Red River (1948)

"I didn't know the big son of a bitch could act!"
- John Ford on John Wayne

Howard Hawks' Red River - a psychological Western with a distinctly Oedipal twist - is often talked about as an early example of the Classic Hollywood school of acting encountering the young upstarts of the Method, with John Wayne's on-the-horse/off-the-horse style squaring up to Monty Clift's soulful sensitivity drawn from personal experience.

That's certainly one interesting aspect of the film - Clift providing quite a contrast to the practiced genre playing of Wayne and Walter Brennan - but it's less often remarked quite what a phenomenal undertaking the production was. As with Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982), the cast and crew found themselves forced to live their story, leading a giant herd of cattle along the arduous Chisholm Trail while loaded with costumes and kit and toiling away in baking temperatures and only limited shade. The end more than justifies the means, however, with Hawks conjuring up a truly immersive experience for his audience, taking us into the fray by placing a camera in the rear of a covered wagon as the group wades across a high river and casting us among the fleeing cattle during a standout stampede* sequence.

The plot, adapted by Borden Chase and Charles Schnee from the former's Saturday Evening Post yarn, concerns Wayne's Tom Dunson, who stakes his claim on Texas soil in 1851 and builds a major beef empire after his girlfriend is butchered by Indians when a wagon train she is part of is attacked. Dunson adopts the only survivor of that atrocity, Matthew Garth (Mickey Kuhn), and raises him as a son with help from his old confidante Groot (Brennan). 15 years later, the Lone Star State is impoverished in the aftermath of the Civil War and Dunson needs to sell his herd to keep the business afloat. Setting off on the 1,000 mile trek to Missouri, Dunson and his men soon suffer terrible hardship, weakened by bad coffee and short rations. Dunson himself becomes tyrannical and obsessive in the best spirit of Captains Blye and Ahab, forcing the adult Garth (Clift) to intervene and overthrow him, diverting the cattle drivers east towards Abilene, Kansas, where the new railroad has just hit town. Dunson, maimed, swears revenge.

But Garth's coup is much more than a dramatic plot turn. For Red River is really a critique of posturing alpha male masculinity, offering us Garth the thoughtful, feminised consensus-seeker as an alternative to Dunson's unchecked and wrong-headed machismo and aggression.

As with other tough guy stars of the 1940s, Big Duke Wayne found post-war America ready for a more nuanced and complicated hero and more open to questioning the action man exploits he had previously thrived on following six long years of global conflict. Bogie would become Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny (1954), Bob Mitchum a murderous preacher in The Night Of The Hunter (1955) and even loveable Jimmy Stewart a tortured neurotic in Vertigo (1958).

Wayne's Tom Dunson, a forerunner to the borderline psychotic Ethan Edwards of The Searchers (1956), is sidelined by Garth, however reluctantly, because his macho management style has bred an unhappy camp where morale is low and dissent rife. Dunson, white haired and covered in trail dust, looks like a phantom, his brutal, militaristic instincts having finally led him astray and rendered him obsolete. Garth, the Fletcher Christian of the piece, is the New Man that America needs, a proto-Democrat and pacifist prepared to listen and take counsel to achieve the best result in opposition to the overbearing authoritarianism of his Republican father figure, which, Red River shows us, has become a dangerous dead end. The film's gender politics are further underlined when both men are giving a thorough dressing down by a woman (!) at the close, love interest Joanne Dru handing out the ticking off with evident relish.

*That scene is also a fine example of how to turn comedy into tragedy. A recurring joke about a cattlehand with a sweet tooth pinching sugar from Brennan's chuck wagon is finally revealed to be the set-up for a disaster: his clumsily upsetting a pile of pots and pans while seeking to satisfy his craving causes the spooked herd to turn tail and run and a colleague (Harry Carey Jr) to be trampled to death in the ensuing melee.

Harry McClintock - The Old Chisholm Trail


The Roaring Twenties (1939)

Warner Brothers hired syndicated newspaper columnist Mark Hellinger in 1937 in a bid to bolster its reputation for making realistic pictures "ripped from the headlines", founded on the success of films earlier in the decade like Little Caesar (1931) and I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932). Hellinger was the sort of flashy character who wore loud blue shirts and white ties in hot weather and made a point of driving a car repossessed from Dutch Schultz. This Jimmy Cagney vehicle directed by Raoul Walsh was the first fruit of his partnership with Jack Warner and was based on one of Hellinger's own short stories, 'The World Moves On', about the criminal heyday of Prohibition.

Producers Hal B. Wallis and Sam Bischoff worked hard to emphasise the authenticity of The Roaring Twenties, opening with a signed endorsement from Hellinger and a montage of news reel footage counting backwards in time from the rise of Hitler in the present day to the stock market crash of 1929 and the outbreak of the Great War.

We're then introduced to Cagney's garage mechanic turned doughboy Eddie Bartlett, who dives into a French foxhole to escape enemy shellfire and there encounters sadistic George Hally (Humphrey Bogart) and frightened law student Lloyd Hart (Jeffrey Lynn). The three men bond over cigarettes and discuss their plans for the future. Back in the US, Bartlett finds it near impossible to get a job and becomes embittered, finally resorting to driving a taxi borrowed from his pal Danny Green (Frank McHugh) by night. A chance commission from a stranger sees Eddie unknowingly tasked with delivering illegal liquor to a nightclub run by Panama Smith (Gladys George), whereupon he is promptly arrested for bootlegging. Bartlett takes the rap for Panama, the intended recipient, and goes to jail. Impressed by his stoic resolve, she pays Eddie's bail. Wiping his shoes on the 18th Amendment, Bartlett enters the black market booze business and accrues a fortune, buying a fleet of cabs and hiring a small army of ex-cons to carry out his rum runs. Acquiring a taste for power, Eddie sets up teenage chanteuse Jean Sherman (Priscilla Lane) in Panama's club and reunites with Hally to form an uneasy but potentially lucrative alliance. Glory beckons, before Bartlett's glass is well and truly knocked over.

Walsh's film shows us none of the gaiety of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Jazz Age" and lays heavy stress on its vice and venality instead. Cagney is as charismatic as ever playing the plucky everyman seduced and corrupted by ill-gotten gains while Bogie is as sour and unpleasant as I've seen him. Several years before John Huston had the visionary idea of casting him as a hero for the first time in The Maltese Falcon (1941), Bogart is on truly nasty form, drawing on his years of experience playing deadbeat henchmen to snarling effect. By contrast, Gladys George is tremendously moving as Panama, in love with Eddie and hard-pressed to watch him have his hopes dashed by the young protégé he hopes to marry but who's really in love with Lloyd, now a mob lawyer troubled by his conscience. Frank McHugh is also good value as Danny, the cabbie sidekick being something of a stock comic role in those days (see Larry Dobkin's expert patter as Louis in The Saint for CBS, 1947-51). Cagney's death, lying bleeding in the snow, is as sad a pay-off as it is inevitable. "He used to be a big shot" is Panama's resigned eulogy.

Fans of HBO's Boardwalk Empire (2010-) will find much to enjoy and many points of similarity: Eddie's return from the trenches mirrors that of Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt), his weakness for showgirls recalls Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) while his habit of ordering nothing stronger than milk in speakeasys is echoed in Michael Stuhlbarg's fey characterisation of Arnold Rothstein. Eddie's surprise reunion with George meanwhile takes place when he attempts to rob the latter's whisky shipment out on the Atlantic one foggy night, a scene borrowed by Martin Scorsese for the series' pilot episode.