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Monthly Archives: February 2013

Red River (Aug. 26, 1948)

Red River
Red River (1948)
Directed by Howard Hawks
United Artists

Howard Hawks shot Red River in 1946, but its release was delayed due to legal difficulties. The eccentric Howard Hughes contended that parts of Red River were taken from his “lust in the dust” western The Outlaw (1943), which starred Jane Russell and her magnificent breasts.

Anyone who’s seen both Red River and The Outlaw can tell you that any claim of story infringement is spurious, but there was bad blood between Hughes and Hawks (Hawks had worked on The Outlaw as an uncredited co-director), and it took until August 26, 1948, before Red River finally had its premiere.

So while Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948) was the film that introduced many moviegoers to Montgomery Clift, Red River was his first acting role in a feature film.

Clift was a born movie star. He was achingly handsome, rail-thin, and blessed with a uniquely vulnerable type of masculinity. On screen, he had a presence that seemed completely natural. Red River is a phenomenal western that works on a number of different levels, but one of its most important aspects is the relationship between Clift and the film’s star, John Wayne.

Wayne and Clift were on opposite ends of the spectrum in every way imaginable; politically, professionally, physically, and sexually. But it’s this contrast that makes Red River work so well.

Wayne and Clift

Red River is the story of a cattle drive along the Chisholm Trail up from Texas. Thomas Dunson (John Wayne) is a big, tough cattleman who took his land by force.

When Dunson was first establishing his grazing land with his best friend Nadine Groot (Walter Brennan), the woman Dunson loved (Coleen Gray) was murdered by Comanches, and he never loved another.

The sole survivor of the massacre, a young man named Matt Garth (played as a boy by Mickey Kuhn) came wandering through the land, leading a cow. Dunson’s bull mated with Garth’s cow, and from this union eventually grew a herd of more than 10,000 longhorns.*

Fourteen years pass, and Garth grows up, now played by Montgomery Clift. The Civil War has ended, and Dunson is no longer able to sell beeves to the impoverished southern states. He decides that he’ll drive his entire herd north to Missouri, where they’ll fetch a fortune. He’s spent his life building his empire, and he wants to pass it down to Matt Garth, his protégé.

The only problem is that Dunson’s greatest strength — his unbending will — is also his greatest weakness, which eventually puts him at loggerheads with the more even-tempered and empathetic Garth.

John Wayne and Montgomery Clift

Borden Chase, who wrote the Saturday Evening Post story on which Red River was based (as well as the screenplay for the film with Charles Schnee), drew liberally from Mutiny on the Bounty in crafting his story.

Despite the fact that his middle name was “Winchester,” this was Howard Hawks’s first directorial credit for a western, which is remarkable considering he’d been directing films since the 1920s and had more than one masterpiece under his belt.

In addition to his own estimable talents as a director, Hawks had some of the finest crew members who ever worked on a Hollywood western when he made Red River. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s score is epic. Editor Christian Nyby’s cutting drives the film forward with relentless intensity. And cinematographer Russell Harlan had toiled away for years working on B pictures (mostly westerns) before finally breaking into A pictures with Lewis Milestone’s war movie A Walk in the Sun (1945). He went on to become one of the best cinematographers in the business, and his work on Red River is proof.

Red River is one of the greatest westerns ever made. As I said above, it works on a number of different levels. At its most basic level, Red River is a rousing adventure film about men on a dangerous mission, struggling against the elements and against each other. But on a deeper level, it’s a timeless myth about fathers and sons.

Red River will be shown on TCM this Friday, March 1, 2013, at 10:15 PM ET.

*If you’re a fan of sexual innuendo in old movies, the scene in Red River in which Matt Garth and gunslinger Cherry Valance (John Ireland) compare revolvers is a classic. Many see a gay subtext, which could be there, but gay men hardly have a monopoly on comparing phalluses to see whose is bigger. I think the sexual bonding between men in Red River goes much deeper. Remember that the herd being driven up the Chisholm Trail in Red River are all descended from the union between John Wayne’s bull and Montgomery Clift’s cow. Even though Dunson and Garth are not blood relations, they are bound together.

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Pitfall (Aug. 24, 1948)

PitfallOne man’s domestic bliss is another man’s prison.

John Forbes (Dick Powell) has what some men only dream of — a home; a steady job with the Olympic Mutual Insurance Company; an attractive, intelligent, and loving wife (Jane Wyatt); and a son (Jimmy Hunt) who thinks his dad is the greatest guy in the world.

And yet, he’s dissatisfied. It’s a formless sort of dissatisfaction. He grumbles about how fast his son Tommy outgrows his shoes. He tells his wife Sue that the world won’t end if he doesn’t show up at his desk every morning at 9 o’clock. He asks Sue what became of those two young kids they were … the two young kids who were going to build a boat and sail around the world.

As Sue drives him to work he tells her, “Sometimes I get to feel like a wheel within a wheel within a wheel.”

“You and fifty million others,” she responds.

“I don’t want to be like fifty million others,” he says.

“But you’re John Forbes, average American, backbone of the country,” she says with a smile.

“I don’t want to be an average American, backbone of the country. I want somebody else to be the backbone and hold me up.”

Later that day — a day shaping up to be like any other — he goes to the apartment of Miss Mona Stevens (Lizabeth Scott), a beautiful but world-weary blonde who received gifts from a man convicted of embezzling.

It’s just part of his job. He doesn’t care one way or the other that one of the gifts he’s recovering is an engagement ring. But Mona sees right through him, and tells him, “You’re a little man with a briefcase. You go to work every morning and you do as you’re told.”

Her words get to him, and he softens towards her. They share a few afternoon drinks in a dark cocktail lounge. They go boating. And he never once mentions his wife or son.

Scott Powell and BurrOne thing I loved about Pitfall is that its characters are real adult people leading real adult lives. They’re not overblown film-noir caricatures, and their actions all have realistic consequences.

Mona is not a femme fatale who sees in John Forbes an easy mark. Aside from being unusually attractive, she’s an average woman who hates that she was involved with a man who was not only stupid enough to embezzle money to spend on her, but stupid enough to get caught. And she gets involved with John Forbes not because she has a dastardly scheme, but because he’s kind to her and she thinks he’s a decent guy. (Mona Stevens has a lot more in common with Ann Sheridan’s character in Nora Prentiss than she does with Barbara Stanwyck’s character in Double Indemnity.)

But Pitfall is not just a tale of marital infidelity and post-war suburban malaise, it’s a noirish thriller, which means there are some nasty surprises lurking.

One of them takes the form of the angry loser who embezzled for love of Mona — Bill Smiley (Byron Barr), whose prison term is nearing an end. The other takes the hulking form of a creepy private detective who is obsessed with Mona — J.B. “Mac” MacDonald (Raymond Burr).

Pitfall has all the ingredients of a great film noir, but director André de Toth mixes them together in interesting ways, and avoids over-the-top contrivances. Cinematographer Harry J. Wild’s solid but unpretentious shots of Los Angeles anchor the film, the actors all deliver really good performances, and Karl Kamb’s screenplay (based on Jay Dratler’s novel The Pitfall) is full of wit and intelligence.