. And what a presence! Of course, he never could kiss a woman worth a hoot, but the women in Hawks’ films at this time are pallid or perfunctory. Hawks’ sets were relaxed and cooperative, which gives his films a permissiveness which sometimes lapses into slumber. With the help of the entire crew, Hawks tended to rewrite his scripts every day, so, while he worked best with huge stars, they also had to be, like John Wayne, quick studies. Hawks had made Wayne a serious actor in Red River (John Ford never knew Wayne could act at all until then), so Wayne would accept Hawks’ hiring him with no script at all, as in Hatari; Wayne sat around and played chess. Leigh Brackett again contorted herself to write the screenplay, and Arthur Rosson, of Hawks’ silent film days, filmed it richly. The costumes by Edith Head encourage a willing suspension of belief, however, and the music would be ideal for a Peter Sellers’ comedy – but then, the film is an entertainment pure and simple, closer to a slowmotion Roadrunner cartoon than not, and satisfying on that level, if that level satisfies you. The value is the value of a superstar with all the merit in display that made him one.

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