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Classic Coming Attractions by Barrie Maxwell

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Barrie Maxwell - Main Page

Classic Reviews Round-Up #38 and New Announcements (continued)

So how about the new Rio Bravo release? The film, looked on as merely "one of the better class oaters of the year" upon initial release in 1959, has weathered the intervening five decades rather well and is now considered by many to be one of the best westerns made as well as the truest essence of director Howard Hawks' work.

Rio Bravo: Special EditionRio Bravo: Ultimate Collector's Edition

John Wayne plays John T. Chance, sheriff of the town of Rio Bravo, who has Joe Burdett in jail for murder. Burdett's brother, Nathan, blockades the town so that Chance can neither take his prisoner out nor get help in. Meanwhile, Chance has assistance from his deputy Stumpy and the town drunk Dude, a former deputy and gunslinger. Also forced to wait in the town by Burdett's blockade are Colorado, a young gunfighter, and Feathers, an attractive young stagecoach passenger. Dude is captured by Nathan Burdett who offers Chance a deal - Dude in exchange for his brother Joe. But the transaction doesn't work out quite as planned, for either side. I think the one word that most comes to mind when thinking about Rio Bravo is "comfortable." The film plays out in a relaxed fashion, with familiar faces and familiar situations. The plot includes so many character conventions of the western that the film is almost a textbook of the genre in that sense. We've got the strong, silent hero (John Wayne as sheriff John T. Chance); the hero's less-than-perfect friend (Dean Martin as Dude); the amusing sidekick (Walter Brennan as Stumpy); a woman of uncertain virtue who's attracted to the hero (Angie Dickinson as Feathers); the young kid who's really fast on the draw, and a singing cowboy to boot (Ricky Nelson as Colorado); the rich rancher who brings his power to bear in an effort to free a bullying younger brother who commits murder (John Russell as rancher Nathan Burdett and Claude Akins as younger brother Joe); even an overly-talkative, comic Mexican with an excitable wife (Pedro Gonzalez-Gonzalez as Carlos and Estelita Rodriguez as, who else, Consuela). All these characters play out the film's tale entirely in the town of Rio Bravo, with the bulk of the action centered on the jail, the hotel or one of several saloons. All these locations too are staple fare that we've long come to expect from westerns. The effect of all this familiarity is to allow us to concentrate on the various characters and their interactions. In so doing, we readily recognize the characteristic individuals and relationships that one finds in so many of Howard Hawks's films. These include the easy camaraderie between men with disparate backgrounds and abilities united in a common goal; the independent woman easily able to hold her own and more with men, yet never suggesting other than a strong, alluring femininity; the protagonist who marches very much according to his own drummer; and the protagonist's quirky buddy whom you're not entirely sure of until he comes through in the end. Rio Bravo can most closely be compared to Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Columbia) and To Have and Have Not (1944, WB) in these respects, as well as the later El Dorado (1966, Paramount, essentially a remake) and Rio Lobo (1970, National General). Part of the familiarity and comfortableness of Rio Bravo is also obviously due to some of the casting. John Wayne as John T. Chance was by 1959 synonymous with the western and had previously starred in Hawks's Red River (1948, UA). By the end of Wayne's career, Hawks and John Ford would be the two directors with which his westerns would be most associated. His performance in Rio Bravo is perhaps the archetypical Wayne portrayal of the stalwart western hero. As with so much of Wayne's work, he makes it look easy. Walter Brennan plays Stumpy-another in a long line of Brennan portrayals of animated, slightly querulous characters. Much of the comfort here comes from having seen him in similar situations in earlier Hawks films-as Eddie in To Have and Have Not and as Groot in Red River. Seeing the film in retrospect, both Dean Martin and Angie Dickinson are very familiar from their lengthy careers on television and to a lesser extent in films. Both are excellent here. John Russell and Claude Akins as the Burdett brothers are two well-seasoned western heavies and it's great to see Bob Steele pop up as one of Burdett's hired guns and Myron Healey as one of Burdett's men in the bar scene after the livery stable shootout. Warner Bros.' initial DVD release of Rio Bravo five years ago offered a pretty good 1.85 anamorphic transfer. That offered on this new two-disc release improves on it modestly with somewhat increased sharpness and a slightly brighter image that makes flesh tones a little more natural-looking but also seems to tip other colours in an orange direction. The moderate film grain evident on the previous transfer remains much the same on this new one. There are no edge effects. The mono sound is quite strong with no hiss apparent. Where the new release shines is in respect to its supplementary material. The first disc contains a good audio commentary that combines comments (recorded separately) by Hawks admirer director John Carpenter and critic Richard Schickel. There is also a John Wayne trailer gallery that includes ones for Rio Bravo and four of his early Warner efforts (The Big Stampede, Haunted Gold, Somewhere in Sonora, The Man from Monterey). Disc two features two good documentaries - a new one (33 minutes) on the making of Rio Bravo that includes the thoughts of Angie Dickinson (the only one of the four top-billed players still alive) and the 55-minute The Men Who Made the Movies: Howard Hawks. The latter is a revised version of the original 1973 production narrated by Sydney Pollack. It has previously been featured as a supplement on the DVD of Bringing Up Baby. The other supplement on disc two is an interesting 8-minute featurette about Old Tucson as a film location. The final extra is a nice set of 8 lobby card colour reproductions. The same package of material is also available in a Rio Bravo: Ultimate Collector's Edition that also adds in reproductions of the original pressbook and a Dell Comics version of the Rio Bravo story. The two-disc version is highly recommended, but I see no compelling reason to pay the extra premium for the Ultimate version.

