Director: Howard Hawks
Writer: Leigh Brackett; The Stars in Their Courses by Harry Brown
Cinematographer: Harold Rosson
Producer: Howard Hawks
by Jon Cvack
From the opening frame, I was absolutely blown away by the transfer. This is one of the best looking classic era HD films from the period that I’ve seen, utilizing 1080 to make it look as though it was just shot today and taking on the western aesthetic. It was particularly during the night scenes that emphasized the beauty, as the men wandered along the city streets, with the glow from inside the stores striking across the characters, with other pools of cool blue light coming either from the moon or a different source. When done well, the best part of westerns is their ability to transport you back in time, where you don’t just think you’re watching a moment from the past, but actually feel it. Watching this film (followed by The Sons of Katie Elder, which while not as close, was an incredible transfer as well), I felt as though I was rediscovering the genre, in which all too often, the poor look would diminish the experience. If I watched this on DVD, I’m sure it’d play like just another western. In HD, it was like seeing the world come alive; an experience I’ve rarely had with BluRay.
The story involves Cole Thornton (John Wayne) as a professional gunslinger, hired by a ranch owner Bart Jason (Ed Asner) to help him in a range war in El Dorado. He heads over, discovering his old friend and tosspot sheriff J.P. Harrah (Robert Mitchum), who warns Cole that the range war will likely force the two old friends to fight against each other. Cole then quits. Bart Jason hears the news, fearing that Cole flipped sides. He puts his son on guard who tries to shoot Cole dead, missing. Not knowing who the shooter is, Cole returns fire and strikes the son. Cole brings the boy back, explains what happened, but the well has been poisoned. In vengeance, Bart Jason's daughter ambushes Cole, landing a bullet right near Cole’s spine. He lives and let’s the girl go, but the bullet can’t be removed without a better surgeon, which begins to affect his motor skills. Months later, Cole returns to town, meeting the young knife-slinging hothead Mississippi (James Caan). The duo pair up to help out Thornton, who after a love affair gone wrong, has turned even more to the bottle. Fearing that Thornton will be killed by the Jason and his family, the trio return to town to help him out.
First off, it's important to take a moment to appreciate that Robert Mitchum, James Caan, and John Wayne were all in a movie together. Reading the plot on Wikipedia, I’m actually a bit surprised at how complex it is, as the story plays with such grace and ease - often going off on tangents that are enjoyable and fun, before heading back to the action - that you never get the impression of a complex web.* We get to explore the characters of this powerhouse cast, rather than rushing to the next shoot-em-up scene (of which there are many).
For instance, when returning to the town, Thornton has become so inebriated, that Mississippi concocts a disgusting black sledge of sauces, herbs, and pills that Thornton's unable to drink without requiring the bathroom.** The whole scene is equally hilarious and sad, especially when Thornton basically just waits until the potion subsides before looking for his bottle once again. He heads over to the local saloon, his clothes torn, his five-o’clock shadow heading to midnight, and sweat pouring out of his every pore as he struggles to control his shakes. Entering the bar, he has no respect, chastised by the men, who send him home, pathetic and disgraced.
Later, Wayne and Mississippi will return with him to the bar, and provide the movie’s greatest scene, up there with any Tarantino oeuvre. It’s here that the transfer really lent its power, demonstrating the ability of film from fifty years ago to compete with anything today, if not exceed. There’s a mixture of antiquity and superiority, in which that classic western anamorphic and technicolor frame is utilized to the fullest, blocking characters to make each shot looking like a painting. It’s the finest example of how lackluster transfers diminish the power of a scene. For reason beyond my understanding, if something looks old, it’s hard to appreciate it as equal to what’s modern. This shows you what happens when the two are matched.
I often enter into and out of infatuations with genre - the most recent one being mumblecore. I’ve never loved westerns, and I think it’s because I never really was able to see them the way they’re supposed to be seen. I watched The Sons of Katie Elder after this, providing another great transfer that provided just as much depth and detail in each frame, and now I want to find as many remasterings as possible. Recently, I watched How the West Was Won which is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen. If I was a betting man, I'd count on a revival.
* In fact, Mitchum later said about the film, "When [the director] Howard called me, I said, 'What's the story?' and he said, 'No story, just characters' and that's the way it was. Did one scene, put it away, did another, put it away."
**The ingredients include (among others) Cayenne pepper, ipecac (an emetic), mustard, croton oil (which induces diarrhea), asafoetida (often misspelled acifedida) and gunpowder.
BELOW: James Caan and John Wayne in a really badass scene
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