True Grit: Special Collector's Edition

True Grit is another John Wayne western that had a pretty decent transfer on its first release and has now received a double dip from Paramount as True Grit: Special Collector's Edition. The film of course is the one for which John Wayne received his only Academy Award. He plays cantankerous one-eyed U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn who is employed by a headstrong young woman (Kim Darby) to find the man who murdered her father and then made off with the family's savings. Assisting the two in the search is a young Texas Ranger (Glen Campbell). Arrayed against the trio are the likes of Robert Duvall, Jeremy Slate, Dennis Hopper, and Jeff Corey. Wayne's Oscar win received some criticism at the time from those who seemed unwilling to give the man his due as an actor, preferring to complain about his then-unpopular Vietnam politics rather than focus on what was a richly multi-faceted performance. The distillation of the experience in outdoor roles that Wayne had gained over the previous four decades was such that he almost made the Cogburn characterization look almost too easy, belying the real effort that went into such making such a portrayal believable. It's a cross that those with an abundance of talent in any artistic field often have to bear. Aside from Wayne's performance, though, the film also benefits from a fine combination of assets. Henry Hathaway, well recognized as an effective director of classic action films, maintains a veteran's sure hands on the film - allowing it to breath comfortably in the first half and then ratcheting up the action in the second. The proceedings are beautifully photographed by Lucien Ballard, taking fine advantage of the Colorado locations, while Elmer Bernstein contributes an expansive musical score. The film is also based on the fine novel of the same title by Charles Portis, and although some liberties have been taken with it, the novel's strong story line is generally maintained. True Grit was first released on DVD by Paramount six years ago with what was a fairly nice-looking 1.85 anamorphic presentation. The new Special Collector's Edition improves upon the original transfer in terms of sharpness and colour fidelity (less of a pinkish cast, more accurate flesh tones). Some soft scenes evident in the original look much better now. There is very mild grain evident. Most speckles and scratches have been excised and the result is impressive indeed. The mono sound is in good shape and a 5.1 track has been added that offers modest front directionality. Where the original release provided only a trailer as a supplement, the new edition begins with a superior audio commentary by western experts Jeb Rosebrook, Bob Boze Bell, and J. Stuart Rosebrook. It's packed with information and opinion, and provides continuous entertainment throughout. There are four featurettes related to the making of the film including a very nice one on the Aspen Colorado area in which it was shot. The theatrical trailer rounds out the disc. Highly recommended.

Allegheny UprisingThe John Wayne Film Collection

Our final visit to John Wayne this column concerns Allegheny Uprising, a 1939 RKO release that Warner Bros. has now made available on DVD. It can be purchased separately or as part of The John Wayne Film Collection. The film relates a pre-Revolutionary War story of James Smith (Wayne) who with his comrades attempts to halt the sale of weapons and other contraband to the Indians, thus incurring the wrath of the local British command. Claire Trevor who had costarred opposite Wayne in his earlier breakthrough film Stagecoach also appears. George Sanders is typically effective as the British commander and Brian Donlevy contributes a pretty standard effort for him as the villainous goods trader. The film is no Stagecoach, but has some similarity to Drums Along the Mohawk in its pacing. Much of the first half is spent in setting up the action and introducing various characters and their quirks, leading to a fast-paced conclusion. The film has a less poetic nature reflecting the different stature of the respective directors, Allegheny's William Seiter and Drums' John Ford. Overall, the film is at best a decent programmer and Wayne would have to wait for his next picture to get a vehicle more worthy of him, Republic's Dark Command. Warners' full-frame presentation (correctly presented) is quite decent. The black and white source material betrays various scratches and speckles, but the transfer exhibits good contrast and a reasonably sharp (though not consistently so) image. Modest grain is evident. The mono sound is clear with just slight background hiss present at times. Supplements consist of two Warner Bros. shorts - The Bill Of Rights (Technicolor) and the cartoon Land of the Midnight Fun. Of interest to John Wayne fans; others should try a rental.

Unconquered

Pre-Revolutionary War times also provide the setting for director Cecil B. DeMille's 1947 Technicolor spectacle, Unconquered. The film was released theatrically by Paramount, but has been made available on DVD by Universal as part of its Cinema Classics series. Gary Cooper stars a Virginia militiaman who must deal with the consequences of illegal trading with the Indians. Howard da Silva plays his chief nemesis and Paulette Goddard is the romantic interest, with Boris Karloff along as an Indian chief. The film's chief attributes are its spectacle and vivid use of Technicolor, which together convey a sense of big events on a big canvas - a typical description of the sort of films that DeMille made in the latter part of his career. It's a good thing that such characteristics predominate for they prevent the film from being capsized by nuisances such as clichéd dialogue and overly dramatic theatrics at times. Also on the positive side of the slate are some good action sequences such as the battle of Fort Pitt as well as one sequence with Cooper and Goddard going over a waterfall in a canoe. There's the usual impressive cast, well marshaled by DeMille, and full of countless familiar supporting faces. Good use is also made of extensive location shooting in Idaho and New York state. Basically, Unconquered succeeds as a generous (almost 2½ hours) dose of old-fashioned showmanship and entertainment, making the triteness of its situations irrelevant. It also succeeds as home entertainment because Universal has delivered a very pleasing, sharp full-frame (as originally shot) image. The Technicolor is vibrant and registration issues are minor at most. The mono sound is clear, and free of significant background hiss. The only supplement is a short introduction by TCM host Robert Osborne. Recommended.

Clint Eastwood: Western Icon Collection

Remaining with Universal, its Clint Eastwood: Western Icon Collection presents three films that the studio has previously released individually on DVD. They are High Plains Drifter, Joe Kidd, and Two Mules for Sister Sara. Only the latter was previously available with an anamorphic transfer. Now all three are. High Plains Drifter (1973) is one of the most interesting westerns of the 1970s and the second feature film that Eastwood directed (Play Misty for Me - not a western - was the first). As such, its strange, surreal tale of revenge and redemption in an isolated town is both an homage to the style of the Leone westerns that brought Eastwood to prominence as well as a chance for Eastwood to experiment with his own directing style. Interestingly, it's a much more stylized-looking film than the economical work that characterizes Eastwood's later films. The 2.35:1 film is found on the first disc on the two-disc set and while it's an improvement on the original DVD release of some nine years ago, there's room for more. The image is not as sharp as the best transfers and there is a fair bit of debris evident. Colours, however, do look quite accurate. Joe Kidd (1972) is the closest to a western of the classical style in the set, although Eastwood's character (he plays the title role of a gunfighter hired by a wealthy landowner [Robert Duvall] to kill a Mexican revolutionary [John Saxon]) has "Man with No Name" mannerisms. The film is efficiently directed by John Sturges who has a good track record with westerns (Hour of the Gun, The Magnificent Seven, Gunfight at the OK Corral, Last Train from Gun Hill), but this one is not in the top rank. Duvall and Saxon's efforts are worth seeing, but the most memorable sequence occurs when the Eastwood character drives a train into a saloon. The 2.35:1 transfer is also on the first disc of the set and it provides the largest improvement over the original release which was artificially sharpened to an excessive degree. This new version is sharp, but looks natural and is quite clean as well. Colours look accurate and vibrant. Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) finds Clint Eastwood playing a drifter who saves a woman (Shirley MacLaine) from being raped. The woman turns out to be a prostitute posing as a nun. The pair later aid Mexican revolutionaries in their fight with French soldiers. The best thing about the film is the interaction between Eastwood and MacLaine; otherwise the film seems somewhat lethargically paced. That's surprising given that Don Siegel is the director. Perhaps he didn't like being second choice since reportedly Budd Boetticher (upon whose story the film is based) was originally set to direct. The 2.35:1 transfer (found on the set's second disc) looks to be the same as that of the previous release. The image is bright and fairly sharp, but suffers from edge effects. Colours have a slight orange cast (most noticeable in red objects and skin tones). All three films offer mono tracks that are in good shape. The only supplements are theatrical trailers for each title. All three of these films still await even better transfers, but if you don't have them in your collection, for $20 (before discounts), this Universal offering is a reasonable value.

The Fighting Devil Dogs

[Editor's Note: Cover art was not available, so the image above is original one-sheet art.]

Well, how about a few serials now? The Fighting Devil Dogs, recently released on a two-disc set by AC Comics, is one of the superior ones, a 12-chapter effort made by Republic in 1938 under the direction of William Witney and John English. The story line focuses on two U.S. marines played by Lee Powell and Herman Brix (later known as Bruce Bennett) who try to bring a mysterious figure known as The Lightning to justice, The Lightning, who gets around in a futuristic airplane known as the Wing (previously seen in Republic's Dick Tracy serial), subjects buildings or vehicles to massive electrical charges in order to kill his victims. One sight of The Lightning will give you a pretty good idea of where George Lucas may have gotten his inspiration for Darth Vader. This serial really moves along and although Lee Powell is a bit of a wooden stick, Herman Brix gives a fine effort. Most of the chapter endings are well executed though fairly standard fare. The good entertainment quotient of the serial belied the fact that it was Republic's second-least expensive serial to date, employing quite a bit of stock footage and incorporating two recap chapters at a time when even one was considered excessive. AC Comics' presentation is fairly good. The image is well-defined throughout although there are noticeable variations in sharpness and contrast. Shadow detail is at times only acceptable. The mono sound is clear enough although there is low-level background hiss most of the time. Supplements include Chapter 2 of the Undersea Kingdom serial and a selection of trailers for other serials available from AC Comics. Recommended.

The Green Archer

Equally as enjoyable is Columbia's 15-chapter 1940 The Green Archer, which balances a somewhat inferior story with a superior-looking image. It has received a nice restoration and been released on a two-disc DVD set by Restored Serials Super Restoration Corp. The story concerns a man who inherits a castle only to be imprisoned there by his brother who is involved with a gang of jewel thieves. When the imprisoned brother's wife disappears, her sister and a private detective investigate. Each time they get into a tight spot, they're aided by the mysterious Green Archer. Victor Jory's presence as the detective is a considerable benefit as he anchors the serial with a strong performance. The castle has the usual hidden corridors and false panels providing plenty of scope for the various tight spots that the protagonists get into. At 15 chapters, the serial is a bit long for its plot and it tends to plod in the mid chapters as a result; still the final chapters pick up the pace again and as a result, the serial leaves a good impression in one's memory. Restored Serials' restoration work is impressive. The image is bright and sharp, and dirt and debris have been substantially minimized. The results, however, do suffer from a degree of black crush with shadow detail less than one would prefer on some occasions. The mono sound is clear. The supplements include the theatrical trailer (whose murkiness highlights how good the serial restoration is); a nine-minute interview with Victor Jory which includes some comments on his work in this serial and his other Columbia one, The Shadow; and DVD-ROM content including a poster gallery, a pressbook reproduction, and the complete shooting script for the 1928 serial The Terrible People. Recommended.

Scouts to the Rescue

Another good serial though a cut below the first two is Universal's 12-chapter 1938 Scouts to the Rescue, which is available on a single disc from VCI. Jackie Cooper stars as the leader of a scout troop that sets off in search of buried treasure only to find itself mixed up in a counterfeiting ring. In the course of events they also unearth a lost branch of the Inca Indians (who by the way seem to speak some sort of truncated version of the Russian language). Mountain, ghost town, and cave locations provide plenty of scope for decent cliffhanger chapter endings. The presence of Cooper boosts the serial considerably - a good thing since the nominal hero, a G-man played by William Ruhl, is pretty unmemorable as are a rather motley crew of bad guys. The image transfer is reasonably sharp with decent shadow detail and contrast on the whole. Some soft sections and murkiness in darker scenes are evident on occasion. The mono sound is clear with minimal hiss. Supplements include a photo gallery, biographies of Jackie Cooper and directors Ray Taylor and Alan James, and the theatrical trailer plus trailers for three other serials. Recommended.


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